Never mind what Mom said: Talking to strangers can be good for you

‘Policies targeting greeting and thanking might be a simple and low-cost way of boosting subjective well-being,’ researchers say

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It’s well understood that having deep social connections can make you a happier person. Now a team of scientists in Turkey has shown that even momentary interactions — saying hello to an acquaintance (or “weak tie”) or thanking a stranger who holds the door for you — can boost your sense of well-being. This could prove especially useful over the Christmas shopping season, when casual, momentary encounters tend to be more common.

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What’s more, they were able to replicate the findings in both WEIRD people — an acronym in research circles that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic — as well as a non-WEIRD cohort. “Across the two samples, we found that having conversations with strangers and weak ties, as well as simply greeting and thanking weak ties, predicted greater life satisfaction,” they wrote.

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The team partnered with KONDA, a public-opinion research company in Turkey, to ask some 3,200 adults about “minimal social interactions” as well as life satisfaction. They also drew on data from The Kindness Test, a recent survey conducted by the University of Sussex in partnership with the BBC. Its 60,000 participants were mostly British, but almost a third were English speakers from outside the U.K.

The results showed that the more a participant agreed with questions about social mobility — i.e., “people around me have many chances to get to know other people” — the more likely they were to greet, converse with or thank so-called weak ties. And the more they interacted with weak ties, the greater they reported their life satisfaction to be.

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The same held true for interactions with strangers: the more socially mobile you believe you are, the more likely you are to talk to strangers. (Yes, in spite of what your mom told you.) And that in turn predicts you’ll report higher levels of life satisfaction.

“A notable strength of our work is showing that even momentary interactions (greeting and thanking) can increase subjective well-being,” the team wrote in its report, titled Minimal Social Interactions and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Greeting, Thanking, and Conversing, which appeared in the journal Psychological and Personality Science.

“This is an important contribution given that prior research and interventions mainly focused on minimal interactions involving conversation. For example, an intervention study demonstrated that people who had repeated conversations with strangers over the course of a week experienced greater enjoyment of such conversations.”

They added: “Our results suggest that interventions and policies targeting greeting and thanking might be a simple and low-cost way of boosting subjective well-being.”

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They point to a recent study in the British capital that increased the number of passengers greeting bus drivers to 30 per cent from 23 per cent, merely by placing stickers with encouraging messages (“A ‘thanks’ or ‘hey’ can make my day’’) on the partition between the driver and passengers.

The researchers did note that the effect of interactions with strangers was smaller in the Turkish group (Sample A) than in the British study (Sample B).

“This may be due to Turkey being culturally tighter and more interdependent than Western countries that constituted the majority of Sample B,” they wrote. “Past research implies that engaging in minimal social interactions might be deemed less appropriate in tighter cultures … and individuals adopt a cautious approach toward new relationships in interdependent cultures … Whether our findings would generalize to other non-Western countries remains an open question.”

They also noted a so-called interactive effect in Sample B: “Individuals who received less kindness from close others showed a stronger association between stranger interactions and life satisfaction than those who received more kindness from close others.”

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Finally, they pointed out that, during the pandemic, physical distancing and quarantine measures robbed people of many random encounters with strangers and weak ties.

“To this day, many individuals continue to work from home, where they have fewer opportunities to engage in interactions with weak ties like co-workers or strangers like fellow commuters,” they wrote. “Therefore, the pandemic may have deprived people of the benefits of minimal interactions. Our findings add to the existing literature on the importance of face-to-face interactions for subjective well-being … and suggest that, as things have mostly gone back to normal after the pandemic, people may benefit from harnessing the power of minimal social interactions.” It’s as easy as saying: “Hi!”

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