On my way home from work last night there was a story on Triple J’s Hack program about the benefits of talking to strangers. Studies have shown we are more likely to have better health and wellbeing if we have a diverse social portfolio, meaning the number of relationship categories we interact with. These can be acquaintances, family, friends or co-workers for example.

Hannah Collins is a Micro Organisational Behaviour at Havard business school and has discovered that the more diverse your social portfolio the better your wellbeing indicators are likely to be. So the more people we engage with the better we feel about ourselves and others. 

This makes sense to me. The older I get the less I care about what people think about me, thus making striking up a conversation with a complete stranger a risk free endeavour. This hasn’t always been the case. There were a good few decades from my teens, through my twenties where I was unlikely to strike up a conversation with a person if I didn’t have to.

In hindsight, I cringe at the missed opportunities but at the time I (wrongly) believed that I would somehow be interrupting them or that I’d say something stupid and embarrass myself. (I believe this says more about my self worth the time rather than my actual ability to talk to strangers.) The reality is, and many research papers have now shown, that even the smallest of interactions can improve your wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of the person you're engaged with.

So why are we so shitty at it? I have a few theories on top of the above mentioned (we’re worried about embarrassing ourselves or interrupting someone). The number one barrier I find is smart phones. People are never alone anymore. Everytime I’m in a waiting room, on a  train or tram or waiting in a queue, EVERYONE is on their phones. It’s like we’re allergic to looking up and can’t possibly risk feeling bored for a single second. Heaven forbid you look around and accidentally make eye contact with another human! 

It’s surprising because deep down (most) humans want to connect with other humans. Ironically that connection is what people are striving for when we're mindlessly scrolling through social media on their phones while NOT engaging with the real life humans around them. 

Technology is a massive barrier. While making so many things more efficient, it has also reduced the amount of opportunities we have to strike up conversations with real people. Instead of getting to know the local barista, people use ‘skip’ so they can order, pay and pick up their coffee all without having to talk to anyone. I know Covid spurred it along but contactless drop off and pick up of almost anything has just continued on to become normal.

Older generations are the best at striking up conversation with strangers. My mother-in-law will make a new friend in every queue she’s in. It's remarkable. It also shows how easily it can be done. All you have to do is start. Be brave and start talking.

Just say hello. Hi. Hiya. G’day. Kia ora.

There are a few easy ways to start a conversation with a stranger. First is to find something you both have in common to talk about. This is why 75% (this is a completely made up statistic) of new conversations start with a comment about the weather. If you're in the same place, the chances are you're experiencing the same weather. Talk about it. It's a gateway topic. 

You can point out something interesting to another person. “Look at that amazing sunrise!” “Aren’t the trees beautiful this time of year?” If something has caught your attention then the chances are someone else might find it interesting. These are grounds for starting a conversation.

My third and final tip is to compliment someone on something they are wearing or doing. If you genuinely like something that someone else has on you should totally tell them! Even if this is as far as the conversation goes, having someone say that they love your sneakers or think your t-shirt is awesome is a wonderful thing! That simple sentence can often turn a shitty day into a good one.

The opposite of having a healthy diverse social portfolio is to be lonely. Being lonely (as the pandemic highlighted) is incredibly detrimental to your health. So much so that it is worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day which just blows my mind but goes to show how important making and maintaining connections with other people is.

Even just smiling at a person you are walking past in the street can put a pep in your step. There are going to be a few people who think you're a dickhead but that says more about them, then it does about you. Like any practice, talking to strangers is something you get better with over time so I recommend that you start today - start right now. Put your phone down and say something about the weather to the next person you see. Who knows where it could lead.

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