Talking With Strangers

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‘How’s it going?’ I asked the man seated opposite me on the train. He was looking sort of worn-out and tired.

‘Don’t bother me,’ he said. ‘I’m thinking’.

‘Right you are’ I said, and left it at that.

Looking out of the carriage window, the garden sheds and fences were giving way to hedges and fields with cows now.

‘You’re not thinking, too, are you?’ I asked turning to the woman seated next to me.

She gave me a wry little smile. ‘No’, she said, ‘I’m on my way back home’.

‘Been shopping?’ I enquired, glancing up at the bags the woman had placed in the overhead luggage rack.

‘Yes, and my feet are hurting.’

And so began a pleasant conversation that passed the time nicely for both of us. Neither of us wanted anything. We had nothing to sell, nothing to gain, other than the good feeling of connecting with another human being.

A younger me would never have attempted another conversation once the first person had said no. I would have confused the man’s preoccupation with thought with rejection, and I would almost certainly have been wrong to do so.

The fact is that we are social animals, meant to connect with other people—and feel good because of it.

Interestingly, some recent research conducted at the University of Chicago clearly demonstrates that talking with strangers can make a person happier.

Over the course of nine experiments, researchers found that many people predicted that social isolation would result in a more enjoyable commute or waiting room experience. But contrary to expectation, the participants reported positive feedback both by being spoken to and by initiating conversation with a stranger.

The researchers also discovered that fear drives much of our solitary behaviour: Those who participated said that even though they wanted to chat with someone, they automatically assumed the other person would be reluctant to reciprocate.

But in fact, “the pleasure of connection seems contagious: In a laboratory waiting room, participants who were talked to had equally positive experiences as those instructed to talk,” the researchers reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

So often we allow fear to rule our lives, influencing our thinking and our behaviour. It is fear that prevents us from connecting with others, fear that stops us from reaching out and enjoying our lives as we are meant to.

With just a little courage we can step beyond our fear. When this happens we lighten and brighten not only our own journey, but that of our fellow travellers on life’s road.

'Every step you take is a step away from where you used to be'
– Brian Chargualaf
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