Why do we need to talk to strangers?

Although talking to strangers might be a very uncomfortable experience, positive interactions we got from it are the way to avail self-confidence. Research shows that connection to other people through shared experience, even if we do not know them well, strengthens internal psychological resilience while building social bonds.

I learned about the value of small talk when I taught high school folks about starting a conversation with strangers through street photo-interviews in Venice Beach several years ago. Homelessness was on a rise in Southern California at that time. Every week, there were hundreds of people who lost their houses because of escalating rents. Many people went to the streets and lived in tents. Most of them had followed their dream when they came to LA. And each of them had their own stories, filled with pain and hopes that had to be spoken out. So we took a bunch of high school kiddos out to the streets and encouraged them to conduct photo-interviews with homeless people.

The biggest challenge for young folks was to step out of their comfort zone and strike a conversation with someone they had never met before and, probably, would not normally interact in their everyday lives. To overcome this discomfort, we asked them to switch from the GOAL mode (when they need to start talking with a stranger right away) to the TRY mode (experiment, when asking questions to find their own way of interaction). Then, we figured out a list of starter questions for each student. That practice dramatically increased the number of positive interactions with strangers and made students find their own voice.

It was interesting to see how conversations with strangers made folks feel confident about their next interaction. Even those who were silent before, once they had experienced a stranger sharing their personal narrative, became more talkative in the group, curious, and resilient.

The link between storytelling and resilience-building is part psychology, part neurobiology. According to a Harvard Business Review, “storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus.” Fun, engaging parts of a story “release oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.”