Don’t Be a Stranger

Readers —  Here’s hoping this piece from yesterday’s New York Times starts  a trend: Talk to the stranger next to you and have a nice day. Really — you WILL have a nicer day:

Hello, Stranger

If you’ve ever been on a subway or public bus, you know the rules. Don’t make eye contact, stay as far away from other people as the space allows, and for the love of God, don’t talk to anyone. But what if the rules are wrong?

The behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder approached commuters in a Chicago area train station and asked them to break the rules. In return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, these commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.

Read the rest here. And instead of teaching our kids stranger danger let’s teach them how they can (and should) TALK to anyone. They just can’t go OFF with anyone. (Same advice I give in my book.) – L. 

People who meet and talk to people are the happiest people in the world. Or at least on Chicago transit.

People who meet and talk to people are the happiest people in the world. Or at least on Chicago transit.

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26 Responses to Don’t Be a Stranger

  1. Bose in St. Peter MN April 28, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    I miss having transit options. In the Hartford CT metro from mid-2006 to late 2008, stuff like this happened:

    * Talked to a guy at a bus stop in a blizzard. Turned out he had just been booted from his 8-year home by his girlfriend, leaving him homeless. Crossed paths with him several more times at random, hearing that the shelter was tolerable, and then about job possibilities in Florida, before I didn’t see him again.

    * Since I had wireless internet for my laptop in the age mostly before smartphones, looked up bus schedules and transfers for fellow riders.

    * Got to know a woman with my favorite-ever mop of curly red hair (think shampoo-commercial volume!) who turned out to be transgender.

    * Watched as many, many fellow riders recognized each other and caught up after short or long gaps in contact. (Especially among teens and 20-somethings.)

    * Talked to young kids who were loudly asking their parent whether I’m a boy or a girl — the recurring some guys (me included) like their hair long, and they’re still boys conversation.

    Hint: A little eye contact and a smile can go a long way!

  2. Peter April 28, 2014 at 10:26 pm #

    I dunno.

    I used to enjoy riding the train out to Long Island back when I worked in New York. I would sit down with my newspaper and catch up on what was going on in the world. The last thing I wanted to do was sit and chat with a stranger.

    That said, those trains are designed a bit more for that sort of thing (e.g., the seats are a bit larger and they’re all facing the same way) than subway cars.

  3. Lance Mitaro April 28, 2014 at 11:48 pm #

    Yes, the stereotypical “single, middle-aged white male” archetype the media constantly castigates actually could be the LAST person in the world to even hurt a child, yet we are conditioned to believe the exact opposite.

    No wonder people think others are rude. We have grown paranoid and suspicious of each other to the point where nobody initiates conversation or small talk anymore.

  4. Christina April 29, 2014 at 12:19 am #

    I have a friend in NYC who has friends I couldn’t figure out how she knew so many people for the longest time. Then I rode the subway with her. She talks to anyone she finds interesting! So not New Yorker, yet totally New Yorker of her. And it’s worth noting she has a heinous commute from Queens to the Bronx but is pretty OK with it.

  5. anonymous mom April 29, 2014 at 7:15 am #

    Yay! I love this. Yes, talk to strangers. They are not that scary. And if you don’t, refrain because you would genuinely rather spend some time reading or listening to music, not because you are afraid.

    I remember years ago when the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” nonsense was bouncing around the feminist blog-o-sphere. Basically, the idea is that women are justified in never wanting to give a friendly male stranger so much as a smile, because after all there is a 50/50 chance he might be a rapist, and they won’t know until it’s too late. You would not believe the outrage I caused by saying that, just maybe, that was kind of wrong and paranoid, that in reality the vast, vast, vast majority of men we meet on public transit have no desire to rape us (and, if they did, the fact that we are on a public bus would probably make it difficult), and that living in that kind of fear and paranoia is not healthy or rational.

    The fact is, sometimes we don’t want to be bothered, and some people can be annoying. I was once at the DMV, and there was this guy who would simply NOT stop talking to me, and I was wildly uninterested in having a conversation with him after the first five minutes. It was frustrating. But, it wasn’t frustrating because he was maybe-a-rapist-maybe-not-the-odds-are-equal-either-way but because he was just kind of boring and annoying, and I wanted quiet.

    Anyway, I have long been irritated by the hysterical reactions of so many women online to having a man on a bus or subway so much as say hello. I think it’s a combination of extreme narcissism (“I’m so hot that nearly every man who simply sees me is stricken by an uncontrollable desire to have sex with me, by force if needed”) and a total misunderstanding of risk (I’ve seen women argue, genuinely, that because 1 in 3 women is a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime–according to some studies, most of which have been questioned for included things like drunken sex or even “attempted forced kissing” as “sexual assault”–that means that there is a 1 in 3 chance that any time they encounter a man, the man will attempt to sexually assault them). That is no way to live. I can only imagine these people would be so much happier and calmer if they actually talked to strangers.

    I think I’ve shared this before, but I will admit that one of my most pleasant plane conversations was borne out of fear. It was like a month after 9/11, and I ended up on a plane, alone, next to a Middle Eastern man who, to my mind, was acting kind of suspiciously. He had this paper full of numbers, and just kept looking at it and adding to it. After about ten minutes, I had myself fully convinced he was going to blow up the plane (no, I am not proud of that). But, I had enough common sense to realize that, rather than alerting the flight crew to the danger, I should maybe just talk to him. So I struck up a conversation, and it turns out he was an extremely nice, very friendly mathematician who had just moved to the U.S. to teach that summer. We had a great conversation, I met a nice person, and all was well. And, 99.99% of the time or more, that is how conversations with strangers who make us nervous are going to turn out.

  6. Lisa Reale April 29, 2014 at 8:08 am #

    I don’t know, I’m a bit reluctant on this one. Is it safe to talk to strangers? Yes, of course. I have taught my kid to ask for help when she needs it, and to be polite in casual interactions. I have also, however, attempted to teach her that everyone she meets might not actually find her as fascinating as SHE thinks she is. I don’t talk to random strangers, at least not often, and not without a purpose (“excuse me, do you know what time it is?”, etc.) I recently got stuck next to a *really* annoying man on a plane who for some reason thought that he should try to have a conversation with me. I was just trying to sit, relax, think… I politely responded, gave a few one-two word answers or nods, then ended up putting headphones on to get my point across. If I don’t know someone, there is little chance that is the person I want to spend my time connecting with – I’d rather read, work, or reconnect with actual friends via phone or email. I feel the same way about cashiers who pause to chat with me – just ask me if I found everything ok, ring up my purchase, and tell me to have a nice day. I’ll do the same. I don’t really care that you really like a product I’m purchasing, or that your granddaughter has the same dress I’m buying my daughter. Let’s not cross the line from “polite” and “helpful” to “intrusive” or “annoying”. If a stranger asks me when the next bus is coming, or if I have the time – fine. If he asks me what book I’m reading, or if I like the iPad mini I’m using, I’m going to be irritated.

  7. SOA April 29, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    My mom never meets a stranger. She will just start randomly talking to people in public. I really would rather not do that. I can and I have, but I am usually too in a hurry or have my mind on other things so I am in the zone.

  8. Megan April 29, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Nope, nope, nope. As a woman who regularly rides a train in Chicago, I have had too many creepy encounters. Eight years in, I NEVER talk to a person on the train if I can help it. I have been treated to racist rants, sexual overtures, threatened with rape. I walk off the train feeling filthy.

    I would be interested to know what stations they performed this experiment at. I clicked through but didn’t see in the article. I am guessing it wasn’t in one of the seedier parts of town.

  9. Will April 29, 2014 at 9:42 am #

    I was in San Fran a couple weeks ago, and did my usual BART from SFO to downtown (Union Square).

    All I did was help, and chat, and generally do things that a “normal” person would do: helped someone unfamiliar with BART figure out the card machines and got her on the right train to her destination, moved so a mom could sit with her child together, moved again for an elderly person, moved my luggage out of the bike area when lady with a bike boarded the train. And, yes, I talked to all of them for a greater or lesser period of time (depending on where I moved to).

    Maybe it’s just San Fran, but as I got up and left the train, I got a thank you from each person I had helped. I felt like some sort of minor superhero. And yet, I wasn’t doing it for any reason other than to be helpful. These people could have been jerks, took my help, and gone back to being silent, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me, much, because my goal was to help. Instead, I had some nice chats about living in Pittsburg, about being a single parent, about how long someone has been taking the BART, and about getting around a new city without a car. Which sure made my ride seem a lot shorter.

  10. Papilio April 29, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    Haha. This is why my funniest train commutes have been when there had fallen too much snow unexpectedly in a short time, messing up the entire railway schedule. Suddenly people seemed to open up more, just because we were all in the same boat, trying to find a train that would take us roughly in the right direction and joking about how much food we still had on us to survive on and how the train of course would decide to just go back instead of taking us closer to where we wanted to be.
    On the normal days people do indeed keep to themselves more and read the newspaper or something, but it’s not like noone ever says anything to anyone, and people help each other with bikes and suitcases etc. There’s certainly no paranoid stranger-danger atmosphere!

    @Anonymous mom: “Basically, the idea is that women are justified in never wanting to give a friendly male stranger so much as a smile”
    Sounds exactly like this music video by Golden Earring! ! :-)

  11. pentamom April 29, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    I think this is more a matter of changing the culture, than that “everybody should talk to people on public transport.” I’m an introvert. This is never going to be a happy thing for me. If people engage me in a friendly way I can certainly be friendly back, and enjoy the interaction. But people like me (and introverts are believed to be 30-40% of the population in western countries, and a lot more in some other cultures) simply can’t bear the burden of “everybody has to interact with other people in public all the time.” If the culture changes so that people are friendlier, everyone will benefit. But people with the actual ability to engage others are going to have to be the ones to do it.

  12. Captain America April 29, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Sounds like a great study.

    For me, I can’t help but feel awkward when NOT talking in such a situation!

    So I talk.

    One of the coolest things from such an ad hoc conversation, was meeting an old guy who’d participated in the 1936 Winter Olympics for Sweden!

  13. pentamom April 29, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    So I guess what I’m saying is, extroverts, go for it. Introverts, be receptive. It WILL make for a better public experience if people do it. But if someone’s trying to create a prescription of “everybody be an extrovert on public transit!” well, I’m not against the idea in theory, but I’m looking forward to your next book, on cat-herding.

  14. CLamb April 29, 2014 at 11:36 am #

    For many years I commuted between New Jersey and New York City. Having chats with strangers was one of the nicest features of this form of travel. Nowadays, however, it seems like just about everyone has their ears wired to their cell phone. Speaking to them seems rude because it requires them to take the effort to remove the buds from their ears to understand you.

  15. SOA April 29, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    I have found in just my life experience that it can be sometimes hard to try to just be friendly with random males you encounter. Because many men do take that as you are coming on to them. As I said earlier, my mother is so friendly and talkative and tries to talk to everyone everywhere she goes. And yes, she gets hit on A LOT. Even now in her 60s when she is showing her age and overweight. Older men and even men younger than her still hit on her. Because they think oh she is being so friendly she must want a date. Its odd. She is always kinda surprised by it but I told her its because of how friendly she is.

    Now me on the other hand, I walk around with permanent bitch face and so most people leave me alone. 😉

  16. Neil M April 29, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    Although I think that we should all be sensibly cautious around people we don’t know, it’s important to keep in mind that most human beings don’t mean harm to others. If they did, the crime rate would be WAY worse than it is. So most of the strangers we encounter are just folks trying to get through their day with a minimum of fuss.

    That being said, I can see what Lisa Reale is saying. There are some people who either don’t understand or refuse to heed the signals that their attention is unwanted. If you ask someone what book she’s reading and get a clipped, non-smiling response, that means she has no interest in speaking with you and it’s time to back off — and to NOT hold it against her.

    (That’s the rhetorical “you”, and not anyone commenting here.)

  17. lollipoplover April 29, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    I agree somewhat with “People who meet and talk to people are the happiest people in the world” because positive socializing for many is very rewarding. We crave contact with others. But some people just don’t want to talk. And introverts who wish to commute with their nose in a book can be just as happy reading good book in peace and I respect that.

    I was very introverted until college. My roommate got me a job in a department store selling luxury cosmetics. I was sure I would be a failure, but the manager said the easiest way to build rapport was to find a sincere compliment or observation about the customer or what they were looking at. As shy as I was, I was very successful with just this simple approach. I still find myself giving random compliments and striking up interesting conversations with a variety of good people.

  18. Pam April 29, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    I think much of this is age-related.

    When younger, I was more cautious about when, where, and with whom I’d chat. As I’ve gotten older, I definitely chat up all sorts of people, in all sorts of situations.

    Overwhelmingly, the responses I get are positive, and much of the contact is initiated by others, male and female, young and old. But that’s only when I’m feeling open and receptive to others. It’s very easy to communicate subtly that one doesn’t want to interact with another, or do the opposite.

    Recently traveled with my spouse to a rather exotic locale. We were in good spirits, and both of us felt open and friendly to others most of the time we traveled. We both were surprised by how many complete strangers we met, in a number of different circumstances, and the entire trip was enriched by the contact. We also received more than few pointers and pieces of info this way that proved of practical value.

    There are times when I do not feel comfortable with others. But, generally, I find that if I am paying attention my instincts will reliably tell me when, and when not, to open up to someone. And that, too, I think, is something that develops with age.

    Women, of all ages, walk a fine line–life is more fun if one allows oneself to interact.

    But, yes, you’ve got to keep your antenna out and remain alert.

  19. Pam April 29, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Forgot to add, regarding our ‘chatty’ traveling, we also met this way a man working on a local film shoot, who clued us in to the number of big-name stars working that week in the area we were visiting…And then we realized that they were eating in the restaurant we were also in (late in the evening, when it had quieted down).

    Being willing to ‘talk to strangers’ isn’t just a pleasant way to pass time, or a way to get a good tip on something practical–as nice as those things can be. It’s also, in our uber-busy, highly populated streets and towns, a way to get in on the grapevine, literally, hear the news, and break some of the isolation so characteristic of modern life.

  20. Gina April 29, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

    Everyone is a stranger until you talk to him/her.

  21. Bob Davis April 30, 2014 at 2:37 am #

    For some reason I seem to look like the “guy who knows the answers”, even when I’m far from my home in the Los Angeles area. I’ve had people ask me for directions and how to get somewhere on the transit system in both Boston and San Francisco, like the time a young woman asked me “Where do I catch the No. 6 bus?” in San Francisco. I pointed to a streetcar loading area and said “See where the streetcar is loading? That’s where the No. 6 bus stops.” One time I was visiting Chicago and riding the “L”, a man asked to borrow a section of the newspaper I was reading. I said, “Sure” and handed it to him. He perused it for a few moments and handed it back, telling me, “I just looked in the Obituary section and didn’t see my name. Guess things are OK for another day.” Then there was the time I was riding the Metro Blue Line in Los Angeles, which some people shy away from because it goes through some of the seedier parts of the LA area. Had a nice chat with a man who had been a machinist for Southern Pacific, who was glad to tell me about his railroading days.

  22. Melinda Tripp April 30, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    This makes total sense. I talk to everyone. I also taught my children to talk to the homeless as we walked down the street, and wish them a nice day. Everyone should be wished a nice day.

  23. Melinda Tripp April 30, 2014 at 9:25 am #

    I teach child awareness and personal safety, one way to gauge people! is to to talk to them, and watch behaviors, an easy way to assure ourselves. 99% of folks are just like us! doing the best they can.
    I spend my speaker- life discussing the myth of stranger danger….who ever made that rhyme up, really gave me a platform to fight against.

    It’s all about behavior folks…..teach your kids to be aware, insightful, , what to do if there is any trouble, and let them go play.

  24. Jill May 1, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    I think the overall point isn’t that we MUST talk to strangers, but that if an opportunity arises, we need not automaitcally fear doing so. (And we should teach our children the same).

    Sometimes I want to be left alone but other times I find myself spontaneously chit chatting with strangers. Like the time I landed at a street corner next to another woman on rainy day and blurted out how cool it was that we both had umbrellas that matched our outfits. WE walked the next 4 blocks together talking fashion in the rain. Pretty cool.

  25. Julia May 2, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    Recently, I was at a local restaurant with my son, and the manager came over to tell me that he was so appreciative of the way that my 3.5-year-old spoke to him, placed his order, and said thank you. The manager said that he often encounters children who seem terrified to speak to him, and he really felt like it was a hyper-emphasis on stranger danger. And now lots of kids, with whom he comes in contact, border on rude because they’re too afraid to just say hello.

    Last summer, we were at the Zoo and struck up a conversation with another mom and her daughter. Their family has become good friends and I’ve not really thought until now that they were initially “strangers.” I haven’t really had the stranger danger conversation with my son, and while I need to talk about the importance of never going anywhere with a stranger, we seem to be doing OK with “it’s OK to talk to strangers.” How would we ever meet anyone new?

  26. JP Merzetti May 3, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    Well, maybe it depends on a lot of things.
    But that’s the point. Narrowing it down to a commute – is just too narrow for me.

    The thing I love to do while barreling along on a train or bus or plane – is read.
    If some other friendly person actually asked me what I was reading, and able to strike up a conversation on the subject (I read mostly non-fiction) of course, I’d reply.

    But there are ample opportunities to talk to strangers, other than in the midst of a commute. Lineups. Waiting rooms. Public gatherings and events. Beaches. Parks. In fact, any sort of walker-friendly environment.
    (Perhaps this is what causes such stranger-anxiety….we’re always rolling on some sort of wheels, or flying.)

    But for sure – the more you engage perfect strangers in conversation, the easier it becomes.