The other day on my way to the bus I was listening to the September 24th, 2017 Live From The Poundstone Institute podcast. Paula talked to psychologist Nick Epley of the University of Chicago about a 2014 study he did on subway riders that found that people who talk to their fellow passengers tend to be happier than those who don’t. And it sounds pretty simple, although like most social research I think it should be taken with a salt shaker’s worth of qualifiers, considerations, exceptions, and clarifications. Most people I sit near or even on occasion next to on the bus aren’t interested in striking up conversations. Or at least they don’t seem to be. I don’t know.
Epley’s point is that we’re social creatures and that it’s our natural inclination to talk and interact with each other. He’d probably agree, though, that it’s more complicated than that. I think of a couple of older guys who used to ride my bus regularly. I’ll just call them Jerry and George. They always sat next to each other but the only time I ever heard them speak was when Jerry, whose stop came first, would tell George to have a good evening. George always read a newspaper and Jerry always had a book.
And I get it too that not everyone likes the kind of idle chitchat that strangers engage in, that we pretty much have to engage in to even begin the process of getting past being strangers. I’m one of those annoying people who doesn’t mind small talk, who’ll even start a conversation at inappropriate times. Once when I was sitting in a bathroom stall I recognized the shoes of a friend of mine in the next stall and I loudly asked him how it was going. He quietly muttered that he didn’t like to talk to other guys in the bathroom. I laughed and asked, “Why do you think that is?” And then when he didn’t say anything else as I was leaving I said, “Well, I hope everything comes out all right,” but that’s another story.
The ironic thing is because I was listening to a podcast I had earbuds in my ears, an almost universally recognized sign that says “leave me alone” and yet I thought maybe I should try to start a conversation with a guy who was standing at the bus stop when I got there. He was reading a book, another sign that usually says “leave me alone”, and I thought that in trying to spread a little happiness I might make him unhappy. And I’m also kind of shy. I’m happy to talk to strangers but I find it hard to start conversation unless the other person starts it first. Then the bus pulled up and he closed his book and I saw what he was reading: Catch-22.