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.