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Why talking to strangers is good for your mental health

A series of orange and pink dots, some of which are attached by a thin connection.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)
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Hello! I’m Deborah Netburn, the faith and spirituality reporter for the L.A. Times filling in this week for your usual newsletter writer, Laura Newberry.

Laura is one of my best friends at the paper — just as insightful and compassionate in person as she is in her writing — and coincidentally, she happened to be with me when I first got interested in the subject of today’s newsletter: The importance of talking to strangers.

A few months ago, on the first cloudy day we’d had in ages, Laura and I and two other friends went to the Los Angeles County Arboretum for a guided forest bathing experience beneath the light of a full moon.

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We didn’t know what to expect, but we were excited as we entered the garden. We imagined ourselves wandering around the arboretum’s manicured grounds, communing with plants, and enjoying the relative cool of the evening as the latest heat wave finally broke.

We did do all of that and it was great, but my favorite part of the two-hour session was when we gathered as a group in a circle, each person sharing something they’d noticed after a short, mindful walk through the garden. I appreciated my fellow forest bathers’ observations about the natural world, but honestly, I would have been just as happy if we were talking about something else. It was the thrill of connecting with strangers that filled my heart with warmth.

It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I’d missed talking to people I don’t know.

Throughout the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d stayed in touch with close friends, family and colleagues like Laura, but my night of forest bathing was a powerful reminder of how essential interactions with strangers and people I know only peripherally — what sociologists call “weak ties” — is for my overall happiness.

Science suggests I’m not alone.

Multiple studies have shown that the amount of social interaction a person has in their daily life is one of the most consistent predictors of well-being. For instance, one meta study found that people who had a strong social network were 50% less likely to die during the study period than those with little social support. It’s an effect that is comparable to quitting smoking and it’s true for both introverts and extroverts.

“Social connection is a health behavior, like eating an apple or getting enough sleep,” Hanne Collins, a PhD student in organizational behavior at Harvard University, told me. “It’s a key factor in our well-being.”

But social interactions come in different flavors. Making small talk about your day with the cashier at Trader Joe’s is one thing. Contemplating life with an old friend over dinner is very different. Surely one of these is more meaningful than the other, right?

Yes, but it turns out both are important.

Earlier this year Collins published the results of a study that looked at the variety of types of social interactions an individual has over the course of the day — what she calls “relational diversity” — and whether it affects our physical, emotional and mental health.

Let’s say you have eight conversations in a given day. If six of those conversations are with co-workers and two are with a romantic partner, that represents low relational diversity. If instead you have two conversations with co-workers, two with friends, one with a neighbor while walking the dog, one with a barista at a coffee shop, one with a romantic partner, and one with your mom, then you’ve just had what Collins calls a relationally diverse day.

After analyzing the social interactions of more than 50,000 people, Collins found that the number of times a person had a social interaction was a significant predictor of well being, and also, that a higher amount of diversity among those interactions predicted higher well-being over all.

“We’re not saying that weak ties are equally important as strong ties, but our close [friends and family] are around us, we’ve built them into our lives,” she said. “There is value to fostering relational diversity and making those other connections happen.”

The hitch

Collins’ research suggests that we should all start talking to strangers more, or at least making more of an effort to connect with people we see frequently but don’t really know. But while being friendly and chatting up strangers is second nature for some, most people are uncomfortable starting conversations with people they don’t know.

Nicholas Epley is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago‘s Booth School of Business who studies our reluctance to talk to each other. His and others’ research has shown that people systemically underestimate how much they will enjoy a conversation with a stranger, and how likely it is that the stranger will enjoy the conversation too.

In one experiment, he asked Chicago-area train and bus commuters to rate how much they expected to enjoy their commute in one of three situations — (1) trying to engage a stranger in conversation, (2) keeping themselves in solitude, and (3) doing whatever they normally did. Most participants expected to have a less positive experience if they struck up a conversation with a stranger than if they kept to themselves, but their actual experience was the opposite: Talking to a stranger turned out to improve the commute.

Why the disconnect? Epley has identified three explanations for why so many of us erroneously assume that our efforts to engage strangers in conversation will fall flat.

The first is the misguided belief that the success of a conversation with a stranger depends on how effective we are at starting conversations and keeping them going. In fact, studies have shown that a stranger’s experience of a conversation is determined more by the friendliness and warmth conveyed by the person starting the conversation than if they have good conversation skills.

The second is that we’re not sure how our attempts at starting a conversation will be received. Not everyone wants to talk to people they don’t know, but research has demonstrated that a majority of people will respond to a friendly overture from a stranger with friendliness. As Epley explains, “social interactions are less like two marbles unaffected by each others’ presence and instead more like two magnets whose poles attract to create interdependent actions.” If you reach out with warmth, you will likely be responded to with warmth.

And the final reason we underestimate how much we’ll like talking to strangers? Because so few of us do it that we haven’t had enough experience to see that we actually like it. If you never test your assumption that most strangers don’t want to talk with you, or that a conversation with a stranger will be unpleasant, how will you learn if you’re wrong?

So what can we do?

In the days before smartphones, online ordering and contactless delivery, diversifying our interactions by chatting with people outside our immediate social circle of close family and friends was much easier, if almost unavoidable.

“If you lived in a small community 50 years ago you talked to your neighbors because you had no choice,” Epley said. “Now we have to engineer it.”

The good news is that there are simple steps you can take if you want to increase the diversity of your interactions on a regular basis.

In an attempt to live her research, Collins began volunteering for a crisis hotline during the pandemic and recently enrolled in an in-person adult guitar class after moving to a new town to make sure she had regular opportunities to interact with new people. She knows it’s good for her, but she’s still occasionally apprehensive about it. She was about to leave for her guitar lesson on the afternoon we talked and admitted she had considered backing out. “My husband had to remind me that I always have a good time when I go,” she said.

Collins also makes an effort to call (rather than text) her friends occasionally. “People will get scared. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, are you OK?’ but I advise it,” she said. “It’s little things like that that help us get over our fear of talking to people.”

Epley said he tries to take advantage of easy opportunities to strike up conversations with new people whenever they present themselves. “I ride the train back and forth to work, and I try to connect with people then,” he said. “Or if someone walking down the sidewalk sidles up to me I’ll say hello. If you look for those opportunities you’ll see them more than you would guess.”

If the idea of engaging a stranger on the sidewalk feels too frightening, you might also consider joining an activity group like a book club or a hiking group instead, he said. “It helps if they meet regularly so it becomes a habit,” he said. “That way you don’t have to think about each encounter.”

Finally, I know organized religion is not for everyone, but I’ve found that being part of a synagogue gives me regular low-stakes access to a whole lot of friendly people I don’t know very well. At the start of services, the rabbi generally asks us to introduce ourselves to the person next to us, and often during her sermon she’ll invite us to discuss a prompt she’s provided with a neighbor. I haven’t made close friends this way, but I’ve had lots of warm and friendly one-time conversations with interesting people, and that fills me up in a different way.

And of course, there’s always forest bathing at the Arboretum.

Thanks for reading,

Deborah

If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email GroupTherapy@latimes.com gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic and other resources

I’ve linked to articles by Epley and Collins above, but I also recommend checking out the work of Gillian Sandstrom, a researcher at Essex University who has published extensively on the value of weak ties and talking to strangers. As part of her research, she created a scavenger hunt to encourage people to start up conversations with strangers and then track how they felt before and after. She used an app for her research that is no longer available, but her list of missions is still online. Sandstrom was also recently interviewed by Shankar Vedantam on the Hidden Brain podcast about the power of tiny interactions.

My new friend, 86-year-old wallpaper hanger Reita Green, doesn’t have an advanced degree, but few people have more social intelligence than she does. She met 28-year-old Beverly Pate after Pate hired her to wallpaper her living room, and thanks to Green’s authentic warmth and curiosity, the two quickly became best friends and business partners. A few months ago I wrote a story about their intergenerational friendship that demonstrates the many benefits of talking to strangers for both parties involved.

And if you’re curious to learn more about forest bathing at the L.A. County Arboretum, journalist Sara Cagle walks you through what the two-hour experience is like in detail in this article from the L.A. Times. Classes are $25 for members and $35 for non-members. You can sign up here.

Other interesting stuff

Are the very words we speak contributing to the culture of our toxic productivity? Jen Doll explores this provocative question, noting that phrases like “jump in the shower” “hop on a plane” and “grab a bite to eat,” promote the idea that we have to do more, faster, for our own lives to be valuable, even as our mental and physical health suffer because of it.

The challenges of getting mental health care with Medicaid. Reporter Ray Suarez introduces us to Katie Prout, a young writer who spent much of the pandemic unemployed, and struggled to get life-saving mental health care while on Medicaid. “Medicaid was good for my body, but bad for my brain,” she said. Watch the video on the Intercept.

Online mental health companies are flooding TikTok, Instagram and other platforms with misleading ads. The Wall Street Journal reports that many of these advertisements don’t conform to longtime standards governing the marketing of prescription drugs and healthcare treatments. Some employees and patients have said these marketing practices have contributed to the abuse of controlled substances.

Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.


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