You should talk to strangers…really!

Psychology reveals how social interactions, such as talking to strangers, improve your well-being. 

According to psychology experts, there is an undeniable link between social interactions and health improvements. To illustrate this, in a Psychology Today article, Clinical Psychologist Noam Shpancer uses a quote by Jessica Martino of Tufts University, saying:

“Humans are wired to connect, and this connection affects our health. From psychological theories to recent research, there is significant evidence that social support and feeling connected can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health.”

Shpancer notes there are several mechanisms that explain this correlation between socializing and health.

The first one he highlights is that “social ties influence health behavior.” In other words, the people around us influence our health choices in one way or another. For instance, if your best friend starts regularly going to the gym, you are more likely to start as well. This new habit will eventually have a positive effect on your physical health.

Another notion is that social support also has psychological benefits. These include allowing you to control your stress levels, giving you a sense of purpose, and teaching you how to be mentally resilient.

What’s more, social interactions also have the power to impact our physiological systems. Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, sociologists at the University of Texas, explain:

Supportive interactions with others benefit immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions and reduce allostatic load, which reflects wear and tear on the body due, in part, to chronically overworked physiological systems engaged in stress responses.”

They add:

Emotionally supportive childhood environments promote the healthy development of regulatory systems, including immune, metabolic, and autonomic nervous systems, as well as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, with long-term consequences for adult health…

Social support in adulthood reduces physiological responses such as cardiovascular reactivity to both anticipated and existing stressors.”

But what does that have to do with talking to strangers? 

Shpancer notes that when examining the link between socializing and well-being, researchers mainly focus on long-lasting relationships. But are there any signs of health improvement when interacting with complete strangers?

The answer may lie in a recent study called “Vitamin S: Why Is Social Contact, Even With Strangers, So Important to Well-Being?”

Psychologists Paul Van Lange and Simon Columbus bind their research with Social Interdependence Theory. It includes several aspects of how human interaction impacts individual behavior, such as: 

  • Conflict of Interest, which refers to whether an interaction is marked by conflicting or converging, aligned interests.
  • Mutual Dependence, which refers to the degree to which the people in the interaction are autonomous of, or dependent on, each other.
  • Relative Power, which refers to whether one person in the interaction holds power over the other.

As Shpancer says, “differences in each of these dimensions may predict different interpersonal behaviors and outcomes.”

What’s unique about communicating with strangers is that it is usually based on similar interests. Besides, as the study suggests, “interpersonal harm is unlikely because it could hardly be motivated by self-interest or by unilateral abuse of power.”

According to the researchers, since conversing with strangers generally consists a low chance of conflict, it is likely to promote positive behavior. Moreover, they argue that people also show “significant levels of high-cost helpfulness or cooperation, especially when strangers are in need.” 

Talking to strangers may benefit your well-being by creating opportunities for getting good advice and valuable information. 

Lange and Columbus believe there are three main reasons why social encounters with strangers are beneficial. As described by Shpancer, they are:

1. Communication with strangers is psychologically safe.

“Strangers are far less likely to spread private information because they are unlikely to be part of one’s social network.”

2. Encounters with strangers can expand one’s horizons.

“Strangers are more likely than family or friends to be dissimilar in their background, attitudes, or opinions. This may yield gains in information (e.g., exposure to new perspectives) and amusement or excitement (e.g., exposure to unusual, novel events).”

3. Interactions with strangers provide potential openings for various types of gains.

“Interactions with strangers may have the benefit of being more likely to provide opportunities, such as suggestions or advice regarding job opportunities, a chance to learn broader skills, or a starting point for beneficial exchange or extension of one’s social network.”

To conclude, the authors write:

“Strangers help serve basic needs, such as feeling connected and appreciated, perhaps along with the realization of personal growth… Strangers who are kind in the moment become readily dear – a process that supplies Vitamin S.”

Do you agree that talking to strangers may benefit your well-being? Leave a comment to let us know!

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