I Talked to Strangers for a Week, and It Did Not Go Well

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Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Recently, Matthew Hutson argued in a Science of Us piece that New Yorkers might be happier if we engaged in a little more small talk. That story cited a new study in which some Chicago commuters were told to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to them on the train; they later reported enjoying their commute more than the people who’d been told to sit in silence for the ride. 

It’s a nice idea, I thought while reading the post — a very nice idea. At the same time: Who would actually do that?

But I was curious. Psychology research shows that we are not great at predicting what will ultimately make us happy, and that even though we avoid the things that are good for us — exercising, eating healthfully, flossing — we’re usually glad we did them. And so I decided to try it out: One Monday to Friday workweek modeled after the Chicago experiment, during which I would talk to whatever poor souls sat next to me on the train.

It did not go great! (Mostly.)

Day 1:

A.M: There is a man sitting next to me who has a poster-shaped rectangular box resting against his knees. It's pretty clear that it is, in all likelihood, a poster, or some kind of print. Still, this is such an easy in; I can just ask him what it is. I take a breath and rehearse my line in my mind. But it feels too dumb. I chicken out. 

I’m not usually an overly shy person or anything, but this whole thing has me overthinking things a little. At work, I email Nicholas Epley, the University of Chicago psychologist who led the small-talk study I am meaning to emulate. I tell him about my project, and in desperation ask him if he provided his subjects with any go-to icebreakers.

“We didn't give anyone any instructions about this,” he wrote back. “I wouldn’t bother trying to plan an opening line. When you sit down next to someone, the mood will strike you and something worth commenting on will not be as hard to find, I predict, as you imagine. They'll be reading a book. You can ask them if they like it. They'll be on the train with you. You can ask them if they've been riding it for long. They'll yawn, and you can make a little joke about having a rough night, too.

“Above all, just be nice.”

Well. I can do that.

P.M.: A mother and young daughter board the train. The little girl is probably around 5, and she’s wearing great shoes: They’re Birkenstocks, or at least Birkenstock-esque, and they’re neon pink. “I love her shoes! I want those in my size,” I say to the mom as the two sit down next to me. “Hahaha,” the mom said back, distinctly pronouncing each “ha” in what does not sound at all like a real laugh. “Thanks,” she adds in a final sort of way, as she fishes a magazine from her bag. She eventually flips to the back page. It’s the Approval Matrix! This woman is reading New York while unwittingly being a subject in a story for New York. But the momentum is gone, and I don’t say anything.

Day 2:

A.M.: A woman who appears to be in her 40s enters the train and sits next to me. “Morning,” I say. She hears me. I know she hears me — she looks me right in the eye when I say it! — but she quickly averts her eyes and pretends she didn’t hear anything. We sit in awkward silence until I get off a few stops later.

P.M.: It’s a relatively crowded car, but no one sits by me. This is becoming something of a pattern, undoubtedly because I am staring at everyone a little too eagerly, trying to catch eyes or notice something about them in order to make conversation.

Finally, an older man sits next to me. He is watching a video on his iPhone, with the sound off and no headphones. “Mind if I ask what you’re watching?” I ask. He looks at me blankly, gestures toward the phone. I don’t think he speaks English. (Though I am now remembering the times I’ve pretended to be a non-English speaker to get weirdos to stop talking to me.)

Day 3:

A.M.: My first lie. I ask the woman next to me if she has the time, adding, “My phone is dead,” when she gives me side-eye. “It’s 8:23,” she replies. “Thanks! Forgot to plug my phone in last night,” I say. “Hate that, don’t you?” She Hmmmms in reply and shifts slightly away, a pretty clear signal that she’d like to end our conversation now, please.

P.M.: I walk to the bar to meet friends for trivia instead of taking the subway. I tell myself it’s to get some exercise and enjoy the weather. It’s not. I’m avoiding this project I assigned myself.

Later that night, I stop at the Duane Reade near my apartment. There is a giant display of cappuccino-flavored Lays next to the cash register, and, to make up for skipping the subway this evening, I decide to try use it to strike up a conversation with the cashier. I ask her, “You ever tried those?” She lights up, and so do I; finally, somebody wants to talk to me! She launches into a lengthy rant about how truly awful they are, and how most people don’t buy them but annoy all the store employees by taking photos of the display. We’re still chatting after she’s done ringing me up. “What a terrible thing to do to a potato,” she says, which makes me laugh. The entire exchange was actually … fun?

Day 4:

A.M.: I’m fired up about this small-talk thing now, and my luck continues. A woman about my age sits next to me on the train; she’s reading Gone Girl. “That book is so good,” I say to her. “Oh, I know, right?” she says back.

“I kept sneaking away at work to read it,” I confess, taking what I hope is not an overly desperate stab at a conversational volley. It works! She replies, “I know, and I’m, like, at the peak.” She tilts the top of the book forward so I can see that she’s about two thirds of the way through. I am perhaps overly sensitive from a week of strangers mostly not wanting to talk to me, and so I take this as her polite way of indicating that she’d like to return to her book now. We sit in silence for a few moments.

And then! “I may need to go back and reread it before the movie,” she says. It’s happening! An actual conversation with a stranger on the subway! “I know, I was thinking the same thing. Although I heard they rewrote the entire third act of the book for the screenplay,” I say.

“Really! Huh, cool,” she says.

She goes back to her book, I go back to my journal article. A few stops later, she stands up to leave the train, but before she goes, she turns, smiles, and says, “Have a good day!”

I smile back. “You, too.”

Okay. That was pretty nice.

P.M.: A youngish teenager wearing a backpack and backwards cap sits down next to me. He’s watching a music video on his phone, with no headphones and the volume cranked up.

“What are you listening to?” I ask. He half-turns his head to me. “Huh?”

“What are you listening to?” I repeat, gesturing toward his phone.

“Oh. Six Hundred.” I have no idea if this is the song title or the artist’s name, and I should ask but I feel so, so dumb. Also, old. “Oh. I like it,” I lie. He doesn’t say anything in reply. The song ends soon afterwards and he doesn’t play another.

Okay, so after a couple of small successes, I am back to where I was before: mostly getting shot down left and right. But then Epley’s words jump into my head: “And, always remember that the comparison condition is sitting next to someone in stone silence while scrolling through your phone for the one millionth time. It's not that hard to do much better than that!”

That much is true. But mostly I just kind of want to return to my usual nerd routine of listening to public radio podcasts for the ride.

Day 5:

A.M.: A woman about my age sits next to me. She’s wearing those great printed flowy pants that everyone seems to be wearing now. I legitimately want to know where she got them. So I ask her.

“This is totally weird, but I just love your pants,” I say. “Where did you get them?” She tells me, and also confides that they are so comfortable that she feels like she’s wearing pajamas. This leads to a brief discussion about who can say why these pants are currently in style, but that it’s probably best to take advantage of them while they’re socially acceptable. We smile. It’s pleasant!

P.M.: The subway car smells weird. I say as much to the 30s-ish man standing next to me. He agrees. There’s a pause. “It’s licorice, I think,” he says. “Yeah, black licorice! That’s totally it,” I say. Another pause. “I hate black licorice,” I say. “Me too,” he says.

And with that scintillating exchange, my week is over, and I try to sort out what I learned, if anything. I think I gained the incredibly obvious insight that if you have something genuinely interesting to say to someone you don’t know, there’s really very little risk in saying it. When there was an actual jumping-off point for a conversation — a book, coffee-flavored chips, super-cool pants — the other person was very receptive, and it resulted in an actual back-and-forth. As nervous as I was to break the ice, those experiences were surprisingly fun.

So, fine. If, every day, I happened to have a nice exchange with a stranger on my way to and from work, I bet I would feel a little happier. And I hope I’ll do it at least every once in a while, but on my first small-talk-free morning, I have to admit I popped in my earbuds and blissfully ignored my fellow humans. I know from experience now that idle chit-chat really is good for you, but, I don’t know. I probably don’t floss as much as I should, either.