The Case For Talking to Strangers

“Ya gotta get out there.”

That’s a refrain singles searching for romantic partners often hear. The trouble is, “there” isn’t always such a hospitable place. Sure you can leave the house, take a walk, meet friends for dinner, or go to the occasional cocktail party.

But day-to-day life generally isn’t conducive to those adorable cute meets you see in romantic comedies. Somehow, you never do end up colliding with an attractive single stranger whilst carrying a teetering stack of hatboxes.

The idea of striking up conversations with strangers sounds awkward and weird—and anyway, most people don’t like that, right? Not according to a study by University of Chicago psychologists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder.

The researchers found that while most people think strangers wouldn’t welcome an unsolicited conversation, a series of experiments revealed a different conclusion.

In one experiment, Chicago-area commuters were instructed to strike up a conversation with a stranger on a train. Before they began, the participants predicted that they would have a less pleasant commute than those who kept to themselves. But after the experiment, they reported having a more enjoyable ride than those who were instructed to remain silent, as well as those who were told to behave as they normally would.

“None of our participants reported having a truly negative conversation with a truly unpleasant person,” they wrote. “People liked their conversation partners, had pleasant conversations, and had more positive commutes the longer their conversations lasted.”

The participants were also incorrect in their predictions that their overtures would be unwelcome. “Not a single person reported being rebuffed,” the researchers wrote. “Commuters appeared to think that talking to a stranger posed a meaningful risk of social rejection. As far as we can tell, it posed no risk at all.”

Subsequent experiments with bus and taxi riders replicated these results, and a study that involved a waiting room found that the people who were approached for conversation enjoyed them just as much as the initiators.

Clever openers weren’t necessary. Most people simply mentioned the weather or a current event, complimented an article of clothing or hairstyle, or even just said “How are you?”

“A weak opening line in conversation might be a surprisingly good one,” they wrote.

Granted, Epley and Schroeder weren’t studying people interested in forming a relationship that lasted longer than a morning commute, and there is no indication that any friendships or relationships resulted from these chats.

But for those who are single and looking, I think this is useful information. I’m not suggesting you turn your morning train ride into a pick-up scene. I’m suggesting that if you want to meet more people, getting into the habit of striking up conversations with strangers is a good idea.

But don’t limit yourself to people you might want to date. Just get into the habit of being friendly and open, so that you can hopefully discover what the participants in Epley and Schroeder’s study did—that most people are nice, and happy to talk. The more you experience this firsthand, the easier it will be when you do see that hottie at the bus stop reading Proust.

In that moment, you won’t need fate to deliver a comic mishap involving a fender bender or misbehaving dog. All you’ll have to do is say, “Hi.”



its not you sara eckel

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.

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