NOTE: I wrote this blog post for the Marmalade Trust. I post it here with their permission.
If you’re feeling lonely, it may be a sign that you need to expand your social network. When you move to a new city, or start a new job or new school, for example, it takes time to build a web of acquaintances (i.e., weak ties), and even longer to turn some of these into friendships. How do you even get started? You’re probably not going to like the sound of this, but…you need to talk to strangers. The prospect of talking to strangers is daunting to many people, but there’s good news: academic research on talking to strangers may be able to help you view this prospect with cautious optimism instead of dread.
Why you should talk to strangers
Many years ago, I did something very out of character for me: I started a conversation with someone on public transport. I couldn’t resist asking a woman about the beautiful cupcake she was carrying, and somehow by the end of the conversation she had taught me that people can ride ostriches! Since then, I’ve had countless conversations with strangers, during which I’ve learned interesting facts, benefitted from recommendations, received help and free stuff, and had a lot of laughs. Here are some research-backed reasons why you might want to give it a go:
- Conversations with strangers go better than you expect. Over and over, research studies have found that people enjoy conversations more than they expect to, and that the many, many things that people worry about rarely come to pass.
- People like you more than you think. Researchers call this the liking gap, and have found that the phenomenon starts to appear around the age when kids start to worry about what other people think.
- Talking to strangers is good for you and them. When you reach out and have a chat, you tend to be in a better mood and feel more connected to others, and so does your conversation partner.
- People consider minimal social interactions to be an act of kindness. Data from The Kindness Test – a huge public science project collaboration between the University of Sussex and BBC Radio 4 – makes it clear that people view a thank you, a compliment, a chat or even just a friendly smile as an act of kindness.
General advice on talking to strangers
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that it can be fun to talk to strangers, and you have resolved to give it a go. How do you get started? Here are a few dos and don’ts:
- DO work your way up gradually. You might start by making eye contact and noticing the opportunities for social connection that are all around you. Then try a smile; I accompany a smile with a nod of the head, so a person knows that my smile was directed at them. When you’re ready to try out a chat, choose your partner wisely: service providers like baristas are trained to have a nice chat with you, and people with dogs or babies are usually happy for you to fuss over their charges. See below for some tips on how to start a conversation.
- DO keep practicing. In one research study, people played a scavenger hunt game that involved talking to a stranger every day for a week. Practice really does make perfect. Day by day, people grew more confident in their ability to start and carry on a conversation, and less worried about rejection. Speaking of which…
- DON’T worry about rejection. It happens less often than you think: only about 10% of the time. And if someone doesn’t want to talk, it could be for loads of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with you: they might be shy, they might be preoccupied with work or family stressors, they might be in a hurry… Try approaching someone else, and chances are that they’ll be happy to chat.
- DON’T feel pressured to turn every stranger into an acquaintance, or every acquaintance into a friend. It’s perfectly ok to have a one-off chat, or to remain acquaintances and never move into the friend-zone; you will reap benefits from all kinds of relationships. If you do want to move to the next step, but the other person doesn’t seem to feel the same way, the same goes as with rejection: remember that it isn’t necessarily about you.
How to start a conversation with a stranger
If you’re ready to start a conversation with a stranger, but worried about what to say, know that you’re not alone. Here are some things that I do:
- Get them to talk first, by asking a question. Where did you get that beautiful cupcake? What’s your dog’s name? Why are you wearing airplane earrings? Would you recommend that drink? Is this the queue for the number 16 bus?
- Start talking yourself, possibly by commenting on something you have in common. This is the reason we talk about the weather so much! If you are considering starting a conversation with someone, you are necessarily in the same place as them: in a park where you can point out the spring flowers or the playful dogs; at an event where you can talk about the shared interest that brought you there; in a queue at the same shop, where you can point out the absurdity of the fact that the shop is simultaneously displaying Halloween and Christmas decorations.
If your social network is not meeting your needs for connection, then you might want to consider expanding your network. Although many people worry about talking to strangers, it might help to remember that all friends start as strangers. Academic research has consistently shown that talking to strangers goes better than most people think. With a little practice, you might just come to enjoy it as much as I have.