hatting with strangers has become less common. Even before the pandemic, it was on the decline. We have largely given up the friendly chat with the grocery check-out clerk. Even a “Hello” or “Nice day!” when crossing paths with a fellow pedestrian has fallen by the wayside. Instead, we pass without speaking and without eye contact. Strangers of all kinds seem scary, maybe even dangerous.But lack of interaction may be socially unhealthy for us, according to psychologist Gillian Sandstrom
. Working with psychologist Elizabeth Dunn
from the University of British Columbia, Sandstrom devised a study
that randomly grouped participants to compare coffee shop transactions with and without friendly social engagement.
One group of participants avoided conversation with the barista during their transaction. The other group of study participants smiled, made eye contact and some small talk — making a point to connect.
The participants who did more chatting said their mood was brighter, and noted higher levels of belonging and overall happiness after the interaction. This is the first study to highlight the potential for those positive results due to friendly social moments with strangers, acquaintances or distant friends (aka, “weak ties”).
Talking with someone we don’t know sounds easy for some and may feel extremely awkward to others. Many of us are afraid of embarrassing ourselves. We may have a hard time knowing what to say. We may worry that the other person isn’t interested. Or that they won’t enjoy talking with us. We might think that the other person doesn’t have much to offer. Or that the conversation may be unpleasant.
In a recent literature review, evidence supports adding Vitamin S – for “stranger” – back into our social diet. Researchers and study authors Paul A. M. Van Lange and Simon Columbus explain why contact with strangers is crucial to our social well-being, especially during times of isolation:
- Most interactions with strangers offer low-risk, friendly moments to engage with people around us. Studies in The Netherlands and Germany showed that most interactions with strangers revealed that these low-risk, low-conflict conversations were helpful in reminding people of our overall sense of togetherness.
- Most strangers react kindly. One study demonstrated social mindfulness – the likelihood that a person will keep the needs of others in mind when making a decision, whether or not a specific other person is nearby. Here’s one example. Participants were offered a reward for completing a task. Given a choice of three items, two of which are the same, about two-thirds of the study participants took one of the duplicates. By taking one of the duplicates, they left the next person a choice.
- Most interactions with strangers help us feel good. Sandstrom followed up her research on chatting with baristas with another study. She learned that feelings of well-being and belonging increased for those who greeted people compared to those who kept to themselves.
The takeaway? Look up from the phone, the to-do list, or the sidewalk. Catch someone’s eye and say hello. Even with a mask, people can see that you’re smiling. According to Sandstrom in an article by The Atlantic, it’s only getting started that’s hard. After that? “You can’t shut [people] up. By the end, they don’t want to stop talking. It’s fascinating. I love it.”
- Talking to strangers is good for you … and for your community
- Friendly interactions with strangers have decreased. Collectively, we have a mindset that strangers of all kinds should probably be avoided.
- Lack of interaction can undermine our social and emotional health.
- Evidence suggests that friendly chats with strangers boost well-being.
- Three reasons why casual banter with strangers is a good idea: Most interactions are friendly and not conflicted, most strangers want to be kind, and most interactions with strangers help us feel good.