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Why You Should Talk to Strangers More Often

What behavioural scientists tell us about talking to people we don't know

Strangers ignoring each other on a train
Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

You join online communities and social media platforms to connect with people.

Yet you never engage in conversations with cashiers, shop assistants, bartenders, and people standing in a lift or sitting next to you on public transport. You don’t hesitate to like some stranger’s social media post but wouldn’t dare pay a compliment to the person waiting in front of you in a queue.

I’m not blaming you — I’m exactly like you.

We pay lip service to “human connection” but go about our lives constantly ignoring each other.

Why?

We’re one of the most social species on the planet. We survived thousands of years of evolutionary changes because of our social skills.

How come we never talk to people we don’t know? Should we engage more in conversations with strangers? What would be the point of that?

I did some research. Here’s what I discovered.

Misunderstanding Social Interaction

Imagine this: you get on a train, sit down, and force yourself to have a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you. 

Only picturing this situation is enough to make me feel uncomfortable.

What should I say to this person? What if they don’t want to talk to me? Will they think I’m trying to get something from them? Will I come across as intrusive, rude, or even suspicious? A freak? If it’s a woman, will she think I’m trying to flirt with her? Wouldn’t it be more pleasant and productive to sit in silence reading a book or listening to a podcast like I always do? 

Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, two behavioural researchers, did an experiment

They asked one group of commuters in Chicago to make an effort to start a conversation with a stranger on a train. They also instructed another group to only imagine such a situation and predict how they would feel if they engaged in a conversation with an unfamiliar person.

Results: we make bad predictions about our feelings when it comes to talking to strangers.

We often think that chatting with someone we don’t know might be an unpleasant experience, but the opposite is actually true.

“Commuters on a train into downtown Chicago reported a significantly more positive commute when they connected with a stranger than when they sat in solitude, and yet they predicted precisely the opposite pattern of experiences.” — Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder

I experienced a similar mismatch myself.

In 2020 I moved to a different town. Opposite my new house, I would always see a man smoking in his backyard. Every time I went out on my balcony he was there with a cigarette in his mouth looking down at his phone. Sometimes he looked up and noticed me, sometimes he didn’t. 

We ignored each other every time.

This went on for about two years, until one day I was taking out the rubbish and saw the man in the street. I remember thinking, No! He’s here! Should I talk to him? What if he doesn’t want to talk to me? I thought it would be rude to ignore him now that he was so physically close.

I felt compelled to say something.

“Hi, I moved here a while ago. I always see you outside but have never introduced myself. Fabio, nice to meet you.”

He gave me a big smile and extended his hand to me.

“Yeah, true! Domenico, nice to meet you too!”

We spoke for five minutes. We talked about our jobs, the neighbourhood and how much we paid for our apartments.

The experience was more pleasant than I thought it would be.

This is not surprising. Epley and Schroeder explain we often misunderstand social interaction with strangers simply because we don’t have enough experience talking to people we don’t know.

We don’t talk to strangers enough. If we did, we would learn more from these exchanges and create more accurate beliefs about the experience. (There’s scientific evidence of this too.)

We also think others are not interested in us. But again, researchers found we consistently underestimate how much people actually enjoy talking to us for the first time. 

It looks like talking to strangers is just another skill we need to practice. 

But why should we do that? What would be the point?

3 Benefits of Talking to Strangers

delighted-black-female-barista-serving-coffee-in-cup-in-cafe
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexel

Benefit #1

I NEVER try to socialise with cashiers, baristas, shop assistants or other service workers. I get what I need to get and bye bye.

That’s a shame. 

Researchers in Vancouver did a study. They instructed some people entering Starbucks to have a conversation with the barista, while they told others to be as efficient as possible when ordering their drinks.

Results: the people who talked to the baristas left the shop in a better mood and with a better sense of belonging in their community compared with the efficient group.

I’m sure the people who had a chat with the Starbucks employee felt exactly how I felt after talking to my neighbour Domenico. 

So that’s the first benefit: you feel happier and more connected. Try and see for yourself.

Benefit #2 

When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone? And how did you feel immediately afterwards?

When I said goodbye to Domenico, I felt I had just done something out of the ordinary — something brave. And when you do something brave, you feel good about yourself. Your self-esteem and confidence improve. 

We keep reading self-improvement articles and books telling us to leave our comfort zone.

Don’t just read about it. Go out there and do it. Socialising with a stranger is the easiest way to get uncomfortable. It’s the most accessible way to challenge yourself.  

Benefit #3

My partner and I used to work in restaurants and have plenty of experience in hospitality. If either of us were to lose our jobs tomorrow, finding new employment in a restaurant would be the most straightforward option.

When I talked to Domenico, he told me he works in several restaurants in the area. So if I needed help finding a job quickly, which door in my building do you think I would knock on?

“A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet” — William Butler Yeats

You never know who you’re going to meet. 

Alexandra Franzen, a writer, found a client just by talking to the person next to her on a plane.

You could find an arsehole, your next best friend, or someone you can either help or receive help from.

You’re on social media because you want to connect. Why always do that hiding behind a screen? Why not talk to real strangers in the real world?

How to Start Talking to Strangers

There are many articles that offer tips on how to start conversations with people we don’t know. 

But my best advice, based on my experience of talking to Domenico on the street, is to simply talk to them. It’s a one-step process, and I believe we don’t really need how-to articles for this.

Do it once, then do it again and then again until you build that social muscle. Chances are you’ll feel less uncomfortable every time you do it.

Final Story

In 2021 I was on a train in Bulgaria. The lady sitting next to me started talking to me in Bulgarian — a language I don’t speak. I tried to make it clear to her that I couldn’t understand anything she was saying. But she kept going. 

She spoke to me as if I were a friend. So I decided to engage with her in another way. 

Through the help of an online translator, I asked for permission to take pictures of her. She was delighted to do it. She adjusted her hat, smiled, and posed. I took several shots. 

It was fun. She made my journey playful and interesting, and I left Bulgaria with what, to this day, is still the best portrait photo I’ve ever taken in my life. 

Portrait photo of a Bulgarianlady
The Bulgarian lady (Photo by me)

Should we talk to a stranger every time we walk into a shop, get on a train or find ourselves in a waiting room?

No. 

But next time you find yourself in a place with someone you don’t know, put down your phone for a couple of minutes and try to have a chat with a fellow human being. Do this experiment on yourself and see what happens. Scientists say it’ll feel good. Can you confirm that?

Let’s all get connected in the real world too –not just on Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram.

***
 

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.