YOU’RE WAITING IN line for your morning flat white, head buried in your phone. Someone sidles up behind you. You sense their presence and immediately turn your body away from them, shielding yourself from a random conversation that serves no obvious purpose. Too bad because you might have just missed an opportunity to get a free, painless boost to your wellbeing. All you had to do was utter two words: “Good morning”.
A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science involving 60,000 people found those who had more random conversations with strangers had greater life satisfaction. “Having a sense of belonging involves feeling like you are accepted and valued by other people–it is often considered a fundamental human need,” says Dr Esra Ascigil of Sabanci University.
Recently, the World Health Organization declared loneliness a global public health concern—one that is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Psychologists say such loneliness is related to the degree of isolation reported in most Western modern societies. People tend to keep to themselves and only talk to people they already know. Or they bury themselves in their phones.
In this study, researchers asked people in Turkey and the UK about recent momentary interactions, or even conversations, with strangers.
The researchers suggest that interacting with strangers on a regular basis can lead to feelings of belonging to a community, which can make people feel more accepted and even valued by those who share their small part of the world—feelings that prior studies have shown help people to feel satisfied with their lives.
Previous research has shown that although most people are receptive to a stranger initiating small talk with them, many are nervous about initiating a conversation themselves. A 2022 study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found most people would not feel confident to go and talk to a stranger themselves, due to fear of rejection, or that the other person might think them odd.
Fear of not knowing what to say or keep a conversation going appeared higher than the fear of the stranger themselves, indicating that it might be our insecurities rather than our fears that are holding us back.
If you need some coaching, try these fool-proof conversation starters:
4 Ways to talk to strangers
1 Smile and Make Eye Contact
It all starts with a smile. Eye contact can foster a sense of trust, while a smile can make the other person feel comfortable. Hit them with both.
If you’re in a coffee queue, for example, anchor the conversation around the location, or the coffee. That shows you’re acknowledging that you’re sharing an experience with the other person, helping create a genuine connection. Something random, on the other hand, may surprise a stranger, and possibly make them uneasy: “My shower head needs fixing” is likely to produce wariness. “These guys [the baristas] are a bit slow today”, will produce a knowing nod. Easy.
3 Practise Active Listening
While talking to strangers show genuine interest in what the other person is saying while making eye contact and giving gestures such as nodding and affirming. This creates a sense of mutual respect for the person and makes the conversation engaging. It’s also just good manners.
4 Be Approachable and Authentic
Be mindful of your body language and tone of voice and keep your expressions simple and approachable. And maybe, put your phone away.