Picture it: You’re alone in a coffee shop, mindlessly scanning the newspaper. Or you’re on a flight, wishing away the countless hours between you and your destination. Or maybe you’re trying out a new group exercise class at the gym, or a new course at your university. In these very different scenarios, one common choice likely exists: Do you take a social risk, daring to smile at or talk to a nearby stranger? Or do you choose the safety of silence?
The right choice is far from clear: Rejection stings, after all, and most of us prefer to avoid potential hurt and embarrassment. So we avert our eyes, zip our lips, and keep to ourselves. However, we also know that other people are our greatest source of happiness, so there’s a huge potential gain to be realized by pushing beyond our comfort zones and taking that social risk.
We tend to think that close others—friends, romantic partners, and family members—are our biggest sources of connection, laughter, and warmth. While that may well be true, researchers have also recently found that interacting with “weak ties”—people that we don't know very well—actually brings a boost in mood and feelings of belonging that we didn't expect.
In one series of studies, researchers instructed Chicago-area commuters using public transportation to strike up a conversation with someone near them on their respective buses or trains. On average, participants who followed this instruction felt better than those who had been told to stand or sit in silence. The researchers also argued that when we shy away from casual interactions with strangers, it is often due to a misplaced anxiety that they might not want to talk to us. Much of the time, however, this belief is false. As it turns out, many people are actually perfectly willing to talk—and may even be flattered to receive your attention.
Surprisingly, the emotional benefits of connecting with strangers holds even for introverts. In five different studies, researchers essentially told introverted participants to “act extraverted,” being more outgoing and talkative than usual. And the participants found that doing so actually felt pretty good, confirming a novel hypothesis: Introverts underestimate the pleasure they might gain from increased social interaction. Outside of the lab, there is likely a limit to this effect; at some point, the truly introverted will feel exhausted from this effort, and disingenuous as well. But every now and then, there are gains you can make by donning your game face, being brave, and taking that risk.
So, put down the newspaper and smile at a stranger. Strike up a conversation with your seatmate. Commiserate with a classmate. You never know what you might learn. Chances are, you're overestimating the potential awkwardness and dismissing the potential feelings of happiness and connection these small encounters will provide. As William Butler Yeats said, "There are no strangers here, only friends you haven't yet met."
Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder. “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143 (2014): 1980-1999.
Gillian M. Sandstrom and Elizabeth W. Dunn. “Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40 (2014): 910-922.
John M. Zelenski, Deanna C. Whelan, Logan J. Nealis, Christina M. Besner, Maya S. Santoro, and Jessica E. Wynn. “Personality and Affective Forecasting: Trait Introverts Underpredict the Hedonic Benefits of Acting Extraverted.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 6 (2013): 1092-1108.