They should have titled it: “Act a human being and you’ll be treated as one.”
But, no, they immediately veered into strange psycho-babble.
What we see today is a product of parents and schools indoctrinating kids into not trusting anyone because they could be perverts.
Nic’s fear isn’t uncommon in a country where valid lessons about “stranger danger” can cast all people you don’t know as threats to be feared, but she recognized it was unhealthy, so she took steps to engage with the world. As she grew older, she began to travel to seek new people out. At 17, Nic visited Europe for 10 days with her high-school classmates and noticed that people began starting conversations with her. “If people in Europe randomly talked to me, then maybe I’m not so bad,” she figured. “Maybe I’m not gonna die if I randomly talk to them.” So she took more trips and connected with more people. She was anxious about these encounters, wired for fear and expecting the worst, but they always went well. She found that, contrary to what she’d been raised to believe, these strangers weren’t dangerous or scary. They were actually sources of comfort and belonging. They expanded her world.
Today, Nic has a name for these types of conversations: “Greyhound Therapy.” As she uses it, the term literally refers to talking with your seatmate on a long-haul bus but can apply to talking with strangers anywhere—at a restaurant, at a bus stop, in a grocery store. This form of connection changed her life. When times got hard, she found herself turning to strangers for comfort and “to stave off the loneliness,” she told me.
“And it worked?” I asked.
“Oh God, yes,” she said. “I would go home with some amazing stories—granted, nobody to share them with—but I still had the stories. They were mine.”
Nic’s experience is telling. A hefty body of research has found that an overwhelmingly strong predictor of happiness and well-being is the quality of a person’s social relationships. But most of those studies have looked at only close ties: family, friends, co-workers. In the past decade and a half, professors have begun to wonder if interacting with strangers could be good for us too: not as a replacement for close relationships, but as a complement to them. The results of that research have been striking. Again and again, studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic. Yet, like Nic, many of us are wary of those interactions, especially after the coronavirus pandemic limited our social lives so severely.
These days, Nic is a successful nurse with an uncanny gift for connecting with her patients, and is happily married to a kind and sociable man. She still loves to travel, and on her trips, she’ll size up her seatmate, or someone sitting alone at a table or the bar. If they have headphones on or appear uninterested, she’ll leave them alone. But if they seem receptive, she’ll say, “Hi, I’m Nic,” and see where it goes. She’s not reckless or naive, and she knows how to read people and detect trouble. But the conversations tend to go well, reassuring her that there is goodness in the world, and the possibility of belonging. She tells me that these experiences have taught her something invaluable: “Never underestimate the power of even the most minute positive connection.”
In psychology, the sorts of exchanges Nic is talking about are known as “minimal social interactions.” The psychologist Gillian Sandstrom had a similar epiphany about them about a decade ago.
She was raised in Canada by extroverts who loved talking with strangers. One day, Sandstrom, who had always considered herself an introvert, realized that she always looked down when she walked along the street. “I thought, Well, that’s dumb,” she says. So she started holding eye contact with people and found that it actually felt pretty good. Before long, she was talking with strangers too. She was surprised at how easy and fun it was. Once, on the subway, she saw a woman holding a box of elaborately decorated cupcakes and asked about them. “I don’t know how the conversation got there, but she taught me that humans can ride ostriches,” Sandstrom says. “I was sold. That was just a delightful conversation. I wanted to do it again.” Later, during a stressful period in grad school, Sandstrom took solace in an even smaller routine interaction: waving and smiling at a woman running a hot-dog cart, whom she passed every day. “I realized that when I saw her, and when she acknowledged me, it made me feel good. I felt like, Yeah, I belong here.”
Sandstrom decided to study this phenomenon. She and her Ph.D. supervisor at the University of British Columbia asked a group of adults to chat with the barista when they got their morning coffee. They had the idea that by not engaging with counter workers—by essentially treating them as insensate service modules and not, say, actual humans—we may be denying ourselves a potential “hidden source of belonging and happiness.” As it turns out, they were right. The participants who talked with their barista reported feeling a stronger sense of community and an improved mood, as well as greater satisfaction with their overall coffee-buying experience.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. In a different experiment devised by the University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley and his then-student Juliana Schroeder, a group of people instructed to speak with strangers on mass transit reported a significantly more positive, enjoyable commute than a group of those who didn’t. On average, conversations lasted a whopping 14.2 minutes, and the talkers overwhelmingly liked the strangers they’d spoken with. People of all personality types had a good time.
By now, skeptics among us are thinking the same thing I was when I first read these studies: Sure, talking with strangers might be enjoyable if you’re the one who started the conversation. But is the other person enjoying it? After all, every one of us has at one time or another been trapped in an enclosed space by a talker who proved agonizingly impervious to social cues that you’re not in the mood. So to test whether both parties were enjoying these interactions, Epley and Schroeder created another experiment. Between tasks unrelated to the research at hand, participants took breaks in a waiting room. Some of these subjects were told to talk with the other person in the room and others were told not to talk; the people they were with were given no instructions. The ones who talked—both the people who started the conversation and the people they talked with—reported having a significantly better experience than those who did not.
If talking with strangers is so pleasant—and so good for us—why don’t people do it more often? That’s a big question, informed by issues of race, class and gender, culture, population density, and decades of (sometimes valid) “stranger danger” messaging. But the core answer seems to be twofold: We don’t expect strangers to like us, and we don’t expect to like them either.