February 4, 2020
While getting my car washed recently, I fell into conversation with a man who was getting his wife’s car detailed.
I commented on how thoughtful it was to tidy up his spouse’s car and our talk turned toward to how he met his wife. They’re both lawyers. He’s a prosecutor. She’s a defense attorney. And they fell in love… while arguing a case against each other!
Before I could hear the rest of the story, which had all the makings of a Hallmark Channel romance, my car was gleaming and it was time to go.
But as I drove away, with a bemused smile on my face, I realized how much I get out of making small talk with strangers. Thanks to my gift of gab I’ve received gems of wisdom, countless kindnesses and more than a few oddball tips from seemingly insignificant chats with strangers that blossomed into connected conversations.
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Engaging in Small Talk Can Beat Loneliness
As children, it’s drummed into us not to talk to strangers. But it turns out that may be bad advice. Making small talk with strangers and acquaintances throughout our day is not only entertaining, it’s good for us!
Research from the University of Essex, for example, shows that people are happier when they have more interactions with acquaintances throughout their day. University of Essex faculty member Gillian Sandstrom has devoted much of her career to studying how so-called weak-social ties benefit us.
Among other things, she’s discovered that people’s moods improve after talking to baristas or museum volunteers and students who chat with classmates have a greater sense of belonging and enjoyment.
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All of this takes on more significance in the face of an international loneliness epidemic. In fact, one of the ways experts advise easing the pain of loneliness is by striking up conversations with people we come across in our daily lives.
Not everyone is a chatty Kathy. Many worry what others might think of them if they connect with a bit of small talk. Others feel uncomfortable or embarrassed talking to people they don’t know.
And, of course, we should never feel compelled to talk to anyone that makes us feel unsafe. Stranger danger is a reality.
Connection Makes Us Happier
Yet, given the benefits and the increasing need for face-to-face connection with others, it’s worth getting out of your comfort zone and bringing some mindful awareness to how you feel when you converse with others throughout the day.
You can even make small talk a mindfulness practice, noticing feelings of discomfort, ease or joy as you venture into conversations with acquaintances or strangers you meet on the street.
After a brief conversation about the weather with the Amazon delivery person do you notice a lilt in your step? When you compliment a stranger and ask her where she bought her stylish coat, do you feel less alone? Do you learn something new? Sometimes, the impact of small talk is startling and lasting.
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Once, I was leaving a parking lot and struck up a conversation with the parking attendant who I imagined spent most of her day confined to a small, glass booth. I asked her how she was, if she had just started her shift and if she ever got too cold or too hot in her booth.
She answered all of my questions and then before handing me my change said: “All day no one ever talks to me like you just did. They just drive by and it’s like I’m not even here. Thank you. You made my day!”
That conversation happened years ago. Every now and again the memory of it returns and it’s one of the many reasons I keep talking to strangers.
Written by eM Life Teacher Kelly Barron.