The restorative power of talking to strangers

December 17, 2019

Have you ever been told off by a stranger? For wearing the wrong T-shirt at an airport? I have. I’m sixteen and visiting the United States with my family, wandering down a terminal, when some fifty-year-old man just walks up to me and starts calling me a spoiled child. (He was the perfect specimen of what you’d now call a Boomer.) 

A spoiled child. You can imagine how much a teenager loves to hear those words.

Sure, I was wearing a T-shirt with the words “IT SUCKS TO BE ME” printed across it. But it was merch from the Avenue Q play we had just seen.

My parents laughed it off.  A nice lady had complimented my sister on her boots a couple of days before that. And a couple of days before that, someone else had walked up to my mother in the middle of a supermarket and complimented a jacket she was wearing. This random stranger starts yelling at me as I’m about to catch a flight? They chalked it up as just another example of how Americans don’t have the same sense of personal space as us Europeans.I didn’t leave that experience feeling great. It felt like it did, in fact, suck to be me. Statistically speaking, however, the man must have left our chance encounter feeling happier, more creative, and even less likely to have a heart attack.

Because that’s what most scientists and specialists conclude: Talking to strangers is good for you, apparently.

Talking to strangers saves lives 

Eric Kim, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, wrote a famous study that started by asking 5276 people with no history of heart disease how integrated they felt in their neighborhood. 

Do you know the people living across the street from you? Do you talk to the man behind the counter of your neighborhood café? Would you ask the family next door for sugar if you needed some? That sort of thing. They sorted results into 7 different categories.

When Eric Kim and his team went to check up on those people, 148 people had had a heart attack. The people that had felt better living in their neighborhood (in academic jargon: their perceived neighborhood social cohesion) had survived a heart attack (and again: a myocardial infarction) at a higher rate. 

From one category of social cohesion to the next, the chances of surviving heart attacks rose by 22%. Even after you adjusted for behavioral, biological, and psychosocial factors. Even after you adjusted for how optimistic or happy a person was.

Talking to the Atlantic, Kim explained that there are several explanations for this. 

It might just be that people who know their neighbors are more likely to be checked in on by their neighbors. Or that people are more likely to notice symptoms if they know what you’re like. It might be that, if you get to know your neighbors well, you’re more comfortable borrowing money or sharing resources to get yourself checked out or treated. It might even be that just having someone to share updates on how you’re feeling and your last doctor’s appointment helps people keep an eye out on you.

(Never again will I dodge the old lady who lives downstairs, and who describes her latest aches and pains in gruesome detail to all within earshot.)

The sociologist Jane Jacobs has another explanation for why social cohesion can lead to better health. In 1961, she called it “eyes on the street.” Or as the writer and city planner Thejas Jagannath explains: “where there is a crowd of [friendly] people, our streets are safer to use because if someone is in trouble the eyes on the street are ready to assist and protect from danger.” So, if you live in a street where friendly neighbors are out and about, or just peacefully looking out their windows for days at a time, and you have a fit, they’re more likely to spot you, and to help you.

Another, more literal example, of how talking to strangers saves lives comes from the author David Sturt. It is anecdotal, mind you, but in his TED talk he described the following as something that actually happened:

A group of heart surgeons were sitting in a room, trying to solve a complicated problem: several of their young patients had died after their surgery. Surgeries that had gone well and according to plan. These patients were dying while they were getting moved into intensive care. In a corner of that room, a Formula 1 race was on tv. One doctor zoned out, watched a bit of the race, and saw the pit crew in action. 20 people jumping over a wall, with perfect timing and coordination. So he did what nobody outside of a TED talk anecdote would have done: he called the Ferrari pit crew and had a long conversation with them. Sure, they didn’t know anything about medical procedures. And they didn’t know him. But when he sent them a video of how the hospital’s patients were being transferred, the team of mechanics fresh mindset and completely different skillset and experience identified a lot of flaws. They suggested several improvements. 

Sturt’s big reveal: “And so that led to them implementing a whole bunch of these operational improvements that led to a 50% decline in error. 50%!”
One conversation between perfect strangers went on to save lives.

Other big changes that small talk can make

Of course, the only thing that sounds worse than having to call grandma is being forced into small talk with a stranger in public transport. We have to commute every day, and every day we spend the whole time avoiding eye contact with our fellow workers. Out of pure, sheer fear of ending up in a conversation.  Two behavioral scientists of the University of Chicago, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, enrolled a number of Chicago commuters in one of the most famous social experiments concerning interactions with strangers. 

They divided their pool into two and everybody in one group had to talk to the person sitting next to them. (I get a little anxious just thinking about it.) The others just had to make their commute as they always did. Statistically, the people who did interact with strangers reported having a better experience commuting than the people who didn’t. 

The funny thing is, each group had predicted exactly opposite experiences when asked to rate what they expected their commute to be like. 
(Because they already knew they were going to have to talk to strangers, this could just be a variant of what is known in American politics as the expectations game: if someone doesn’t lose as bad as you’d expect them to, it can be considered a win. If something doesn’t suck as bad as you imagined, you might think it was actually good. I wonder how the strangers on those trains, who got roped into random conversations, would rate that train ride.)

Putting my skepticism aside, follow-up studies in buses and taxis have delivered results consistent with Epley’s study. But talking to strangers doesn’t only improve your commute. Some evidence suggests it improves your whole day.

In a study called “The surprising power of weak ties,” a student proved that people (both introverts and extroverts) who have more interactions during a day will feel happier than those with fewer. And that an interaction with a close friend didn’t even significantly outweigh a brief interaction with a stranger.

A recent and popular opinion is that interactions with strangers can even impact your bottom line. It breeds innovation and creativity, says Maria Bezaitis. Because when you only talk to people in your social circle or in your social media bubble, you’ll fall victim to confirmation bias. Getting closer to what she calls strangeness means you can get better feedback on your ideas. Or even get better ideas.

A bit like the Doctor who called the Ferrari crew. 

David Sturt, the same man who tells that anecdote, reviewed 10,000 random samples of people rewarded for their innovation — “from hospital janitors to vice presidents in big organizations,” he says. What his team found in that data was that conversations with people far outside both private and professional inner circles were driving a lot of that innovation. “Our research and other research proves that that’s where our best ideas and thoughts come from.”

When I was at the airport, 16 and being insulted by a stranger, I didn’t have an epiphany. I wasn’t having any of my best ideas or thoughts. I barely knew what to say. I don’t think I said anything at all. Fuming, furious, I waited for the man to finish his rant, and walked off. 

But I can tell you one thing: I haven’t had a heart attack since. So at least that part checks out.

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