Whether you’re commuting on the subway, standing in line at the grocery store, or sitting in the waiting room of your dentist’s office, chances are you’ll probably find yourself in the company of others who are doing the same. Despite often being surrounded by other people on a daily basis in situations like these, only rarely do we ever strike up conversations with them.
Since we consider these people to be strangers, the general norm is to ignore them. But a fascinating study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business revealed that interacting with strangers actually makes us happier.
The reason why this kind of social avoidance is so hardwired into our behavior (and probably even more so among people who live in more densely populated areas) is that we usually expect any interaction with someone we don’t know to be relatively unpleasant. Making these sorts of assumptions, however, is keeping us less happy than we could be during our daily commute, checking out at the cash register, and doing other routine activities in public places.
In a series of experiments, the researchers told subjects who routinely took the bus or train on their daily commute to either make conversation with fellow passengers, to sit there in solitude, or to keep doing what they always do while commuting. Out of all three different experiments, the subjects who made conversation with someone reported the most positive experiences.
These subjects, who did admit to having positive experiences from connecting with a stranger, actually predicted that the complete opposite would happen. The researchers say that this “demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement.”
Of course, the researchers note that making small talk with strangers doesn’t offer the long-term value that friendships do. However, since many of the mundane activities we do in public places on a day-to-day basis like commuting are often seen as pretty unpleasant to begin with, deciding to make small talk with a stranger can actually help turn that unpleasant experience into a much more pleasant one.
As if the case for talking to strangers couldn’t get any stronger, there’s also proof that when we do it, we transfer that positive experience to the stranger as well. When the researchers conducted similar experiments in a lab setting, those who had been talked to reportedly had the same level of positive experience as the people who had been instructed to make conversation with them.
So, this is good news, and it’s an easy experiment that we could all do for ourselves once in a while. The big problem is that small talk, for a lot of us (especially us introverts), can be super awkward — awkward enough for us to pick avoidance over trying.
According to introvert expert and contributor to the Quiet Revolution blog Jennifer Granneman, the following five tips are good starting points for practicing your small talk, and making it less awkward.
1. Notice the negative assumptions you’re making about the situation, and replace that with curiosity. Your beliefs influence what you think might unfold when talking to a stranger. Practice becoming aware of assumptions and setting them aside to get more in touch with the reality that you actually have no idea what the experience will be like.
2. Ask questions. If you’re nervous about what a stranger might think of you, shift your focus to them by asking them interesting questions based on where they’re going, what they’re doing, what you might have in common, etc.
3. Make connections and elaborate. A real conversation, even with a stranger you just met, has to flow. Build off their responses to your questions with related questions or comments, and elaborate your responses when they ask you questions.
4. Try to avoid yes/no questions. Some strangers may be more than happy to elaborate after answering yes or no, but you’re probably safer with more open-ended ones if you really want to avoid awkwardness. Other strangers may hesitate to elaborate on their yes or no answers.
5. Be self-compassionate and use positive self-talk when it’s over. Chatting with a stranger might still be awkward even if you follow all of these tips and do your best. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go as smoothly as you hoped. Instead, accept the experience for what it was and focus on what you learned.
Try it next time you find yourself sitting or standing next to a stranger. Most importantly, notice how you feel afterward. If you feel good, maybe you could start making it more of a regular habit.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock