Talking to Strangers: A Simple Way to Overcome Shyness, Social Anxiety, and… Just Plain Feel Happier

Talking to strangers. Yes, I know it’s the title of a new book by Malcolm Gladwell, and no I haven’t read it yet, but… a few weeks back I saw this article about the robust emotional benefits of talking to strangers—from a real psychological study— and immediately texted it to my daughters with the comment, “SEE, I told you so.” Yes, I can be like that. But the fact is that talking to strangers is kind of my raison d’être. It’s a two-parter. In my personal life, I talk to strangers whenever possible: at coffee shops, ice cream stores, in dentist waiting rooms—and these encounters usually entail finding out someone’s life story or a key piece of it. My daughters complain—can’t you ever just leave a place without striking up a conversation? Apparently, the answer is no. But as a result, I have heard the most delightful, earnest un-edited commentary from little kids about their parents or pet goldfish, and collected beautiful tear-jerker stories about how couples met. And amazingly some of my most treasured friendships have sprung from chatting with someone in line or next to me at a coffee shop or two. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to strangers, and I am grateful to the strangers who have spoken back to me. And now I have proof, this path to happiness that I take daily, is not just my own.  

A study out of the University of British Columbia which could be called, Psychologists in Coffee Shops Doing Research, found that subjects who were instructed to strike up a quick conversation with a stranger left Starbucks happier and with a greater sense of connection to their community than those who were instructed to order and go. In a further study of connecting out in the world, the researchers found that these quick conversations further reaffirm the idea that it’s not big things that reinforce happiness, but rather these small investments of high frequency positive events— all the hellos we can collect in a day— that have a significant return on our happiness.

Which brings me to the second part of the two-parter of me and strangers. When I’m not waylaying my family with my impromptu and sometimes tearful check-out line heart-to-hearts with people I just met, my professional life is regularly spent encouraging my socially anxious patients—whether age 10 or 20 or 60—to talk to strangers, too. And it helps. A lot. We all know that momentary hesitation at PTA meetings or even the drive-through line when we have a passing fear that we’ll choke on our words and won’t know what to say—even if it’s just introducing ourselves by saying our name. But for 3-7% of kids and 2-5% of adults that constant social scrutiny and fear of embarrassing themselves goes far beyond our normal nervousness because it doesn’t pass. It roadblocks. As a cognitive behavior therapist, every week I work with folks whose social anxiety brainwashes them into silence by making them believe in their core that any utterance they make will be wrong, or weird, excruciatingly embarrassing, or simply won’t come out of their mouth.  Is it true? No. But that reality check is drowned out by blaring alarms bells to run for their lives. With social anxiety everything is a performance—oops, catch that edit right there, everything feels like a performance, feels like a spotlight follows every move you make, there is no backstage, feels like you are being on constant display, being judged, scrutinized for your every move, that you are acting strange or bothering others with your mere existence. With those messages being piped in 24-7 it is no wonder that out of perceived self-preservation, the world becomes very small for people with social anxiety: they avoid contact whenever possible. So—how do we help folks who feel saddled with social anxiety? Teach them to ride differently. It’s called exposure therapy, but really what it means is living your life, stretching your comfort zone and editing the worry-driven disaster commentary along the way from the cliff-hanger, disaster commentary to a kind of slow news day: You went in, you got coffee, you left. End of story.

What’s the antidote to anxiety? Pinning the problem on the problem. It’s not the situation you are in that’s the problem —the task is safe and easily in your range—the problem is your overzealous worry system that’s trying to protect you from harm, which paradoxically causes it in the process. So, while you can’t change those intrusive socially anxious thoughts of anticipatory, cringe-worthy scrutiny and embarrassment (not right away), you can change your reaction to them. Demote their authority and pivot. When the amygdala, our inner alarm system, says, “Run!,” we listen. Instead, we can practice questioning that advice, or simply saying, “Not today, buddy.” Little kids who run upstairs because they are afraid of monsters following them learn to walk up those steps to prove that they are OK. In the process they learn to trust themselves and that it’s not the stairs that are the problem, it’s what their worry was telling them about the stairs.  Same, same.

So, challenging socially anxious messages, proving to yourself that you’re not in danger, means slowing down to see you’re OK. Go out to Starbucks, or the supermarket, and increasingly as I describe it, “take up time and space.” Rather than racing through that errand as if you’re running for your life, not making eye contact, being invisible as possible, reverse each of those commands.

And you know what? Sometimes it’s actually easier to talk to strangers who you will likely never see again who have no particular expectations or baseline for your behavior, and in the case of folks working in shops—are there to help you. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of strangers, no prescriptions necessary, walk out of your house, your apartment, your dorm, and you’re on your way.

Here are six ideas to get started overriding anxiety and building up your sense of social competency, connection, and happiness…

Just smile Not up to talking to strangers? No worries—do what I call the “hello with your eyes,” strategy—rather than just looking at your phone, or the floor, look up and smile. Since the dawn of human time we’ve needed to know that people we are encountering are “friend, not foe” so don’t leave the other person guessing—smile and you will likely get a smile back.

Take one more “bite” Just as parents encourage kids to “take one more bite” of that vexing piece of broccoli or other vegetable they are faced with, in an anxious moment don’t think long conversation, just say one more thing—talk about the weather, the fast passage of time that (fill in the blank) season is going by so quickly, how rushed the day is, etc., or simply add to your thank you, “Have a great day!” Watch for appreciation back.

Ask for an opinion Whether it’s the barista or the person next to you in line, ask what their favorite drink or snack is. You might introduce this by saying, “I can’t decide between the x and the y,” or, “I’m ready to change it up, what do you recommend?” Or ask, “I’ve been meaning to try that, is it good?” Since we are all a little conditioned to be “in our phones” your consultant may be surprised, but pleasantly, that you’re actually talking to them.

Give a compliment So easy to do when pets or kids are involved… saying hi to a dog, commenting on a sweet baby, but even in the absence of these ready made ice-breakers—complimenting on one’s choice of phone case, shoes, backpack, outfit color choice, agreeing with a clever T-shirt message, etc makes people feel good. It’s in our wiring.

Ask a question Maybe it’s an obvious or kind of insignificant question that you already know: “Is this where you order?” “Is it always this (fast, slow) here?” but this may get the wheels turning for more conversation, or at least be a friendly way of connecting. Deeper questions are OK too, for example seeing someone’s books at the table next to you at a café or on the subway and asking, “Oh, are you liking that book?” or “I see you’re sketching, are you an artist?” If someone really doesn’t want to talk, they’ll let you know, but if they’re game you might just have a mutually great connection out of that little bit of social bait.

Remember, it’s mutual Social anxiety puts all the focus on you (not that you want that). Remember that we all crave connection, other people benefit from being noticed and talked to. Consider the power of your attention, and in a reverse-o,change-o moment—by you mustering your courage to say hello to a stranger, not only are you being brave—but you might just get to be the hero, too.

For best results, repeat frequently. To sustain your happiness and increase your comfort zone, small boosts often is the rule of the day. You’ll find that going out in public will shift from something you dread, to an opportunity to connect. The more you do it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets the more you want to do it. This is one secret of life and you can work at it with a therapist or on your own.  Remember, the research found that subjects who talked to strangers felt more of a sense of belonging in their communities. And social anxiety or not, I think everyone on the planet could use more of that feeling right about now. 

For more ideas about freeing yourself from anxiety, I’ve got a book for you. Check it out here. Want more posts like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up here. Here’s to more connection and less worry all around!

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tamar chansky phd

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