A couple years ago, I took a long, sleepy train ride from Newark, New Jersey to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The train became increasingly full as we made stops along the way. On the final leg of the trip, a man asked to take the seat next to me. We sat together in silence for some time (I usually don’t like talking to strangers) before he struck up a conversation. It started off light — the weather, what we did for a living. Somehow, we got to talking about his chronic illness, the people we love, our hopes and dreams, and what was keeping us from those dreams. When we both finally got off the train in Pittsburgh, I felt lighter, happier. I’ll never forget it.
As it turns out, talking to strangers can help us form deep, meaningful connections and increase happiness. An article recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association explored this concept in depth. Nicholas Epley, co-author of the study and professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, noticed that most of us seem reluctant to strike up a conversation with a stranger. However, we greatly benefit from those conversations when they do happen.
How Researchers Tested the Impact of Talking to Strangers
To understand more about human connection and the lack of desire to talk to others, Epley and his team designed a series of 12 experiments. They involved over 1,800 participants, all of whom had to talk to another participant and complete several questionnaires. On the initial questionnaire, participants had to predict whether their conversations would be awkward, whether they would connect with the stranger, and whether they would like the conversation.
Everyone split up into pairs, and no one knew each other. Some twosomes had to discuss shallow topics, like how they celebrated Halloween, or the last time they took a long walk. Others discussed deep topics, like the last time they cried in front of another person, or what they were most grateful for. After the experience, the participants rated their conversations in terms of awkwardness, connection to the other person, and enjoyment.
Most participants found the conversations to feel less awkward than they had anticipated. In addition, most of them liked the experience. They felt connected to the stranger, regardless of whether the conversation was shallow or deep. Participants who had deep conversations tended to feel the most connected and enjoyed the experience the most.
One of the experiments required the participants to have a shallow conversation with one stranger, then a deep one with another. Most of them thought that they would like the shallow conversation more. However, they were pleasantly surprised when they preferred the deep conversation.
Why We Don’t Always Talk to Strangers
So, if talking to strangers and having deep discussions makes a big impact on us, why do we avoid it? “People undervalue the positive consequences of conversations, especially deep conversations, at least partly because they underestimate how much strangers in conversation will be interested in the content of the conversation, and care about the intimate information being shared,” the study authors wrote. “We believe this is part of broader tendency to underestimate others’ sociality, thereby creating a wide variety of psychological barriers to social engagement.”
So, the next time you’re on a train or waiting in a long line, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation! You never know what kind of connections you will form, and how much you can help another person feel connected in return.