29 Jan 2024

The Comfort of Strangers

Most of us would probably agree that our relationships – with partners, friends, family and colleagues – are the most important factor in feelings of wellbeing and satisfaction. But there is also plenty of evidence that our interactions with strangers, often fleeting and superficial, also play an important part in our feelings of happiness and belonging and should never be overlooked.

We are taught from an early age about “stranger danger” and are told never to speak strangers. Whilst it is understandable that parents are protective, we often carry this advice through to adulthood, ensuring that we are tentative about talking to people we don’t know, and fearful that such interactions will not be positive or life-enhancing.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. In an increasingly fragmented and isolated society, where a troubling six per cent of English people claim that they are suffering from loneliness “often or always” (Community Life Survey 2023), these day-to-day contacts are more vital than ever. They can range from something as simple as smiling and waving at someone you see every day (the postman, the flower-seller, the school crossing supervisor), to exchanging greetings of the “Good morning, how are you today?” variety, to actually chatting for a few moments to a barista or a shop assistant, enjoying a good moan with somebody in the same bus queue or waiting for the same train, or having a full-blown conversation with a stranger.

All of these encounters will convey a little pulse of positivity; you may find you raise your head and stop studiously studying the pavement or your phone screen as you walk along, and actually engage in eye contact with strangers, even exchanging smiles or joining in eye-rolling complicity when confronted by traffic jams, torrential rains, queues and all the other myriad inconveniences of modern life.

While many people agree that this sort of contact is vital to our well-being, everything seems to be conspiring against us. We shut ourselves off from each other, shielding behind headphones and phone screens. We carry out many transactions that would have once involved an encounter with a stranger (buying a train ticket, going to the bank, paying a bill, even doing the weekly grocery shop) online, thus minimising human contact. Community spaces, such as libraries, community centres, social clubs and pubs, are disappearing at an alarming pace, reducing contact even further.

The internet has opened a new world to us, and we roam around it at will, engaging with strangers, posting up intimate details about our lives, commenting (sometimes extremely aggressively) on other people’s opinions. But this is a virtual world, where our normal social parameters are irrelevant, our inhibitions are down – it is so much easier to be rude or outspoken in the written word than it is when you are interacting in person, which involves listening, observing body language, picking up cues in facial expressions and verbal tics and so on.

You might feel that the world is at your fingertips online, allowing you to access to a vast community of connected strangers. But at the same time, you might never have spoken to your near neighbours, exchanged the time of day with your postman, or commiserated on the appalling weather with your refuse collector. All these encounters will make you feel like you belong to a human community; they will make you feel truly connected.

Researchers have found that we consistently underestimate how much we will enjoy talking with a stranger. We dread the chatty neighbour on the train or plane; we peremptorily reel off our order in the coffee shop to avoid small talk. But it has also been proved that our expectations are confounded when we actually engage, and we feel all the better for it.

Five Simple Steps

1. Look around you
Discard distractions (phones, headphones etc) and look around you as you go about your business. Practise engaging in fleeting eye contact with strangers, and make sure your facial expression is neutral or friendly (no glowering or looking glum). You will soon find you catch the eye of passing pedestrians, and inevitably nods and smiles will follow.

2.  Go for a greeting
A brisk “good morning” or “good afternoon” is nearly always reciprocated. It feels like a civilised acknowledgement and exchange. It will come naturally enough on country walks where encounters with other people are comparatively rare, but it is more problematic in cities, You will certainly not be greeting all your fellow pavement-pounders, but there are still opportunities to be friendly in quieter residential streets, or simply to greet the people who serve you with over the course of the day (baristas, café-owners, ticket-sellers, newspaper-sellers etc)

3.  Take it up a notch
This means elaborating a bit more on the basic greeting. So after you have exchanged “good mornings” you could make an observation of the “it’s bitterly cold today isn’t it?” variety. At this level, you are probably not expecting a full-blown exchange of views, but saying something relatively innocuous might elicit a reaction – either a simple agreement or, if the person is also ready to talk, a further observation.

4.  Find shared ground
If you’re ready to embark on a slightly longer conversation, the best place to start is to comment on a shared experience or make an observation. This could be as simple as “Are you waiting for the number 52? It’s a terrible service isn’t it?” or “I like your scarf; is it Japanese?

5. Be curious
When you’re ready to have a longer chat (perhaps on a train or bus), the best way to initiate conversation with a total stranger is to comment on what you have in common (ie you’re on a bus/train, travelling in the same direction) and then ask questions, which will give a willing partner a chance to expound beyond a monosyllabic response, eg “Is this a regular journey for you?”, “Have you been to the new cinema complex in the town centre?”, “What do you think of the new traffic restrictions?” and so on. If you do get a monosyllabic response, don't push it; your neighbour isn't ready to engage and it's better to cut your losses and move on.

Remember, the more conversations you initiate, the easier you will find it and the more confident and at ease you’ll be. Other people will pick up on the fact that you’re relaxed and friendly and will be more open to talking to you. It will just keep on getting better!

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