Talking to Strangers Part 1

2 May 2021

People on a train not talking to each other
Typical commuter train scene where passengers don’t talk to each other

“Turns out that people LIKE talking to strangers quite a bit but because they think they’re NOT going to enjoy it, they don’t do it very often. I would say my lab has been consumed over the last few years with this really reliable result that people underestimate how positive others will feel when you reach out to them.”

– Professor Nicholas Epley, University of Chicago Booth School of Business

When I lived in London an Australian friend warned me not to look at or talk to anyone on the London Underground. “Only newbies do that,” she said, meaning only newcomers or the inexperienced would make the big mistake of talking to a stranger on a train.

But here’s the thing; sometimes I LIKE to talk to the person next to me. And sometimes I do.

A few days away from finishing my book on the art of conversation, I came across Professor Nick Epley’s research. We all know what anti-social means. In a fascinating online lecturer called Designing a Good Life, Professor Epley discussed ‘pro-social behaviour’: social behaviour that benefits other people or society as a whole such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.

In these times, I think we could all do with hitting the ‘boost’ button and being a bit more pro-social. Especially those of us who admit feeling lonely, isolated or depressed and the research shows that one in three of us do at the moment.

Here’s Professor Epley’s Virtual Harper Lecture 2021, Designing a Good Life.