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Make small talk with strangers

Writer Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good

by Psychologies

women socialising market stall

The project

Most of us look forward to a chit-chat with friends, but studies suggest that talking to people we don’t know can also improve our wellbeing.

The aim

Taking the time to chat to strangers could make you a more contented person by widening your world.

The theory

Yes, there’s evidence to show the importance of support from friends and social groups, but there’s a growing body of research to suggest that strangers have their role to play in our happiness, too. In their 2014 research involving nine separate experiments, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder from the University of Chicago asked commuters to partake in one of three situations: engaging in conversation with a stranger on the train, sitting in solitude, or behaving as they usually would (such as looking at phones or listening to music). The results showed that those who were told to strike up a conversation with a stranger had the most positive experiences. Sitting in solitude gave the least enjoyment and behaving normally was somewhere in-between.

Professor Epley says that being civil towards ‘distant others or random strangers’ is typically believed to benefit those being spoken to (the stranger), but adds: ‘The results, however, join a growing body of research suggesting positive consequences of pro-sociality for oneself.’

Now, try it out

  • Don’t get hung up on the outcome. One of the reasons we won’t say hi to strangers is that we fear we’ll be rejected, says Professor Epley. You may well be ignored or brushed off, so before you interact, you need to anticipate a possible rejection. See a failure as a chance to learn about yourself and improve how you interact in these situations.
  • Make the other person central to your conversation. If you’re thinking, ‘How do I even start?’, make the stranger’s interests and ideas the focal point of your conversation and respond to what they tell you. This way, you can discover their core passion. Look out for their eyes lighting up when they talk about something and build on this subject.
  • Make them laugh. A study from psychologists at the universities of Kent and Liverpool revealed that laughter acts as a social lubricant by enhancing a sense of group identity among strangers. By making them laugh, you’re helping to dissipate potentially awkward situations.

Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com

Photograph: Corbis

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