don’t tell mom! why talking to strangers is good, actually

Three men converse outside a restaurant in Toronto's Chinatown.

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Talking to strangers might seem intimidating. 😨 Yet if you risk giving it a try, you might find the benefits to be even more than you bargained for.

That’s the conclusion of a 2014 study titled “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude.” Authored by two business school professors, the study aimed to test people’s tendency to ignore others in public settings.

We’re all guilty of choosing social isolation because it seems preferable to interacting with strangers. But this belief might just be misguided. 😯

How stranger interactions help us

We usually think of our most valuable relationships as those in our immediate circle — and it’s true that well-being maps more to close-relationship quality than distant-relationship quantity.

But, as highly social beings, we benefit from stranger interactions, too.

A 2000 study measured how a conversation with a stranger impacts mood, with the effect found to be strongly positive. ✅

“Relationship facilitation at the level of a single, brief conversation is accompanied by increases in positive emotions,” the researchers wrote.

What really brought those positive feelings to the forefront was one key thing: self-disclosure, or a willingness to open up. Higher self-disclosure led to greater social attraction 🫂 and improved mood 😄 for both parties.

The lesson: Open up to a stranger and they’re likely to reciprocate, increasing good feelings for both of you.

The surprising value in talking to strangers

The business school professors in the 2014 study, Epley and Schroeder, dove deeper into the phenomenon of why we avoid stranger interactions despite their benefits.

They concluded that our stranger avoidance boils down to one thing: overestimating how uninterested other people are in meeting us.

This misunderstanding leads us to shut down — even when we want to engage. 😢

“People seem to ignore strangers because they mistakenly think that forming a connection with them would be systematically unpleasant, whereas isolation would be pleasurable,” the study reads.

The key word is mistakenly. As in the 2000 study, it was found that stranger interactions — on a train, in a cab, or in a waiting room — caused a mood boost ⬆️, despite the study participants expecting the opposite.

The lesson: Taking the plunge and engaging a stranger may seem scary, but stepping outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens.

A potential explanation for the isolation-engagement paradox

What’s behind our inability to give strangers the benefit of the doubt? Social norms are undoubtedly one factor. In many contexts in America, leaving others alone is seen as the “polite” thing to do.

But another, deeper reason may also be in play.

An older study, from 1994, looked at situations — such as successfully instructing a friend in math or pushing to the front of a line to buy the last bottle of milk — in which people took the perspective of either an actor or observer.

When thinking as an actor, the study participants were more likely to judge actions on the basis of competence. As observers, though, morality is the lens the study participants used.

Perspective matters in social life, too. When we avoid interacting with strangers, we may acting out of fear that we’ll be perceived as socially incompetent. But this is the wrong lens to use — others are focused more on our warmth than our competence. Act warmly, in other words, and you’re likely to get a positive response. 🤗

The lesson: We misjudge others’ perceptions because we see the world through our eyes, not theirs. Taking others’ perspectives can open us up to new experiences.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash.

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