We Need To Talk.

Most of the time I don’t just go for an empty seat on the bus. I go for an empty seat surrounded by empty seats. I sit as far away from other people as possible and keep my head down. It’s better that way, right? No one really wants to talk to me because we’re all strangers. It’s very rare that I see the same people, or even the same person, on the bus from one day to the next. Even the drivers change on a regular basis depending on everything from their schedules to mine. Sure there have been exceptions. I’ve had several conversations with a guy named Jerry whom I see regularly. He and a woman named Diane are sometimes talking when I get on the bus and after they’d seen me a few times we’d make eye contact and they’d both smile and say “hi”. One day I asked Jerry about a history book he was reading and we spent the entire ride discussing World War II and debating whether the Battle of Britain was a significant turning point or a minor skirmish. I argued it was a major turning point, but that’s another story. Sometimes Jerry and another man named Amit will sit and talk during their commute, and some days I’ve boarded the bus to see them sitting together, Amit reading the paper, Jerry reading a thick book, both of them surrounded by empty seats.

Even small talk with strangers makes my day better, and a study from last year by University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley confirms that’s the case for most people. And once the small talk starts it’s usually easy. So why is it so hard to get started?

For me at least the answer is obvious: how do you start talking to a stranger? I know that’s a question, not an answer, so let me put it another way: I don’t know what to start talking to strangers about.

Maybe I can start with, “Hey, have you heard about a study done by a psychologist at the University of Chicago?”

I’ll add, though, that at least in my personal experience it isn’t necessarily me talking with somebody that brightens up my commute. Overhearing other peoples’ friendly conversations makes me happy even if I’m not taking part. So if you see me sitting in the back of the bus and you don’t know what to say to me talk amongst yourselves.

biglovebus

12 Comments

  1. Sandra

    And on this point, I think this is why blogging is so popular. It allows us to connect on a level of depth that we deem comfortable for ourselves, and yet we are (or at least I am) left feeling fulfilled by a connection we wouldn’t have otherwise made. I know I’m pretty shy and I avoid eye contact like nobody’s business, so blogging has made me more outgoing, and I’ve made long lasting friendships that have continued IRL, and I wouldn’t have these were it not for my ability to hide behind the screen as I make “small talk” with a stranger. Love the part about the two fellows sitting side by side in the silence, just reading. That’s quite a powerful image and hopefully one that is more common than not.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I never made the connection between this and blogging but I’m very glad you did. Yes, it does allow even shy people to make connections we wouldn’t otherwise, and I feel it’s made me a better person because it’s made me more conscious of how I deal with others and just how I see others. That person behind me in the grocery store could be someone whose blog I’ve read, and even if not I’ve got a better perspective on the variety of human experience out there.
      One of the nice things about riding the same bus most days of the week is I see a lot of the same regulars again and again. There are quite a few people who I think see each other only on the bus, but they look out for each other and when someone’s missing that gets noticed. Who would ever think that public transportation is a place where you can see some people at their best?

      Reply
  2. educational mentorship

    Some of my best conversations have been with total strangers on trains. It’s ironic that I find it easier to make small talk with strangers than have conversations with people I know.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That is ironic because I think it’s harder to find a conversation-starter with strangers. On the other hand there’s not as much pressure or so much at stake. I know some families where it’s a short trip from a compliment to an argument. Familiarity really can breed contempt.

      Reply
  3. Gina W.

    I saw something about this study on TV recently and while I like the idea of making connections with other people, my innate shyness makes it hard for me to strike up a conversation with most strangers. However, over the years I know I’ve had some really nice conversations with people while waiting in long lines or on airplanes. This post is a good reminder for me to try to be friendly and try to ignore the usual social anxiety that I feel. Thanks Christopher.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It’s overcoming the shyness that’s the hard part. Hopefully by putting this out there I’ve helped break the ice.

      Reply
  4. Jay

    I despise small talk and am probably allergic to it. It definitely makes me itchy. It would make me happier to put some good tunes in my earphones and read a juicy book. I haven’t ridden a bus in years but I used to enjoy the time to decompress from work and the solitude was welcome.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I can understand a dislike of small talk which is why I was glad Jerry and I debated a point of history rather than idle chitchat. It was nice to have some intellectual stimulation. On the other hand I get the point about decompressing. I remember when I worked in customer service. The last thing I wanted to do on the way home was talk.

      Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    Thanks for getting the conversation started here, Chris.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thank you for helping to keep it going.

      Reply
  6. Margot

    I find it pretty easy to strike up a conversation with people I don’t know, so long as it’s not in a social situation. It’s when I’m expected to chat and make small talk—like at a party—that I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin. I figure that it’s the lack of obligation that makes it so much easier, along with the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if the conversation goes anywhere or not. I love chatting with strangers.

    A couple of years ago, when I was on a plane coming home from my father’s memorial, there was a young man sitting next to me who said “I’m really bored. Would you mind talking for a while?” We had a wonderful conversation. He’d just proposed to his girlfriend and was in the military, but on leave. I asked him what war was like, if he was nervous when he proposed, and lots of other pretty personal questions, and he gave really honest answers. I learned a lot about what it’s like to be in a submarine during war. And he listened to me as I talked about my experience of my dad dying, and the difficulties I’d had with my children when they were very young and had special needs. Turned out we were both headed to the same place and we spent our two hour layover in the airport chatting, too. When we got to our destination I even met his cousin at baggage claim. It almost seemed like we should have hugged and exchanged phone numbers when we said goodbye, but it wasn’t a relationship that would have worked in any other context. I was his mother’s age and the only thing we really had in common was our wonderful conversation. I still think about him and wonder how his life is going.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I know what you mean about how hard it can be to get a conversation going in a social setting like a party. In a situation like that I feel like I’m under so much scrutiny and have to behave a certain way.
      Your experience meeting that young man makes me think about how the modern world has created opportunities that nothing in our history has prepared us for. We can have these incredible brief encounters with people we’ll never see again. And these really are opportunities to learn how much we have in common. And maybe that’s why it’s sometimes easier to talk to strangers in those situations. If nothing else you have it in common that it’s such an unusual situation.

      Reply

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