It seems the advice our parents gave us not to talk to strangers was wrong. I'm not saying small children should spill secrets to the guy holding an open bag of lollies next to a white van. But for most adults, commiserating in the check-out queue over the weather or the All Blacks will not result in a lifetime of sexual slavery in someone's garage.
I've long admired people who could gab to anyone, anytime, anywhere. I was never one of those folks. Instead, I'd keep my head down, focused on task, charging ahead. Thanks to a smartphone, I don't even need a mission with which to engage. I can commune with my email inbox, social media or do this thing - write. The first two activities are distractions and the last is rewarding - no flood of endorphins or actual hugs, but a retreat zone offering time to process events while not trying to be six places at once.
Research published earlier this year in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour showed strangers smiled less to one another when they had their phones in a waiting room and that phones are altering the fabric of our social life. In the experiment, strangers waited together with or without their smartphones; their smiling later coded by trained assistants. Compared to participants without smartphones, participants with smartphones exhibited significantly fewer smiles of any kind and fewer genuine smiles.
But you didn't need a study to tell you that.
The weird thing about ghosting through a living world is social scientists say all of us - even introverts - feel better when we interact with humans, including, and especially strangers. We imagine the bloke next to us won't want to engage, but most times, we'd be wrong. Studies have shown striking up serendipitous conversations with people we meet in public can boost mental health. Several years ago, researchers at the University of British Columbia tested whether short conversations with strangers could lift moods. They asked participants to enter a busy coffee shop and grab a beverage — half would get in and get out, and half would strike up a conversation with the cashier. They found people randomly assigned to turn an economic transaction into a quick social interaction left Starbucks in a better mood and felt a greater sense of belonging in their community.
Other experiments have shown train and bus commuters who interacted with other passengers experienced a more pleasant ride — even when they believed they would prefer the solitude of a book - or their phone.
Even brief eye contact can heighten our sense of inclusion.
And while we envision the difficulty of dragging our carcass from the sofa to the door to attend a party, we're usually surprised afterwards the gathering was pretty good.
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Letting technology stand in for people has downsides - the ATM, self checkout and online shopping eliminate ways we used to interact. Evolution has wired our brains for sociability, to live and work in groups. Shy computer programmers and engineers invent devices that sidestep our natural social tendencies. Machines do a fabulous job of trimming the workforce and extracting more money from customers, but they do nothing to improve the state of our headspace.
If anything, I'm learning to appreciate micro-conversations that crop up between strangers and even start them myself. I'm trying to balance silent journeys with endless blabbing in places like a recent 12-hour flight between Auckland and San Francisco. I learned my seat mate was meeting her sisters in Las Vegas before taking a cruise, and that she works in tertiary education. We talked about contrasting Christmases between New Zealand and the cold places from which we had come. I shared that I had given up the American custom of sending out 75-100 photo cards each holiday and I didn't miss the stress or expense. There was still plenty of time for silent eating and movie watching.
I remember noticing, shortly after coming to New Zealand, how friendly and chatty people were. I was shopping for a bathrobe at Bayfair when a woman directed me to inspect something other than what I'd been eyeing. "Do you work here?' I asked. "No," she replied. "I have that one and it's quite nice."
I visited New York City last week with Kiwi friends who ran the marathon. While we often travelled in our antipodean pack, we still took time to chat to the random person on the subway, waiting in the queue or ringing up our purchases (some of us did a lot of shopping).
One of my most delightful encounters with a stranger happened on the way home. A 30-something man next to me on the flight from New York to Houston was engrossed in reading a book titled "What I Wish I Knew When I was 20". He was so taken with a passage involving a letter of recommendation for a drunk guy passed out on a bus, he encouraged me to read it. The paragraphs were funny and engaging, but what I most appreciated was my seat mate was enamoured enough with a book to share a snippet with me.
In a world that feels as fragmented as a shattered clay pot, reaching out is civilising. Talking to strangers may not save the planet, but who doesn't need an extra endorphin boost now and then?