Mind & Body

‘I talked to 30 strangers in a week and this is what I learnt’

Whether you’re in hard lockdown or still loving life, this is one thing guaranteed to pep up your day. So, how do you strike up a conversation? Author Felicity Harley explains…

A rather short man in a peaky cap and braces holding up his oversized trousers came shuffling up the path, his grocery trolley bag a dead giveaway for his age. I was struggling to open my front gate, arms loaded with grocery bags, huffing and puffing like an Olympic weightlifter. I was having an I’m-so-exasperated-with-the-world kinda day. You know the ones.

He kindly asked me if he could help, and painlessly opened the gate, grabbed some bags, and placed them neatly on my front door step. What followed was an absorbing 10-minute conversation where I got a snippet into this day, his week, his life.

He was from Italy, had five grandchildren and had lost his wife three years ago. I waved goodbye to this delightful gentleman, Leo (we even swapped names) and he trotted on up the street to Woolworths. I walked into my house … and suddenly felt brighter.

Meeting Leo got me thinking: in this new world order of social distancing and isolation, perhaps we need to focus on these inconsequential interactions to inject spark into our days. When we’re in a Zoom daze or overwhelmed with kids or sick of our roommates squabbling, listening to someone else gets us out of our heads. So, I set myself a challenge: talk to 30 strangers in a week.

Now I’d love to detail all the fascinating people I chatted with like the Chemist Warehouse worker who tried to sell me handwarmers when it was 21 degrees outside, or the smarmy older dude who thought I was hitting on him, or the upstart raring to take on Google, but I’d need to write a book for that. Whether you’re in hard lockdown, socially distancing or still loving life, talking to a stranger is wondrous for wellbeing, particularly in a pandemic. I’m now living proof.

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Such simple benefits

Sure, talking to strangers can make you feel uncomfortable, awkward and, boy, it’s tricky, especially when you’d have better banter with a brick wall. It also takes effort, quick thinking and a knack for reading people, but if you put yourself out there, summon your courage and confidence, it can be a lifeline.

It peps you up

Leo clearly did this! Katherine Fiori, Associate Professor at Adelphi University, New York, studies social networks and has found that activities with “weaker ties” are a godsend for emotional and physical health, and greater life satisfaction.

“The greater the number of weaker ties, the stronger the association with positive feelings and fewer depressed feelings,” Fiori said in an interview. And fostering them online takes more effort than in person.

About a decade ago, two other researchers, Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman, wrote a book Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter but Really Do. They also examined weak ties, people at the gym, your barista, the assistant in your local Lululemon store, and summed it up in a perfect sentence: “Where we live, work, shop, and mingle has everything to do with the weak ties we cultivate, and therefore our quality of life.”

Interestingly, Fingerman also found that social people are more likely to be physically active, too.

Small talk gets you out of your head

It’s a paradox really, connection increases happiness, yet sometimes it’s the very thing we avoid. I mean, how often have you ignored the receptionist at the gym or your workmate in the office hallway?

A University of Chicago survey found that small talk can boost social and emotional wellbeing. Stimulating conversations can yank you out of your own worries, your feedback loop, and help you focus on something else. You realise that other people also have rich inner lives.

It gives you a sense of belonging

In their book, Blau and Fingerman say that the feeling of belonging to a community is a “basic human need…. consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged in to something larger.

“They also enhance and enrich our lives and offer us opportunities for novel experiences and information that is beyond the purview of our inner circles. They are vital social connections – people who help you get through the day and make life more interesting.”

How to chat to strangers

So, how do we strike up a conversation, keep it going, and end it without being as rude as Trump on Twitter? Here, five quick tips to try today.

Have a go-to question

Something COVID-19 related is your best bet and keep it general, for example: “How are you coping with the border restrictions?” or “How has COVID affected your work.”

Find a common ground

“Introduce an everyday subject like travel, home or recreation that the other person will find easy to add to. You’re not very likely to find a connection if you ask, ‘I’m a great fan of corkscrews. Have you seen Corkscrew of the World Magazine this month?”, says Judy Apps author of The Art Of Conversation.

“The purpose is to create a connection…so keep it simple and general, and be willing to shift around till you find a mutual subject.”

Be curious

A good conversation is a bit like a tennis match, with questions being the return of the ball. So, ask questions and look for your next one in the other person’s answer. Make sure they’re open ended, too, rather than the answer being ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Actually listen

“All that is required for listening is your empathic attention. Your undivided focus on the other person makes them feel accepted and acknowledged,” says Apps.

End it, nicely

I’m giving you permission to tell a furphy here. “Sorry, I’ve got to race to the gym!”, when you’re clearly making a beeline for the couch. It’s okay to cut a stranger off or end a conversation when it’s run its course. A bright tone also works, “Have a lovely day. Nice chatting. Goodbye.”

So, here’s what that lovely stranger called Leo did for me today. My son, Hugo, just had his tonsils out and we’d arrived home from our hospital stay, something which I’d shared in our brief chat. There, on our doorstep, were three punnets of strawberries with a little note saying, “Get well soon. From Leo.” Once again, he’d uplifted my day.

Felicity Harley’s book, Balance & Other B.S: How to hold it together when you’re doing it all is out now. Follow her on Instagram for more.