One thing I love about modern neuroscience is that old tropes like “Don’t Talk to Strangers” get tested in labs, in this case by researchers Nicholas Epley and Julianna Schroeder. Their work, and other research related to it, was written about in the story “Hello, Stranger” in the April 25 New York Times.
They “approached commuters in a Chicago area train station…. In return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, these commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.”
Echoing one of Daniel Gilbert’s theses in Stumbling on Happiness, the researchers found that people are often poor predictors of what will make them happy. “When Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder asked other people in the same train station to predict how they would feel after talking to a stranger, the commuters thought their ride would be more pleasant if they sat on their own.”
The article goes on to examine another common assumption, that we should invest our emotional time and energy in those closest to us. Of course this is true, but Gillian M. Sandstrom found in a study that both introverts and extroverts alike had a better day if they interacted with more people–friends, acquaintances and strangers alike.
I’ve often bristled at the idea of some that Americans are “too friendly.” I have always said “Hi” to strangers because it just felt good and right. This intuition seems to have a sound scientific basis. Talking to folks on the train or in the supermarket certainly can’t hurt, and I believe the more we knit ourselves into communities big and small, friend and stranger alike, the more we’ll all thrive.