Small talk doesn’t need to be meaningless: The benefits of talking to strangers

One in three people feels lonely some or all of the time. The negative consequences of loneliness for individuals and society have resulted in U.K. appointing a Minister of Loneliness, and the former Surgeon General of the United States declaring a “loneliness epidemic”.  Small talk is much maligned, yet the Be More Us campaign from The Campaign to End Loneliness promotes the idea of chatting to strangers as a way to tackle loneliness, and the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign from the Samaritans promotes small talk for preventing suicide. You may be wondering: “Can a little chat really make such a difference?” My personal experience has convinced me that it can, and there’s scientific research to back it up.

When I started my Master’s degree in Psychology, like many postgraduate students, I suffered from imposter syndrome, wondering whether I was clever enough to be there.  My research lab was in one building, and my supervisor’s office was in another building.  On the street corner between those two buildings, there was a hot dog stand.  Somehow, I developed a relationship with the lady who worked at the hot dog stand, and every time I saw her, and she smiled and waved back at me, I felt like I belonged on campus.  We never spoke, but nevertheless she made a difference to my well-being.

This personal experience led me to wonder whether other people also benefitted from these small moments of connection, and whether these relationships might be more valuable than we give them credit for.  I ran a research study to find out.  I asked some Starbucks customers to be as efficient as possible when they made their purchase, helping the barista by having their money ready and avoiding unnecessary conversation.  I asked other customers to take the opportunity to have a real social interaction, by making eye contact, smiling, and having a little chat with the barista.  It was no surprise to me to find that the people who created a moment of connection reported being in a better mood and feeling more connected to others. Other researchers found that people are also in a better mood after chatting to strangers on the train or the bus.

You might be wondering: what did the baristas and fellow transit passengers think about all this?  Unfortunately, we didn’t ask them, but I did look at this question in another study.  I teamed up with the Tate Modern art gallery and we tested whether volunteers could improve visitors’ experiences by chatting to them about an exhibit. Visitors who had chatted with a volunteer reported being in a better mood and feeling more connected to other people, compared to visitors who had not had a chat. The volunteers could see the difference they were making to the visitors: “I totally changed my mind about whether people would enjoy engaging in a conversation with a stranger. Many people were keen to discuss the artwork and I now believe their experience is enhanced by doing so. Previously I thought they would find it irritating to be talking to a complete stranger.”

But a better mood, and feelings of connection are not the only benefits of talking to strangers.  In one of my own first “talking to strangers” experiences, I learned that people can ride ostriches!  I’ll admit, this is not something that I needed to know, but it delighted me, and we can always use more moments of delight.  I’ve also learned about different places and cultures (One region of China has a large number of people with red hair! Slovenia is 70% forest!), and received helpful recommendations for books, music, restaurants, and walking trails.  Recently my colleagues Erica Boothby, Gus Cooney, and I ran a research study in which participants (mostly university students on campus) were required to talk to at least one new person every day for five days.  At the end of the week, 82% of participants reported that they had learned something (e.g., salon recommendations, opportunities on campus) from at least one of the people they had talked to.

Not every conversation will be especially interesting or enjoyable, just as not every book or movie or Netflix episode is.  This is no reason to stop talking, because even average conversations add up, to help us feel a little more trust and a little less fear.  I’ve talked to loads of strangers now.  Sometimes I still struggle to carry on a conversation, but sometimes magic occurs, and a conversation results in a deeper connection.  In our recent, week-long study, when we asked participants what had been the best thing that happened as a result of participating in the study, there were lots of responses about new friends: “I talked to classmates I had never talked to before, and I made actual friends that I will be able to meet again during my studies 🙂 Thank you very much for giving this opportunity to an exchange student!”

Why not challenge yourself to try out a little more small talk? It may seem inconsequential, but creating even a small moment of connection can have lots of benefits for the person you talk to, and for you too!

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