WORK-LIFE BALANCE / AUG. 19, 2014
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How Often do You Talk to Strangers?

The modern world is something of a strange paradox.  With social media and the like, we are increasingly seen as social creatures.  What’s more, it’s increasingly apparent that networking offers a great many advantages to us as both humans and as professionals.

Yet, despite this, talking to strangers is something many of us find rather uncomfortable.  I can’t vouch for other cities, but traveling to work on public transport in London is an exercise in attempted solitude.  Making eye contact with your fellow travelers is frowned upon, let alone actually striking up a conversation with them.  That kind of antic is the preserve of the strange (or northern) individual.

This forced solitude may be contributing to our level of grumpiness though, at least according to a recent study.  The focus of the researchers attention were commuters in the American city of Chicago.  A group were recruited for the research and instructed to follow one of three sets of instructions:

  1. Start a conversation with a stranger
  2. Sit in solitude
  3. Behave as they normally would

After they’d done this a few times, they were asked to complete a questionnaire that would reveal how they felt about the experience.  These answers were then compared with those given by other commuters who were asked the same questions, albeit from an imagined perspective rather than an actual one.

The results showed that when commuters engaged in conversations with strangers, they enjoyed considerably better commutes than their solitary peers, who enjoyed the least happy journey to work.

Interestingly, this was the exact opposite of what commuters thought would happen.  The results from the 2nd group of commuters showed that they imagined traveling in solitude would be the most enjoyable form of travel, with the conversation with a stranger the least.

Why is talking to strangers so hard?

So it’s clear that we think talking to strangers is much worse than it actually is, but why is that the case?  The researchers thought that perhaps our opinions are skewed by past experiences.  To test this hypothesis they asked people to imagine talking to a stranger.  The participants were asked to imagine having one of three types:

  1. a positive conversation
  2. a negative conversation
  3. any old conversation

You would imagine that if we are hardwired to think talking with a stranger would be negative, then we’d lean towards option 2 from the list.  Except that isn’t what happened.  So what next?

The researchers decided to test the idea that we don’t talk to strangers out of fear that they might reject our attempts.  This seemed to have some grounds, with people reporting that they would be more interested in talking with others than they thought others would be in talking to them.  What’s more, many thought that strangers would knock back any attempts to talk with them, even though this didn’t actually happen to any of the people asked to talk to strangers in the earlier experiment.

Learning from taxi drivers

Thankfully, all was not lost, as the researchers highlighted how some positive experiences can quickly change our behaviours.  They found that we’re much more likely to talk to strangers when riding in a taxi, due in large part to the positive experiences we’ve had in that regard previously.

When placed in this more sociable environment, not only did more people talk to the driver, but passengers would predict that the talkers would have a more enjoyable time than the people who kept to themselves.  The exact opposite of the experience on the train.

What’s more, this level of enjoyment was also found to be true for both extraverts and their more introverted peers.  So, maybe the next time you’re traveling into work, take that leap and strike up a conversation.  You just might enjoy it.

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