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Being Alone Together

Why are humans so reluctant to communicate in public with strangers?

Why are humans so reluctant to communicate in public?

Yes, we're all social creatures with friends and family that we interact with on a daily basis, but what happens when you're surrounded by strangers?   Every day, we find ourselves in public settings with countless people around us.  Whether it's shopping in a mall, being on a crowded subway, walking down a busy street, or even in an elevator fillled with people.   How social are we then?

Once in a long while, we may strike up a conversation with someone while waiting to board a plane or in a doctor's office, though this tends to be rare. More often than not, we consider any attempt to talk to a stranger as being awkward, and even unwelcome depending on how uncomfortable this makes us feel (especially if you're a woman being approached by a strange man).  For the most part, the strangers around us go on being strangers.

At least in terms of face-to-face interaction. Communicating with strangers online is a critical part of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.  Casual conversations that might seem unthinkable in a crowded room seem much easier when there is no physical contact involved.  I have numerous Facebook and Twitter acquaintances that I interact with on a regular basis that I've never met in person and I am hardly unique.

But why are ordinarily social humans so unsocial in situations involving face-to-face interaction?   Do we prefer being isolated when physically surrounded by strangers?  Or do we feel that the consequences of connecting with people we don't know are too risky to want to take a chance?     Research studies looking at how we are affected by social interactions typically find that connecting with people who are close to us (friends and family) are more important than how often we interact with strangers.   Since we tend not to regard strangers, or even distant acquaintances, as being a good source of social support (except in extraordinary circumstances), we're less likely to try interacting with them. 

Or is it simply the physical location that makes a difference?   A survey of 203 participants using Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk marketplace were asked about the likelihood that they would talk to a friend or a stranger in a waiting room, a train, an airplane, or a cab.   Virtually all the participants agreed that they would talk to a friend in any one of those settings.   For strangers however, the numbers were very different.   Ranging from 93 percent saying they would avoid talking in a waiting room to 51 percent saying they would avoid talking in a cab, most people apparently prefer to sit in silence rather than chatting with a stranger.

A new research study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General presents the results of nine field and laboratory experiments exploring why people apparently prefer to remain isolated among strangers. Conducted by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder of the University of Chicago, the experiments explored some of the underlying beliefs that might explain this strange need for solitude in public places. 

In the first experiment, two research assistants approached commuters at a Homewood, Illinois Metra station.  That particular train line was chosen since it was the first train of the day and was nearly empty during the times when the experiment was conducted.  The one hundred and eighteen commuters who agreed to participate were assigned to one of three conditions.  The commuters in the connection condition were given the following instruction:  "“Please have a conversation with a new person on the train today. Try to make a connection. Find out something interesting about him or her and tell them something about you. The longer the conversation, the better. Your goal is to try to get to know your community neighbor this morning.”   Participants assigned to the solitude condition were instructed to keep to themselves and make no attempt to communicate with anyone.   As for the participants in the control condition, they were simply told to act as they normally would.   

All commuters were given an experimental survey and a brief personality survey in a stamped and addressed envelope which they would complete and send afterwards. The survey asked participants in the connection condition to describe their attempt at communicating and who they communicated with while all partipants rated how they felt after the train ride (whether or not communicating with others or staying in solitude made them feel more productive).  As a comparison, the second experiment matched the first one closely except that the participants were asked to imagine they were interacting or traveling in solitude.  As before, all participants completed questionnaires measuring mood in the different conditions.

The point of the two experiments was to compare how interaction vs. solitude actually affected mood as opposed to how people imagined they would feel in either of the two conditions.   What the researchers found was that people who actually connected with strangers experienced a much more positive commute than the ones who just sat in silence.  For the second experiment however, participants predicted the exact opposite. This suggests that most people misunderstand the psychological consequences of being socially engaged with strangers.  Since commuting tends to be one of the least pleasant experiences in an average person's day, spending it by talking to strangers instead of sitting in silence may be a good way to make that commute enjoyable.

And these results are hardly unique to commuter trains. The experiments were repeated on public transit, taxicabs, and in a laboratory setting and the outcoe was largely the same in all cases.  Though people often predict that sitting alone would be more enjoyable than talking to strangers, the opposite almost always turned out to be true.  Personality testing showed no consistent difference in terms of who was more likely to enjoy interacting with strangers, it just appears to be a social convention we all tend to follow when sitting alone.

So why are people so reluctant to talk to strangers?  While some people may prefer to spend their commuting time working or engaging in other productive activities, experimental results suggest that people who connect with strangers are no less productive than the ones who sit in silence.  One possible explanation may simply be that we stay silent because of the belief that other people are not interested in connecting.   Since we see other people sitting in silence, we tend to do the same though this may vary widely across different cultures.  Also, we may be afraid of the negative consequences of trying to interact with strangers, especially if the stranger is someone of a different gender or ethnic background.  

Of course, some strangers may well prefer not to communicate.  Female commuters are certainly likely to be suspicious of strange men attempting to strike up a conversation with them, and with good reason.  Epley and Schoeder recognized that people can be reluctant to interact with strangers for a variety of reasons but are usually pleasantly surprised to discover that making the effort can be enjoyable. Though these conversations are, by necessity, brief since they can only last as long as the commute lasts, they can be a useful way of breaking the commuting routine as well as help you overcome the shyness that keeps us quiet.  

And there are other benefits to reaching out to strangers.   Not only does it help us feel better about ourselves, but prosocial behaviour can help benefit other people as well.  By working against the "conspiracy of silence" that seems to affect commuters on a regular basis, communicating in public can help people recognize what they have in common. Even if we do occasionally run into people who don't feel like talking, striking up a conversation with the person next to you on a bus or train often make us more willing to try again in future.

So don't be afraid to speak up when you're surrounded by strangers, it can be more enjoyable than you think.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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