It seems that basic nosiness is a natural part of the human condition. If it weren’t, why would people watch the endless string of reality shows on TV? Peering into the lives of others seems to satisfy a deep yearning, if not just idle curiosity. It’s perhaps for this reason that so many of us enjoy chatting with strangers when we’re thrust together by circumstance. Whether on line in the supermarket, waiting in a waiting room, or sitting next to a fellow passenger, it seems almost endemic for someone to initiate a conversation. New research shows, if not where that curiosity comes from, at least how you can best satisfy it.
We get insights into the ways to get others to open up to us from University of Waterloo (Canada)’s M. Mahdi Roghanizad and Cornell University’s Vanessa Bohns (2017), who explored the role of in-person versus email-based communication in interpersonal persuasion. Perhaps not surprisingly, as shown in this set of studies on university students, email is not as persuasive a medium as people might think. There is something about face-to-face interaction, the authors point out, that you won’t find in emails, no matter how personal you think you are making your request. In face-to-face communication, Roghanizad and Bohns note, it’s hard to say “no” to a person: "It feels bad to let someone down” (p. 223). In-person interactions rely heavily, as well, on trust, which activates empathy.
Establishing trust, then, seems to be important when your request is not that someone perform a favor, but simply that the other person feel that it’s OK to self-disclose to you. As trust and empathy go hand-in-hand, you also want it to seem like you care about what the other person is experiencing in the situation you mutually share, for however long.
It’s worth pointing out that it’s not just boredom or curiosity that are at the root of getting strangers to open up to you. It can be adaptive to try to elicit information from others. You may learn how to better navigate the situation you’re stuck in with this person, such as whether there are grocery coupons you’ve missed out on which you can then download on your phone. You may also gain interesting knowledge that you otherwise would not have had about a country you’ve never visited or an occupation about which you always wanted to know more. Learning about someone’s emotional troubles can also be informative, if you gain information on how better to cope with your own.
In these situations, keep in mind that it’s probably wise to tip the scales in the direction of you learning more from the other person than you reveal about yourself. Although it’s said that people who meet on vacation can say or do anything because they’ll never run into each other again, there’s also the rule of six degrees of separation. You never know who other people may know, and letting on to some of your bad habits or personal history to strangers can lead to unexpected problems. Even gossiping about someone from your hometown or workplace could lead, quite surprisingly, to that person hearing this from the friend of a friend. On the other hand, once you feel that it’s okay to share, by all means engage in a little tit-for-tat, without going overboard.
There are actually situations when it’s important to get someone else to open up. This could be in a job or school interview where you need to learn about this person you may be hiring or admitting. The resume or school record can certainly be a starting point if you use it properly. To prep for the interview, look carefully at the information provided (or what’s not provided, such as missing dates), and ask open-ended questions about what those experiences were like for your interviewee.
Getting others to open up is also a useful tactic in establishing close relationships. If you’re not sure that this new individual is a person you want to have that relationship with, it’s safer to keep the balance of disclosure tilted toward that person's revealing more than you do. Learning more than you share will help you decide whether to move forward.
Talking to strangers can have other benefits: For all you know, a true connection will form — whether it’s just an exchange of emails or friending on Facebook — that leads to a relationship that continues far beyond the moments of your brief interaction. You may also find that the friend of the friend is someone who you really want to, and do, get to know better. Minimally, you can also gain practical advice to help you the next time you’re in that situation to avoid the long wait or the extra expense of not knowing about a good deal. As I mentioned, you can learn a great deal from people from countries and cultures other than yours, which you may never visit or experience on a firsthand basis.
Getting people to open up, then, means that at least initially they give you information unequally compared to what you say about yourself. These 5 steps will help get you there:
1. Pay close attention to any information the other person shares at the beginning of an interaction. It could be the person’s name that leads to interesting clues, perhaps if it's unusual, or it could be something you overhear about where the person is from. Even though the information may be somewhat generic and completely innocuous, it can give you the basis for where you’re going next.
2. Establish a point of connection and use that to continue the conversation: “I had a best friend named Nancy,” or “Oh, I heard that you’re from Cape Cod. I’ve been there a couple of times.” If you’re both suffering from the same unpleasant condition (waiting in a long line), comment on your shared misery (“I thought this would be a fast line, but it’s not, I guess”). Leak a little information about yourself, but only a minimal amount to keep things going.
3. Don’t make assumptions. A stranger seated next to you at a reasonably formal dinner may be wearing jeans and a flannel shirt — you may believe that this person got there by mistake, because clearly the person doesn’t fit in to the crowd. Before you write this person off, maintain a generally friendly and respectful demeanor. For all you know, this is someone who didn’t know what the dress rules were or is actually someone wealthy, high-status, and/or nice enough not to care.
4. Ask questions without seeming (or being) nosy and intrusive. Using the data you have in front of you, which could be on a resume or school transcript, start with general questions that you hope will lead to more specific information. You may see an unusually short period of employment or a poor grade on a transcript. There could be many reasons for this, but to get to the truth, give the other person space to put those reasons in his or her own words. If it's an informal situation, keep your questions to what feels like a comfortable number in the context of the interaction (i.e., don't get into a game of 20 questions).
5. Figure out when to back off. At some point, the other person may wish to discontinue the conversation or just not answer a question to your satisfaction. That poor grade on a transcript may be due to the fact that a close relative died, or that the subject matter is just one that was too challenging. If you get such an answer, and the individual clearly is upset at talking about the situation, let the matter rest and switch gears.
It’s easy to practice your skills at this form of communication, given how many often we’re in situations with people we don't really know. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find many more opportunities to satisfy not only your sense of curiosity, but also make surprisingly enjoyable connections that might even change the course of your life.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Roghanizad, M. M., & Bohns, V. K. (2017). Ask in person: You're less persuasive than you think over email. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69223-226. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2016.10.002