Mind & Body

This Study Says You Might Like Talking to Strangers More Than You Realize

We're living in an era of loneliness. It's on the rise in the U.S.; according to a recent survey, more than half of Americans qualify as lonely. And yet, in public spaces, people rarely make eye contact or (God forbid) strike up conversations. If this sounds like you, there's a good reason to kick your antisocial habit. You might be happier if you start talking to strangers.

The Optimal Commute

In a new paper, researchers tried to figure this out by studying people commuting into Chicago on the train. Some commuters were given an assignment for commute: They were asked to either strike up a conversation with a stranger, actively avoid contact with other people, or do whatever happened naturally. Afterward, the commuters mailed the researchers a questionnaire evaluating their experience.

The researchers compared these responses to responses from a second group of commuters who were just asked to imagine striking up a conversation with a stranger, avoiding other people, or commuting normally. It turned out that commuters who chatted with strangers in real life had the most pleasurable commutes — but when commuters imagined this experience, they pictured it as uncomfortable and rated it as the worst of the three commute approaches.

"This pattern of results demonstrates a severe misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement," Nicholas Epley & Juliana Schroeder write. This misunderstanding is especially unfortunate given the average American's yearning for social connection and the fact that data suggests commuting is the worst part of most people's day.

Why Do We Choose Solitude?

You might think that we choose to be antisocial because our memories of past encounters with strangers skew negative, but that doesn't seem to be the case. As part of the study, the researchers asked commuters to imagine a positive conversation, a negative conversation, and simply "a conversation" with a stranger. The commuters didn't imagine the last one as especially negative.

The authors suggest that instead, we choose solitude on our commutes out of a fear of rejection. Study participants reported an interest in talking to strangers, but they didn't think it was reciprocated. They put the odds of successfully striking up a conversation as around 50-50. According to all the data the researchers gathered, however, an attempt at connection was basically guaranteed to succeed.

The people most worried about talking to strangers, the study found, were the people who talked to strangers the least. When researchers surveyed people in the taxi line at Midway Airport, those who frequently talked to their cab drivers accurately predicted that doing so would be fun. People who rarely talked to their cab drivers, though, expected the experience to be worse than solitude — but when they tried it, they found it was actually better. In other words, the more you practice connecting with strangers, the less scary and more fun it seems.

But what about the old parental advice about not talking to strangers? Are the risks of talking to strangers as imaginary as this study makes them seem? The only danger the authors explicitly acknowledge is social rejection, but there may be other dangers, too. A friendly interaction can veer into harassment or more dangerous territory, especially for women. To keep convos safe and comfortable, mind your own gut feelings and the body language of those around you. If something doesn't feel right to you or if the target of your conversation doesn't look interested — by avoiding eye contact, wearing headphones, or burying their nose in a book — take a pass. There are a lot of strangers out there, and plenty of great conversations to have.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Need a little more help? Check out "Improve Your People Skills: Build and Manage Relationships, Communicate Effectively, Understand Others, and Become the Ultimate People Person" by Patrick King. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice September 14, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.