Monday, July 21, 2014

Is It OK to Talk to Strangers Despite What Mother Said?

Talking to strangers on a train may not be such a bad idea, according to a new study. Photo from Chicago Transit Authority Facebook page.

HEADS UP: This week and next, a couple of articles about surprising results of dealing with strangers.

SOUND advice from childhood that most take into old age:

1. Say your grace;
2. Wash behind your ears;
3. Eat your vegetables;
4. Look both ways before crossing the street – even if it is a one way;
5. Don't talk to strangers.

Advice to live by, except that a recent study seems to question the wisdom of not talking to strangers.

According to an article that appears in the most recent issue of “The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,” commuters on the rails and roads (city buses) to Chicago came away enhanced from the experience of talking to strangers on their commute.

“Connecting with strangers on a train may not bring the same long-term benefits as connecting with friends,” according to University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Nicholas Epley. “But commuters on a train into downtown Chicago reported a significantly more positive commute when they connected with a stranger than when they sat in solitude.”

Interestingly, before the interaction the commuters believed such a leap would have the opposite effect.

In “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” NE and co-author Juliana Schroder assert that humans underestimate or don't understand the importance of this type of social interaction.

Archive image.

“This misunderstanding is particularly unfortunate for a person’s well-being given that commuting is consistently reported to be one of the least pleasant experiences in the average person’s day,” NE said. “This experiment suggests that a surprising antidote for an otherwise unpleasant experience could be sitting very close by.”

Nine experiments in the field and in the lab helped the researchers reach this conclusion. NE and JS set out to examine why people who can enjoy tremendous benefits from social interaction prefer isolation in the company of strangers.

Study participants who take commuter rail and ride city buses were asked during their commute to engage in three behaviors: talk to a stranger; interact with no one, or follow their normal routine. Then they were directed to answer survey questions that would in turn be used to measure the outcome of “distant social engagement” compared with isolation.

“Participants in the connection condition reported having the most positive experience out of all three of our experimental conditions,” NE noted. “Most important, participants in the connection condition reported having a significantly more positive experience than participants in the solitude condition.”

NE and JS also found that participants in the experiments not only underestimated others’ interest in connecting, but also reported positive experiences by both being spoken to and to speaking with a stranger.

What does this all mean? Keep in mind that the experiment was carried out using commuters. Common sense should lead one to conclude that it may be OK to talk to the person sitting next to you on the bus, but it is all together different if you encounter a dodgy-looking character in a dark alley.

Archive image.

The study merely proves the old adage that there is an exception to every rule. In short, it is OK to talk to strangers – in certain circumstances.

Next week: Obligated to trust total strangers?

Visit to read “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude” and/or an abstract of it.

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