As kids, we’re often told by our parents not to talk to strangers. While it may have been solid advice then, there are good reasons we should talk to strangers as adults. In a series of experiments, Chicago’s Nick Epley found people who reached out to connect with strangers, even for a few minutes, were happier—and this was true for both extroverts and introverts. Simply put: We are social creatures who are hardwired for connection.
One of the reasons we don’t reach out to others is our fear of rejection. We tell ourselves that others don’t want to be bothered and taking the initiative will be a waste of time. This assumption rarely turns out to be true. Not only does reaching out to strangers help us feel better, it increases our emotional intelligence. There is a good chance that the other person is feeling the fear of rejection as well and will welcome the opportunity to interact if we take the initiative.
Here are five reasons to talk to strangers:
It challenges our assumptions
We often make judgments about others based on their appearance and demeanor. The person who seems grouchy and self-absorbed may not be that way at all. I remember seeing a man numerous times at the pool where I work out, who appeared unfriendly and unsociable. When I finally reached out and talked to him, I found him to be very friendly and pleasant.
It increases our listening skills
The best way to talk to strangers is to ask for their opinion on a matter, rather than just something that can be answered in a factual manner. People love to give their opinions. We can practice our listening skills focusing our total attention to what they say and using it to delve further into why they think or feel the way they do. This allows us to develop highly valuable listening skills which will serve us well in all areas of life. “Asking open-ended questions is key to developing this type of dialogue. Also, each gender has a different physical communication style, and knowing these differences will help you better connect and elevate your emotional intelligence. For example, women will more often stand face-to-face, whereas men stand slightly off to the side. You can increase your listening skills by these nonverbal ways of communicating,” says Tara Hooper, an image consultant and style strategist at The Style Signature.
It pushes us out of our comfort zone
All personal growth happens when we challenge ourselves and move outside of our comfort zone. The more difficult we find the idea of talking to strangers, the more we will expand that zone when we take action and do whatever we are afraid to do. Each time we do so, it makes it easier to do so in the future.
It boosts self-awareness
When we reach out to strangers, we discover things about ourselves. Perhaps that person reminded us of someone in our past that we had a negative experience with. This is called triggering. Often the person who triggers us is very different from the person who we first had the encounter with. There is a phrase that fits well here, “The story I’m telling myself is . . .” Unless we check in with others, our assumptions can be totally off base. We will not discover this, however, if we don’t make an effort to learn more about the person. The more we become aware of this, the more control we gain over our feelings and emotions.
It enhances our empathy
Showing an interest in the lives of strangers, even in a brief, limited way, increases our awareness of the struggles others face. It decreases feelings of isolation and increases our sense that we are part of something beyond our own immediate needs and interests. Making contact with strangers helps increase our compassion.