A lot of us are of the mindset that you should never, ever, talk to a stranger because you might get stuck talking to them. It might be weird.
That's how Harvard business professor Michael Norton felt. He'd do anything he could to avoid interacting with a stranger. That is until he and his research partner, Elizabeth Dunn, came across a study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business which looked at the emotional impact of talking to strangers while commuting.
Norton and Dunn study happiness. They specifically study the little things you can do right now to make yourself happier.
"The researchers had the same intuition that all of us have which is that people would really not want to talk to strangers. What they did is they made them," Norton says.
In the study, researchers recruited commuters on subways and buses in Chicago. Then the participants were split into two groups. One half was instructed to commute as usual, complete with earbuds and smartphones. The other half was instructed to chat with the person sitting next to them.
"Everybody said, 'That's a terrible idea, I don't want to do it, it's going to be a disaster.' But when [they] called [the participants] later, people who did business as usual with their earbuds in and texting the entire time were not as happy as the people who forced themselves to chat with a stranger," Norton explains.
So what's going on? Why does talking to strangers make us happier? Norton says it all comes down trying.
"There are some downsides to the fact that we really, really care what other people think about us, but there are some upsides to the fact that we really, really care what other people think about us," he says.
"One of them is when we start talking to someone we hope they kind of like us. That they think we're interesting and smart and funny and nice. And in order to accomplish that goal, what we do when we talk to strangers is we try. We try to get them to laugh, we try to get them to like us, we try to get them to think we're interesting."
In the process of trying to make that connection, we smile, laugh, and engage using behaviours that also make us happy. "It's almost like you fake it to be nice and happy, and then you get feedback to yourself that you're actually having a nice and happy conversation," Norton says.
So why do most of us avoid talking to strangers, if it makes us happier? According to Norton, it's because we forget that talking to strangers is enjoyable.
"It certainly isn't the case that all interactions go well, but it seems to be the case that all of us ... tend to remember the couple of times that it didn't go well and we actually forget all the times that we chatted with someone where it went very well. But when you look at the data it turns out most of [our interactions with strangers] actually go pretty well ... and people end up better off than if they hadn't chatted."
But what about the strangers unknowingly participating in this study? When researchers followed up with the strangers who the participants spoke to, they found overwhelmingly that the interaction improved their happiness too.
"The research shows that when you do try to chat with other people, a huge per cent of the time they're perfectly happy to chat back with you. We just don't think they will be," Norton explained.
"We really do underestimate the degree to which people make us happy ... people are an incredible source of meaning and happiness in our lives."
Follow the link above to listen to the Perfect Strangers show, and to hear the surprising way Norton and Dunn applied this research to the business world.