You’d Be Happier If You Talked to Strangers More Often

By Carl Engelking | July 16, 2014 9:42 am

crowded subway

Humans are some of the most social creatures on this planet, but step into an elevator, train or public bus and something strange happens: we fall silent, stare at the wall and ignore the strangers surrounding us. But in doing so, we might be missing out on an easy way to make ourselves happier people.

Through several experiments, behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder demonstrated that we view solitude as a better option than engaging a stranger, not because we like being alone, but because we mistakenly think others don’t want to talk to us. As a result, we miss a chance to make our morning commutes more pleasurable, or even make a new friend.

Defying Expectations

The scientists started their investigation by recruiting over 100 commuters at a train station in Homewood, Illinois, and splitting them into three groups. One group was given instructions to strike up conversation with a stranger, another told to stay silent, and the third to simply carry on like they normally would. Then, after their commute, participants filled out an assessment that asked them to rate how productive, pleasant and happy their commute felt.

A second experimental group simply filled out a survey that asked them to predict their happiness levels in each of the three situations. However, they weren’t asked to take action.

In the first experimental group, those who struck up a conversation with someone — across the board — had a more pleasurable commute, and even felt more productive. On average, they spoke for 14 minutes. But interestingly, those that were asked to predict their moods went in a completely different direction: they assumed that talking to a stranger would make their commute less pleasant, less productive and leave them less happy.

Over and Over

Epley and Schroeder designed a similar experiment for bus commuters, but asked participants to rate the stranger’s interest in talking to them. Again, assumptions didn’t match reality: People were interested in talking to a stranger, but they assumed strangers weren’t interested in talking to them.

In another experiment, conducted in a waiting room, the strangers were interviewed afterward as well — and they also reported being made happier by the happenstance conversation. The results were published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology

Why the Disconnect?

Epley and Schroeder say we clam up around strangers because we misunderstand the consequences of engaging with someone we don’t know. We mistakenly assume that people are silent on trains because they don’t want to connect, so we find peace in our solitude. But as a result, the scientists say, we are exhibiting what’s called pluralistic ignorance: when most people privately reject a norm but assume everyone else still accepts it. In other words, people privately want to chat with strangers, but incorrectly assume no one else wants to.

The authors say that the best way to break down this communication barrier is through experience. The more people talk to strangers, the less they live in pluralistic ignorance. Cocktail parties, pick-up lines and other icebreakers exist to help alleviate this fear, but the more people speak with strangers the less they fear it.

So next time you’re in the elevator, don’t just stare at your feet; find something to talk about  — it’s good for you.


Photo credit: e X p o s e/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, psychology
  • khalid


  • shudBwerkin

    ‘The Weather’, the best British opening line…affects everybody, everbody knows about it, and as a subject it is neutral, not ‘in your face’.

  • Uncle Al

    Homewood, Illinois” median household income in 2012: $66,673, median age: 41.6 years. Try a train filled with poor teenagers.

    • Karen Hetzel

      Yes, please do try a train filled with poor teenagers. The worst that can happen is that you will be rejected. On the other hand, you just might make a connection, and that would be so rewarding, in so many ways! This message brought to you by an old lady :)

      • YehoshuaFriedman

        What about getting mugged?

        • jaia

          How does talking to someone make getting mugged more likely?

          • Uncle Al

            Ride the NYC IRT from Manhattan to Brooklyn College. You will be vivisected.

          • d w

            Aside from mass shootings, I hear the suburbs are nice.

  • Leo Macedo Barajas

    I usually get on the van, and say good morning, and no one answer, people is still sleeping, on the cell, looking serius or smiling, and when I get off and wish them a great day, no one replys, but I respect people opinion

  • Lee J Rickard

    I lived in Northern Virginia for many years, and almost never engaged with fellow commuters. Then, I moved to Albuquerque and found that I was talking with everyone I met. I think that whole cities can develop this attitude towards easy conversation and welcoming strangers, even without conscious effort. Perhaps, once it starts, it grows naturally, perhaps geometrically.

  • Dea Doyle

    Isn’t NOT talking to strangers something we were taught as kids to do? Isn’t this behavior something that was drilled into us by our parents since we were wee puppies?

    • SmilingAhab

      And they were wrong. “stranger danger” makes isolated fearful introverts of children. They should have been teaching children to not talk to adults they don’t know when their parents aren’t around. Teaching kids every possible way to start a conversation and connect with people is the ONLY life lesson that will make their lives feel lived.

      • Happy Worlds

        … and anyway- reality sadly shows that abusive behaviour occurs mostly inside the family, among the people we know! Only the news and media make us believe the opposite

  • Avinash Rana

    wow now I try to talk strangers

  • Olivia

    “..we mistakenly think others don’t want to talk to us”
    In some cases, this would be correct. I probably don’t want to talk to you. I just wanna get where I’m going.

    • Mandy Sue

      Well, I hope if someone says Hello or chats, you won’t be rude. Besides, if being friendly isn’t enough, you never know who that person is or how they might affect your life.

      • Olivia

        Well no, I’m not going to be rude, but that doesn’t mean I want to talk to them :p

  • Margaret Meps Schulte

    Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder have elegantly explained WHY we should talk to strangers. As the recently-published author of STRANGERS HAVE THE BEST CANDY, I’m telling my readers HOW to talk to strangers, and WHAT the results might be.

  • alf

    much easier if youre a woman.

  • King Hades

    totally agree with that

  • Mandy Sue

    I love this and instinctively knew it. Please share this information with Seattleites. They are ridiculous! lol Srsly

  • Michael Towns

    Though I’m not so sure about on trains, I think this is sage advice. We are all afforded opportunities to practice. My wife and I make it a habit to talk to as many people as we can following church. There is an art to building relationships. Often we are rewarded with wonderful stories.


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