As you go through your day, talking to strangers might not be a priority. After three-plus years of COVID-19 and the masks and social distancing that came with it, striking up a conversation with a stranger may feel way out of your comfort zone.
Frankly, chatting with those around us just isn’t something we’ve been doing much of lately – especially because our smartphones make it so easy to zone out and disconnect from one another. It may be your habit to pop in your earbuds or stare at your phone while you wait for the bus or stand in line for coffee.
Here’s the case for putting your phone away and plucking up the courage to talk to someone you don’t know.
Small talk matters
Research shows that having strong bonds with others is good for your health and well-being, including your mental health. We tend to only think of those strong bonds as coming from the close relationships we have with our friends and family. But we also benefit from the short, passing interactions we have every day with people we don’t know. These little moments of connection count, too.
An easy pick-me-up
Even something as simple as greeting your bus driver or chatting with a stranger while you wait in line can lift your mood, give you a stronger sense of belonging and community, and boost your trust and confidence in others.
In a 2013 experiment, participants who smiled and chatted with the barista when placing their coffee order reported feeling an improved mood and a stronger sense of belonging than those who didn’t interact. “It just puts us in a good mood,” said Gillian Sandstrom, the Canadian who co-led this study, in an interview with CBC Radio. “It gives you a bounce in your step. We learn more than we expect to by talking with strangers.”
Don’t assume the worst
If chatting with strangers is so easy, why doesn’t everyone do it? There’s a real fear that the conversation will go badly. “We’re just really nervous,” said Sandstrom, who considers herself an introvert. “It’s scary to consider not belonging. What if they don’t want to talk to me – what if they reject me. We have a hard time believing that the interactions will go well.”
People are turned down a lot less than you might think – Sandstrom says only about 10% of the time and usually because people are preoccupied or stressed.
Other research bears that out. In one series of studies, commuters in Chicago were instructed to strike up a conversation with strangers or to sit quietly by themselves. Researchers found that even though the commuters assumed they’d have a better time staying quiet, participants reported more positive experiences chatting with other commuters.
Tips to spark a conversation
It can be daunting to strike up a chat with a stranger. But don’t worry! Here are some tips to help you work up your nerve and take the leap:
- Watch social cues – Don’t approach someone who seems preoccupied or stressed. If they put in ear buds or take out a book, they’re likely not interested in chatting.
- Take a deep breath – Make eye contact and smile, then take a deep breath right before you talk – it will calm you down. The more you do it, the less terrified you’ll feel.
- Keep it light – Steer clear of discussing someone’s body, politics, religion, work or family status. There’s a reason the weather is such a tried-and-true conversational gambit! Or try something like asking, “What keeps you busy outside of work or school?” or “Have you done anything interesting today?”
- Offer a compliment – Focus on someone’s personal expression of style, like jewellery, clothes, handbag or tattoos. “I like your shoes; where did you get them?”
- Ask their opinion – This is almost always a safe bet; great if you’re shopping. “I’ve not tried that brand before; do you recommend it?”
- If someone asks you a question, respond generously – If you want to keep the conversation going, give more than a one-word response to questions.
Be brave and give it a try – people want to connect more than you think they do! Remember: the social skills you’re honing will only help improve your well-being now and into the future.
Want more information on healthy living and health-care delivery sent directly to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter to get all of our content first!