By Dr Gillian Sandstrom
To mark Loneliness Awareness Week, Sussex Psychologist Gillian Sandstrom shares her research findings on the importance of connecting with strangers for our happiness and well-being.
I talk to strangers. Even on the Tube. I have had loads of pleasant chats and, of course, a few awkward ones. I’ve benefitted from some of these conversations, learning new things and getting helpful advice and recommendations. Even when the conversations are just average, they add up, and make me feel more trust and less fear towards others. Research shows that talking to strangers can improve our mood and make us feel more connected. So why don’t we talk to each other more often? Maybe we’re not convinced that we know how to do it. The good news is that it’s not as hard as you think, and you’re probably already better at it than you know!
First things first: starting a conversation. There are lots of ways to do this, and I urge you to experiment. First, you can comment on your shared situation, including the old classics: the weather, the traffic. This may seem trite, but you just need a way to connect, before you can move on to other, more interesting topics.
Another option is to start with a compliment. It’s fun to deliver compliments, and fun to receive compliments, especially from a stranger. Compliments seem easier to believe when they come from someone who doesn’t know you.
Use your observational skills and tap into your curiosity to ask questions, or ask for advice. I’ve asked people why they were wearing airplane earrings, where they were travelling to with their suitcase, what book they were reading… Often I combine observation with humour. I once commented on a young man’s “breakfast of champions” (a packet of biscuits), and I asked two Freemasons wearing matching striped trousers if they had consulted each other on their wardrobe choices that morning.
Now that the conversation is rolling, some of the same strategies will help you keep it flowing smoothly: comment on things you have in common, and exercise your observational skills and curiosity. People like it when you ask follow-up questions, because it demonstrates that you are listening deeply, rather than just thinking of what to say next.
You might consider disclosing something about yourself, which demonstrates trust and encourages reciprocation. I once started a conversation with a lady on the Tube by asking her how her day had been going so far. She gave a non-committal response, and I thought the conversation might be over (not all conversations are successful.) Then she asked me the same question, and I told her that I had had an adventure (being interviewed on BBC Radio 4!) In return, she confided in me that she had just found out she was pregnant! She felt safe telling a stranger on the Tube, who she would never see again. I felt so honoured! Hugs were exchanged.
Finally, it’s important to be patient. You will likely surprise people by talking to them, and it may take them a while to adjust to the idea that you’re just being friendly. Keep going, and most of the time you’ll manage to get into a groove.
No conversation can last forever, so when it’s time for you to move on, you need to figure out how to end the conversation. I’ve run several How to Talk to Strangers workshops, and although attendees easily come up with loads of ways to start conversations, they struggle to come up with ways to end them without lying (or inventing unnecessary trips to the loo). Maybe that’s why people don’t talk to the person next to them on the airplane until 15 minutes before it lands, when an ending is guaranteed? Research confirms the challenge: conversations almost never end at a time when both parties want it to end. My best advice: Keep it simple. When you’re ready to move on, just tell the other person that it’s time for you to be on your way, and that you’ve enjoyed the chat (which I’m sure you will!)
If all this talk of starting, maintaining, and ending conversations makes chatting sound like a lot of work, don’t worry! Like most skills, social skills can be learned and developed. I consider my Dad a world expert in talking to strangers, but his secondary school classmates say he was quite introverted back in the day. I don’t consider myself particularly extraverted, and would rather sit on the couch with my cats and a good book instead of going to a party. But once I started talking to strangers, I realized how much fun it could be, and I started doing it more often, and getting better at it. In a recent research study, my colleagues Erica Boothby, Gus Cooney, and I asked participants to talk to at least one new person every day for a week. At the end of the week, many of our participants admitted that talking to strangers was easier than they thought: “I can honestly say that I’m not nearly as shy as I thought! This experiment allowed me to really push out of my comfort zone and take the initiative when talking to people.”
Not only will you start to feel more comfortable with practice, but you’re probably already better at it than you think you are. If you’re like most people, after chatting to a stranger you can’t help but wonder what they thought about you, and your conversation. It turns out that people generally underestimate how much others like them. Research finds evidence for this “liking gap” before an upcoming chat to a stranger, after a chat to a stranger (whether it be short or long), and even after living with a flatmate for several months.
Unfortunately, “stranger danger” norms are prevalent, so sometimes people won’t want to talk to you. This happens a LOT less often than you would think. In our week-long study, participants said: “I was worried people would prefer to be left alone, but that was never the case”, and “I was never turned down by anyone.” If someone doesn’t want to talk, remember that they may be nervous too, or reading a really good book, or caught up in their own personal drama… Their reaction is not necessarily a judgment of you and your overture. Respect their decision, and when you try again, you’ll find plenty of people who are more receptive and appreciative.
Why not be brave, and start a conversation with someone? You’re more capable than you think, and both of you are likely to enjoy it more than you expect.
Gillian Sandstrom is a Senior Lecturer in the Psychology of Kindness at the University of Sussex. Gillian’s research examines the barriers that prevent people from connecting. Her research has focused especially on the fears that make people worry about talking to strangers, which she views as an act of kindness. See Gillian’s Sussex profile to find out more about her research at Sussex.