- Even though it might sound painful to strike up a conversation with a stranger, research suggests we should.
- Most people generally predict that such a conversation would be awkward and unpleasant.
- It turns out that these conversations are generally pleasant and well-received, and helps us feel connected.
- This research suggests that we consistently underestimate the value of small kindnesses, for us and strangers.
Before I had kids, my husband and I lived in New York City for several years. We loved living in the city, but everything there moves pretty fast. Commuters are usually in a hurry, and you often don’t have time to make small talk with your neighbors or local barista; you don’t smile or say hello to strangers on the street, and you definitely don’t strike up a conversation with someone on the train.
As much as we loved NYC, at some point, we decided to slow down and start a family. We ended up moving to a small suburban town in New Jersey. Despite its close proximity to the city, we found out quickly that daily life in a small town is really different from city life.
Here, everyone says hello to you when you pass by. Store owners make small talk, and I know all of the neighbors on my street (and their dogs) by name. At first, it was confusing (I mean, I don’t know these people), but slowly, I started to smile back as I walked past. I stopped looking so surprised when the local postal worker said hello, and even started saying hello back.
Nowadays, I say hello to everyone that passes, whether they make the initial contact or not. I love greeting all of the other parents at the school drop-off line and sometimes walk home with some pep in my step from the morning’s pleasantries.
Even though for some of us, it might sound painful to strike up a conversation with strangers on our morning walk or commute, research suggests that maybe we should try. In one now classic study, researcher Nicholas Epley and his colleagues asked a group of London commuters to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the train. Commuters generally predicted that this would be awkward and unpleasant and that most strangers would be completely uninterested in chatting.
In contrast, the reality was that participants assigned to talk to a stranger had a much more positive experience than those who were in a control group that didn’t strike up a conversation with anyone during their morning ride. And the strangers seemed to welcome the interaction, creating a positive experience for everyone involved (Schroeder et al., 2021).
And it doesn’t seem to matter whether the conversation is fleeting or about something deeper. In another set of studies by the same group of researchers, participants were randomly assigned to have either a deep or shallow conversation with a stranger in the lab. Despite predicting that those conversations would be awkward and unpleasant, the participants enjoyed them much more than they thought they would, and it made them feel more socially connected afterward, especially when asked to have a deep as opposed to a shallow conversation (Kardas et al., 2021).
From this work, the researchers concluded that our expectations about how awkward or ill-received an impromptu conversation with a stranger would be keep us from starting them in the first place. In reality, most people find these conversations to be incredibly pleasant, they feel happier afterward, and they learn a lot more from these conversations than they thought they would (Atir et al., 2022).
A similar thing happens with people we know. In another study, researchers asked participants to reconnect with an old friend, asking some to reconnect via email and others to reconnect via phone call. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate talking on the phone; I would much rather connect via email or text. But while the people in this study expressed the same preference for digital rather than voice conversations, the ones that reached out to their friends via phone later reported feeling more socially connected than those who reached out via email (Kumar & Epley, 2021)
This doesn’t just hold for reaching out to a friend and saying anything, it especially holds for reaching out and saying something nice. In another study, participants were asked how a friend would feel if they were to compliment that friend every day for five days. Participants predicted that the recipient would get tired of the compliments over time, and that the compliments would be less meaningful with each day that passed.
In a second experiment, the researchers tested this out and invited pairs of friends to come to the lab. One friend was asked to deliver a compliment to the other friend every day for five days to see how it made them feel. Contrary to what the participants predicted, the person receiving the compliments did not get sick of them, and in fact, responded equally positively to them every day (Zhao & Epley, 2021).
Adults and even children consistently underestimate how simple acts of kindness would be received (Echelbarger & Epley, 2023; Kumar & Epley, 2023). Likewise, adults consistently underestimate how positively others will receive social support (Dungan, et al., 2022), and how happy and willing others would be to provide that support if asked (Zhao & Epley, 2022).
Altogether, this research suggests that we consistently underestimate the value of small kindnesses to both strangers and the people we know, and that actually going ahead and saying hello to a stranger or complimenting someone on their hair or their shoes is bound to make both people’s days a lot better. Loneliness is becoming widespread in the United States, with up to 60 percent of Americans reporting feeling lonely on a regular basis. This is way more problematic for our health than you’d think, and in fact, loneliness is linked to health risks on par with obesity and smoking (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010).
With all of this loneliness around us, it makes even more sense to smile at passers-by, wave to your neighbors, and reach out to old friends just to say hello. Sometimes just a simple act of kindness can go a long way.
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Atir, S., Wald, K. A., & Epley, N. (2022). Talking with strangers is surprisingly informative. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(34), e2206992119.
Dungan, J. A., Munguia Gomez, D. M., & Epley, N. (2022). Too reluctant to reach out: Receiving social support is more positive than expressers expect. Psychological Science, 33(8), 1300-1312.
Echelbarger, M., & Epley, N. (2023). Undervaluing the positive impact of kindness starts early. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316.
Kardas, M., Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2022). Overly shallow? Miscalibrated expectations create a barrier to deeper conversation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 122(3), 367.
Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2021). It’s surprisingly nice to hear you: Misunderstanding the impact of communication media can lead to suboptimal choices of how to connect with others. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 150(3), 595.
Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2023). A little good goes an unexpectedly long way: Underestimating the positive impact of kindness on recipients. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152(1), 236.
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.
Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2021). Kind words do not become tired words: Undervaluing the positive impact of frequent compliments. Self and Identity, 20(1), 25-46.
Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly happy to have helped: Underestimating prosociality creates a misplaced barrier to asking for help. Psychological Science, 33(10), 1708-1731.