More things would happen to us, and we would have a more interesting life, if we went back to chatting with strangers. That’s according to Nicholas Epley, a behavioral scientist and professor at the University of Chicago. Epley came to that conclusion after conducting multiple experiments aimed at explaining why we have become more antisocial over the past decade.
On his daily commute to work, the professor observed what happens on the subway in any city in the world: people don’t look at each other, they don’t smile, and they never talk to each other except in an extreme emergency. We prefer to immerse ourselves in the depths of our cellphone, protected by headphones. Wearing headphones is a great shield that exempts us from social contact — just pointing to one of our ears is enough to dissuade any daring stranger from attempting the slightest interaction. A gesture that a decade ago would have been considered rude is today widely accepted.
In his research, the professor showed that social contact with friends and strangers improves well-being and leads to many tangible benefits. Why then do the sophisticated human beings of the 21st century cut themselves off? Why do we find it intrusive, bizarre and suspicious when a stranger starts talking to us? Why do we embrace a technology that isolates ourselves and, in the long run, makes us unhappy? Epley has been searching for answers to these questions for several years in a bid to develop a theory of the decline of interpersonal relationships in modern societies. In his experiments he has discovered that we prefer not to talk to strangers because we fear it will be awkward, boring and exhausting. The effort of initiating contact is too high, as is the risk of being rejected.
For several years, he has taken his experiments to buses, trains and taxis, and his findings show that, while people may be reluctant to talk to strangers, they enjoy their journeys more when they chat with the person next to them, compared to when they are lost on their phone. However, when asked, only 7% of survey participants said they would be willing to speak to a stranger in a waiting room and only 24% would consider speaking to a stranger on a train. “We are radically wrong. People systematically underestimate the benefits of talking to strangers,” he writes in one of his articles.
Another of his findings is that we underestimate how good we can make others feel when we openly express our support or affection. “I get a lot of complaints from people who can’t talk to anyone because they’re all wearing headphones or engrossed in their phones. Someone said to me: ‘No one looks out the window anymore or talks to people on the train, what a shame!’ I believe that technology connects us to people who are far away, but it disconnects us from those who are closer to us,” the professor explained in a University of Chicago podcast.
We put up technological barriers to avoid having to interact with strangers. However, once we take them down, we can once again discover the joy and surprise that can come from unexpected conversations. That was the conclusion of a study called Talking with Strangers is Surprisingly Informative by a team of researchers at the University of Virginia. The researchers found that we don’t tend to appreciate how much we can learn in casual conversations with strangers, these fleeting exchanges, without consequences or emotional baggage in which, experts agree, we tend to be uninhibited and unexpectedly frank.
Many films are based on thrilling stories that arise from a conversation between strangers, for example: Brief Encounter (1945), Before Dawn (1995) and Strangers on a Train (1951). Now our growing social laziness has even led to books on the topic: three have been published this year — Hello, Stranger. How We Find Connection in a Divided World by Will Buckingham; The Power of Strangers. The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World by Joe Keohane, and Fractured. Why our Societies are Coming Apart and How We Put them Back Together Again by Jon Yates. These non-fiction works examine why it’s important to restore the habit of having inconsequential conversations with strangers.
The three authors agree that interacting with and paying attention to strangers has great rewards, but they warn that it is a skill that must be trained nearly every day, because it is easily lost. They point out that the self-segregation of modern societies makes us feel so self-sufficient that many people feel that it is pointless to talk to their fellow citizens. And, of course, if others are considered so expendable, why spend time on them?
Robin Dunba, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford, is known for his 1993 study on the issues of friendship, which was published in the journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences. According to his studies, we can only have 150 “stable and meaningful” relationships at the same time, and this includes our family and partner. Dunbar also said that if we have a very long life, hopefully we will end up with one or two friends (1.5 is his number), the rest will have fallen by the wayside. As we get older, we have less of a social life. But if we have been able to train our ability to make small talk, our days will be more pleasant. From casual contacts, we can build a network of casual acquaintances, who play a very important role.
In 1973, Stanford University Sociology Professor Mark S. Granovetter published the essay The Strength of Weak Ties, where he showed that light, undemanding conversations helped ground us in the world and were crucial for obtaining new information. These acquaintances are essential, for example, to finding a new job. In Professor Granovetter’s studies, 84% of those who had landed a new job had done so through a contact. “The more acquaintances you have, the better; small talk is nice, makes you happy and increases a sense of belonging. Sometimes, it is very difficult to talk about certain things with someone who knows you too well,” he reflects. Weak ties are a break from the intensity and demand of deeper relationships.
Defenders of small talk with strangers propose that, given our degree of undersociality — a word used by Professor Epel to define our clumsiness in establishing new relationships — we should do “social exercises.” Gillian Sandstrom, a researcher at the University of Essex, agrees. Despite considering herself an introvert, Sandstrom forces herself to talk to strangers on a daily basis. Her research has shown that the small, transactional relationships created in those chats with strangers support her emotional well-being.
In Great Neck, a region of the State of New York with about 10,000 inhabitants, they have started doing social exercises. One resident, Ronald Gross, has set up “conversation stations” for people to chat with strangers. There’s no specific topic for discussion, and the logistics are simple: a few benches in the shade where people meet and talk. “Once you get used to filling your day with social exercise, it gets easier and easier, and more and more fun,” raved The New York Times.
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