Talking with strangers makes me nervous. Perhaps it stems from that childhood directive never to talk to them, or maybe because I suck at small talk, but anywho, while I can smile politely and passably converse, I want this interaction to end, now.
But, for the rest of humanity, chatting with strangers creates positive experiences ("Hello, Stranger," by Emily W. Dunn and Michael Norton). The added discovered element, however, I found troubling:
The great thing about strangers is that we tend to put on our happy face when we meet them, reserving our crankier side for the people we know and love. When one of us, Liz, was in graduate school, she noticed that her boyfriend, Benjamin, felt free to act grumpy around her. But if he was forced to interact with a stranger or acquaintance, he would perk right up. Then his own pleasant behavior would often erase his bad mood.
One of the perks of being a behavioral scientist is that when your partner does something annoying, you can bring dozens of couples into the laboratory and get to the bottom of it. When Liz tested her hypothesis in a lab experiment, she discovered that most people showed the “Benjamin Effect”: They acted more cheerful around someone they had just met than around their own romantic partner, leaving them happier than they expected.
Are you kidding me? The opinion of strangers matters more than being considerate to one's life partner?
I found this realization to be disheartening. Do we really misuse the ones we supposedly care for, because we feel free to be our miserable selves? A stranger has an interaction with one for bare minutes; loved ones, a lifetime. To whom do we owe our pleasant faces?
To investigate the validity of this assumption, our student Gillian M. Sandstrom asked people to keep a running tally of their social interactions . . . She found that introverts and extroverts alike felt happier on days when they had more social interactions.
Oh. So much for my introvert excuse.
Simply acknowledging strangers on the street may alleviate their existential angst; and being acknowledged by others might do the same for us. (One caveat: Another set of studies has shown that people are motivated to flee from strangers who stare at them intently.)
The benefits of connecting with others also turn out to be contagious. Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder found that when one person took the initiative to speak to another in a waiting room, both people reported having a more positive experience. Far from annoying people by violating their personal bubbles, reaching out to strangers may improve their day, too.
Rather than fall back on our erroneous belief in the pleasures of solitude, we could reach out to other people. At least, when we walk down the street, we can refuse to accept a world where people look at one another as though through air. When we talk to strangers, we stand to gain much more than the “me time” we might lose.
While it has not been a simple thing for me, I try to smile and acknowledge passerby as much as possible (although some are determined to avoid eye contact).
I would not recommend this on the streets of Manhattan, however.
Well, maybe times have changed.