Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Talking to Strangers Fosters Happiness - and Social Trust



When we start conversations with strangers, we usually have a pleasant experience - and so do they.

This is the upshot of experiments conducted by social psychologist Nick Epley.  He asked commuters on buses and trains to initiate conversations with strangers.  They asked both the initiator and the other person how they felt afterwards.  The main effect was that it made them both happy.

We typically do not initiate conversations with strangers because we are anxious about possible negative reactions.  This anxiety is of a piece with the normal human tendency to overestimate costs and underestimate benefits of action. That anxiety, taken to the next level, fills us with fear, which is the greatest enemy of happiness.

What sociology can add to this picture is that most of the strangers we encounter will have quite a bit in common with us, precisely because they have chosen to be in the same social setting we have chosen to be in.  The strangers we run across are not a random assortment of humanity, but are likely to be much more like us than not.

1 comment:

Mac said...

The reaction to uninvited conversation differs, I think, from one geographic area to another. Midwesterners and Southerners tend to be readier to "take the risk." Northeasterners are more stand-offish--usually to the point of rudeness.

I'm a Missourian and Illinoisan, who served much of my career in the South (including Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Vietnam and South Korea. OK, the last two are irrelevant to this conversation.)

When I retired, and moved to the Philadelphia area, I was unprepared for the Northeast.

About a week after I started a new career, I was standing at a cross-walk, waiting for the light to change. It was a crisp, clear September morning, and I turned to the woman standing next to me and said, as I would have anywhere else, "Isn't this a gorgeous day?"

To my surprise, she turned and stared and said, "You're not from around here, are you? We don't like people to just start talking to us!" It didn't stop me in the future, but it set a tone.