Thanks so much for your comments on last week’s oxytocin-fueled smiling at strangers story.
Anna (👋) says ‘Good morning’ to people on her morning runs and reports a better than fifty percent return rate. Paul (👋) shared the ‘two finger smile’ of Ajahn Brahm — a thoroughly silly morning habit that helps transcend the gap between consciousnesses.
This week, we’re going to get serious. With science and everything.
Q: Do you avoid talking to strangers?
Yes? Good. You’re normal. Most people avoid talking to strangers — ‘despite the fact that they are happier when they do so’.
This is not my assertion, but the findings of psychologists Gillian Sandstrom and Erica Boothby from their mini meta-analysis of seven studies that looked at our (annoyingly interrelated) stranger-danger fears:
- We fear that we won’t enjoy the conversation, that we’ll find it awkward or pointless
- …that our conversational partner won’t enjoy the conversation
- …that either ourselves or our partner lack good conversational skills
- …that we won’t like our partner
- ..that our partner won’t like us, will find us boring or straight-up reject us
The good news is that Sandstrom and Boothby found that we’re most anxious about our partner enjoying the conversation and not finding us boring.
We’re not so worried about our partner turning out to be as enthralling as a table lamp.
More proof that, yay, we’re self-obsessed humans!
What else are we?
Sandstrom and Boothby also looked at personality differences between those of us more or less fearful of opening a conversation with a stranger.
There are a few relevant divergences in type (openness, extraversion, self-esteem, conscientiousness), but the one that really jumped out at me was on a measure called SOCIAL CURIOSITY.
(Dunno why I put that in all-caps. Seemed fun at the time.)
There are actually two types of social curiosity: overt (asking people questions = good) and covert (gossiping, snooping or spying on people = bad).
Sandstrom and Boothby found that the more socially curious you are, the less worried you will be about speaking to strangers. Surprise!
Unfounded opinion incoming…
I think overt social curiosity is important because it throws the attention away from oneself (Oh god, am I boring? I’m boring you, aren’t I? Boring boring boring beard bus boring) and shines it back on the world-at-large and, in this case, the other person.
This is exciting news. We might be able to dampen our social fears through the disarming curiosity natural to two people meeting for the first time.
What stands out about this person before you? If nothing stands out, then — even more curious — what are they hiding?
I’m not suggesting that you turn every conversation into a social interrogation, but, fuck it, suppose that you do: few would describe even the most casual chat with MI5 or the FBI as ‘boring’.
If overt social curiosity might get us over the hump of opening a conversations, what happens next? Well, according to Sandstrom and Boothby:
Conversations with strangers not only go better than expected, but generally go quite well.
Aw. That’s cute.
Even better, Sandstrom and Boothby offer a few practical suggestions on how to get past our (false) expectations around connecting with strangers.
1. Go back to conversation school
Getting a few tips on how to have good conversations with strangers increased people’s beliefs that both the stranger and themselves would enjoy the conversation.
I don’t know what tips appeared in the studies that Sandstrom and Boothby analysed, but here are a few I’ve picked up over the years:
- Deliver a sincere compliment: ‘Cool shoes!’, ‘Delicious cakes!’, ‘Mad skillz!’
- Add a question to your compliment: ‘Where did you get them?’, ‘What’s the recipe?’, ‘Can you teach me?’
- Comment on your shared context (bonus points for positivity, gratitude and avoiding the weather): ‘This is the best playground’, ‘The quinoa salad is superb’, ‘Tuuuuuuuuuune!’
- Ask a question (non-invasive): ‘That book any good?’, ‘Ooh, is that the quinoa salad?’, ‘Mind if I take this seat?’
- Address the elephant in the room: ‘Sorry I’m so sweaty — that hill is a bitch’, ‘It’s crazy busy in here — come and join our table’, ‘You’re in a good mood today!’
Such anxiety-reducing tips probably make a conversation more likely to happen, but they didn’t improve the actual experience for study participants — because such conversations with strangers tend to go well anyway!
2. Notice the good stuff
Taking the time to reflect on a positive conversation with a stranger, not surprisingly, reduced anxiety about future conversations with strangers.
The more positive experiences we have — and the more vividly we acknowledge that they have indeed happened — the better we’ll feel about seeking out more.
What you don’t want to do is have a shitty conversational experience. That’s a bad thing and, Sandstrom and Boothby found, will likely set you back significantly, especially if you have a tendency to ruminate on upsetting situations. (Like I do.)
Obviously, a shitty experience is not always in your control. What is under your control is putting in the reps.
Have faith in the science that tells us that, not only are we exaggerating our own fears, but that, on balance, positive experiences will vastly outweigh the negative.
Easy said than done, I know. But this is us.
3. Permission granted!
Sandstrom and Boothby also stumbled over a tantalising possibility for a cheap intervention that could lead to more conversations between strangers: simply give yourself permission to talk.
You know this already: there are scenarios where not speaking to strangers is abominably rude.
At a mutual friend’s birthday party, for example, we all have implied permission to conversate with complete unknowns and generally, given enough booze/vol-au-vents/dancing, that is exactly what we do.
But what if we granted each other permission to speak in almost any situation we might share with a stranger?
I’m not saying that a ride on the Underground is exactly the same as attending your friend’s birthday party. But I’m not saying it isn’t a bit the same.
This is all well and good, but what I’ve come to realise is that, while connecting with strangers is (usually) a beautiful thing, what perhaps we need most is the courage to connect with the people we already know best: our friends.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I’m certainly not the only one who has: we seem, as a species, to be becoming less tolerant to anything that impinges on our own control of our time.
And that includes connecting with the greatest people in our lives.
Why aren’t I constantly hanging out with my best friends?
Oliver Burkeman, in his zeitgeist-busting must-read Four Thousand Weeks, nails it with characteristic precision:
We might be […] guilty of […] treating our time as something to hoard, when it’s better approached as something to share.
Burkeman argues that our Twenties’ desire to excercise tyrannical control over our time on earth leads directly to ‘the loneliness of the digital nomad’.
The more flexibility we have over our schedules and our living and working lives, the less likely we are to randomly hang out with the same people over and over again, including our very best friends, whose suzerainty over their own schedules leads them to make totally different, autocratic decisions for their living and working lives.
Somehow we never quite align and the less we align, the more fear we have about ceding time-control to others, and the more fear we have, the less we align.
Have you noticed this too?
Many years ago, in a move that I thought would finally grant me total power over my own existence, I chose the path of the keyboard-wrangling freelancer.
Whether it was co-writing a sitcom or interviewing a Nicaraguan agriculturalist on Zoom, I became, on the face of it, independent.
But independence doesn’t mean only independence from the annoying things about working with others — early mornings, deadlines, interruptions, printer jams — it means independence from everything about working with others.
I became independent from the messy business of ‘other people’. You know the ones: the ones you can never fully bring under your control; the ones that, in the final analysis, bring you all the joy.
I may have reduced my dependence on others, I may have reduced interruptions, but I could never eradicate them. Interruptions, as Burkeman irritatingly points out, are inevitable.
In fact, the closest thing to a guarantee in this life is that you will, just as you think you’re really getting somewhere, be interrupted.
And of course, one day, you’ll be interrupted — from an idle daydream, a conversation about something important, or maybe just from the washing up — for the final time.
So, I agree: we need to cede control. Not only control, but our delusions of control.
Especially when those delusions only stop us from relishing, nay, encouraging interruptions of joy.
Our anxiety towards strangers is small fry compared to our worry-worry about interrupting — a synonym for ‘spending time with’ — our greatest friends.
That anxiety comes from a false belief that the stakes are high, that we risk irritating our friend and being ourselves rejected:
- We don’t answer the phone to a friend because we fear that, by doing so, we are somehow committing to an hour-long phone call that might take over our day.
- Nor do we phone our friends, not only because we ourselves fear long conversations, but also because we fear we’ll be interrupting them from something more important.
- We don’t drop round a friend’s house because that’s not what’s done these days. What if they’re out? What if they’re busy? We have phones, we could phone them, but instead we send a text and the moment goes unanswered.
- If we do phone them, they don’t answer because See Above and See Above.
- In all cases, reaching out makes us vulnerable to rejection and, frankly, we’re not sure we can handle that.
What we need to do right now is to lower the stakes massively and show that we risk nothing by reaching out to connect.
We do that, not by interrupting our friends less, but by interrupting them more — much more.
As Sandstrom and Boothby showed, only repeated positive experiences can reduce our anxiety over future interactions. And this finding was true of strangers: imagine how powerful the effect with our best friends.
So, let’s give our friendships a new tendency.
- Everything good in life is an interruption from something else. It’s just what you choose in the moment.
- Expect, and welcome — even demand — friendly interruptions. Many of us are buried deep by habit in lifeless, controlling communication strategies: you will probably need to order your friends to interrupt you. Give them permission.
- These are your friends: if you’re in the middle of something you can’t pause, tell them so. In a nice way. You are not rejecting them because you’ll interrupt them back later. Or, even better, if you’re struggling with something, tell them so. They love you, so why not rope them into helping?
- If you interrupt a friend and they say ‘not now’, this is NOT rejection. Chances are, they’re doing something else, possibly with other people. It’s still NOT rejection.
- If we’re honest, it’s this fear of rejection that often stops us from connecting in the first place. Respond with more reps. Invite people to connect more often, not less, and the sensitivity to rejection will lessen.
- Don’t write off all your friends because one turned you down on this occasion. Try another. If you run out of friends, say hello to a stranger (see last week).
- Favour ringing their doorbell over ringing their phone.
- Don’t use text, voice or video messages for anything that could be a live rendezvous or a phone or video call. Text, voice and video messages are not and will never be the main story: they’re explanatory footnotes, appendices or DVD extras. They only work as an adjunct to the existing foundation of person-to-person synchronous communication.
- Show your friends that it’s okay to have a two minute phone call. It’s okay to stop by their house merely to exchange pleasantries on the weather. Stakes is low.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a neighbourhood of best friends or if you’re lucky enough to have ‘good enough’ friends, don’t hesitate to interrupt them.
If you live apart from your friends, interrupt them remotely.
If you can’t find friends near or far, interrupt a stranger. It’ll go better than you think.
Whatever you do, interrupt. Loudly, proudly, interrupt, gloriously.
Thanks to DRL (👋) for sharing the Sandstrom and Boothby paper with me. Thanks to GC (👋) and LH (👋) for the friendship interruptions chat (and lunch). Thanks to Oliver Burkeman and CW (👋) for bringing it all together.
I get so much from conversations with friends-who-happen-to-be-readers and I hearwith grant you full permissions (without expiry) to comment or email me back with your own experiences or anything at all that pertains to this or any past and indeed future story (or potential future story if you want to start giving me ideas).
I promise you that you’re not boring.