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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