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Why we should re-evaluate the way we talk to strangers

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In a country where silence is golden when it comes to interacting with strangers, maybe it's time we reconsidered our approach.

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People watching is one of the nation’s favourite hobbies.

We sit on trains or in cafes and imagine the lives of everyone around us.

Is that sad-looking man in a suit on his way to a business meeting or a breakup? What could that boy with the baggy trousers possibly be carrying in his huge and mud splattered backpack?

The women reapplying her lipstick in her window reflection every 2 minutes; is she waiting for an old lover? Or maybe she is on her way to meet her mother who has never truly approved of any of her life choices?

We spin full life stories for every facial expression or snippet of conversation that catches our interest yet we never really know the truth.

Then the sad fact of the matter is that, however curious you might be, if the sad man in the business suit turned around in his seat on the bus and started having a chat with you, chances are you’d become uncomfortable and reach for your headphones as a signal that no conversation is wanted.

Here the study conducted by Psychology Today on commuters in October 2014 is particularly interesting.  

The first group was asked to imagine that they had to talk to someone they didn't know on their daily commute while the other was asked to imagine that they were going to do the journey in silence.

Both groups were then asked to rate their enjoyment and productivity of their imagined journeys.

Those having entirely imaginary conversations believed that although they would enjoy the commute less, they would also be less productive.

The groups were then asked to do it for real and talk to, or indeed not talk to, strangers on their commute and rate the experience.

The chatty group rated their experience as more enjoyable than those in silence and equally as productive.

Why then do we naturally assume talking to strangers is going to make our day worse in some way?

When children are taught about stranger danger, we are warned away from everybody we don't know and it is possible that we hold onto this concept.

However, statistically speaking, you are more likely to get hurt by someone you know, so avoiding conversations with strangers as a safety measure is unlikely to be hugely effective.

More likely an explanation is that as we get older we fear breaking the unspoken rules, meant quite literally here, of society more.

No-one wants to break the status quo and be the weird chatty one so we all just keep our mouths closed.

Equally, perhaps we are in too much of a rush, or a least pretending to be in a hurry to match the pace of the stressed and harried people next to us?

In a society where being overworked and frantic all the time is seen as a sign of the success, no wonder we can't devote any energy to learning this about the people around us.

However, there is an argument for talking to strangers more.

At the very least it is a tiny disruption to a potentially monotonous daily routine.

At best you can learn about something or someone that is completely removed from your personal bubble.

In addition, there are also sometimes situations where we are forced to talk to strangers; the first day of school, or at a new job for example.

Then we have to start networking or maybe selling and we talk to more strangers.

It is seen as part of growing up and we get used to it.

It is all about finding a line between personal space and inquisitiveness, between safety and learning empathy.

Subsequently, the intention of this article is not to preach the idea that everyone should be talking to everyone all the time.

Silence should be appreciated too.

The idea, however, is that next time you are sat in Costa and the old woman on the table next to you is wearing a beautiful pair of shoes, complement them.

It will make her day, and you might glean a tiny bit of insight into another person’s bubble.

Image: MattBuck

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