A Drop of Ink: The Power Of Talking To Strangers

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By Reed Anfinson


People don’t strike up conversations with strangers like they used to before the cellphone. It’s unfortunate. Both the stranger you might talk to and you lose something as a result.

Now the person next you, or sitting across a waiting room, or at the counter in restaurant, is likely focused on his or her cellphone, and might be wearing headphones, shutting out the possibility of a conversation. There’s no interaction with the people around them. They are isolated in their own world, just as you may be isolated in your own. Such isolation isn’t healthy.

“One day Nicholas Epley was commuting by train to his office at the University of Chicago,” David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times writes. “As a behavioral scientist he’s well aware that social connection makes us happier, healthier and more successful and generally contributes to the sweetness of life. Yet he looked around his train car and realized: Nobody is talking to anyone! It was just headphones and newspapers.” 

Of course, nothing is wrong with the newspaper. It is passive. It isn’t designed to constantly prompt you to be glue to it as you are with screen of a phone. You can easily put it down to start up a conversation, maybe about something you just read.

What Epley told Brooks about all those people isolated in their own worlds is that many people “are reluctant to talk to strangers on a train or plane is they don’t think it will be enjoyable. They believe it will be awkward, dull and tiring.” It must also be true of the places we gather for short times in small towns.

In small towns, we are much more likely to have common grounds for a conversation. Our children or grandchildren attend a school that is the only one in our community. We may go to the same church. We may see each other from time to time in the grocery stores, or while out for a meal. These close but still distant encounters break down some of the barriers about the person who may be sitting near us.

But even in our small towns these days, we seem less likely to be familiar with our fellow citizens. 

We say we are a friendly community. One of way of proving that to the people in our towns who we don’t know, who may be new, is to start a conversation.

A survey that Brooks cites in his column found that “only 7 percent of people said they would talk to a stranger in a waiting room. Only 24 percent said they would talk to a stranger on a train.”  Perhaps some of their reluctance is a fear of the attitude they may encounter when trying to start a conversation with a stranger. Will the person ignore us? Will they answer with a word or two signals a wish to be left alone? Will their expectations that the conversation might not be worth be realized? Epley says no.

In research Epley has done on starting conversations with people in public settings he found that “most of us are systematically mistaken about how much we will enjoy a social encounter. Commuters expected to have less pleasant rides if they tried to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But their actual experience was precisely the opposite. People randomly assigned to talk with a stranger enjoyed their trips consistently more than those instructed to keep to themselves,” Brooks writes of Epley’s research, which he performed along with others.

Their research found that even if you are an introvert, starting up a conversation with a person you don’t know led to a more enjoyable experience while you were, by chance, in the same place for a while.

Epley and his fellow researchers’ work has shown that people underestimate the enjoyment they get out of starting up a conversation. And, the deeper the conversations, the more rewarding the time.

As his research has shown, along with that that of others for decades now, that showing an interest in someone makes them feel better. You also find it rewarding. “If you want others to like you, if you want to develop real friendships, if you want to help others at the same time as you help yourself, keep this principle in mind: Become genuinely interested in other people,” Dale Carnegie, wrote in the first half of the 20th Century. 

Another barrier that may make us reluctant to start up a conversation with a stranger, or someone we don’t know well, is a fear of how we might be seen, Brooks writes. How will they judge us? Don’t worry.

“Research suggests that when people are looking at you during a conversation, they are not primarily thinking about your competence,” Brooks writes.  “They are thinking about your warmth. Do you seem friendly, kind and trustworthy? They just want to know you care.”

Brooks sees the fate of our nation in some ways tied to how we treat each other in small acts each day as we interact with one another, whether friends or strangers. 

“That means being a genius at the close at hand: greeting a stranger, detecting the anxiety in somebody’s voice and asking what’s wrong, knowing how to talk across difference. More lives are diminished by the slow and frigid death of social closedness than by the short and glowing risk of social openness,” he writes.

Social isolation was a mental health challenge before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s gotten worse since.

In a recent survey of people looking what had become important to them as a result of the pandemic, some people responded by saying, “Keeping a safe distance from people in the stores and places I shop or eat.” On the question of what had bcome less important them since the pandemic, 35 percent said, “socializing and going out had decreased in priority to them.”

These responses set up a challenge for us.

When we gather, whether with one individual or a group, we create a bond of mutual understanding. That understanding creates, to some degree, compassion towards others. That compassion helps bridge our differences. 

“It is hardly impossible to overstate the value…of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress,” John Stuart Mill wrote in the 1800s.

That progress comes about through people communicating with one another and then acting with a common purpose to better one another’s lives.