How talking to strangers could benefit us all?

Talking to my friend the other day, an interesting topic came up. She told me that an unfamiliar woman had tried to talk to her on the bus, and her immediate reaction was to simply ignore her. “I thought she was probably just crazy,” she said. “I didn’t want her to get the idea that I was interested in talking to her.” As the bus ride continued and the woman pressed on, the opposite became true. My friend told me that she hesitantly started to respond to the lady next to her.

She began to realize that all this woman wanted was pleasant small talk. What entailed was a long discussion of what this society has come to. My friend soon discovered that this lady was not creepy at all, just lonely. Isn’t this the case for most of us? Studies show that our social isolation has actually gone up exponentially since 1985. But it begs the question why: what are we doing wrong and why is everyone so lonely, especially when technology is making it easier to make connections than ever?

In different areas of the world, positive emphasis is put on different social behavior. In the West, it is the collectivist culture; a premium is put on inclusion in social groups, being part of a group, succeeding in a group context. In the east, the opposite is true: it is an individualistic culture where children are encouraged to avoid eye contact with passersby. They are told to study on their own, and surmount their peers. What if this isn’t just due to technology, but just the fact we are being thrown into a less-than-warm society.

Everybody wants to be seen as normal and no one wants to be the “creep” who started a conversation, and thus the cycle continues. Studies regarding the effect of inclusivity in a community have found it has positive effects on our mental health. Being social animals, when we feel some kind of disconnect between us and those around us, it does nothing but hurt our psyche. In places with small communities (where you know your neighbors’ names, engage in small talk with strangers, etc.) it has been shown that mental health funding needed for war veterans is much lower than those in countries like the United States, where more emphasis is placed on minding your own business.

Furthermore, when researchers put rats through a traumatic experience and forced them into solitude, they found the rat continuously tormented by thoughts of the trauma. The rats that were subjected to this same trauma, then placed with other rats, went back to their starting level of happiness within a few days. This explicitly shows the ways in which society turns its back on individuals. Trauma is one of the most unifying factors that we have as human beings, and when we have no one to turn to in our time of need, something is inherently wrong. In fact, even living in an urban environment can contribute to loneliness. Looking through a high-rise window at an ever-moving city can contribute to the feeling that we are on the outside looking in and not a part of a unit. There is an easy solution, but we have to keep it within our awareness. Don’t be afraid to approach a stranger just to say “Hi.” It could change your whole outlook.

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