Talk To Strangers. Or Don’t.

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.

 

8 Comments

  1. Gilly Maddison

    Great minds think alike😀. Only difference is, I choose to talk to street people, the kind who rarely get to ride buses anywhere. Back in the days when I frequently used public transport, especially in Canada, I ALWAYS ended up sitting next to nut jobs, trapped between them and the window. These days, I drive myself everywhere because the bus service out of my village is such that my life would be wasted waiting around for a bus that would take 2 hours to do a half hour trip. And I have had my fill of being squashed up next to windows listening to old men with tobacco breath tell me all about their latest onion crop. Give me a comfortable car with music on tap any day!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I could do without the tobacco breath but I think I would get a kick out of hearing about some old man’s onion crop, but I’m weird like that. And because public transportation is so unpopular here I find it easy to find a seat by myself, well away from other people. If I want to talk to a stranger I can choose to do so or I can just as easily sit back with whatever I want to listen to.

      Reply
  2. Paula

    I talk to strangers all the time to the embarrassment of my children. Which is enjoyable as well.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Anything that embarrasses your children is good. It builds character.

      Reply
  3. Allison

    I talk to strangers all the time. I have met some of the most interesting people that way. But I get that not everyone is that way. There’s a guy who works in my building, two floors down – we ride the elevator together and talk. I have no idea what his name is…

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Amazing, isn’t it, how we can work in the same building as someone and not know their name? There’s a delivery guy I talk to all the time. It’s a little odd that I know about his trips overseas and what he’s been reading but I don’t know his name.

      Reply
  4. Ann Koplow

    Two of my favorite writers: Joseph Heller and you! Thanks for the big talk today, Chris.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      You’re one of my favorite writers too, and that’s no catch-22.

      Reply

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