Do you ever talk to strangers?
My answer would be, “It depends on where I am and on my mood at the time.”
My mother, however, would have said, “Always.” She considered the woman selling hot dogs at the Target store, the neighborhood school crossing guard, and people she passed by working in their gardens her friends. When she and I met in downtown Seattle, I would walk her to her bus stop. But first, we would have to go to the Pike Place Market to buy doughnut holes for her bus driver. After my father died my mom lived alone. She mapped out her daily walks to increase the likelihood that she would run into more than one acquaintance.
Mom was on to something good. From a “New York Times” blog by Jane Brody, (May 13, 2013) “People are fundamentally social beings who require meaningful connections with others to maximize health and well-being.” Loneliness has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity, increased stress and inflammation. Yet we often work hard to ignore other people, whether we’re in a rush, fearful of taking the first step, or lost in the imaginary conversations we’re carrying on in our heads.
A more recent piece (“Hello, Stranger,” New York Times, April 25, 2014) reported on a study in which researchers encouraged people to interact with strangers. The subjects were passengers in Chicago’s commuter rail system. Five dollar Starbucks’ cards were the reward for some to strike up a conversation with a seatmate and for others to remember their parents’ advice not to talk to strangers. Before becoming involved in the research, train riders who were asked to engage in a conversation predicted their rides would be less enjoyable than if they had ridden in silence. The result? No one experienced a snub and people said their conversations were pleasant.
From another study reported in the same article, people who might have been snarky with their spouses were more friendly with strangers and appreciated these encounters. “…Introverts and extroverts alike felt happier on days when they had more social interactions.” And they were as pleased after talking with strangers, as they were with people they knew well.
The next study should ask how people handle conversations with friends who can’t look away from their cell phones. This can be more challenging than talking to strangers. I’m sure my mother would have had an answer to that.
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