It turns out your parents were wrong: You should talk to strangers.
While it may be wise to be cautious, in reality, most chance encounters pose little risk and may actually offer health and important perks to your physical and emotional well-being, researchers say.
You may chat with strangers more than you think – the guy filling up next to you at the gas station, the barista making your favorite coffee drink, or the person rolling out their mat next to yours in yoga class.
If these scenarios frequently occur in your life, keep up the good work because researchers have found that there is a link between chattiness, happiness, mental health, and even longer lifespan.
Let’s take a closer look…
In a 2021 study investigating social connection, the authors suggest that talking to strangers helps serve basic needs, such as feeling connected and appreciated.1
“In short it may take a village of strangers to achieve all the things one can never accomplish by oneself,” the researchers conclude.
Professor Karen L. Fingerman, who studies the nature and effects of so-called weak ties that people have in their lives, discussed the benefits in a New York Times interview.2
The Health Benefits of “Consequential Strangers”
Dr. Fingerman says consequential strangers are just as vital to our well-being as family and close friends. “Consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger,” she notes.
Research has shown that talking to strangers has many positive health benefits, including increased happiness, a strengthened sense of belonging, increased mental sharpness, a decreased sense of loneliness and isolation, and improved trust in others.
Another study published in the journal Psychological and Cognitive Sciences reveals that people enjoy talking to strangers—in this case, on a train commute — more than they expect, and the chats offer various benefits to health and well-being.3
“We already know from previous research that people think they’ll enjoy spending their commute in silence, but it turns out that talking to a fellow passenger is more pleasant,” says Stav Atir, assistant professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the study.
“People underestimate the informational value of conversations. Yet, it’s an asset we are underutilizing.”
Especially post COVID-19 pandemic…
The Physical Toll of Loneliness
We’ve discussed the negative impacts of isolation in countless articles, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation that it resulted in for people around the world. Social connection, in my opinion, is one of the pillars of healthy aging. And when your social connection is severed, by illness or physical location, your health can suffer dramatically. And not just your emotional health, but your physical health, too.
Research supports this notion. Behavioral scientist Dr. Nicholas Epley spoke about the importance of social connection in an online seminar.4
He said loneliness has a significant impact on physical health. “It’s larger than air pollution; it’s larger than physical activity and exercise,” Dr. Epley adds.
Why is that? Dr. Epley characterizes isolation as a “social stressor,” and with that comes health implications.
“It increases the cortisol levels in your blood, and if we reach chronic levels, it can compromise your immune system, compromise your cardiovascular health,” Dr. Epley says.
If you’re more of an introvert you may be wondering, about the anxiety that any spontaneous social interaction can bring. Sure, if you reach out to a stranger with a little small talk you may be rejected, but the risk, says Dr. Epley, is worth the reward.
“We find evidence time and time again in one experiment after another that people tend to underestimate the positive impact they’re going to have on another person and hence on themselves when they reach out and try to connect with others,” he explains.
Maybe you’re not the life of the party or the person who effortlessly engages with strangers at every opportunity. That’s ok; striking up a conversation is a skill you can hone.
You can start by asking appropriate questions. Researchers at Harvard University suggest that people who ask more questions are better liked by their conversation partners. When you are genuinely interested in another it can lead to deep conversations and deeper connections.
What’s more, when you share something about yourself with other people, they will likely feel inclined to reciprocate. One tip is to comment on something you have in common: weather, long lines, or a favorite sports team. Ask people about themselves or compliment them on something. In addition, asking open-ended questions will help keep the conversation going. As you carry on a conversation, you can also consider sharing something you are currently working on, have recently accomplished, or are looking forward to doing.
And remember to be friendly, not pushy, aggressive, or invasive. Respect the other person who may not always be in the mood for a chat. We never know what another person is going through on the particular day we choose to interact with them.
But I promise, talking to strangers gets easier the more you do it. With all the benefits it can provide to your health and well-being, it’s a skill well worth developing.