- People predict strangers are less interested in talking than they really are.
- A scavenger hunt intervention helped people overcome anxiety from talking to strangers.
- The intervention improved people's conversation abilities.
Most of us have plenty of opportunities to meet strangers or people who we don’t know very well each day. Yet instead of getting to know someone new around us, we often wear headphones while we are walking down the street to avoid saying hello to people we walk by, strategically go on break when nobody else is in the break room at work, or use our smartphone on the bus instead of striking up a conversation with the person sitting right next to us.
The thought of starting a conversation with someone new can be anxiety-provoking. We worry about being rejected, the conversation being awkward or uncomfortable, or the conversation going on for much longer than we might have hoped. However, there is new research showing that this anxiety is overblown once a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance has begun.1
Scavenger Hunt Type of Game
Researchers recruited participants for an experiment. Using a mobile application (GooseChase), the researchers asked participants to play a scavenger hunt type of game throughout the week.2 Before the experiment began, the researchers asked participants to predict how likely they thought they were to be socially rejected when striking up a conversation with a stranger, how strong their conversational abilities were, how awkward a conversation with a stranger would be, how enjoyable the conversation would be, and how positive of an impression they would make after talking to someone new.
The scavenger hunt task made participants feel like they were playing a game. Some of the missions given to participants throughout the week included finding someone with a tattoo and talking to them about it for a couple of minutes or finding someone wearing an interesting pair of shoes and chatting with this person briefly. Participants could complete missions and achieve goals, making the experiment fun.
More Confidence in Talking to Strangers
At the end of the week, the researchers asked participants the same questions asked at the beginning of the experiment to see if the scavenger hunt missions had changed their beliefs about conversations with strangers. Participants found that they were much less likely to be rejected during conversation than they had predicted before the experiment, and they became more confident in their conversational abilities. Participants in the experiment also found talking with strangers to be less awkward and more enjoyable than they had predicted, and they felt they made a more positive impression on their conversation partners.
Starting a conversation with someone new is not always easy, but it can be surprisingly fulfilling. The pandemic and the current hot-button political climate in the United States have given us all an easy excuse to avoid interacting with new people around us. We can always find a convenient reason to avoid talking to someone new, but the experience of meeting interesting new people around us is part of what makes life so rich.
As the authors of this experiment note, making a game out of meeting new people can make the process easier. Life is short, and having the courage to meet someone new might just lead you toward meeting your next colleague, best friend, or romantic partner.
1. Schroeder, J., Lyons, D., & Epley, N. (2022). Hello, stranger? Pleasant conversations are preceded by concerns about starting one. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(5), 1141.
2. Sandstrom, G. M., Boothby, E. J., & Cooney, G. (2022). Talking to strangers: A week-long intervention reduces psychological barriers to social connection. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 102, 104356.