Why we should all be talking to strangers

Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet

My mother taught me everything from how to tie my shoes to the value of hard work. She also taught me not to talk to strangers. I wish she hadn’t. I wish she had taught me to connect with strangers.

“There are no strangers here, only friends you have not yet met.”
W.B. Yeats

Of course, it’s good advice in certain circumstances. I’ll still avoid the white van, but generally, talking with strangers is a great idea. There’s potential for magic in everyday life. Fleeting moments can have lasting effects on the people we share them with. A flash of a smile can change somebody’s entire day. If you don’t seize the opportunity to connect, an ordinary day can’t become extraordinary.

Today, people might be described as alone together.

It’s normal to avoid eye contact altogether. We’re more comfortable looking down at our devices. We clumsily scroll through text, photos, and videos to escape awkward moments.

My friend has a rule in her office that I find interesting. I’ll call it the headphone rule. If you have no headphones in, it’s a full green light to start a conversation. If you have one headphone in, you’re doing light work, so people can say hello. If people have both headphones in, that means they want time and space to do their work alone. Imagine this on the subway or the bus.

Whenever I take public transit, all I seem to see is people with headphones in, looking down at their screen. New York City even has data coverage in most of the subways. Not surprisingly, it’s as if the headphone rule is in place. There is no human interaction. If you’ve ever been on a city train or a city bus, you know the rules. Don’t make eye contact, take the empty seat, and definitely don’t spark up a conversation with a stranger. What if these rules are wrong?

Epley and Shroeder asked strangers to connect

Matthew Hutson, who writes for NY Mag, did a great job of covering a landmark series of studies by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder here. Epley, a professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Chicago, wondered why commuters kept to themselves so much. He wanted to get to the bottom of it.

Why don’t humans — extremely social animals — socialize in public space?

He and Juliana Schroeder divided commuters into two groups. They asked some of the commuters to engage in a conversation with whoever sat down next to them. They asked other commuters to act normally, follow the ‘rules’, and ignore the other people on the train. At the end of the experiment, participants mailed in answers to questions about their experience.

Which group do you think reported having the best experience?

The commuters who talked to their neighbours reported having a more positive ride. The commuters who kept to themselves, as they usually do, reported a more negative ride. According to those who connected with strangers, the longer the conversation, the better their experience became.

Epley and Schroeder found that most people didn’t think that others would be interested in having a conversation with a stranger. Participants “estimated that fewer than half of their fellow commuters would want to talk to them.” It simply wasn’t the case. Not one person in the study was rejected. The conversations all went better than expected. Out of fear of rejection, conversations don’t happen. Unfortunately, this is a self-perpetuating cycle.

“That means there could be a train full of people who want to strike up a conversation, but it remains silent nonetheless.”
Matthew Hutson

Why we should all be talking to strangers

As outlined in this article about the benefits of talking to strangers: “These very strangers may be the key to unlocking the best in ourselves, to experiencing better moods, and to 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.” Talking to strangers gives us instant mood boosts — connecting with people feels good.

Talking to strangers is mostly about experiencing something new, something outside of your daily routine. It’s a chance to break away from what’s considered ‘normal’. By the very nature of the experience, you’ll be meeting someone new. That means anything can happen — that’s an exciting opportunity!

You’ll likely learn something new. Strangers often think differently than you and they will also have had different experiences. You’ll each understand a new perspective by sharing your unique experiences.

According to Zosia Bielski, for Kio Stark, a leading expert on strangers, “talking to random people helps rupture her daily routine, rapidly builds empathy and offers the unique thrill of gleaning something real about someone she’s never met before and probably will never meet again.”

Strangers are everywhere

“Cities are machines for interaction among strangers.”
Kio Stark

Students pass their peers in hallways and remote employees sit beside freelancers in coffee shops. Rather than saying hello, they play with their smartphones because that’s what we’re training ourselves to do. This is the social norm. Rather than tuning into our surroundings, we space out on our devices.

Like Stark, I’m a big advocate of talking to strangers. Scientists have confirmed that chatting with your barista will make you happier. Talk to the restaurant owner, talk to your server. Talk to others on your bike route, talk to others on the train. Don’t let elevator rides pass by quietly.

Where can you go to talk to strangers? You’ll find it’s easier than you might think — all you have to do is look. My roommate drives Uber to experience human interaction. My friend pays to work at a coworking space for the very same reason.

There are strangers who live on our blocks and in our neighbourhoods; strangers at the grocery store, and even strangers in our schools and workplaces. Strangers are friends waiting to happen and they’re everywhere. Unfortunately, because we were taught not to interact with them from a young age, most of us are unsure as to how exactly we do it.

It’s easier than you think

Like anything, talking with strangers gets easier each time we do it. Start with a simple exercise. Make eye contact with people around you, smile at people. For the next few days, be the first to say hello when you cross paths with new people each day.

Once you sense an openness to your greeting, continue the conversation. Mention something you notice that may interest the other person as well. Compliment them on their hat. Make an observation about the way they’re interacting with the space around them. Ask them where you should go for lunch. It doesn’t matter how you start the conversation. Once it’s going, show genuine interest in what they have to say.

On the off chance that a stranger does not want to reciprocate in conversation, that’s okay. Not everyone can connect always — remember the headphone rule. But, do not feel discouraged. Move onto the next conversation with a smile.

It’s okay to build your confidence slowly. You will get more comfortable over time. It’s common to connect more strongly with some people than with others. Be genuine and vulnerable. Treat everyone you meet with respect and the mindset that they’ve got something valuable to say.

A challenge for you

Talk to strangers

Austin Kleon, one of my favourite authors, tried it with positive results. The researchers in Chicago found that people are actually open to polite interruptions. The findings from that social experiment are profound.

Making a new connection will give you a break from a sometimes monotonous life. You’ll learn something new about yourself, others, and the world around you. Epley says the start of a conversation with a stranger is “like a speed bump at the top of a hill.” The barrier to starting a conversation is surprisingly low, once you get over it.

Start small, with a smile and a wave, then a genuine hello. Actively greet the people you cross paths with this week, say hello to 5 strangers. From there, you can say anything: make an observation, give a compliment, ask a question. Before you know it, you’re interacting with someone new.

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Feel free to say hello on messenger or shoot me an email, I’d love to connect.