Nic spent most of her childhood avoiding people. She was raised by a volatile father and a mother who transferred much of the trauma she’d experienced onto her daughter. The combination left Nic fearful and isolated. “My primitive brain was programmed to be afraid of everybody, because everybody’s evil and they’re gonna hurt you,” she told me. (Nic asked to be referred to by only her first name to protect her privacy.)
Nic’s fear isn’t uncommon in a country where valid lessons about “stranger danger” can cast all people you don’t know as threats to be feared, but she recognized it was unhealthy, so she took steps to engage with the world. As she grew older, she began to travel to seek new people out. At 17, Nic visited Europe for 10 days with her high-school classmates and noticed that people began starting conversations with her. “If people in Europe randomly talked to me, then maybe I’m not so bad,” she figured. “Maybe I’m not gonna die if I randomly talk to them.” So she took more trips and connected with more people. She was anxious about these encounters, wired for fear and expecting the worst, but they always went well. She found that, contrary to what she’d been raised to believe, these strangers weren’t dangerous or scary. They were actually sources of comfort and belonging. They expanded her world.
Today, Nic has a name for these types of conversations: “Greyhound Therapy.” As she uses it, the term literally refers to talking with your seatmate on a long-haul bus but can apply to talking with strangers anywhere—at a restaurant, at a bus stop, in a grocery store. This form of connection changed her life. When times got hard, she found herself turning to strangers for comfort and “to stave off the loneliness,” she told me.
“And it worked?” I asked.
“Oh God, yes,” she said. “I would go home with some amazing stories—granted, nobody to share them with—but I still had the stories. They were mine.”
Nic’s experience is telling. A hefty body of research has found that an overwhelmingly strong predictor of happiness and well-being is the quality of a person’s social relationships. But most of those studies have looked at only close ties: family, friends, co-workers. In the past decade and a half, professors have begun to wonder if interacting with strangers could be good for us too: not as a replacement for close relationships, but as a complement to them. The results of that research have been striking. Again and again, studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic. Yet, like Nic, many of us are wary of those interactions, especially after the coronavirus pandemic limited our social lives so severely.
These days, Nic is a successful nurse with an uncanny gift for connecting with her patients, and is happily married to a kind and sociable man. She still loves to travel, and on her trips, she’ll size up her seatmate, or someone sitting alone at a table or the bar. If they have headphones on or appear uninterested, she’ll leave them alone. But if they seem receptive, she’ll say, “Hi, I’m Nic,” and see where it goes. She’s not reckless or naive, and she knows how to read people and detect trouble. But the conversations tend to go well, reassuring her that there is goodness in the world, and the possibility of belonging. She tells me that these experiences have taught her something invaluable: “Never underestimate the power of even the most minute positive connection.”
In psychology, the sorts of exchanges Nic is talking about are known as “minimal social interactions.” The psychologist Gillian Sandstrom had a similar epiphany about them about a decade ago.
She was raised in Canada by extroverts who loved talking with strangers. One day, Sandstrom, who had always considered herself an introvert, realized that she always looked down when she walked along the street. “I thought, Well, that’s dumb,” she says. So she started holding eye contact with people and found that it actually felt pretty good. Before long, she was talking with strangers too. She was surprised at how easy and fun it was. Once, on the subway, she saw a woman holding a box of elaborately decorated cupcakes and asked about them. “I don’t know how the conversation got there, but she taught me that humans can ride ostriches,” Sandstrom says. “I was sold. That was just a delightful conversation. I wanted to do it again.” Later, during a stressful period in grad school, Sandstrom took solace in an even smaller routine interaction: waving and smiling at a woman running a hot-dog cart, whom she passed every day. “I realized that when I saw her, and when she acknowledged me, it made me feel good. I felt like, Yeah, I belong here.”
Sandstrom decided to study this phenomenon. She and her Ph.D. supervisor at the University of British Columbia asked a group of adults to chat with the barista when they got their morning coffee. They had the idea that by not engaging with counter workers—by essentially treating them as insensate service modules and not, say, actual humans—we may be denying ourselves a potential “hidden source of belonging and happiness.” As it turns out, they were right. The participants who talked with their barista reported feeling a stronger sense of community and an improved mood, as well as greater satisfaction with their overall coffee-buying experience.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. In a different experiment devised by the University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley and his then-student Juliana Schroeder, a group of people instructed to speak with strangers on mass transit reported a significantly more positive, enjoyable commute than a group of those who didn’t. On average, conversations lasted a whopping 14.2 minutes, and the talkers overwhelmingly liked the strangers they’d spoken with. People of all personality types had a good time.
By now, skeptics among us are thinking the same thing I was when I first read these studies: Sure, talking with strangers might be enjoyable if you’re the one who started the conversation. But is the other person enjoying it? After all, every one of us has at one time or another been trapped in an enclosed space by a talker who proved agonizingly impervious to social cues that you’re not in the mood. So to test whether both parties were enjoying these interactions, Epley and Schroeder created another experiment. Between tasks unrelated to the research at hand, participants took breaks in a waiting room. Some of these subjects were told to talk with the other person in the room and others were told not to talk; the people they were with were given no instructions. The ones who talked—both the people who started the conversation and the people they talked with—reported having a significantly better experience than those who did not.
If talking with strangers is so pleasant—and so good for us—why don’t people do it more often? That’s a big question, informed by issues of race, class and gender, culture, population density, and decades of (sometimes valid) “stranger danger” messaging. But the core answer seems to be twofold: We don’t expect strangers to like us, and we don’t expect to like them either.
In a study by Epley and Schroeder, participants who were asked to talk with strangers during their commutes worried that the strangers wouldn’t enjoy the conversations. They predicted, on average, that less than half of the people they approached would talk with them. They expected that starting the conversation would be hard. But people were interested in talking with them, and not a single one was rejected.
A similar phenomenon has shown up in Sandstrom’s work with another group of psychologists, led by Erica Boothby, called the “liking gap.” Their research has found that experiment participants (especially the shiest ones) believed that they liked the stranger more than the stranger liked them. This misperception deters people from seeking out these interactions, and in turn deprives them of not only short-term boosts of happiness and belonging but also more lasting benefits, such as meeting new friends, romantic partners, or business contacts.
But a deeper force is at play here too. Participants in these studies expected very little from the conversations themselves. When Epley and Schroeder asked commuters to imagine how they would feel if they talked with a new person versus remaining solitary, those who imagined talking with a stranger predicted that their commutes would be significantly worse. That prediction is telling. Why did it come as such a surprise that a stranger could be approachable, cordial, and interesting?
Part of the inspiration behind the subway experiments, Schroeder told me, was the idea that “it’s fundamentally dehumanizing to be surrounded by people and then never interact and engage with them.” It’s dehumanizing to me because I lose an opportunity to be a social being—which is my nature—and it’s dehumanizing to the stranger because I never experience more than a superficial glimpse of their full humanity. In cities especially, people tend to treat strangers as obstacles, Schroeder said, so we don’t talk with them; because we don’t talk with them, it never fully occurs to us that they are, in fact, really people.
This is the “lesser minds problem,” so dubbed by Epley and the psychologist Adam Waytz in 2010. The theory is this: Because we can’t see what’s happening in other people’s heads, we have “what appears to be a universal tendency to assume that others’ minds are less sophisticated and more superficial than one’s own,” Epley writes in his 2014 book, Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. Perhaps this is why we expect interactions with strangers to go poorly: because we subconsciously believe they just don’t have much to offer.
Sandstrom had a different (and simpler) explanation of why we don’t talk with strangers: She believed people just didn’t know how to do it. So she set out to teach them.
In collaboration with the now-defunct London group called Talk to Me, Sandstrom ran a series of events that aimed to show people how enjoyable talking with strangers could be—and to learn more about why people were so hesitant to do it. She has since developed some techniques to help allay these fears. For instance, she tells people to follow their curiosity—notice something, compliment a person, or ask them a question. Generally, though, she just lets people figure it out themselves. Once they get over the initial hump, they find it comes to them quite naturally. “You can’t shut them up,” she says. “By the end they don’t want to stop talking. It’s fascinating. I love it.”
While Sandstrom has found success in these isolated events, she’s run into a more insidious obstacle in her pursuit of lasting change: a social norm against talking with strangers—a belief that this is simply not done. In her experiments, participants would unfailingly have positive experiences, but “when you ask people about the next conversation, they’re really worried again,” she says. So she tried to engineer a situation in which talking with strangers, through sheer repetition, would become natural enough to people that they would simply begin to do it out of habit, free of all the usual fears. The trick, she believed, was “to get people to have a lot of conversations.”
Using an app called GooseChase, Sandstrom created a scavenger hunt with a list of types of people with whom to strike up conversations: people who were smiley, people who looked “artsy,” people trying to carry a lot of things, people who looked sad, people who seemed nice or fashionable or who were tattooed or wearing a “striking tie.” The results, again, were undeniable. Participants found it was much easier to start and maintain a conversation with a stranger, and the conversations lasted three times longer than they predicted. About 80 percent said that they learned something new. Forty-one percent said that they exchanged contact information with someone. Some participants made friends, went on dates, got coffee. And true to Sandstrom’s prediction, their pessimism about the prospect of talking with strangers was eased. A week after completing the scavenger hunt, participants were more confident of their conversational abilities and less afraid of rejection. And the way they thought about other people changed as well. As one student wrote in their survey response: “Strangers are generally friendly and helpful.”
As I read through the other responses from Sandstrom’s study, I kept coming upon what seemed like a subtle undertone of relief—which I recognized, having wondered myself Why do I feel a sense of relief after a pleasant exchange with a stranger? When I asked Sandstrom about this, she said something that took me back to the story of Nic, her fearful childhood, and her experience with Greyhound Therapy. “I think that relief might just be the feeling that we’re sold this message that the world is a scary place,” Sandstrom said, “and then you have a chat with someone, some random person, and it goes well, and it’s sorta like, Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all.”
This article was excerpted from Joe Keohane’s book The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.