“That’s great work you’re doing there. It really is the most neatly arranged stack of loaves of bread I’ve seen in a long while…”
These words have all taken a running cliff-dive out of my mouth, and now I can never get them to go back in. They are so weird that the guy I’m talking to, maybe 18 or 19, who’s filling shelves in a bakery, is taking a full five seconds to process them. “Thank you?” he offers. We stare at each other for another three seconds or so. “Are you looking for anything?” he asks cagily.
This is the best I can do.
Talking to strangers shouldn’t be this hard. I talk to people I don’t know for a living — often about difficult, sometimes quite delicate topics — and it’s usually a thing I really enjoy doing. So when I committed to road-testing some strategies for launching conversations with random strangers, suggested to me by an academic who spends her time studying these kinds of interactions and their impact on mental health, I was all like, yep, done this before a thousand times, throw me the keys. But having blurted, then crumpled so fatally when trying out the first simple ice-breaker tip — “Try Giving Them A Compliment” — I have to face up to the fact that I’m wildly not very good at this.
What I’ve learned so far is that I’m fine with accosting people as long as I have an excuse. But there’s a world of a difference between introducing yourself to strangers in the service of some enabling background purpose — an interview, say, or when you’re networking, or attempting to sell them something, or maybe just asking them for directions — and striking up chit-chat purely for the sake of connecting with another human person. What I’m less sure of at this point is how sticking my neck out in this way is supposed to confer any sort of benefits to my mental health. I seem to have swapped a state of pleasant equilibrium for a self-inflicted anxiety attack, spiked with a fair amount of social humiliation. Although at least I’ve come away with an unsquashed loaf of bread.
“The benefits that I’ve shown in my research is that it’s good for your mood,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist based at the University of Essex, originally from Vancouver, whose in-depth work on the minutiae of everyday interactions and the fears and inhibitions many of us associate with them, has recently been covered by NPR and NBC among others. “If you’re in a bad mood, the last thing you want to do is talk to someone,” she says, “but probably it’s going to be super-effective at pulling you out of that bad mood. That’s partly because we put our best face forward when we’re talking to someone we don’t know; we’re on our best behavior.”
The remarkable mood-lifting effects of breaking social silences have been demonstrated in a number of studies. Notably, in a series of experiments conducted on Chicago commuters by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder a few years ago, it was found that when people were instructed to lob some opening gambits on trains and buses, they consistently underestimated two things: How glad to talk their fellow passengers would be, and how much more chipper a casual chat would make both themselves and their targets feel on the way to work. The researchers — who are currently repeating the project on a grand scale in the U.K. with the support of the BBC — conclude that this “broadly suggests that people could improve their own momentary well-being — and that of others — by simply being more social with strangers, trying to create connections where one might otherwise choose isolation.”
Sandstrom, meanwhile, has found the same dynamics at play whenever she’s measured people’s self-reported well-being following their interactions with “weak social ties” — trivial conversations with the peripheral people in our lives. When it comes to complete strangers, she says, “I’ve run a lot of studies where I’ve sort of forced people to have a single conversation, and I ask them before they have it, ‘How do you think it’s going to go?’ Then they have the conversation, and I say, ‘Okay, how did it actually go?’ And they always say, ‘It went better than expected. I worried about all these things and none of them actually happened.’”
Sandstrom’s work reveals some heartening aspects of our fellow humans. On average, she says, they’re friendlier than we tend to think, and again, on average, they’ve warmed to us much more than we imagine they’ve done. “Every time — and I’ve found this in something like eight different studies — people think: ‘Oh, I enjoyed it, but they couldn’t have enjoyed talking to me.’” Which is weird, she says, because we generally think we’re above average in every other way. “We think we’re above-average drivers, we’re less likely to get sick [than other people] — in so many different ways, we think we and our close friends are better than the average human. But in this particular way we seem to think no, we’re just not very interesting.”
The fact that we get such a boost from even the most inconsequential of social encounters, meanwhile, shows the extent to which we take for granted “this feeling of being connected to other people” — and how that feeling is much more important to our happiness than we might realize.
While it might not work as a magical cure-all for serious mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, it does seem likely that small doses of small talk with strangers each day could help inoculate some people against long-term feelings of loneliness — increasingly recognized as a serious public-health concern in countries around the world. But in Sandstrom’s experiments, and in the workshops she runs to help people overcome their fear of talking to strangers, she’s also uncovered a problem. Unlike most things that stimulate the reward systems in our brains, when an interaction with an unknown person goes surprisingly well, we seem to have a very poor capacity for remembering the pleasure we’ve derived from it. Subjects in her experiments tend to “think that the next conversation has nothing to do with that one, because it’s a totally different person, and it’s going to go horribly wrong. And so what I’ve been trying to figure out is, how can I help people learn that it does mean something that that conversation went well? That it probably means that the next conversation’s going to go well, too.”
What about when the most recent conversation hasn’t gone well, or got going at all? Sandstrom’s advice on getting over an abject stranger-failure, such as my first attempt, is to remember two things: “First of all is that it doesn’t happen as often as you think. And second of all, I don’t think it’s as bad as you think.” It happened to her, for instance, just the other day, when a woman she greeted on a London Underground train offered a minimal response and got out a book (Sandstrom herself is a habitual talker-to-strangers, she tells me — “Researching this is my job; I have to walk the walk”). Sandstrom was fine with this, she says. When your advances are rejected, “It’s important to remember that it’s not necessarily about you; it’s that that person just has other things they want to do, or maybe they’re shy or maybe they’re worried. So move on to the next person. Which is what I did — I turned to the other side, and I had a really nice conversation with this lady from Scotland.”
Later on, I try to keep all of this interpersonal wisdom in mind as I’m staring at the wine selection in a store near where I live, and building myself up to try the next stratagem in the stranger-ensnaring playbook: “Try to Establish Some Common Ground.” I’m betting that if I stay here looking vacantly at booze for long enough, an opportunity for inflicting further blows to my self-confidence will soon pop up.
Sure enough, a flustered-looking woman, I’d say in her late 30s, with magenta highlights streaked through gray hair and an eight-year-old(ish) son in tow shows up next to me. She spends long enough looking flummoxed by the labels that I feel emboldened to hazard, “You seem to have the same problem as me when you’re trying to buy wine.” I brace myself for the brutal shutdown such an inane observation surely deserves. But actually, she’s receptive. “I know,” she nods, “when you’re trying to see which one you want, they make it quite difficult. I like it when they do it by country.”
And we’re off! It’s a stilted, non-eye-contact-making conversational shuffle, but we’re chatting nonetheless. And we’re both wine idiots. Common ground! Over the next three minutes or so I learn that her mother-in-law always insists on an Australian red, and that she’s fairly terrified of disappointing her — in life, it seems, as much as in bringing home an inferior grape variety. It’s a pleasant exchange for both of us. At least I think. Her son looks horrified throughout.
Oddly, having a child hovering impatiently seemed to make the whole fraught business of shooting the breeze go that much easier. For starters, it probably helped reassure the woman that I wasn’t hitting on her. “Men worry about this more than women and that makes sense,” says Sandstrom. To signal that no flirting is taking place, she advises, “Make sure you’re leaving enough space so it doesn’t feel like you’re physically threatening or imposing; maybe reducing eye-contact a little bit, so it’s not so intense. Those kinds of things would convey that it’s more a casual conversation than a creepy one.” Also, if you’re heading down the “compliment them into submission” route, avoid commenting on the other person’s looks: “Don’t start by saying, ‘Oh, what a lovely smile you have,’ or, ‘Oh, your hair’s so beautiful!’ Because that signals that it’s a sexual thing.” Complimenting someone on their clothes is different, though, “because it’s to do with choice — it’s about their personality — and that seems okay to me.”
As a parent myself, I also fully recognize that your kid’s presence is always useful as a conversational get-out if things get awkward — and one of the things Sandstrom has learned from running her “How to Talk to Strangers” workshops is that while breaking the ice is the awkwardness hazard people tend to focus on at the outset, it’s wrapping things up that causes the trickiest issues in practice. “That’s always the hard part. Ways to start a conversation? Easy. Everybody can do that. What people worry about is getting stuck and not knowing how to escape politely.”
The answer here, especially if you’re a novice stranger-botherer, is to “Start with easy stuff, like talking to the barista at the coffee shop, or the checkout person at the store, where you know you both have a limited time.” Or in an elevator, she says, where there’s a literal get-out when you reach your floor. “Or waiting in a line anywhere: People are thrilled to have someone help them pass the time.”
Do Be a Stranger
If that’s true, and if it’s so beneficial to our mental well-being, you’d think it would all come naturally. So what is it about talking to strangers that makes it such a difficult habit to cultivate for so many of us? Surely evolution would have made incurable chatterboxes of us all, and not just that handful of people who seem to have no problem with breezily connecting with anyone in range — people like Sandstrom’s father, whose facility with strangers partly inspired her research (“You didn’t want to go to the grocery store with dad, because it would take twice as long as it needed to — but he really loved it, and I could tell that other people enjoyed talking as well”).
It turns out that in making us creatures who crave company, our evolved psychology works both for and against us whenever we attempt to form more transitory social bonds. While in general we’re strongly motivated to belong to close-knit social groups, this will often manifest as a need to win people’s acceptance and approval, even from people we’re never likely to bump into again. This, says Sandstrom, is “why we’re so worried about rejection. Because, evolutionarily speaking, rejection was basically a death sentence.” In a world where food was scarce, predators were abundant, and you needed to cooperate to survive, “If you’re booted out of the group, you’re dead. It really, really mattered to be part of the group. So that could explain why social rejection feels so bad.”
Our aversion to the slightest risk of being ostracized is so deeply ingrained that we feel social rejection as “equivalent to physical pain,” notes Sandstrom; “it’s the same part of our brain.” According to neuroscientists, this overlap between social and physical pain is a very real thing. In some experiments, subjects have undergone neuroimaging to map brain activity while playing an online ball-tossing game — at some point during the game, the other players begin to exclude the subject, whose reports of feelings of dejection and dismay corresponded to activity in pain-processing regions. As one review paper has put it, this “demonstrated that an experience of social exclusion activated neural regions typically associated with physical-pain distress.”
“To the extent that being rejected hurts,” the reviewers conclude, “individuals are motivated to avoid situations in which rejection is likely.” Such as approaching a person in the street and commenting on their interesting hat, for example. We’ve evolved an extreme allergy to anything that places our social standing on the line.
Another barrier that evolution may have placed between us and easy encounters with strangers is that when we meet people from outside our immediate social circle, our stress levels tend to rise.
In research published in 2015, Montreal-based neuroscientist Jeffrey Mogil measured “stranger danger” in both humans and mice in the context of upticking levels of cortisol (the hormone that controls the body’s defensive stress response when we feel threatened). He found that these higher doses of stress had a blocking effect on feelings of empathy we might otherwise exhibit toward people we don’t know. So in taking a first step to engage with someone, we have to overcome not only our dread fear of rejection but also two onboard threat radars telling us no — our own one and the one that starts bleeping for the other person as soon as they realize we’re talking to them.
Which is perhaps where I come a-cropper in testing the direct approach to making contact — the straight-down-the-line “Hello, How Are You?” method. On my way home, I happen upon a guy weaving about a quiet street, occasionally stopping, and ranting out loud to no one in particular. This wouldn’t strike too many as a great choice for a sociable hijack, especially after dark. But buoyed by my previous encounter, I think, “Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?” He stops for a breather and an angry mutter, and as I draw level, I make solid eye-contact. “Hello! How are you?” I ask, with, I think, some irresistible gusto.
He says nothing, gives me a look of deep WTF?, and slowly pulls his headphones on.
My internal trombone, which up to now had been happily tootling away on an inner trad-jazz solo, now fizzles out with a sad slidey noise. A moment before, he was content to talk to himself, and I don’t get even a wary nod? But Sandstrom was right: It’s easily brush-off-able; there was nothing much at stake here, and since I’ve primed myself to pay attention to it, I find the reality of this particular social rejection something equivalent to the pain of a bumped elbow, and not the punch in the face I’d been expecting.
Sandstrom believes getting out of our comfort zones by hauling others out of theirs is a practice we could all be benefiting from if we’re brave enough to give it a shot — and were it to catch on, it might be one way to help repair a social fabric that seems to be fraying at the edges. In the process of researching the brief collisions of everyday life, she has become sensitized to a society that’s increasingly outsourcing human interaction to automated processes. “There are so many ways that life is making it easier to not have conversations with people,” she says. You buy your groceries, and you do the checkout yourself at the scanner; you order your fast food meal on a giant touch-screen. “Then there’s banking. Who goes to the bank anymore? So you don’t have to talk to people there. By trying to increase efficiency, in some ways, we’re reducing all these little opportunities for social interaction. And I wonder if part of that means we’re losing our social skills a bit?”
In this context, forcing ourselves back into the habit of making small talk could return big dividends. In making myself more open to parleying with passers-by, I’ve found it really does get easier with practice — and it’s a tiny gamble that pays off gratifyingly well when it works out. Even if making the first move still feels like too much of a personal risk, you can still benefit from the occasional well-being payday by adopting a ready-to-chat mindset whenever you find you’re in the company of a talker. So don’t leave them hanging, or make yourself unresponsive or unapproachable. Instead, be a perfect stranger.