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Social and behavioural

Why you should talk to strangers

Gillian Sandstrom, Senior Lecturer in the Psychology of Kindness at the University of Sussex, on her personal experience and research.

24 May 2023

I'm an introvert. Growing up, I fantasised that one day I'd live on my very own island. I didn't quite know what to do around other people. I still feel that way a lot of the time. I feel at my most uncomfortable in a crowded room full of people. In a situation like that, you simply won't notice me… I'm not interested in figuring out how to insert myself into a group conversation, and I'm absolutely fine with that. Yet I love talking to strangers. 

That sounds like a contradiction in terms, and believe me, I've spent a lot of time trying to understand how it makes any sense. How did this happen? Well, I was on the subway in Toronto one day, and there was a lady sitting across from me on the train, who was carrying an absolutely gorgeous, decadent cupcake. 

I commented on the cupcake, we got to talking, and by the end of the conversation she had taught me that people can ride ostriches. I don't know how we got from cupcakes to ostriches, but that's the joy of conversation, isn't it? Since then, I've had so many memorable interactions with strangers. I was given free vegetables from someone's allotment garden. On holiday, a local invited me and my husband over for a drink, and we ended up playing a duet together on his piano. 

And just in the last year, since moving to Brighton to take up a post at the University of Sussex, I've met a former European Champion of model airplane flying, a man who travelled all over North America to attend marching band competitions, and a children's book author who writes about a superhero potato. 

So, what do psychological studies have to say about these 'minimal social interactions'?

Benefits of talking to strangers

A growing body of research has found that talking with strangers can contribute to our well-being. Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder asked commuters in Chicago to talk to someone on the train. After chatting with a fellow commuter, people were in a much better mood. But when asked to predict what it would be like to talk to someone on their train ride, people expected that it would be better to sit in silence rather than talk. Similarly, in a study I ran at Starbucks, people were in a better mood and felt more connected to others when they turned an otherwise instrumental interaction – purchasing a coffee – into a real social opportunity, and had a chat with the barista.

Not only do people mispredict how enjoyable social interactions will be, but research by Stav Atir, Kristina Wald and Nick Epley has also found that people learn more by talking to strangers than they expect to. Since I'm still relatively new to Brighton, I still have a lot to learn, and strangers have been very happy to recommend their favourite place to walk in the beautiful South Downs, to suggest a literary festival that I should check out, or tell me about the best places to see a carpet of bluebells in the spring. 

Why people don't talk to strangers

I understand why people don't talk to each other – I've been studying the barriers for many years now. There are endless things to worry about: What if I don't like my conversation partner? More importantly, what if they don't like me, or what if I'm bothering them? What if we run out of things to say? What if I want to end the conversation, but can't figure out how to? (Research by Adam Mastroianni and colleagues suggests that ending a conversation at a time that suits both parties is extremely challenging.) But anyone can talk to strangers, even introverts like me. Here are some things I want you to know.

First, your fears are shared by practically everybody, even people who may seem outwardly confident. It's funny, actually, because in most domains, people perceive themselves as better than average, but Erica Boothby and her collaborators asked people about their ability to have a casual conversation at a social event. They compared this rating to people's ratings on three different lists of common activities. In all cases, they found plenty of evidence for the usual above-average effect, but not when it came to talking to strangers. 

Second, and more importantly, these fears that we all share are completely overblown. In study after study, I've asked people to predict what will happen when they talk to a stranger, then I make them actually talk to a stranger and report back about how it went. Consistently, these conversations go not just a little but a lot better than people expect, and the things that we worry about seldom come to pass. In a meta-analysis of seven vignettes, lab and field studies, Erica Boothby and I found that the differences between people's predictions and their experiences on various outcomes (e.g. enjoyment, liking, ability) were substantial. 

Not only do people underestimate how much they will like their partner, but also how much their partner will like them; my collaborators and I call this the 'liking gap'. We find that people seem to overlook the positive signals coming from their partner, which can be seen by observers, and instead focus on things that they think they did badly in the conversation (e.g., why did I say X instead of Y?) Whether you talk to a stranger in the lab, your university flatmate, someone on a team at work, or a member of the general public at a personal development workshop, research finds that people like you more than you think. 

Finally, I want you to know that talking to strangers is something you can get better at. It's surprisingly hard to learn that when you talk to strangers, pleasant conversations are the norm, rather than an exception. It's easy to think that each conversation partner is unique, and that the success of a conversation is mostly due to that specific partner. I puzzled for a while over how to help people see this pattern, and I finally concluded that I needed to get people to talk to lots of strangers in a short period of time. Then it took a while for me to figure out: how am I going to get people to talk to multiple strangers when they don't want to talk to even one? 

Eventually, I came up with the idea of creating a talking to strangers' scavenger hunt game that people could play on their phones. In a study I ran with Erica Boothby and Gus Cooney, participants had to carry out at least one mission every day, talking for a few minutes with someone who matched a description like 'someone wearing a hat', or 'someone drinking a coffee'. After playing the game and talking to strangers for a week, people felt more confident in their conversational abilities, and were less worried about being rejected (which, by the way, happens a lot less often than you probably think). These changes occurred gradually, over the course of the week – the takeaway here is: practice really does make progress! 

How much you personally worry about talking to strangers is probably partly related to the norms where you live; different places have different norms about when and where and with whom it is (in)appropriate to talk. Though most of the research to date on minimal social interactions has been carried out in Canada, the US, and the UK, Gul Gunaydin and her colleagues found that students in Turkey who greeted or thanked the bus driver were in a better mood than those who did not. Gul and I are now working with a team of collaborators in Turkey and the UK, to collect data from around the world (with the help of collaborators across Europe and around the world), to allow us to better understand where and why people talk to strangers, what they worry about, and how they feel afterwards.

Why you should talk to strangers

So… Why not have a go? It might feel awkward at first, which is totally normal, but I assure you it will go better than you expect, and that it will get easier over time, with more practice. I want you to talk to strangers because I believe that it makes the world a better place.

Talking to strangers makes the world better because it humanises 'other people'. Having a minimal social interaction with a stranger acknowledges your shared humanity. Research by Wesselmann and colleagues has found that even simply making eye contact with someone makes them feel more connected. When I walked in the park during the March 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, I would share a look or a smile or a hello with my neighbours. I felt that we were essentially saying: 'wow – isn't this a crazy thing we're all going through together?' and 'we're going to be ok'. This humanisation is crucial to our civic society. Throughout history, dehumanisation has been used as a way to encourage people to do awful things. Things that people wouldn't do to a fellow human. 

Talking to strangers also makes the world better by spreading kindness. The University of Sussex teamed up with Claudia Hammond and BBC Radio 4 to run the world's largest public science project studying kindness. We received 60k survey responses from across the UK and around the world. We asked people about the last time someone had been kind to them. Ten per cent of people said this most recent act of kindness had come from a stranger. People told us about strangers doing things like sharing an unexpired parking ticket or carrying heavy groceries to the car. But they also told us about minimal social interactions: a smile, a compliment, a friendly chat. These are small, humanising acts that cost us little time but can be more meaningful than we realise. Indeed, research suggests that people underestimate how positively a compliment, a thank you, or an act of kindness will be received.

So, if talking to strangers seems daunting to you, it might help to think that by doing so, you could give someone the gift of being seen. If, on the other hand, talking to strangers does not seem daunting, you might want to think about whether you can wield your super-power more deliberately; could you reach out to welcome someone new (to your workplace, your neighbourhood, a social group), to someone who might be feeling lonely, or someone who is different from the majority in some way and might especially benefit from a message of inclusion? But don't do it out of pity – do it because it is human and kind. 

Small steps on the path to connection

When people worry about talking to strangers, they likely try to avoid doing so. And that's easier and easier. In a quest for ever more efficiency in our modern world, we have designed out more and more opportunities for social contact. For example, we can use a self-service checkout at the supermarket and do all our banking online. Not having to talk to the supermarket checkout person, or the bank teller might seem like a good thing, especially to those of us who feel a bit socially anxious (which, it turns out, is most of us!). 

But when you let your fears, or a desire for efficiency, reduce the number of minimal social interactions that you have, your social skills get rusty. It's a small step from there to thinking that you don't actually have any social skills. And another small step from there to thinking that people can see that you don't have any social skills, and don't want to talk to you – the kind of maladaptive cognition that is often a predictor of loneliness. One more small step, and you start avoiding social interactions, withdraw more and more, and we start to see a loneliness epidemic. Of course, talking to strangers isn't going to magically cure loneliness, but it might help people to develop and practice their social skills, and help them see other people a bit more positively. In other words, it might be a helpful first step on the path to greater connection.

The fears that people have about talking to strangers might also leak into other areas of their social lives. For example, my collaborators and I argue that, since provision of social support often occurs via a social interaction, the fears that people have about talking to strangers might be similar to the fears people have when it comes to providing social support to an acquaintance who is going through a difficult life event (e.g. a cancer diagnosis, bereavement). Just as people might choose to avoid talking to a stranger, they might choose to avoid an acquaintance who could benefit from support. This would be a shame, because acquaintances (and strangers) respond more positively to genuinely expressed support than people predict. It seems possible, therefore, that overcoming your fear of talking to strangers might also make you more confident to reach out to someone in need of support.

It started with hello…

It's been 15 years now since I talked to the lady with the cupcake on the subway in Toronto. That conversation with a stranger literally changed my life, shaping my academic career. I can think of several other conversations with strangers that have had a huge impact on my life, including a conversation at a conference in Brighton that eventually led to me working at the University of Sussex, where I am now director of the Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness. I am still an introvert, but I am an introvert who loves talking to strangers. I love the feeling of walking around my neighbourhood or across campus and recognising the faces of people who are no longer strangers, and are now part of my community. I believe each of us can make the world a little friendlier, a little more trusting, a little better, and that it can start with something as simple as 'hello'.

Gillian Sandstrom is a Senior Lecturer in the Psychology of Kindness, University of Sussex. [email protected]

Key sources

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