Talk to Strangers? Don't Listen to Your Mom

My husband and son hate it.  I know that Mrs. B. is doing well with her chemotherapy.  Mary at CVS' brother is doing much better now that he's been out of intensive care for a while.  And Antoinetta's grandson is entering second grade in the fall.

I talk to everyone when I'm out around town.  Pharmacists.  Supermarket checkers.  Owners of small businesses.  I started doing it because I was bored, waiting in line.  But then I started to enjoy it.  I've seen Antionetta's grandchildren grow from one to four (Mia is my favorite).  And I've come to feel really good when Mrs. B. asks how I'm doing in that caring, kind way. 

And now The New York Times is telling me what I knew all along.  Striking up conversations with strangers is good for everyone.

I've made friends on airplanes -- from the young professional with a full bladder who forgot to undo his seat belt before getting up (fortunately, nothing more serious than a big case of the embarrasseds), to the father of the young editor at the magazine I wanted to work for, in the unemployment line, to the couple I met in the Bahamas, who wound up introducing me to my husband, back in New York.

I'm just a naturally curious person.  And I like to talk.  A lot.

My son rolls his eyes when I bump into a friend in the grocery store who I haven't seen for a while.  He'd pull on my shirt when he was little and we were outside and I saw a neighbor out watering her lawn.  He's even begged me to keep going when an old friend driving by stopped her car and rolled down her window.  And he completely explodes when I tell a woman in the line in front of me that I really like her shoes. "Do you have to talk to everyone?" 

But I do.

Forget my husband. He's much more direct.  "Don't talk to them!" he yells in my ear when, out on a walk, friends having cocktails on their lawn wave us over.

Which all ties in with a story in The New York Times, "Hello, Stranger" that explored what would happen if people randomly started up a conversation with a stranger on the subway or the street.  Even in New York.

"Most people imagined it would be difficult to start a conversation," writes Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. "They estimated that fewer than half of their fellow commuters would want to talk to them. But in fact, not a single person reported having been snubbed. And the conversations were consistently pleasant."

Why would we do this?  

Dunn and Norton report that scientists had people carry red and black clickers and click the red one each time they interacted with a close connection, and the black one, when with a stranger.

The surprising result? Interactions with weak ties correlated at least as highly with happiness as interactions with strong ties, causing them to come to the conclusion that even the bit players in our lives may influence our well-being.

Could it possibly be that it makes us feel better when we connect?  I know it does, me.

I don't know if you've seen the photos of people who were asked to exhibit closeness to a stranger (some accompany this article) and the amazing poses the photographer was able to get out of them.  An old man with a young man, complete with felt hat and goatee, with his arm grazing the old man's shoulder.  A black woman with dreadlocks leaning against one of the whitest white-haired men I've ever seen, her hand on his chest.  A man kneeling on the sand of a beach in sweat pants and sneakers, clutching the hand of the old woman in front of him, as she grips his hand back.  These were all strangers just minutes ago.

They're all incredibly moving.

The benefits of connecting with others also turn out to be contagious. Researchers found that when one person took the initiative to speak to another in a waiting room, both people reported having a more positive experience. 

I've had many waiting room experiences.  A woman I'll never forget when I went for my repeat mammogram to establish whether I needed a biopsy told me she had breast cancer and you only have to worry when the radiologist wants to talk to you.  The nurse came out and said the radiologist wanted to talk to me.

She was waiting for me when I came out to tell me that, even if it was cancer, I had every reason to expect to be okay, as did another woman who had overheard us.  Even though it did indeed turn out to be cancer, it helped so much that they reached out to me. 

"Far from annoying people by violating their personal bubbles, reaching out to strangers may improve their day, too," Dunn and Norton note.

So have my son and husband accepted my talking to everyone?  No.  But do I care?  Not so much.  The world isn't really made up of strangers.  It's people you just haven't met yet.


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