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Why you should talk to people you don’t know

Published on 7/16/2022
I recently took Amtrak from Chicago to Portland, a 47-hour trip. Space in the dining car was limited, so when eating our meals we were assigned to sit at a booth with another couple, and at each meal we talked to someone different. The conversations were not deep, but it was delightful to meet new people, and it got me thinking about how rarely I talk to people I don’t know.

Who do you talk to on a typical day? If you have a job that involves the public, you probably talk to people you don’t know all the time. If you don’t have such a job, you may interact mainly with people you know. Depending on your job and your personality, you might go through the day without talking to anyone you don’t know well. You should, though. Conversations with acquaintances and strangers have benefits for you individually, and for our community.

Talking to people you don’t know has benefits for you: it actually makes you happier. A study of college students asked them to count how many people they talked to in a day, and divided conversation partners into two groups: strong ties (good friends) or weak ties (someone you don’t know very well). Unsurprisingly, students who had more interactions with strong ties were happier. What is more surprising is that, independent of interactions with strong ties, students who had more interactions with weak ties were happier, and reported feeling a greater sense of belonging to the community. This relationship is not simply the result of personality, because the same person was happier on days they talked to more weak ties than on days they talked to fewer weak ties.

So if talking to people we don’t know very well makes us happier, why don’t we do it more often? Another study suggests that people avoid talking to strangers because overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits. This study asked people to engage in conversations with strangers that reveal personal information; it found that people systematically underestimate how interested the other person will be in their stories, and overestimate how awkward they will feel in the conversation. People also underestimate how connected they will feel after talking to a stranger. Talking to strangers makes you happier than expected, so you probably avoid such conversations more than you should.

Talking to people you don’t know also has benefits for society as a whole. People who have more interactions with people they don’t know very well have stronger support for democratic institutions such as free speech.

One of the problems with our democracy is that people rarely talk to others who disagree with them. We live in our own little bubbles, and social media has made this sorting worse. Unfortunately, having an interest in politics seems to make things worse; the greater someone’s interested in and knowledge of politics, the less likely they are to talk to someone they disagree with. This separation robs us of the opportunity to hear and understand the view of the other side. The continuation of our democracy depends on seeing people who disagree with us as real people with rational reasons for their views, rather than as evil people who must be defeated. Talking with someone who disagrees with your position increases your awareness of the arguments for the other side, and also makes you more likely to support the free speech rights of those you disagree with.

Unfortunately, technology is changing our lives in a way that reduces the number of interactions we have with people we don’t know. Tellers have been largely replaced by ATMs, and cashiers by checkouts where we scan our own purchases. If we work online we leave our homes less often, and when we do leave home we are often inside our cars, where we don’t encounter strangers. Compared to 50 years ago, fewer people are members of clubs or churches.

While opportunities to talk to acquaintances and strangers have declined, there are still opportunities. Sometimes we interact with strangers as a part of our economic lives: we meet customers, clients, co-workers on a daily basis. Sometimes we are stuck next to people we don’t know for a period of time: while waiting in line, or on public transportation. If you go outside you might meet your neighbors. Public events, clubs and organizations bring people together. Watch for these opportunities, and take advantage of them. If you seek out opportunities to talk to people you don’t know, you will be happier, and your community will be healthier.