We were five minutes into the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced—approaching Boston’s Logan International Airport in a severe winter storm—when I turned to the woman next to me and said: “Hey, would you mind chatting with me for a few minutes? I’m really nervous.”
We hadn’t spoken much during the flight, other than the usual pleasantries. But my seatmate seemed friendly. And I suddenly felt desperate for a human connection.
“Sure, my name is Sue,” the woman replied, smiling warmly. “What brings you to Boston?” I started to explain that I was on a business trip. Then the plane lurched violently, and I blurted out: “I might need to hold your hand, too.”
Sue took my hand in both of hers, patted it, and held on tight.
Sometimes a stranger—not a friend or a loved one—can significantly improve our day. A pleasant encounter with someone we don’t know, even a nonverbal one, can soothe us when no one else is around. It may get us out of our own head—a proven mood booster—and help broaden our perspective.
“People feel more connected when they talk to strangers, like they are part of something bigger,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, in Colchester, England, who studies interactions between strangers.
In research studies, Dr. Sandstrom has shown that people’s moods improve after they have a conversation with a Starbucks barista or a volunteer at the Tate Modern art museum in London. She’s also found that people are happier on days when they have more interactions with acquaintances they don’t know well and that students enjoy class more when they interact with their classmates.
And yet most people resist talking to strangers, she says. They fret about the mechanics of the conversation—how to start, maintain or stop it. They think they will blather on and disclose too much—or not talk enough. They worry they will bore the other person.
They’re typically wrong. Dr. Sandstrom’s research shows people underestimate how much another person will like them when they talk for the first time. And in a study in which she asked participants to talk to at least one stranger a day for five days, 99% said they found at least one of the conversations pleasantly surprising, 82% said they learned something from one of the strangers, 43% exchanged contact information, and 40% had communicated with one of the strangers again, an indication they might be making friends.
Read the whole story: The Wall Street Journal