Talk to a Stranger Today

It’s easier than you think, and it’s never been more important

A few weeks ago, after listening to days of weather forecasts predicting a dramatic snowstorm in my city — and procrastinating on any sort of winter-weather prep — I made my way to Target for an ice scraper just as the snow started to fall. The aisles were bare of all the usual pre-storm suspects: milk, eggs, bread, disinfecting wipes, and, most importantly, anything related to snow removal.

In a stroke of luck, I managed to snag the last scraper in the store, a fact the register attendant commented on as I brought my prize over to checkout. I don’t remember exactly what I said in response — I may have complimented their mask or offered some other platitude about the weather. Quickly though, the brief exchange veered into a more serious conversation about QAnon-adherent family members, election-stealing conspiracies said family members peddled, and the state of the world. In a few minutes, I learned more about this Target employee than I had learned about any other person I’d met face-to-face over the course of the pandemic. I returned to my car feeling the kind of buoyant buzz I get after I tell a secret or gossip with friends. It was a sensation I hadn’t felt in months.

Feeling a social high after an interaction with a stranger is a well-documented experience. Studies have found that spending a few minutes with someone we don’t know is a generally mood-lifting experience, providing us with a sense of belonging, diminished feelings of loneliness, and greater overall happiness, even if we anticipate the exchange being awkward or uncomfortable. Chatting with strangers can even help us learn to be more empathetic toward people we don’t know.

We’ve spent the past year deprived of opportunities to microdose on this particular form of happiness. But we don’t need to be. As the pandemic slog stretches past the one-year anniversary, it would serve us well to go out of our way to make strangers a part of our social regimen yet again.

Granted, it’s not as easy as it once was. Social distancing measures have (rightly) ingrained in most of us the notion that all face-to-face exchanges carry some danger, which means many of our encounters with strangers have become transactional and firmly circumscribed: You scan my groceries, and I pay you for them while I stand on my designated spot on the ground and you stand on yours, six feet away.

Unsurprisingly, our IRL social networks have shrunk as a result. A recent study found our pool of social contacts dwindled by 16% over the course of the pandemic, and most of these losses were acquaintances — generally location-based relationships like co-workers, bartenders, and club or society members. But the researchers also found that interacting with strangers — even emailing them — was an effective way to curtail loneliness.

It’s also more than that. A small-talk interaction can be a fun mental stretch — an opportunity to flex some wit and to banter. And it’s a reprieve from your own stresses, a chance to fully immerse yourself in another person for a few minutes at a time.

Following my chat with the Target employee, I decided to resume my once-regular habit of making small talk. While my pool of potential conversation partners is limited, I’ve so far managed to engage in more off-subject small talk with story sources, acknowledge more strangers on the street, and chat up store employees.

I’ve found that once you start looking for opportunities, they suddenly appear: Scratch that itch to join in on the Bachelor discussion you overhear behind you at the grocery store. Like the mask of the person working the takeout window at your favorite restaurant? Tell them. Ask your barista how their day is going. So long as you’re masked, keeping your distance, and limiting the conversation to a few minutes—which these chats generally are, by nature—the rewards outweigh the risks. During a period of life that has stripped away so much, talking to strangers is a way to feel like a real person again.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

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