If you live in a city with public transportation like Chicago or New York, and are feeling isolated, new research from Chicago Booth’s Nicholas Epley suggests you might want to grab a stranger and start talking. In the study, striking up a conversation with a stranger gave lonely commuters a boost in happiness, which suggests that our usual behavior of keeping mum on the bus or train may not be serving us very well at all.
“Humans are social animals,” says Booth PhD student Juliana Schroeder, who coauthored the paper. “[R]esearch shows, again and again, that connecting socially with others makes people happier and even healthier. But then why are there so many situations in everyday life when people are surrounded by others and yet choose not to connect with them? It's a social paradox.”
So what would happen, Epley and Schroeder wondered, if people were asked to go against their usual inclination to keep quiet, and just begin talking with a random stranger? “We thought that maybe the advice that everyone has heard from their mothers—‘Don't talk to strangers’—could sometimes be wrong,” says Schroeder.
And in fact this was exactly what they found: In one series of experiments, people were much happier when they talked to the person next to them. And the person next to them was much happier, too.
So why do people not do this more often? In another set of experiments, the team found that we take people’s silence as a cue that they don’t want to talk. “It turns out that people are interested in talking to others, but they interpret other people's behavior (that is, not talking) as evidence that they don't want to talk,” says Schroeder.
In other words, the person across from you on the train isn’t silent because he doesn’t want to talk—he’s silent because he’s taking your silence as a cue that you don’t want to talk, in a kind of misguided vicious commuter cycle. So be brave, and start a conversation with that guy on his iPhone across the aisle. He may be just as eager for some human contact as you.