Avoiding Talking To Strangers Could Be Bad For Your Health

Personally, reading this study gave me a feeling of dread. Great! The thing I’ve perfected, avoiding talking to strangers at all costs, may be bad for me.

Some people can strike up a conversation with anyone at any time. My best friend is the epitome of an extrovert. She’s never met a stranger and can talk to anyone about almost any subject. Once I get past pleasantries with a stranger my mind goes blank. It’s a phenomenon that I’ve learned to live with.

But I know I’m not the only person avoiding small talk in the grocery store or waiting room. Most people seem mainly interested in what’s happening on their phones. Most people are definitely avoiding eye contact. 

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But there are plenty of reasons people might avoid talking to strangers aside from anxiety. They may be in a rush or busy thinking about other things. They might be hesitant due to the lingering pandemic. Or they might just be naturally introverted.

Women in midlife in particular might be juggling spending time with their kids, date nights with their partner, seeing their friends on rare occasions, and assisting aging parents. So striking up conversations with strangers is not high up on their list of priorities.

Whatever the reason, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that our overall well-being can potentially suffer when we avoid conversations with strangers.

Data Collection: 50,000+ Study Subjects

Researchers collected responses from more than 50,000 people across four studies. The first was a sample of 578 people from the United States who completed a preregistered survey. The next was taken from 19,197 respondents to an American Time Use Survey. Researchers also included 10,447 responses to WHO’s study on Global Aging and Adult Health and, lastly, 21,644 users of a French mobile application.

The point was to suss out what types of relationships and how many interactions predicted a person’s well-being. They looked at who the respondents interacted with daily (kids, partners, family members, colleagues, friends, strangers) and then determined the person’s level of happiness.

The Importance Of Talking To Literally Anyone

The research found positive correlations between greater diversity in people’s social lives and a greater overall subjective well-being. Even interactions between people with “weak” ties (e.g. talking with a stranger) promoted overall wellness.

In a lab experiment, people who were instructed to interact with a stranger reported equal happiness to those assigned to interact with their romantic partner. People in the studies self-reported levels of their physical health and levels of happiness.

Overall, having daily interactions with a diverse set of people promoted well-being. So while talking with your friends and family is important, expanding your social network to include other people may be just as important. Chatting with your neighbors, the cashier at your coffee shop, or people you see often at the market could improve your overall well-being.

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Those who branch out and spend time with a diverse group of people reported higher levels of life satisfaction, quality of life, and well-being. Regardless of age, gender, and socioeconomic status, the findings were the same.

Diversity among the people who subjects chatted with was even more important than the number of interactions a person had or the amount of time spent interacting. Across all the data sets, having a diverse social portfolio was the top predictor of well-being and (although a weaker predictor) of physical health. The researchers found that a more diverse “social portfolio” was even more important than being married.

No one’s suggesting striking up a conversation with a strange man in a dark alley. But otherwise, research shows striking up conversations with people you normally wouldn’t can be a fantastic idea for both your emotional and physical health.

Anything that can improve our world, improve our emotional well-being, and promote inclusion and diversity is a great thing in our books.

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