• Kaitlyn Viola

The Complex Importance of Talking to Strangers

An abundance of research by a wide range of psychologists, sociologists, and journalists alike has showcased how the quality of a person’s social life and relationships influences their overall well-being. However, most of the existing research in this area pertains primarily to close relationships—friends, family, significant others—but little research has taken place on interactions with strangers.

As a general rule, people are typically most comfortable talking to people they know, or folks they find to be very similar to them; and why wouldn’t they be? The comfort we find in familiarity is a part of human nature. At the start of the pandemic, speaking to strangers was likely the last thing people were considering—many were afraid to see their closest family members in person. Whether it was the fear of contracting a potentially deadly virus, political preconceptions and differences, or plain social anxiety, many people feel reluctant to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Today, I look to pose the question: What might you be losing out on by doing so?

Recently, The Atlantic wrote an article about a successful nurse named Nic who called her conversations with strangers “Greyhound Therapy,” referring literally to interactions you may share with your seatmate on public transportation, but also to conversations you share with strangers in any context. She emphasizes the degree to which this form of connection changed her life, expanded her world, and made her feel less lonely.

There is a profound sense of community fostered by striking up a conversation with a stranger. Two years ago, when I was 19, I met an older woman, likely in her late 70s, at the restaurant in my hometown at which I used to work. When I brought my food to her table, she asked what I liked to do. She went on to ask where I attend college, if I like where I grew up, and lastly, if I was in a relationship, to which I responded, “No.” She told me she couldn’t wait for me to fall in love, and went on to tell me the way she met her husband and loved him for 57 years until he passed away. She apologized for keeping me before obligatorily adding that if she could give me one word of advice, it would be to value closeness in every walk of life. “Always become closer; always trust.” She told me to remember that people are far more important than anything else, and to be careful not to give up too easily on those I love. Lastly, she told me that as long as I tried my best every single day, and kept the ones I love close, I would never have a single regret, and neither did she.

It’s all-too-easy to remain in the comfort of your everyday social circle. While the comfort that comes with our most valued relationships is a beautiful gift, hearing the thoughts, experiences, and stories of those with which we are unfamiliar can bring us beyond the bounds of our typical interactions, and open us to entirely new perspectives. I encourage you to initiate a conversation with a stranger today, maybe even someone much different from you. You never know what you might learn from them.

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