How to Talk to Strangers

talking to strangers

Story at-a-glance -

  • You may be practicing civil inattention as you walk through your day, and while comfortable, it does not benefit you or others
  • Research has found those who know and trust their neighbors have a reduced risk of heart attack
  • Studies confirm most people enjoy engaging in conversation with others; you may experience greater success with this new skill by following a simple pattern

By Dr. Mercola

Talking to strangers in the store, in your neighborhood or on your daily commute is often a challenge. Most of us grew up hearing our parents say we shouldn't speak to strangers. This is an essential part of keeping your children safe, but it tends to isolate us as adults.

Research demonstrates that face-to-face communication integrates non-verbal cues and involves better turn-taking behaviors, pivotal during social interactions. Unfortunately, our digital age isolates people. Even your social media accounts curate information so it doesn't challenge your world view or expand your horizons.

Self-proclaimed stranger enthusiast and author Kio Stark talks about how this lack of communication between strangers has evolved over time.

In her popular book, "When Strangers Meet: How People You Don't Know Can Transform You," she identifies some of the social obstacles around talking to strangers, the benefits and a plan you can use to improve your opportunities.

At Some Point, Everyone Is a Stranger

In this short video, reporter for The Atlantic, Dr. James Hamblin, interviews Stark and demonstrates her techniques for learning how to talk with strangers.

The reality is that at some point or another, everyone is a stranger. It isn't until you start a conversation and get to know another person that you call them an acquaintance, and still more conversations later before they become a friend.

However, talking to strangers is one of the more important things you can learn to do as an adult.

Talking to strangers builds bridges between ordinary people who may not otherwise forge a connection. People of the opposite gender, different walks of life or different cultures hold a key to opening up to new ideas or making connections with old ones.

As a child you may have been nervous around strangers as they represented a certain degree of danger. But, as an adult, this fear may stem from anxiety or stress that new ideas about the world could challenge the beliefs you hold to be truths.

Breaking the barrier and talking to strangers may mean you'll be exposed to new ideas and opportunities that may not have been presented any other way. You'll find that talking to people during your commute makes the time go faster and it becomes more enjoyable.

In a field experiment, researchers asked participants to either have a conversation with a fellow commuter, sit in silence or were given no instruction for behavior on the bus or train.1

Interestingly, the researchers found those who talked with other commuters perceived the journey to go more quickly and found it to be more enjoyable than those who sat in silence or were not given any instructions. Still, each of the groups rated their journey equally productive.

Do People Really Want to Talk?

During a survey of commuters, researchers found they would usually underestimate how willing others may be to talk with them. It appeared that the commuters were more willing for others to choose to talk with them as opposed to them making the first move to talk to others.2

This begs the question, do people who initiate the conversation enjoy interaction more than the people they approach? In a study done at a psychology lab, participants were asked to sit in a waiting room with another participant.3

Believing they were waiting for the study to start, some were instructed to engage in conversation and others were asked to refrain.

Afterward the researchers asked the participants how much they enjoyed the wait time before the start of the study. Both the initiator and the non-initiator of the conversation ranked their enjoyment of the wait time equally, and higher than those who waited in silence.4

It also appeared that the ability to predict if you would enjoy a conversation with a stranger was predicated on whether you had already had an enjoyable conversation with someone you didn't know.

In a study asking people to predict if they would enjoy talking with their taxi driver, those who had a previously enjoyable experience said they would like the ride more when they talked, while those who rarely talked to their driver didn't recognize if they would enjoy the ride more or not.5

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Connections Develop Networks and Confidence

The benefits of talking with strangers do not end with a more enjoyable journey. In fact, there are several benefits you may experience as you open up to talking to the people around you.

In today's world of business, commerce and digital communication, it isn't always about what you know, but rather who you know.

Striking up a conversation with strangers may net you connections for business, a referral for a great roofer, the name of a new restaurant or even a great joke you may share with your boss. The person sitting next to you on the bus could be a great asset.

Developing confidence and high self-esteem may come at the small cost of talking to the person sitting next to you at the park.

Turning your head and striking up a conversation with a stranger may make you face a few internal fears about being judged. This may be quite liberating and help you overcome fears you never thought possible.

Remembering that strangers are people you're likely to never see again, you may be suddenly released from an overwhelming burden of fear. You'll be surprised at how well this newfound confidence may carry over to other areas of your life.

Practice Skills You May Find Useful in Other Situations

Another benefit to talking with strangers is you have the opportunity to practice skills you may use in other situations with people you may never see again. By building up your confidence to speak with strangers you become more assertive, and may then have the resolution to speak up and share your ideas at the next business meeting.

Another skill you may be lacking is listening. The Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado states what you may have already known: Many people are poor listeners.6

Instead of listening to what is being said, many people start formulating their answer in their head before the other person has even finished talking.

This is an especially important skill during conflict resolution as it gives you the opportunity to answer the other person's concerns clearly. Poor listening skills may also mean you have poor body language while listening.7

Eyes and feet turned from the speaker, no positive feedback during the conversation or just appearing as if you aren't paying attention, tells the speaker you aren't listening.

Part of good listening is asking questions that draws your speaker to tell you more. Practice your listening skills when talking with strangers to improve your ability to function in your relationships at home and at work.

Part of acquiring new skills is learning new ideas and putting your current ideas into perspective. Sometimes these short conversations spark a creative idea that solves a current problem or engages your mind on a problem in a way you hadn't considered before. Although somewhat unnerving, you may find new ideas change your perspective or view of the world.

Do You Practice Civil Inattention?

Considered the most influential sociologist of the 20th century,8 Erving Goffman coined the phrase "civil inattention" to describe how many people navigate through crowded streets and commuter transportation. It is an unwritten societal rule that balances civility and privacy.

Remaining anonymous while still acknowledging the presence of strangers, indicating you are not seeking interaction, but also have no hostile intentions, is an apt description of civil inattention. You probably recognize the behavior of meeting a stranger's eyes while still at a distance, but turning away as they get closer.

You tend to notice these unwritten rules more obviously when they are broken, and talking to strangers is breaking one of those unwritten rules. Stark calls these interactions "beautiful interruptions," creating unexpected connections in your daily life.9

There are situations in which interruptions of civil inattention are more acceptable than others, but breaking this rule opens up a whole new opportunity for you to experience a connection with a stranger and the potential for something new and exciting. Areas where you may find it more acceptable to engage in conversation with strangers include airports, funerals and weddings.

Research Supports Interactions With Strangers

People who get to know and trust their neighbors are less likely to have a heart attack than those who have strained relationships with the people living in the same neighborhood. Several studies have looked at the relationship between health and the geographical area in which you live, correlating violence, noise, poor air quality, vacant land and boarded up housing with poor physical health.10

A recent study led by Eric Kim, Ph.D., a psychologist who was named a "top 30 thinker under the age of 30" by Pacific Standard magazine,11 focused on the positive elements of living in a neighborhood and how they may protect against certain negative health conditions.12

Kim and his team followed over 5,200 adults living in rural, suburban and urban areas for four years. They found those who experienced a weak social cohesion with their neighbors had a 67 percent greater chance of a heart attack than those who said their social cohesion with their neighbors was strong.

This study controlled for relationships outside the neighborhood, such as friends, family and social connections on the internet, and accounted for other known risk factors of heart attack, such as weight, disease, marital status, income and mental health. Discussing the results of his research with a reporter from The Atlantic, Kim said:13

"We're finding things like increased optimism is associated with reduced risk of heart failure and stroke. Yeah, the great thing is there's already randomized control trials showing that optimism and life satisfaction can actually be reliably enhanced. If we find enough of these correlational studies maybe we can use the existing interventions and tailor them as health interventions."

How to Talk to Strangers

Stark is enthusiastic about helping you to discover the joys of talking with strangers. She warns there will be people who aren't as open to the conversation as you might hope, but don't give up. Stark calls these interactions unexpected pleasures and liberating moments in your day.14 You experience greater social meaning and feel noticed when you engage in conversation with others.

By isolating yourself from strangers you may tend to categorize people, as it is a quick and easy way to group others without thinking about them as individuals. These interactions are a significant way you learn about other people and form a bond over a shared experience that you need as much as you need relationships with friends and family.

Your first step is to make yourself available for others to connect with you by looking up from your phone and taking out your headphones. Start by getting comfortable saying "hi" to people you pass in the street or in your neighborhood. Make eye contact and smile.

Once that becomes comfortable, you may branch out to talking to strangers through triangulation. This is a process in which you engage someone by bringing in a third object. You may make a comment about how long the light is taking to change, how much the cost of gasoline has risen as you ride past a gas station or how nice the bus driver was when you entered the bus.

The idea is to talk about something outside of either of you. The next step is to notice something about the other person. You may try offering a compliment about something neutral, such as the person's baby, their dog or complimenting their shoes or tie. These neutral items are a social conduit to engaging in a more meaningful conversation.

Once each of these steps come easily, you may try disclosing something about yourself while you're engaged in conversation. People tend to reciprocate and meet your disclosure with a disclosure of their own. These small truthful statements about your personal life are liberating and help you to connect with other people. This is a step psychologists find improves your mental, physical and emotional health.15