Why You Should Talk to Strangers

The comfort of conversation: from the serious to the superficial.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

First of all, as a career prosecutor, I will start by stating the obvious: Not all strangers are safe. If your antenna is up and you are perceiving red flags of any kind, do not engage. But in harmless settings when it is safe to socialize, small talk can be both enjoyable and emotionally beneficial.

Image by Dizzy Roseblade from Pixabay
Source: Image by Dizzy Roseblade from Pixabay

The Significance of the Superficial

For most of us, a typical day involves spending time with family and friends, and also with strangers. Whether buying coffee, shopping for groceries, or asking for help finding a product in Costco, we routinely interact with strangers in the course of doing business. These quick informational conversations are often viewed as exactly that: simple data exchanges. Yet if that is our mindset, we may be missing out.

If you are on a first-name basis with the server at the local sandwich shop or coffee cart, you know what I mean. It is comforting when a friendly face asks if you want your “usual” when you walk in. More than a purely financial exchange, such interactions are simple, yet significant. Research corroborates this experience.

Gillian M. Sandstrom and Elizabeth W. Dunn (2014) investigated the emotional benefit of superficial social interactions.[i] Recognizing the frequency with which we interact with others through “instrumental exchanges,” such as when we buy coffee from a barista, they proposed we might benefit emotionally from treating service providers as acquaintances, turning impersonal exchanges into authentic social interactions. Sure enough, they found that people who engaged in social interaction with a barista by making eye contact, smiling, and talking briefly, reported more positive affect than those who simply aimed for efficiency.

The explanation? Sandstrom and Dunn found evidence suggesting these effects were mediated by experiencing a sense of belonging, which in turn promotes happiness. It appears that although individuals may be reluctant to engage in genuine social interactions with strangers, they experience a higher degree of happiness when they treat a stranger as if they were a weak social tie.

Big Benefits of Small Talk

Sandstrom and Dunn were inspired to explore this area of interpersonal interaction in part due to previous research demonstrating the emotional significance of interacting with strangers. They cite one prior study finding that contrary to what we might expect, subjects experienced the same level of positive affect after interacting with an opposite-sex stranger as with their romantic partner. Wanting to expand on this curious result, they sought to explore how we might transform instrumental exchanges into authentic social experiences, which in turn could boost feelings of happiness.

They recruited subjects to try on their theory while placing an order at a Starbucks store in a busy urban area on a weekend afternoon. Because this transaction necessarily involves information exchanges, they had subjects in their “social” condition enhance the interaction through smiling, eye contact, and brief conversation. In contrast, study participants in the “efficient” condition were instructed to avoid any unnecessary conversation, be ready to pay, and prioritize the efficiency of their interaction.

They found that simply spending the time interacting socially with a Starbucks barista increased a sense of belonging and increased positive affect. They suggest that transforming impersonal exchanges into social interactions are opportunities to boost happiness that would otherwise be missed in our quest for efficiency.

Practical Application

Despite the priority of efficiency over sociability, treating a financial transaction like a social interaction does not necessarily take any extra time. We can smile and make eye contact while we talk, prefacing our order with a friendly greeting. And because kindness is contagious, you may find yourself not only boosting your own mood but improving the experience of the customer in line behind you. Because happiness is priceless, why not share the wealth?


[i] Sandstrom, Gillian M., and Elizabeth W. Dunn. “Is Efficiency Overrated?: Minimal Social Interactions Lead to Belonging and Positive Affect.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 5, no. 4 (May 2014): 437–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550613502990.