20 Feb 2022

How conversations with strangers can have surprising results

From Sunday Morning, 10:40 am on 20 February 2022

For many of us, chit-chatting with strangers seems like nothing less than cruel and unusual punishment.

However, new research suggests our negative expectations of talking to strangers are generally way off the mark.

woman in face mask

Photo: Erin Agius / Unsplash

When people do engage in deep conversations, they usually feel less awkward, more connected and happier than expected, says Amit Kumar, co-author of a recent paper on the subject.

“The studies that we’ve conducted do suggest we’re reluctant, perhaps overly reluctant, to interact with people we don’t know well, but we’d likely be better off if we did," Kumar tells Jim Mora.

"Social relationships are really good for both our mental health and our physical wellbeing. Loneliness can be really problematic for people. So connecting with others can be extremely important.”

All of our friends were strangers at one point, Kumar points out, and some initial connection is always the prerequisite for any friendship or deep bond.

His team enlisted 1,800 people to meet strangers in a variety of settings.

Across the board, the participants reported a big disconnect between how they expected to feel during the conversations and how they actually felt.

Even when people talked to each other in laboratory conditions - not a natural social environment - the results were still informative, he says.

Conversations that took place over Zoom and other social media platforms were very similar to those had between newly introduced work colleagues and strangers who met in public parks.

The participants were encouraged to have deeper conversations that involved self-disclosure about thoughts and feelings, including how they'd felt the last time they cried in front of another person.

Many expected that the strangers they spoke to would not be interested to hear their stories and learn about who they really were, but the study proved this assumption false.

“The primary finding is the deeper conversations feel less awkward, they lead to stronger bonds, more liking, greater happiness than people expect and part of what’s going on here is people seem to underestimate how much others care about and are interested in what they have to say.”

Amit Kumar is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business.

Amit Kumar is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business. Photo: © Cornell University Photography

These negative expectations about conversations with strangers explain our societal reticence to have them, Kumar says.

Despite our inclination to avoid being honest and vulnerable, many people are yearning for better conversations and deeper interactions, the findings show.

“We had participants report on how often they’d wished they’d engaged in deeper conversations like these and they tended to say that they wished they did this more often than they do now.

“We’re not reluctant to dive deeper, we’d prefer to, but because of this psychological barrier that’s standing in our way.”

Although not all cultures were included in the study, the findings are quite robust and can be universally applied, Kumar says.

Interestingly, personality type had little bearing on the results extrapolated from the data.

“We also tested whether miscalibration varies by personality types, which is a little different from culture. But there are differences between people, of course, and our results suggested that doesn’t seem to be the case. Findings were both the same for introverts and extroverts. for example.

“We also didn’t see consistent differences based on gender.”

When looking for a good opening for a first conversation, Kumar suggests people dig a little deeper than they might typically do.

“If someone wanted to know something important about you, what would you want them to know? That’s pretty open-ended. It allows people to share something about themselves."

Kumar has also studied happiness, being involved in one of the first research projects that found buying experiences is more rewarding than buying things.

This can be important in later life, as it gives people more opportunities to talk about the colour and depth of their lives later in life.

“It turns out that there is empirical evidence for this talking component. The data suggest that one reason people derive greater satisfaction from their experiential than material purchases is that they’re more likely to talk about them and their experiences make for better story material and they’re more likely to be discussed with others.

“We do collect demographic information about people like that and we typically find that people in general, both young and old, derive more satisfaction from their experiences than they do from more material purchases like clothing, jewellery and furniture."

Amit Kumar is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business. He is co-author of the recent paper Overly Shallow?: Miscalibrated Expectations Create a Barrier to Deeper Conversation, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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