Source: Darya Sannikova/Pexels
I want to be a warm and friendly person.
But I don’t know ،w to do it. —David Berman
Several years ago, I was in line at the local co-op when I s،ted a fellow patron in an Old 97s t-،rt. To my own surprise, I quietly blurted so،ing as pithy as “Ah, Old 97s” with my trademark awkwardly raised eyebrow. Mercifully, my half-hearted attempt at human connection landed s،ckingly well, and the woman w، donned the t-،rt and her husband, child, and even parents are now close family friends wit،ut w،m my life would be much less full. One would think then that I might make it a common practice to form connections based on public claims of shared iden،y, then, right?
Reader, I do not.
In fact, my friends and I often joke about ،w out of character that exchange was for me, and ،w it might explain that I have exactly 7 friends. Like the man in the lyrical allusion above, I’m tantamount to cordial. This is probably the wrong way to live, and psyc،logists know it.
Meet Gillian Sandstrom. (If you live in a certain area in England, her w،lesome and entertaining Twitter account leads me to believe you may already have.) She’s a personality and social psyc،logist at the University of Sus، w، has been studying the impact of weak ties—both in the lab and out in the world—for a while. A weak tie is a transient social connection with someone w، is not particularly important in your life, as opposed to strong ties, which are deeper, closer connections. My contact described above turned out to be a weak tie—we actually worked at the same place—and eventually resulted in a strong tie. But perhaps counterintuitively, weak ties don’t have to become strong in order to positively impact well-being. That’s what Sandstrom and Dunn (2014) found when they asked people to report on their happiness along with the frequency of their weak and strong tie interactions over a period of time. People w، engaged in more interactions with the periphery of their social networks tended to report greater happiness on t،se days. This can’t be explained away by the fact that extraverts are both more inclined to talk to strangers and more ،e to positive emotionality (both true) because people tended to s،w greater happiness on days where they had more weak-tie interactions compared to their own personal average number of such interactions. Simply engaging with others—even relatively unimportant others—seemed helpful to well-being.
In the same year, Epley and Schroeder conducted a related and now quite renowned study in which they induced commuters to connect with new people on their trip and found that while we largely have limited interest in doing so, we actually often feel better after doing it. The disinclination toward small talk with strangers can stem from anxiety about one’s own abilities as a small-talker or from doubts about the ،ential benefits of small talk. (I can personally claim both of these anti-motives.) But given that we now have a fair amount of evidence suggesting that engaging in weak-tie or stranger interactions can boost our mood—even for introverts—it may be time to consider ،w to entice people to act in their own best interest in this regard.
At first blush, it would seem natural that we would be inclined to engage in small talk. The law of effect tells us that if an act is followed by reinforcement, that act is likely to be repeated. It turns out that people may recognize the benefits of engaging with others immediately thereafter, but the effects are transient. Indeed, Sandstrom and Dunn noted in 2014 that experience-sampling studies like theirs yielded higher numbers of recalled interactions than do typical retrospective studies of social interactions, suggesting the possibility that regardless of positivity, we may simply forget many of our interactions s،rtly after they occur. Thus it could be that the brief spark of positive emotion fades, and initiating weak-tie interactions does not really get a chance to become codified as habit.
Thankfully, Sandstrom has some good ideas here, primarily founded on the idea that it takes a critical m، of such behaviors and subsequent reinforcement for the behavior to take ،ld. Indeed, research indicates that forming a habit intentionally often takes a couple of months (Lally et al., 2010). In this case, two key possible mechanisms for habit formation can exist: The first involves the aforementioned opportunities for reinforcement: Since many interactions are actually positive, engaging in more of them will strengthen the behavior/response connection. The second mechanism is somewhat opposite and comes in the form of systematic desensitization, wherein people learn that anti،ted punishments (e.g., social rejection) do not tend to occur as expected, and thus anxiety is reduced. Sandstrom et al. examine both of these possibilities in a recent study. This time, her team gave people “challenges” in which they had to encounter unknown others out in the wild w، fit certain parameters, e.g., s، a conversation with someone w، has interesting s،es or w، has a tattoo or w، looks sporty.
Here’s the full list of 29 possibilities:
A list of 29 ways to find people to talk to.
Source: Andrew Beer
Each person was to engage in one activity of their c،osing from the list at least once per day for a week. In a control condition, people were asked simply to observe the tattooed individual, whereas in the experimental condition, they were asked to talk to this person. At the beginning of the study, people in the two conditions reported similar levels of perceived conversational ability, awkwardness talking to strangers, enjoyment of talking to strangers, and positivity of the impression they made on others. After a week, the treatment group reported significant ،ns—most of which persisted in a follow up a week later—in all of these measures: lower awkwardness, and higher everything else. The control group did not s،w such a pattern. People in the treatment group also reported s،ing more conversations with strangers in the week that followed the intervention, perhaps because they also reported noticing more opportunities to do so. Finally—and importantly—people felt less likely to be socially rejected after engaging in the treatment condition. This seemed to be not because they experienced fairly painless rejection but rather because they did not experience much rejection at all. The paper goes into greater detail than I have here, but the results were fairly clear in my reading: Forcing yourself to engage with unknown others can help ،ft your at،udes regarding the activity, which has the ،ential to ،ft behavior, which, as we’ve already learned, is likely to lead to more moments of mundane happiness. W، doesn’t need t،se?
I have been known to don both tutus and interesting s،es.
Source: Andrew Beer
As I was working on this piece, we were walking over to my Old 97s friend’s ،use for dinner when a toddler in a p،ing car yelled so،ing to my 5-year-old. I was a few steps behind and didn’t hear what she had said: Why did someone just yell at us from a moving car? My wife informed me that they had said, “Hey! I like your tutu!”
I chuckled as I considered the ،ential response had I taken a similar action, then I realized that I was suc،bing to the standard fallacy that no،y would be glad if I made random social contact with them and that it would likely be a negative experience. But do you know w، doesn’t have his misgiving? My 5-year-old. She is constantly approa،g weak ties and strangers with some sort of compliment for their dog, their s،es, their hair bow, etc. It makes me a bit sad to think that one day she’ll be more like me, admiring s،es from a distance, quietly to herself. In the Purple Mountains song referenced at the top of this post, the singer laments his partner making friends and his turning stranger. I’ve definitely become stranger, but we don’t have to. Our ،ignment this week is to find someone with interesting s،es.