Talking to strangers.

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:​

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


BBC Kindness Test

Conversations with strangers go better than you expect

Liking gap

Talking to strangers is good for you and them

Scavenger hunt study

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Age is just a number: Cross-generational conversations are more positive than you expect

Central Park Benches” by Phil Roeder is marked with CC BY 2.0.”

Dr. Joshua Moreton, University of Essex

Picture this: Walking through a park on a pleasant day, you decide to stop and rest on a park bench. However, only two benches are available, and both already have someone sitting there: one with someone you guess is roughly the same age as you, and one with someone who is much older or younger than you. Now, given that there is a strong likelihood of conversation emerging upon sitting down, which person would you rather talk to?

You might be apprehensive of even sitting down in the first place. People are often hesitant to talk to someone new. Following strict social norms, we often avoid talking to strangers because we think conversations will consist of awkward small talk and generally feel unpleasant. Indeed, research shows people are often sceptical of the value of connecting with new people, despite the fact that people actually benefit, often more than they expect, from talking to strangers.

Such apprehension of talking to others we don’t know extends further in those we perceive ourselves to be different from, such as those of different ethnic or age groups. In fact, research shows we consistently give preferential treatment to people we share basic demographic traits with.

However, we also might stand to learn more from talking to others who are different from us. And though in some ways it may seem easier to talk to someone more similar to us, we might be more likely to care for their opinion, and thus might be more fearful of falling into potentially awkward small talk.

Our recent research study attempts to shed light upon this complex picture, potentially helping you choose who to sit next to on the imaginary park bench. Specifically, we asked people (aged either 25-30 or 65-70) to have a conversation with someone of the same age group or the other age group, and first report how they expected the conversation would go. 

Although we anticipated that people would expect conversations with their own age group to be more positive, participants expected to enjoy conversations more with a partner of the different age group, despite thinking they would have less in common.

After the conversation, our participants reported how the conversation went. One finding, consistent with previous research, is that conversations went much better than expected: people overwhelmingly reported they enjoyed conversations more, found conversations easier, thought their partner found them more interesting, and had more in common than they initially thought they would.

Interestingly, the differences we observed pre-conversation diminished; people enjoyed conversations more and found things in common with their partners regardless of who they spoke to, and reported a strong interest in talking further with someone of the same age as their conversation partner. 

Delving further, the overall effect of participants expecting to enjoy cross-generational conversations more was largely driven by younger participants being especially pessimistic about having a conversation with someone of the same age. This may indicate that younger people are overtly more apprehensive with their own peer group, caring more about appearing conversationally fluent and interesting. 

Our results, consistent with previous research on minimal interactions, indicate that any apprehension about talking to others different from us, particularly in the form of worrying about not having much in common, may be largely unfounded. For example, one younger participant pointed out, “I was worried it was going to be awkward and we would have nothing in common or to speak about. However, as soon as the conversation started I realised how wrong that expectation was and I actually had a lovely time chatting with her and we had so much in common!”.

Moreover, not only were conversation fears unfounded, but those who spoke to someone of a different age reported learning much more than those who spoke to someone of the same age, as well as feeling they had learned new perspectives. As one older participant pointed out, “I learnt that age …can actually make for a much more interesting conversation …as you speak about things that are actually interesting and not small talk.”

One reason we might have mixed expectations about talking to those different to us may simply be a product of limited exposure. When asked about opportunities for daily interactions, both age groups overwhelmingly reported many more opportunities to talk to their own age group than the other.

Thus, the park bench provides an all too rare opportunity for making a cross-generational connection. We heartily encourage you to sit on the park bench with the person who is a different age than you. Our research suggests that both you and your partner are likely to enjoy your conversation more than you expect.

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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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Nervous about talking to strangers? It’s not as hard as you think, and you’re probably already better at it than you know!

I talk to strangers.  Even on the Tube.  I have had loads of pleasant chats and, of course, a few awkward ones.  I’ve benefitted from some of these conversations, learning new things and getting helpful advice and recommendations.  Even when the conversations are just average, they add up, and make me feel more trust and less fear towards others.  Research shows that talking to strangers can improve our mood and make us feel more connected.  So why don’t we talk to each other more often?  Maybe we’re not convinced that we know how to do it.  The good news is that it’s not as hard as you think, and you’re probably already better at it than you know!

First things first: starting a conversation.  There are lots of ways to do this, and I urge you to experiment.  First, you can comment on your shared situation, including the old classics: the weather, the traffic.  This may seem trite, but you just need a way to connect, before you can move on to other, more interesting topics.

Another option is to start with a compliment.  It’s fun to deliver compliments, and fun to receive compliments, especially from a stranger.  Compliments seem easier to believe when they come from someone who doesn’t know you.

Use your observational skills and tap into your curiosity to ask questions, or ask for advice.  I’ve asked people why they were wearing airplane earrings, where they were travelling to with their suitcase, what book they were reading… Often I combine observation with humour.  I once commented on a young man’s “breakfast of champions” (a packet of biscuits), and I asked two Freemasons wearing matching striped trousers if they had consulted each other on their wardrobe choices that morning.

Now that the conversation is rolling, some of the same strategies will help you keep it flowing smoothly: comment on things you have in common, and exercise your observational skills and curiosity. People like it when you ask follow-up questions, because it demonstrates that you are listening deeply, rather than just thinking of what to say next.

You might consider disclosing something about yourself, which demonstrates trust and encourages reciprocation. I once started a conversation with a lady on the Tube by asking her how her day had been going so far.  She gave a non-committal response, and I thought the conversation might be over (not all conversations are successful.)  Then she asked me the same question, and I told her that I had had an adventure (being interviewed on BBC Radio 4!)  In return, she confided in me that she had just found out she was pregnant! She felt safe telling a stranger on the Tube, who she would never see again.  I felt so honoured!  Hugs were exchanged.

Finally, it’s important to be patient.  You will likely surprise people by talking to them, and it may take them a while to adjust to the idea that you’re just being friendly.  Keep going, and most of the time you’ll manage to get into a groove.

No conversation can last forever, so when it’s time for you to move on, you need to figure out how to end the conversation. I’ve run several How to Talk to Strangers workshops, and although attendees easily come up with loads of ways to start conversations, they struggle to come up with ways to end them without lying (or inventing unnecessary trips to the loo). Maybe that’s why people don’t talk to the person next to them on the airplane until 15 minutes before it lands, when an ending is guaranteed? Research confirms the challenge: conversations almost never end at a time when both parties want it to end. My best advice:  Keep it simple. When you’re ready to move on, just tell the other person that it’s time for you to be on your way, and that you’ve enjoyed the chat (which I’m sure you will!)

If all this talk of starting, maintaining, and ending conversations makes chatting sound like a lot of work, don’t worry!  Like most skills, social skills can be learned and developed.  I consider my Dad a world expert in talking to strangers, but his secondary school classmates say he was quite introverted back in the day.  I don’t consider myself particularly extraverted, and would rather sit on the couch with my cats and a good book instead of going to a party.  But once I started talking to strangers, I realized how much fun it could be, and I started doing it more often, and getting better at it.  In a recent research study, my colleagues Erica Boothby, Gus Cooney, and I asked participants to talk to at least one new person every day for a week.  At the end of the week, many of our participants admitted that talking to strangers was easier than they thought: “I can honestly say that I’m not nearly as shy as I thought! This experiment allowed me to really push out of my comfort zone and take the initiative when talking to people.”

Not only will you start to feel more comfortable with practice, but you’re probably already better at it than you think you are.  If you’re like most people, after chatting to a stranger you can’t help but wonder what they thought about you, and your conversation.  It turns out that people generally underestimate how much others like them.  Research finds evidence for this “liking gap” before an upcoming chat to a stranger, after a chat to a stranger (whether it be short or long), and even after living with a flatmate for several months.

Unfortunately, “stranger danger” norms are prevalent, so sometimes people won’t want to talk to you.  This happens a LOT less often than you would think. In our week-long study, participants said: “I was worried people would prefer to be left alone, but that was never the case”, and “I was never turned down by anyone.” If someone doesn’t want to talk, remember that they may be nervous too, or reading a really good book, or caught up in their own personal drama… Their reaction is not necessarily a judgment of you and your overture.  Respect their decision, and when you try again, you’ll find plenty of people who are more receptive and appreciative.

Why not be brave, and start a conversation with someone? You’re more capable than you think, and both of you are likely to enjoy it more than you expect.


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