Why New Yorkers — and Everyone Else — Should Pursue Small Talk More

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Photo: Erin Slonaker/Getty Images

New Yorkers pride themselves on their insularity, their ability to let others go about their day undisturbed even when packed body-to-body on the train. Even celebrities can lead semi-normal lives here. But new research suggests that New Yorkers — residents of America’s unhappiest large city — might be happier if they acted less like New Yorkers. And everyone else would probably gain from breaking those invisible bubbles, too.

Decades of research show humans’ social intelligence to be uniquely advanced among the animal kingdom — it’s what’s allowed for civilization. Studies also confirm that social connection is essential for happiness. We should not be surprised at the horrendous effects of solitary confinement.

And so Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, began noticing an “antisocial paradox” among his fellow commuters. “Every morning they’d get on the train, the most social animals on the planet, and they’d ignore each other,” he says. “That’s the kind of observation that, at least for a psychologist, gets you pretty excited. Why on Earth do people do that?”

He could think of two reasons. The first was that maybe we enjoy interacting with friends and family, but dealing with strangers is the worst. The other was that conversations with strangers actually aren’t that bad, but we mistakenly predict them to be. He and his student Juliana Schroeder set about to test these two hypotheses.

In the first of several experiments, currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General commuters were approached before hopping on the Metra train toward Chicago. Some were instructed to have a conversation with whoever sat next to them, some were told to keep to themselves and enjoy their solitude, and some were told to do whatever they normally do. Afterwards, they mailed in surveys describing their experience — both how much they enjoyed the ride and how productive they felt during it. Of the three groups, those in the conversation condition reported the most positive train ride, and those in the solitude condition reported the most negative. Among those who talked, the longer the conversation, the better the ride. What’s more, there were no differences in ratings of productivity. Either people aren’t very productive on the train to begin with, or they consider conversations with strangers to be productivity-enhancing.

So maybe people mis-predict what will make them happy — a common finding in psychology. Epley and Schroeder ran a second experiment in which commuters were asked to imagine taking part in the first experiment. Sure enough, here the results flipped: participants predicted that talking to a stranger would make for the least positive experience, and also the least productive. A matching pair of experiments with bus riders found the same reversal between expectations and experience. We obviously have the wrong idea about either ourselves or other people. Why?

Their next experiments can help explain. Train and bus riders were asked to imagine having a conversation with a stranger and to rate the conversation. In general, they expected it to be pretty pleasant. But when asked about the process of initiating a conversation, they rated the difficulty of breaking the ice at a four on a scale of zero to six, and they guessed that fewer than half of their targets would want to talk back. This runs counter to the evidence from the first experiments, in which no one reported being rebuffed. The risk of saying Hi is approximately zero.

The main culprit here is pluralistic ignorance: Everyone is willing to talk but thinks everyone else is unwilling. That means there could be a train full of people who want to strike up a conversation, but it remains silent nonetheless.

Epley mentions a dramatic example of misjudging others’ demeanor. A few years ago he was in rural Ethiopia headed to the birthplace of the two children he and his wife were adopting. Sitting in a four-wheel-drive vehicle going down donkey trails past mud huts “was really unpleasant,” he says, “because you’d drive by these houses, and people would sit there and stare at you with a totally blank expression on their face, as if you were almost a monster. It really felt to us like we were invading, these European colonialists.” But then he started smiling and waving. People came alive, especially the kids, who chased after them. “It was such a night and day experience,” he says. “Nobody would wave to you but everybody would wave back.” They just needed a signal that they weren’t alone in wanting to connect.

Lizzie Post, of the Emily Post Institute, suggests our fear of reaching out potentially “stems from that natural insecurity of ‘Why would that person who’s going about their day want to talk with me?’” Also, “we’re very afraid of feeling or making somebody else feel trapped,” she hypothesizes. “It’s like the stranger in the waiting room who tells you all about their problem. You feel like you can’t get away.”

The problem with the expectation that no one wants to talk is that it reinforces itself, preventing any action that would lead to disconfirming evidence. So Epley and Schroeder wondered if all it took was a bit of experience to correct our expectations. Research assistants approached travelers waiting for cabs at the airport. They asked riders to talk to the driver, avoid talking to the driver, or carry on as usual — or to imagine being asked to do those things. People who said they don’t normally talk to the driver (“loners”) predicted that silence would be more pleasant than talking, and those who normally talk to the driver (“talkers”) predicted that talking would be more pleasant than silence. Talkers were correct. Everyone — both talkers and loners — enjoyed talking more than solitude. The loners mistakenly feared interaction not because of negative experience but because of inexperience. They feared a fantasy.

Up until now, we’ve been ignoring the poor souls who didn’t give informed consent to be a part of these experiments — those strangers being chatted up by the study subjects. How did they feel about being talked to? In a final experiment, pairs of subjects sat in a laboratory waiting room between tasks, with one having been instructed to talk or not talk to the other. Afterwards, they rated the experience. It turned out the joy of small talk was mutual.

It’s those first potentially awkward moments that likely deter a lot of would-be small-talkers. Epley says the start of a conversation with a stranger is “like a speed bump at the top of a hill.” You could say anything — compliment someone’s shoes, mention the weather, ask if someone has an interesting day ahead — and then it’s a smooth run.

Maybe you don’t think these results are relevant to you because you’re an introvert? Across the experiments, Epley and Schroeder found that personality had no consistent effect on enjoyment of interaction. The psychologist Will Fleeson has also found that introverts have more fun when they act like extroverts. Maybe you think they don’t apply because you live in a big city? Elizabeth Dunn, who’s also done work on the benefits of casual social exchanges, such as talking to your barista, notes her surprise that Epley and Schroeder got their results even on Chicago public transit. “If you can make it work there,” she says, “you can probably make it work everywhere.”

When Epley reported his initial results to the woman at Metra who’d given him permission to run the studies, she said, “That’s amazing, but you’re not going to believe this.” Metra was rolling out a quiet car program, based on public demand. On quiet cars, you can’t talk to each other or to your phone. (Which hasn’t stopped people from screaming at each other — “I will cut you in half!” — on what Epley calls the “crabby cars.”) He asked if they’d ever had a “chatty car,” where meeting someone new was encouraged. She said they used to have bar cars, but had phased them out. One of the reasons? They were too popular.