stranger

The Great Social Experiment

By Melissa Hartwig, who reminds you she is an introvert AND  from the East Coast

Let’s start out by saying I’m from New Hampshire, where people as a rule do not talk to each other much. Oh, us East Coast folks are polite and nice, but we generally keep to ourselves when dealing with strangers. It’s not in our makeup to ask our grocery store clerk how their day is going, or our waitress whether she has any kids.  In fact, I’ll tell you a story. Three years ago, we were visiting Dallas’ family in British Columbia and took a trip to the grocery store. While checking out, the cashier smiled at us and said, “How’s your weekend going? What are you guys up to?” And I looked at Dallas and said under my breath, “Why is she talking to me?”

And yet, talking to cashiers (and cab drivers, and waiters, and strangers in the grocery store) is exactly what I’ve found myself doing on a daily basis since January 1st, as part of my “n=1” experiment on socialization and stress.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Background

Over the last year, we’ve increasingly realized the importance of socialization to a healthy, happy existence. (We’re not talking Facebook friends and text messaging, either—we’re talking in-person, human-to-human contact on a daily basis.) In fact, because it’s so important, we recently made socialization one of our 9 Factors, right next to stress management.

The idea for the Great Social Experiment started when Dallas began sharing his research into stress and socialization as part of his Functional Medicine studies. Articles like this and this speak to the powerful effect social interaction has on our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, which (via oxytocin, in part) provides a buffer against the physical and psychological consequences of stress and stress-related diseases. In laymen’s terms?

Positive social interaction makes us less stressed, and keeps us healthier.

With this, the initial seed was planted— but the turning point (and the idea for the Experiment) didn’t come until I found myself re-reading surgeon Atul Gawande’s fantastic book, Better. In the Afterword, he gives advice to medical students on how they can make a worthy difference in their patients’ lives. The first piece of advice was as follows:

“Ask an unscripted question.”

He goes on to explain that in our busy days, all we want is to get on with the business at hand as fast as we can… but that making a connection makes “the machine begin to feel like less a machine.”

These two concepts—stress mediated by social interaction, and making a genuine connection with people in our day-to-day lives—stuck with me. I began to ask, “How can I apply these ideas in my everyday life?” Heaven knows I had some stress at the beginning of the year—an insane travel schedule, finding a happy work/life balance, and the imminent arrival of our first baby, to name a few. And I wondered if I could combine what we were learning from scientific literature in a way that also made my “machine” feel less “machine-like.”

socialization-1

Ask a Question

So I decided to see if asking a question and making a genuine social connection in my daily life would help mitigate my stress. Starting in January, the Great Social Experiment was born.

The experiment: Ask an unscripted question of at least one total stranger every day, and evaluate how the process makes me feel from an emotional, mood, and stress perspective. 

And so it began. For the last three months, I’ve kept up with this experiment on a near-daily basis. At first, this felt very forced, and often awkward. But with time, it became more natural—and eventually, downright fun.

Here are some examples of conversations I’ve had over the last three months:

  • I asked our cab driver in Salt Lake City how long he’d been living here, and what he thought about the inversion we were experiencing. (I learned more about weather patterns in the valley than I ever expected.)
  • I asked our fishmonger at Whole Foods whether he had kids, and to share his best piece of advice for new parents. (Don’t listen to advice from anyone. Find what works for you.)
  • I told the young soldier in the elevator how handsome he looked in his military dress, and asked where he was off to. (He blushed, and stammered, and looked sideways at Dallas to make sure it was okay that he responded.)
  • I asked the British guy in the elevator in Hawaii how his golf game was going (he had clubs) and whether the wind was going to be a factor today. (I don’t know anything about golf, but he seemed pleased that his handicap had gone up. Or down. Or something.)
  • I spent one entire walk smiling and saying “hello” to every single person I passed. Every last one. It was a long walk, too. (Lots of people said hi back. Just a few pretended they didn’t hear me. Most at least smiled.)
  • I asked my cashier at Rite-Aid whether she had grandkids, and whether it’s true they grow so fast. She assured me that it was. (She made me promise to bring our kiddo in to meet her.)
  • I asked my teller at the bank about the little boy in the photo on her desk, how old he was, and his name. We talked about baby names for at least 10 minutes. (She made me promise to bring our kiddo in to meet her.)
  • I asked my grandmotherly cashier on New Year’s Eve what she was planning for her evening. (A quiet night in—don’t you party and then drive, she told me. I pointed to my belly and told her that wasn’t likely.)
  • When our SLC waitress mentioned she had a newborn, I asked her to tell me everything I’d need to know about the first few weeks. (We talked for at least 20 minutes that night, and ended up making plans to hang out later in the week. She was awesome.)
  • I sassed my cashier at Trader Joe’s in San Diego, complimenting him on his bagging skills but betting he couldn’t get all my purchases in the one tote I had with me. He came right back at me with a quick wit and a wink. (He made it work. I was impressed.)

socialization-2

Excuse-Busting

Now, you may be saying, “I can’t do that—I’m an introvert. It’s not in my nature to be outgoing.” But based on both the Myers-Briggs and FIRO-B personality profiles, I’m decidedly on the introverted side too.  (Surprised? It’s true.) And I’m from the East Coast, where nobody talks to anybody. The moral of this story is that if I can do it, you can do it.

It may feel odd, but in some parts of the country (like Portland, OR, or most of the South), talking to people you meet throughout your day is actually a normal experience. The more you practice, the more natural it will become. And you don’t have to become best friends with these folks—in fact, chances are, you’ll never see most of them again. The point is just to have a moment of genuine social connection in your day.

Also, you may be thinking, “Won’t people think I’m weird and ignore me?” Maybe—but you’d be surprised how starved people are for genuine conversation. Not once in my efforts did anyone totally blow me off. Not once. Some people were obviously not in the mood to talk, so I just let it go after my initial question. But most of the time, people were thrilled to be asked something about themselves, their day, their lives. And most were happy to share this brief moment of social connection with me.

socialization-3

The Results 

The further I took this experiment, the happier I was with the results. First, I discovered that it really did make me feel good to share in these exchanges. I left each one with a smile, and more often than not, felt decidedly happier. In fact, it was hard not to feel happier, having just made someone else happy by asking them an unexpected question about themselves. So really, with every exchange, two people were left happier, and maybe went on to have better days because of it.

Interestingly, it was the moments when I wanted to talk to someone the least that I experienced the most benefits. I had days when I was feeling down, stressed, anxious, and the last thing I wanted was to plaster a smile on my face and be nice to my cashier or waitress. But I did, because it was part of my rules… and it never failed to pull me out of my own head, if only for a short period of time. This was perhaps one of the most valuable lessons, and the one that reinforced the studies we’d been reading.

Positive, genuine social interaction really does mitigate stress.

I originally planned to conduct my experiment for a month, but I’ve honestly enjoyed the results so much I’ve just kept it up. It’s now very natural and spontaneous for me, and I enjoy seeking out opportunities to engage with people I meet throughout my day. Even Dallas has commented how different it is to see this side of me, but how nice it is that I seem to be having so much fun with it. He’s often the one waiting for me now, car keys or grocery bags in hand, while I chat it up happily with whoever I happened to bump into in our errands or travels.

Begin Your Own Experiment

Of course, there is nothing actually scientific about this experiment—but that doesn’t mean the results aren’t completely valid for me. I’ve gained so much from this initiative, and really believe that if others incorporate this idea into their day-to-day lives, we’ll all be a little bit happier, and a little less stressed.

Are you willing to conduct your own Great Social Experiment? Keep us posted here in comments… and have a great day.

Comments

  1. Katelyn says

    I usually try to make conversation with cashiers. When they ask “How are you?”, instead of saying “Good.” and ending that, I take it as an opportunity for more. I will usually say that I am doing fabulous/wonderful/wicked good/etc. and it catches them off guard. 9 times out of 10, we’ll have a brief conversation while they’re ringing me up and IT’S NICE. Also, I have come to believe that Trader Joe’s employees are prompted to ask their customers questions. Even though it may be forced, it’s still a nice way to spend the transaction.

  2. says

    I used to travel with my boss who is from the South. He learned amazing things about people in grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants. He had a great time, they had a great time, and even I enjoyed myself as a passive observer. Based upon your experience and his, I am going to give up being a passive observer and start asking questions. Thanks… I think. B)

  3. Amanda says

    This was an inspiring read! I worked part time at a hospital in college, bringing in drinks, newspapers, etc to patients. My boss would always comment on how I took the longest but I couldn’t help it. I am an introvert as well, but as soon as I would walk into a patient’s room I couldn’t help but be drawn in to their stories about grandchildren or how excited they were to leave soon or whatever it was. My few minutes of conversation with some of these folks was probably, and sadly, one of the highlights of their day and I didn’t want to rush through them.

  4. says

    It’s so funny that you mention the East/West issue. I’m a Westerner transplanted to PA. Despite my decidedly introverted nature, I was used to talking to random people everywhere I went. Moving here, I am still that weirdo who insists on acknowledging everyone I pass in the grocery store and on the street. Even though it’s awkward and sometimes frustrating, I have no intention of ever stopping! I wonder how the outcome of your experience would have differed if you tried it on this side of the country.

  5. says

    @Katelyn, being pregnant makes these conversations way easy, too. I either get “when are you due?” or “is this your first?” all the time, which makes it easy to ask about their kids. Not that I’m suggesting you get knocked up as part of your socialization experiment. Just sayin’.

    @Tom: Eeyore gets social! I love it. You’ll have to keep me posted on how this initiative goes. Maybe there’s hope for a Tom and Renee Seminar Team after all. Ha!

    @Amanda: I love your perspective. It’s so nice to leave an interaction like this, knowing that your day AND their day are brighter for it. And who knows how that might trickle down to others!

    @Kim: I was in Philly as part of this experiment in early January, and found people there just as willing to chat – in the hotel, restaurants, etc. But you’re right – we were in SLC, Hawaii, LA in our travels during this time period, and it’s really easy to talk to folks there. I’ll let you know how things go when I go back to NH for a visit later this year!

    Melissa

  6. says

    I did this as part of the Flinch by Julien Smith in January and I was surprised at how scared I could get to strike up a convo with a stranger at Home Depot. It got easier and made for good stories to tell friends. I will start up again. Thanks Melissa, I think this is one of your most smile inducing posts ever. I’ve noticed as a parent, I have a tendency to tell my little boy not to tell people his life story every time he meets them, I’m going to do better to nurture his fearless demeanor and learn from him!

    Note; having a friendly dog or cute 6 year old with you makes the first couple times MUCH easier to meet people!

  7. says

    First, I’m shocked to hear you are an introvert! I never would have guessed that.

    I love this post…I feel it’s so important to interact with other people. You never know what another person is going through and sometimes taking the time to smile, say hi and ask them how they are may be the best thing that they need. It could literally make a huge difference in their mood.

    I find buying celery root is the best conversation starter at the grocery store or farmer’s market….that one always leads to a detailed summary of the 542 ways I like to prepare it:)

  8. Sonya says

    I LOVE this post through and through!

    Seeing as I live in Portland, OR you might think that I’m geared up for these little gold nuggets of social interaction. But no, I hail from New York and moved to Portland from having spent 3 years in Philadelphia. Talk about needing some social recovery! I recall the first time a cashier at my favorite grocery store here in Portland asked me what I was doing that evening. My thoughts IMMEDIATELY went to the fact that he had seen my ID (I purchased wine) meaning he saw my address which could mean that if I told him I was going out he’d know I wasn’t home and would break in! Whew! I managed a much more pleasant answer, that I was going to see Paton Oswalt perform. The cashier chimed in with some amazing renactions of Paton Oswalt jokes which went on for, oh, about five minutes and had the person behind me laughing as well! This experience restored my faith in humanity and the simple pleasures of brief interactions! Since then I enjoy pleasant interactions like this as often as possible and have many more lovely stories like yours, Melissa!

    Keep up the these great social vibes! I bet the little one is loving them already!

  9. says

    @Renee: East Coaster. ;)

    @Robbie: I found the same thing with pregnancy – in the beginning, when things felt awkward, having a belly was a good conversation starter with most folks. I’ll have to check out Flinch – thanks!

    @Summer: Not super strong on the introvert side, but enough that it’s statistically valid. I can totally turn it on when I want/need to, but I’m also just as happy curled up on the couch with a good book. Dallas gets into all kinds of conversations in the produce section, usually starting with “What is that?” and ending with “Here’s what you do with it.” Love it.

    Melissa

  10. Nancy says

    Such a fun post! I, too, am an introvert (get my energy from my alone time) but love the effect of being friendly to strangers and the amazing things you can learn from those interactions. I am a west-coaster, who considers Portland to be one of my favorite places to spend the weekend. My husband is the best at striking up conversations with random strangers. He would NEVER stand in silence in an elevator with a stranger. Love it, and hate it. ;) It is fun to ask people for restaurant suggestions, as you can find great hole-in-the-wall places you’d never find in a guidebook or by chance.

  11. says

    Love this! I’m an introverted, too, but as a Texan recently transplanted to Oregon, I’m surprised how standoffish people feel here (yep, the PNW feels unfriendly to me compared to the Motherland… ;) ). I LOVE making small talk (while still reading in to social cues, of course) and absolutely think it affects my disposition. I work from home, and while I love it, I do start feeling down if I haven’t been out there among the 3-D people. Just a simple browsing at a store surrounded by other humans will do wonders for me. Talking to them? Even better.

    One fun question to ask cashiers (if they seem like they’re in a chatty mood): What’s been the best part of your day so far?

  12. Meesha says

    Great post! I have tried to be more friendly for the past few years as well and have seen similar results to yours, although not as diligently documented. :)

  13. Lynn says

    This isn’t at all a ‘southern’ thing! I’ve lived all over the country and the least friendly folks are from Alabama and Georgia (but only in the cities – country is different and very friendly). I was raised to look people in the eye, thank them with a smile, and compliment whenever sincere and appropriate. Because of that, I have had some of the most wonderful experiences with strangers! I’ve also been left in tears holding a stranger’s hand while listening to heart-breaking stories. Sometimes it’s just easier for people to unburden to a stranger. Good for you for opening yourself up – you might have an unpleasant experience now and again, but for the most part you will enjoy it and grow in it.

    **I’ve lived most of my life in the south and let me tell you, the ‘it’s a southern-thing’ schtick is so overblown as to be unbelievable and frustrating. But, if they want Paula Deen, they can certainly keep her! :)

  14. Jo says

    So, I live abroad in a large city that’s a mixed bag of nationalities. The norm is not to make conversation with strangers. But I am from a small town in the Upper Midwest–my brain doesn’t work that way. I chat up cashiers, security guards, cabbies, wait staff, baristas, and even occasionally other moms in public. The cool thing is, so many people miss the daily interaction too, that it typically makes their day as much as it helps me along in mine. Along with chatting people up, I like to do the best I can to coax eye contact and smiles out of other pedestrians, busy or not. Eventually, the faces become familiar, and the people turn into something like a community. It helps to feel more at home in a faraway place.

  15. Dan says

    This article really resonated with my experience doing a similar progressive desensitisation challenge starting in December last year. I have run my own business from home for the past 3 years and overcoming that sense of social isolation can be a real challenge. I am very introverted with a history of crushing social anxiety so I really had to baby step it – first going out and making eye contact with strangers, then saying Hi, then working up to starting conversations with sales assistants, museum/art gallery staff, farmers market stall holders, baristas, etc. Although it was nerve wracking and awkward at first, it was a revelation. As you point out, most people are really open to conversation. This was in central London, by the way, although I have had just as much success with this kind of ‘Say Hi to a stranger every day’ thing in rural Japan, and various UK and European cities. People really light up when you take a genuine interest, and it’s the best feeling when you both go away after that brief but meaningful exchange with a smile on your faces. Everyone should do this.

  16. Suzy says

    As a cashier at Trader Joe’s, I can tell you the up- and the downside of asking people questions. Yes, we are told to engage the customer and are told to only talk about products. This keeps conversations away from, say, Wicca, or the customer’s just-dead grandma. So, we are taught to pick an item from the customers cart, one we’ve genuinely had before and give tips and opinions and general info about it. That conversation starter is supposed to end with a “WOW customer experience”; it’s what we call the “finale” of the shopping experience at TJ’s. Oh, it also prevents the dirty, married old man I had a conversation with about music from leaving his business card with me a fourth time.

    So, I get a LOT of face time with strangers. It’s good for me, yet, I’m sick to death of talking about cheese. It has just become part of the work day. Thank you for reminding me that it’s good to do unscripted questions with people randomly out in public. It will be very therapeutic for me to bring the naturalness back into socializing.

  17. says

    I’m originally from the South where everyone everywhere talks to everyone else about everything. I joke that I made a really bad Southerner because I didn’t appreciate those types of interactions. So I moved to New Jersey. Nobody talks to anyone in NJ usually. But my husband (who is from Connecticut so I don’t know where this behavior comes from) likes to chat up cashiers, wait staff, ushers at baseball games, etc. And 99 times out of 100 it makes someone else’s day when he engages them! He says it’s his goal to get them to smile. And there was only one time where it didn’t work — a cashier at our local supermarket — so it became his (and our kids’) goal to get her to smile. After many tries, one day she did smirk.

  18. Claudia says

    Great post! I, too, am an East Coaster living in the West and an introvert. It is a bit easier out here because I noticed right away how friendly people are in the grocery store and other places, must be the 350 + days of sunshine we get in northern Nevada!

    On another note, I wonder how you would be received if a) you were ugly, b) if you were fat and c) if you were not pregnant? Just my “realistic” east coast side coming out ;)

  19. Steph says

    “but you’d be surprised how starved people are for genuine conversation”
    YES girl PREACH!
    For a summer, I spent considerable time wandering around DC and sitting and chatting with the visibly homeless people that I came into contact with. I know this sounds weird but whatever. It was awesome. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I was privileged to hear and how ready the people I met were to talk to someone.

  20. says

    Great post, Melissa! Truly appreciated by another introvert.

    The socialization thing is a sorely missed component of ancestral health. Everything in our lives today is stacked against genuine interaction. Most of us don’t live near family anymore and we regard strangers as dangerous or suspicious instead of another human being on the planet.

    Finding the balance that works is difficult. Sometimes I just feel besieged, and it will be interesting to see how you feel when Little9 arrives. Having a baby, and later a child, brings on all sorts of interactions. And then there are the activities. I feel lucky that so far, I think my daughter is also an introvert. If I had an extrovert, I would really have to challenge myself and, to some degree, go against my nature to provide her with the experience she would need.

    But then after a period of hiding out because I feel besieged, I start to emerge again and reach out. I seem to go back and forth between those two extremes as needed. What I loved about your piece here is that it reminds me that the more you practice it, the better and easier it is. Thank you!

  21. Blu says

    You might want to be sensitive to asking strangers if they have kids (or grandkids).

    If you ran across me this year and asked me that, I’d probably start crying.

    Same goes for “where do you work?” and “do you have a husband?” The honest answer to all of these questions surprises the questioners, whose typical expression of surprise, pity, and embarrassment makes me uncomfortable, sad, reminded of the life that I wish I were leading, and wishing that I didn’t have to have a little optimistic spiel about myself prepared so that they would feel better about asking me these arbitrary questions which were only meant to mindlessly occupy 60 forgotten seconds of their day anyway.

    Having grown up in an overly-friendly, overly-into-others’-personal-business region of the lower Midwest, I find living abroad in a reserved country (which respects introverts much more than the US does) GLORIOUSLY comfortable and liberating.

    The US norm for people to act extremely extraverted is not balanced, and it’s encouraged some pretty ugly aspects of our culture to flourish.

    It’s great to push your boundaries as an introvert and have the courage to learn new behaviors, but I already know I can do it when I want to (I’m right on the dividing line of the I/E scale, but am deep-down an I), with the people I want to.

    And I try to be cautious about mentioning topics which might be too personal to others. Depending on the culture and the individual, this can include such innocuous-sounding topics as where someone went to school or which part of town he/she lives in. If you *have* to randomly chat to random people, the weather is unfortunately a safe option.

    [I don't mean that I'm stony-faced and haughty to cashiers, waiters, etc. - I'm genuinely friendly in appropriate contexts.]

  22. Mandee says

    I have such atrocious anxiety when it comes to initiating conversation with strangers that my stomach knotted up just reading this post, and I swear I have a little tear in my eye. I am going to have to try this.

  23. says

    How interesting! And timely. I’m definitely introverted and actively avoided small talk. I even would answer “how are you?” with “I’m good, thank you,” in order to politely shut any opportunity for conversation down instead of saying “I’m good, how about yourself?”
    And then last October while vacationing, my introverted best friend and I had a deep conversation with our extroverted, amiable husbands about how they can stand talking to people, let alone *enjoy* it. And I came to the conclusion that I might be doing myself a disservice by finding such displeasure in human interaction. I started making an effort to talk to people. And people who I typically found awkward or annoying, I asked them endless questions rather than quickly find an excuse to get away from them. I’ve learned many intersting things and laughed, a lot.
    If nothing else, it’s definitely made social obligations less burdensome for me!

  24. Sara says

    What a cool idea! Now that I think about it, I usually feel that my “better” days are those when I “stretch” a bit and engage people in conversation. I’m also an introvert with self-conscious tendencies, but it feels nice to just talk about whatever with someone–it doesn’t need to be a terribly deep and meaningful conversation, but it makes you feel more human, for sure. Thanks for opening my eyes to this, I’ll have to give it a shot! Although the “total strangers” thing still sounds excessive… ;)

  25. Anna says

    It’s remarkable how many people claim to be introverted. I would speculate that most people feel that way about themselves. I come from a big city with an inferiority complex. It’s not that unusual for strangers to speak to each other. I am always looking out for little ways I might help strangers. Someone alone carrying a suitcase up some stairs, giving elderly people a seat on the bus, holding doors open for people, that kind of thing. Maybe it’s naive, but I guess I am somehow hoping it will be contagious.

  26. says

    @Nancy: I am much better at this talking-to-strangers thing when I’m with my sister, who is totally extroverted. On a road trip one year, we struck up a conversation with the family next to us at breakfast, who convinced us to drive a few hours out of our way to see the Canyon de Chelly – which quickly became one of my favorite places on earth. You never know what you’ll discover in the Great Social Experiment!

    @Simple Mom: I totally agree – there are lots of “easy” questions you can pose that spark great conversation! I love the “how’s your day been so far?” – it’s unassuming, but an easy one to spark conversation.

    @Meesha: I only documented for the blog. ;)

    @Jodea: Let me know how it goes!

    @Lynn: It just goes to show you that “social” tendencies vary from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood. My whole “east coast” thing was a tiny bit tongue-in-cheek, but then again, I can say it, because I’m an east coaster.

    @Jo: We’ve found that here in SLC, too. We moved here about 2-1/2 years ago, and traveled so much it took a while to make some friends. Saying hello to Kevin in the fish department of Whole Foods feels good – like you’re getting to be a “local.”

    @Dan: Working from home is tough! We often head out to the local coffee shop or other Wi-Fi location just to get some social interaction during our day. Otherwise it’s really easy to go all day seeing no one but each other!

    @Suzy: Fascinating TJ’s background. There must be a middle ground there somewhere – you can kind of feel people out on the fly, and talk about cheese with the guy who’s leering at you, and ask how their day is going of the lovely older couple buying fun party foods. Also remember that YOU may be sick of talking about cheese, but as your customer, I think it’s really fun when my cashier says, “Oh, have you tried that yet? I love it.” It’s a brand new conversation for everyone you meet! Keep it up.

    @NJ Paleo: I love the “get the cashier to smile” game! I’m in my local Rite-Aid enough now that the cashier (a lovely grandmother of an 8-year-old) is always asking how I’m feeling and how long I have. It’s fun to build a rapport like that.

    @Claudia: Ouch! There’s that famous east coast bluntness. ;) Maybe the pregnancy helps, especially with other women (I do get a lot of questions and comments on the belly), but I’d really like to think that the response I get is because I’m genuinely friendly and interested in their answer. I think people can tell if you’re just “phoning it in” versus truly engaged.

    @Steph: I don’t doubt that at all, to be honest. People, in general, are interesting. And sometimes their stories are more fascinating than any movie playing in the Megaplex!

    @Karen: What’s hard about our gig is that it’s grown/spread online, primarily. This keeps us tethered to social media and our email programs, which makes us THINK we’re being really social. Case in point – the other day I mentioned I had “talked” to four diffrent girlfriends throughout the day. Dallas called me on it – “Did you actually talk, or just text?” Truth is, we were just texting, which I now count as genuine social interaction. Which, really, it’s not. This false sense of connection makes us less likely to proactively seek it out there in the real world – which means real effort must be made to do exactly that! And it does get easier… and way more fun the more you practice.

    @Blu: I hear your point, but there are a lot of “innocent” questions that, in the wrong context, can go horribly wrong – including “how’s your day going?” The key is, of course, not to get overly personal (I’ve never asked someone outright if they have kids unless they comment on my belly and make mention of their own experience), but also to respect their signals if they answer in a manner that indicates they don’t really want to chat. You can’t be so afraid of offending someone that you don’t even talk about the weather (what if they just lost their vacation home in a hurricane?) but there are smart boundaries that make sense to practice (such as not asking about religion, marital status, or political views).

    @Mandee: Start off small. Really small. When your cashier asks, “How are you?” you can ask them in return, “How’s your day?” Mention the weather. Say, “Have a great weekend/evening/morning.” These little interactions will boost your confidence, and encourage you to go one step further when you get someone really happy to chat. Good luck!

    @Amber: You did your own experiment! I understand not everyone will think this is as much fun as I do, but it’s really nice that you’ve figured out that it makes these social interactions less burdensome. And trust me – there are moments I don’t feel like chatting, so I don’t… but I am trying to make those interactions fewer and further in between. It’s a personal developmnt effort for sure.

    @Sara: I consider cashiers and waiters “total strangers,” but you already have an “in” with them – so start there!

    @Anna: I don’t think that’s naive at all – I truly believe that’s how it works. You bring someone else a little bit of joy in their day, and they want to pass that on. It’s brilliant in its simplicity.

    Thanks to all who commented!
    Melissa

  27. Ellen says

    I always enjoy your posts, Melissa, but this one was especially thought provoking for me. I’m very introverted and, although I can converse with people quite well if forced to, my fall back behavior is to avoid interactions with strangers. Being sensitive and self conscious just gives me another excuse to stay in my comfort zone. Your experiment has inspired me to try coming out of my shell at least once a day with someone I don’t know. Thanks so much for this!

  28. Sarah says

    I’m from NH too and moved to Northern CA mostly to get away from that don’t-talk-to-anyone Eeyore vibe. While I love that people around me are generally happy and friendly, I find that even after 11 years, I still have a really hard time initiating conversations. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked away from a “conversation” and realized that I didn’t ask the other person a single question. Doh! This post has inspired me to be more present in conversations and remember to ask questions. Thanks.

  29. Lisa says

    I’m from the Midwest, but moved to NY and then to NJ at 18. My folks would come visit and within 3 hours my father knew all my neighbors, their kids, their retirement plans, etc., and I didn’t even know their names! Now being home most of the time, I miss the interactions and your post is very timely. I know I need a little “social experiment” in my life, and being a little more “midwestern” could go a long way toward being happier.

  30. says

    My mother-in-law (from Oklahoma) is the queen of talking to strangers. I love watching her in action, chatting cheerfully with anyone about anything. I certainly lack the gift – either my mind goes blank, or all my mental energy is occupied trying to keep the boys out of trouble – but thank you for the encouragement to keep trying!

  31. Catherine says

    @ Claudia, sorry, I can’t let that sort of cynicism go unchecked. :) I am not particularly attractive, am very overweight and not pregnant and I honestly have lots of lovely interactions with people. Truly, people just seem to respond to a smile and a genuine quick conversation. Everyone loves to be acknowledged, even by people like me. ;)

  32. says

    What a great experiment! I’m married to a man who talks to EVERYONE and early in our relationship I was incredibly uncomfortable with the way that he spoke to anyone who crossed our path. But it didn’t take me long to find out how much better my day was when I took the time to say hello or make small talk with people throughout the day. It’s something that I do naturally now and really enjoy it.

  33. Erica says

    I’m an introvert (INTP on MBTI) from the South. When I was younger I was really shy around strangers, but now that I’ve worked through that (mostly through getting my health, and thus my anxiety problems, in order), I loooove talking to total strangers. It can be so much fun! Even when I was shy though, the southerness showed through because I always waved and smiled at people I didn’t know. It’s just what everyone does down here. My mom will talk forever to people though, and I’ve never been able to do that, but she’s a very strong extrovert. I think she tends to get a bit too into other people’s business (like someone said earlier about asking if you have kids or a spouse can be a bit touchy, but honestly, if the person burst into tears, my mom would probably hug them and talk to them for the next two hours!), and I mostly just stick to small talk or joking around.

  34. says

    I have thought i was Shy my whole life…. per my Myers/Briggs test i’m an ISFJ
    Yet after some life changes….Divorce, etc…. forced me out of my shell and i discovered….

    An extrovert…. Folks LOVE talking to me… market, bookstore,everywhere…..

    I still have to push myself , sometimes to make the first move… but 9 out of 10….

    Great!

  35. Jessica says

    Good for you! I live in small town/rural Texas and I am a social extrovert so this is not a problem for me LOL! Here everyone talks to everyone…it’s very nice. I was born in New England…it is very different there!

  36. Jennifer M. says

    I found this so interesting because I live in the South (Texas to be exact) and it would be more of a social experiment for me NOT to talk to strangers :) Here, it’s generally considered rude not to chit-chat with everyone. It’s one of the many reasons why I love living here.

  37. says

    @Jennifer, I totally get that! I grew up in Utah (Utah County) and although people talk to each other, I didn’t grow up being “social” or “friendly” to strangers, but when I moved to San Antonio for a short time I was shocked (and a little nervous) of how friendly everyone was and how often random strangers said hello!

  38. Michelle says

    I started this for myself when I was in high school. Queensrych’s song ‘Eyes of a Stranger’ prompted me. I was 16 and super shy. Started looking into the eyes of every passer by and smiling. It was uncomfortable at first but after ___ years of doing this it has become my norm. Never thought about the stress relief… will have to pay closer attention. Fun! (note I live in Seattle… very near BC… so maybe it comes more naturally to us PNWers.

  39. Kelly Muffoletto says

    Yep Jennifer M! I’m a Texas girl too and we speak to everyone! Hi ya’ll!
    A good conversation starter is just to say something to a New Englander and watch them literally stop what they are doing, look at you and say “Where in the world do they talk like YOU?” Yes this happened to me while I was in Massachusetts last fall. The lady and I had a nice conversation.

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