Why You Should Talk To Strangers

Study asked some commuters to make an effort to speak to strangers, while others sat in solitude.

Study asked some commuters to make an effort to speak to strangers, while others sat in solitude.

There are two unwritten rules on public transport: don’t talk and don’t make eye contact.

Everyone has a scare-story about the results of opening up and talking to strangers.

There’s the one about the guy who treats a polite hello as permission to spew out his whole life-story or the woman who looks personally offended and turns her back.

Especially when commuting with others on public transport, it often seems to safer to stay in your bubble of solitude.

Are we right to be quite so wary, though?

According to a new study by shunning the company of strangers we could be missing out on a vital little lift to our day (Epley & Schroeder, 2014).

Across nine separate experiments, researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, asked ordinary commuters on public transport to either:

  • do their commute as normal,
  • make an effort to talk to a stranger,
  • or sit in solitude.

Despite predicting that talking to strangers would be the least pleasant experience, when commuters were asked afterwards, it actually turned out to be the most pleasant experience.

One of the study’s authors, Professor Nicholas Epley, explained:

“Connecting with strangers on a train may not bring the same long-term benefits as connecting with friends, but commuters on a train into downtown Chicago reported a significantly more positive commute when they connected with a stranger than when they sat in solitude.”

The fact that this was the opposite of what they expected is fascinating. Epley continued:

“This misunderstanding is particularly unfortunate for a person’s well-being given that commuting is consistently reported to be one of the least pleasant experiences in the average person’s day.

This experiment suggests that a surprising antidote for an otherwise unpleasant experience could be sitting very close by.”

Why it’s good for you to be civil

The authors conclude by saying:

“Being civil toward distant others or random strangers is typically believed to benefit others—society at large or those who are befriended.

The results of our experiments, however, join a growing body of research suggesting positive consequences of prosociality for oneself.

Whether it is spending money on others versus oneself, behaving equitably rather than selfishly, or expressing gratitude versus disdain, prosociality seems not only to benefit others but also to benefit oneself.

On an increasingly crowded planet, misunderstanding the benefits of social engagement could be increasingly problematic.

At least in this respect, the hedonist who seeks happiness and the idealist who seeks civility should choose the same path.” (Epley & Schroeder, 2014).

Image credit: Lily Furedi

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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