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Why People Hesitate to Reach Out to Strangers

We waver when it comes to approaching and conversing with strangers, but why?

Key points

  • People take more pleasure in approaching strangers and talking with them than doing other things, such as following their usual routine.
  • Despite the satisfaction people feel when starting a dialogue, they hesitate to do so.
  • Research shows that people hesitate to approach strangers because they mistakenly believe that most others don't wish to engage.

Have you ever felt hesitant to begin talking with someone you didn’t know? If so, you have plenty of company. And if you pause and consider why you thought twice before breaking the ice, what comes to mind? Did you think the effort involved wouldn’t be worth it? After all, how much good could it do to talk to someone you don’t know and may very well never see again?

In October 2021, a team of researchers published a combination of two experiments that examined these questions. They replicated and adjusted another investigation from 2014 that looked at the same questions, but in a different culture and with a slightly different method. Why do this? It allowed them to examine whether the original results were correct, whether they applied across cultures (i.e., England and the United States), and to find out what happens when they make the instructions a little easier.

So what did they do? In various London subway stations, they randomly asked some people to start a dialogue with someone they didn’t know on the train, asked some to sit silently on their own on the train, and asked still others to do the same sorts of things they would customarily do while riding the train. Before and after the train ride, they also asked people to answer questions about what they expected their experience to be like and what it was really like during the train ride. In a second experiment (to examine the results of the first experiment more fully), they asked people to envision either making an effort to adhere to the directions (e.g., talking with someone, being silent and not talking to anyone, or engaging in their usual behavior) or actually being able to follow through on these directions. They also asked these individuals what they believed their experience would be like.

The results of this study were in line with the 2014 study in the United States. The people in the London subway system had a better time when they talked with someone else than when they did what they usually do or remained silent. However, they also thought that attempting to reach out to another person wouldn’t feel as good as actually being able to follow through and have a discussion with another person. As the research team pointed out, this is rooted in how people viewed others relative to themselves. The individuals in the study thought that just a quarter of other passengers on the train were actually receptive to conversing, and that they themselves wanted to engage in dialogue more than other people did. The researchers rightly noted that this reflects a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance, which is what happens when people see other folks behaving the same way, but mistakenly believe they must not also feel the same way. In this case, they saw others riding the train and being silent just as they were, but then incorrectly assumed this must mean that other people wouldn’t like to break that silence, even though they personally would.

These results make sense. After all, if you don’t think most people want to talk to you, why would you feel especially cheery at the thought of approaching them? Unfortunately, as the research team correctly pointed out, when people don’t try to engage with others out of the belief that people don’t want to chat with them, this deprives them of the opportunity to realize that they’re mistaken and people are more interested in having a conversation that they think.

The researchers also highlighted the growing evidence pertaining to other reasons why people can downplay the benefit of trying to engage with others, and rightly acknowledge that what people believe or experience with regard to approaching strangers and talking with them may well be culturally influenced. This points to the value of continuing to expand knowledge on why people incorrectly believe they’ll get less out of socially engaging than they really do, and on cultural factors that influence what people believe or experience in this regard. As the investigators also correctly stated, this work is in line with other research on the healthful impact of social engagement, and more research like this is certainly worth conducting.

So the next time you’re in public and looking for a new way to pass the time, consider reaching out and starting a dialogue. You might feel discouraged beforehand, and that’s OK. See if you can push through the feelings of awkwardness and hesitation. You likely won’t be disappointed.

References

Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 143, 1980–1999.

Miller, D. T., & McFarland, C. (1987). Pluralistic ignorance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 298–305.

Schroeder, J., Lyons, D., & Epley, N. (2021, October 7). Hello, stranger? Pleasant conversations are preceded by concerns about starting one. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0001118

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