to save society, should we talk to strangers?

New research says that talking to strangers has a lot of mental benefits. And they may just help us out of the societal mess we’re in today.
crowded subway
Photo illustration by Thomas de Luze

Growing up, many of us were taught three important things about strangers. First, they probably don’t like us or want to be around us. Second, they’re too busy for us to bother. Third, and most importantly, strangers could easily be dangerous, so much so that “stranger danger” is a fairly common term in the Anglophone lexicon. But what if researchers were to tell you that a majority of strangers are quite friendly, probably curious about you as well, don’t mind a little small talk, and pose little danger, and that today’s silent crowds in mass transit and at public events aren’t the result of natural human dynamics but a deadlock of learned suppositions? We’re all taught to be wary of each other, so we are, keeping our mouths firmly shut.

The research in question, mostly coming from the Universities of British Columbia and Chicago, focused on trying to find out why people seem to want to reach out to strangers to feel a greater sense of belonging and connection but very seldom, if ever, act on this impulse, as well as what happened when they did. It’s not exactly a shocking fact that people are feeling lonelier and less empathetic than we’ve ever recorded and talking to others primarily through impersonal means like text and email are making it worse, likely contributing to increased chances of dementia and shorter lifespans. And this is not to mention what this is doing to our politics as votes are turned into warfare against “the other” rather than civic duty. So, why do we stay lonely?

Well, as noted above, we’re taught to, and very few of us have these instructions corrected. But in experiments where talking to strangers became a task rather than a fear or chore, nearly 8 in 10 people came away with interesting new knowledge, 4 in 10 exchanged contact information, and a small but statistically significant group ended up going on dates, while others ended up in new friendships, or at least casual acquaintanceships. Even something as simple as talking to a service worker behind a counter not just to order but acknowledge them as a person, made both the workers and customers feel happier, and report a stronger sense of belonging. They were seen, they were heard, and what they said mattered, even if it was briefly.

Of course, there are greater implications here as well. Consider how many people are isolated, lonely, angry, and bored, seeking solace from conspiracy theories and outrage bait to find some purpose and belonging with disastrous effects on the world at large, and you can see how fear, rage, and social echo chambers begin to shape societal dynamics and politics. It’s easy for the worst kinds of politicians to offer solace from imaginary enemies, people their voters have very seldom met and almost never talked to, elevating the idea of stranger danger to its most absurd and dangerous pinnacle of outright fascism. But what if those voters started talking to all those they seem to see as monsters rather than fellow humans?

According to the research in question, they’d probably see them as normal people very much like themselves, and see that an influx of strangers from other states or even nations isn’t all bad. Now, of course, not every stranger or immigrant is going to be a good person. Some will be thoroughly unpleasant, if not outright hostile. Yet, keep in mind that people are generally wired for cooperation from birth and the vast majority of us just want to get along, which is, ironically, why we so often fail to stop the assholes among us when they act out. As absurd and naive as it sounds, we could more or less talk our way off the ledge in many social matters tearing nations apart. We will never agree on everything, but at least we won’t all hate each other.

It would be a slow and deliberate process to undo decades of social custom and suppositions, and we’d have to get a lot of people who have little in common talking to find how much they’d have in common. We’d also have to be prepared for delusional sociopaths who thrive on anger and pushing others’ buttons, and have absolutely no interest in what the people they despise have to say. But one thing is becoming very clear from a mountain of research. Huddling over phones and computers to scream at each other on social media platforms that profit from hate and division because it lets them show you more ads is literally killing us as a civilization, and this way of doing things simply cannot continue without ending in ever bigger disasters.

# science // psychology / research / social science

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