We are arguably the most social creatures on earth, but as soon as we step foot in a bus, train, or a waiting room, something weird happens: we become silent, we stare at the deep nothingness, and tune out the strangers around us.
However, this might be a reason we’re missing out on an easy way to become happier people.
Behavioral scientists Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley demonstrated through several experiments that we see solitude as a better option than mixing up with strangers, not because we enjoy being alone, but because we wrongly assume others wouldn’t want to engage in a conversation with us. This results in a missed opportunity to turn our morning commutes into something more pleasurable, or even make a new friend or two.
The researchers began their investigation by bringing together 100 commuters at a Homewood, Illinois train station, separating them into three groups. One of the groups was told to engage in a conversation with a stranger, the second to behave like they normally would, and the third to remain silent.
After completing their tasks, participants filled out an assessment in which they were asked to rate how pleasant, happy, and productive the experience felt.
Another group simply had to fill out a survey which asked them to predict their levels of happiness in each of those three situations. They, however, were not asked to participate.
Those who engaged in a conversation with a person in the first experimental group mostly reported more pleasurable experiences and even felt a rise in their own productivity. They spoke for 14 minutes on average. But strangely, those who were asked to make predictions on their moods headed in a vastly different direction: they assumed that engaging in a conversation with a stranger would make their experience less productive, less pleasant and leave them in a more miserable state.
Again and again…
Schroeder and Epley ran a similar experiment for bus commuters but in this case, participants had to rate the stranger’s interest in having a conversation with them.
And once again, expectations did not match with reality: they were interested in talking to a stranger, but they were afraid strangers wouldn’t be interested in talking with them.
In another experiment held in a waiting room, people were interviewed afterward – and they too reported feeling happier by the engaging in a conversation. The results were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Why are we so disconnected?
Schroeder and Epley say we feel discomfort around strangers because we often misunderstand the consequences of engaging with people we don’t know. We wrongly take people’s silence on trains as a sign that they don’t want to connect, and in turn, we look for comfort in our solitude.
As a consequence, scientists say, people exhibit what is called pluralistic ignorance: when most of us privately reject a norm but assume all other people still accept it. In other words, we privately want to engage in conversations with strangers, but wrongly assume they don’t want to.
The scientists say that the best way to shatter this communication barrier is through experience.
The more we talk to strangers, the less we will live in pluralistic ignorance.
The more people speak with strangers, the less they’ll fear it.
So next time you take the train, don’t just stay silent for the whole journey; find something to chat about – it’s healthy for you.
We hope this article has made you more confident in engaging in conversations with strangers. Share your thoughts on this study in the comment section below.