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Why You Should Talk to Strangers

Research finds surprising benefits from connecting with new people.

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I fly a lot. I have a typical routine on the plane. I pull out something to read or perhaps an iPad to watch a movie. I do my work. I don’t generally engage in much conversation with the person sitting next to me, though sometimes I end up in a long conversation, and invariably, the conversation is great fun.

An interesting question is whether my travel would be more enjoyable if I engaged in more conversations with people I met on the plane? This issue was addressed in a fascinating paper by Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder that appeared in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

In two field experiments, they demonstrated that people generally avoid having conversations with strangers while commuting. One study queried train commuters; a second, bus commuters. During their commute, some participants were asked to imagine that they were told to have a conversation with another commuter they didn’t already know. Those in a second group were asked to imagine that they were told to commute without talking to anyone. A third group got no instructions. Participants rated how much they thought they would enjoy their commute as well as how productive they thought they would be.

In this study, participants imagining they had to talk to another person thought they would enjoy the commute less than those who imagined sitting in silence. Those imagining they had to have a conversation also assumed they would be less productive on the trip than those who imagined sitting in silence. The control group came out in between on both measures.

A second set of field studies actually had commuters on the train and bus engage in conversations—or not. Members of a third group were given no instructions. Afterward, participants rated how much they enjoyed the commute as well as how productive they were. Participants also filled out a personality inventory.

Strikingly, participants who were asked to have a conversation with someone else on the train or bus really did have conversations. And these participants enjoyed their ride much more than those who had been instructed not to engage with other people, as well as those in the control condition (who also tended not to engage in conversations). Interestingly, participants in all conditions rated themselves as about equally productive.

If conversations like this are actually so enjoyable, why do people engage in them so rarely?

One other study asked commuters a variety of questions and found that they underestimate how willing other people would be to talk to them. So commuters feel that they are much more interested having people choose to talk to them than other people are in being talked to. As a result, people avoid striking up conversations for fear of bothering another person.

Another study found that some people are able to predict their enjoyment of engaging in these random conversations. This study looked at people taking taxis leaving from an airport. Some participants were actually asked to engage in a conversation with the driver or to enjoy the solitude. As in the other studies, those who had a conversation with the driver enjoyed the ride more than those who did not.

In a second study, participants predicted their enjoyment. Those who routinely engage in conversations with the driver recognized that they enjoy the ride more when they talk than when they don’t. People who rarely converse with the driver did not recognize that they would enjoy their ride more if they talked with the driver.

A final study examined another possibility: Perhaps the people who initiate conversations enjoy them, but those who do not initiate the conversations enjoy them less. That is, maybe the conversation is only positive for the initiator. This study was done in a psychology lab. Participants were waiting for the study to start. Some were instructed either to engage in a conversation with a second participant in the waiting room or to avoid having a conversation. Afterward, both participants were asked about how much they enjoyed the wait. Both the participant who initiated the conversation and the non-initiator enjoyed the wait more when they had a conversation.

Putting this all together, then, it seems like most of us are missing out on a big opportunity to enjoy our life just a little more. Many of us travel on trains, planes, buses, and taxis. In those settings, we generally elect to protect ourselves from interactions with other people. Yet, these data suggest that most of us would enjoy ourselves more if we had conversations with the strangers who sit near us rather than walling ourselves off.

These findings are particularly interesting, because technology makes it easier than ever to avoid connecting with strangers. Almost everywhere you go, people are engaged with smart phones and tablets. Because of those devices, we avoid connecting with the real live people sitting next to us—and it seems that we are missing out by doing so.

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