“How many social or economic opportunities do we miss by simply being afraid of strangers?” Stolle wondered. As adults, we should think again about the benefits of safely speaking to strangers. In a suspicious world, many of us are reluctant to interact with strangers. But talking to people we’ve never met before, even in passing interactions, can make us wiser and happier. While there is no doubt that some people do have traumatic experiences with strangers, “stranger danger” lacked any real statistical basis. We miss a lot by being afraid of strangers. Talking to strangers – under the right conditions – is good for us, good for our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our nations, and our world. Talking to strangers can teach you things, deepen you, and make you a better thinker, and a better person. It’s a good way to live. But it’s more than that. In a rapidly changing, infinitely complex, furiously polarised world, it’s a way to survive.
Strangers are Everywhere
It’s become the norm to avert our eyes when passing them in hallways; we fiddle with our phones or read books when we commute, and in most social settings. we tune out or actively ignore people we don’t know or recognize. And yet, these very strangers may be the key to unlocking the best in ourselves, to experiencing better moods and having overall more pleasant experiences. At least, this is what researchers are finding across different contexts. The small social cost of starting a conversation with a stranger seems to reap a slew of benefits that we never anticipated.
Chatting to Strangers Can Make you Happy
Researchers Epley and Schroeder conducted a series of studies to see whether making small talk with strangers was good or bad for people’s travel experiences. They asked research participants to interact with strangers when using public transport.
They found that although people expected that talking to strangers would be less pleasant; in truth, it was more pleasant than sitting alone. The participants also said that they found their commute just as productive and fulfilling as the days when they did something alone.
How and Why Does Small-Talk Work?
Small talk feels good because it affirms us, our ideas, and our worth. When we interact with strangers, we automatically take an effort to be polite, nice, and friendly. And so does the other person. This means that both parties experience these conversations as positive events, and go away feeling validated and attended to. Such pleasant interactions with strangers are topical and relatively shallow, but they boost our sense of being accepted (and thus our mood) simply because it was nice to agree with someone or to exchange compliments.
Interacting with a stranger works on many levels. There is the instant mood lift and validation that we receive from a cordial conversation. These interactions also increase our confidence in ourselves and our ability to explain our views to others. Since these strangers know nothing about us, being able to explain our ideas to them helps us learn and practice how to articulate the smallest of our thoughts. It can even improve our social network by giving us opportunities to meet potential friends, business partners, and mentors.
Strangers Open Our Eyes to The World
Talking to strangers also means that there’s always a chance of meeting someone who thinks differently from us. Whilst some might frame this in a negative way, it gives us the opportunity to understand new perspectives, and to learn about different experiences and ideas. Talking to people with different backgrounds can help us understand the first-hand experience of other groups. In turn, this helps us become more understanding, more accepting, and more aware of the wide variety of experiences out there in the world. We become more sensitive and empathetic.
None of this indicates that we should bare all when talking to strangers. If someone asks uncomfortable questions, it’s OK to refuse answers or to end the conversation. The idea is to have a light conversation that is enriching (but not disturbing) for both parties.
Plucking up the courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger might feel tricky, considering it’s not normally the done thing for many of us. And of course, interacting with strangers is no substitute for interacting with romantic partners and close friends. Positive interactions with friends and partners help in confidence building, confidence, coping with stress, and sustaining our good mood, – far more than interactions with strangers.