THE HUMAN CONDITION BORN TO BLAB : Why Do We Confide in Complete Strangers?
Psychologists get paid for it.
For airline passengers, who do it for free, it can make a six-hour flight fly by or inspire you to push your seatmate out the emergency exit.
It can even make a bartender take up drinking.
It’s happened to you. Or maybe, just maybe you’ve done it yourself. You know . . . total strangers who confide in total strangers. Exchanging intimate details in cabs, planes and taverns before exchanging names.
Expert agree that bending anonymous ears has a certain advantage over bending the ears of those we know. It’s a kind of therapy, born of a basic human need to minimize tension and fear.
“Especially after a really bad day, people come in and sit down, waiting for an opportunity to spill their guts,” says Patti Tudisco, bartender at the West Beach Cafe in Venice. “It’s usually about disappointments; a boyfriend or girlfriend who has left them, losing their job or not getting a promotion,” says Tudisco, who’s been tending bar for 10 years.
But some nights the job can be overwhelming.
“If someone is really upset or very sad, it affects me the rest of the night, and I don’t know what to do. Sometimes by the end of the night, after listening to all the stories, it mounts up. I can imagine how psychiatrists feel, though they get paid a lot more than I do and have shorter hours.”
According to USC psychologist Chaytor Mason, being among strangers makes all of us more apprehensive and triggers a series of physiological changes. This “general activation symptom” makes our heart beat harder, muscles tighten and sweat glands go to work, leading us to more active behavior.
“On an airplane, train or bus where people are captive, they can’t get up and walk away. The tension needs resolution, and that often comes in the form of talking,” Mason says.
While some people withdraw in the presence of strangers, extroverts or people with immediate internal pressures open up, Mason says. “If your daughter is engaged to someone you really don’t appreciate for example, you can’t do anything about it, but talking reduces the tension.”
Those on the receiving end do not always welcome such conversations, especially people who either feel used or responsible for solving others’ problems. Surprise confidences also can trigger in the listener feelings of guilt about tuning out and shame about not caring.
“Most people are glad to get an audience and reduce tension but (won’t) allow the other person to do the same,” Mason adds. “If the person doesn’t want to give and take, just take, the listener will quickly become resentful.”
Bob Adler knows all about being an audience. For the past 15 years, he has driven Independent Cab 319 around Los Angeles, listening to passengers’ tales. And the stories he’s heard in his white Cadillac would make Kitty Kelley -blush.
“A good cross-section of life gets into this taxicab,” says the native New Yorker. “I get intimate details of people’s extracurricular activities. One of my customers is dying of AIDS. He lives alone and calls occasionally for me to pick his parents up from the airport.”
The cabby is well aware of his dual role as driver/psychologist.
“I like to think I do help by listening and offering condolences or congratulations. I talk frequently, and I get tired. My wife tells me I’m very quiet when I get home.”
And how does the veteran listener feel when the ride is over? “Sometimes I’m relieved. Other times, I feel that the story didn’t really end.”
Talking to strangers can be like a platonic affair, says Dr. Mark S. Goulston, West Los Angeles psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at UCLA. “They can’t connect at home, so they connect outside. With a stranger, it’s like going to a new school. There’s a new slate, a new chance to unload, to be popular, to be understood.”
Goulston says two competing forces are at play: fear of strangers versus a deep yearning to deal with isolation. “There’s a real push for instant intimacy,” he says. “People who confide in strangers often go from stranger to stranger, airline flight to airline flight. They don’t like to be alone and need to have someone else in the loop to calm their anxiety.”
Airplanes and airports are tailor-made for gut spilling.
“As people get farther away from the familiarity and safety of home, it adds to other fears like flying,” Goulston says. “We try to create a sense of home by decorating the conversation with personal details.”
But once back home, why continue confiding in strangers rather than friends? There’s safety in strangers--no repercussions, nothing to be used against you later. “We can get into areas we can’t get into with our families or therapist,” Mason says. “Since we’re not likely to ever run into this person again, we’re not subject to blackmail in the future.”
Catching people off guard also gives the confider a sense of control. For instance, patients will talk to their internists about personal matters and to their therapists about physical things. “They select people who can’t do anything about the problem as a way to be in control and not have to confront solutions,” Goulston adds. “It’s like playing checkers and always going first.”
There are times when confiding serves the need of the listener to feel important. “Co-dependent people who need to please and not offend others are sitting ducks,” Goulston says. “The more co-dependent another person is, the more likely they’ll be a willing listener.”
Does confiding in strangers differ between the sexes? According to the experts, no.
Experts say it’s a universal hobby, although, “It’s tougher to get men going,” Goulston says. “But once you break the ice, they are likely to be just as talkative because they have this back load of things they haven’t gotten out.”
Goulston cautions that people who confide in strangers often confuse relief that comes from talking with resolution. “Unless you resolve what you’re really upset about, it keeps repeating itself,” he says.
Yet, there is virtue in exposing yourself to strangers, says USC’s Mason. It is possible along the way to gain insight into oneself and also learn more about life.
Recently, Mason found himself sharing a hospital room. It was uncomfortably quiet, neither man wanting to disturb the other. When they finally spoke, it turned out they had fought in the same part of the Pacific during World War II. The exchange provided the psychologist with a welcome nostalgia trip.
“We can learn as much from it as we care to go into,” he says.