In another study from Dunn and Sandstrom, a group of students were asked to carry around counters and keep count all social interactions over the course of their day. Having more social interactions led the students to report greater levels of happiness and wellbeing.
In terms of how much differences in personality traits affect these assertions, Sandstrom, Nightingall, Dunn, and others say, less than you’d probably think. “Both extroverts and introverts are social beings,” Nightingall says.
Sandstrom adds that people who are more introverted tend to be more worried about how conversations will go ahead of time compared with extroverts. But those differences go away when people report the benefits they get out of a conversation (according to what she and colleagues found in the aforementioned "Psychological Science" paper published last year). That research also looked at other personality differences besides introversion. “Things like self-esteem and rejection sensitivity didn’t matter,” Sandstrom says.
How to actually be better at talking to strangers
Whether it’s approaching someone at a networking event, engaging a friend of a friend you’ve never met before at a party, or sharing a kind word with a stranger on the elevator (yep, we went there), here are some pointers:
1. Be brave, worry less
Even if it’s uncomfortable, be brave and just do it, Sandstrom says. The person is probably going to like you more than you think and you’re both probably going to enjoy it more than you think.
And don’t be afraid to talk to someone who seems different from you, adds Juliana Schroeder, PhD, assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at University of California Berkeley. (She researches how people navigate their social worlds , including how language and mental capacity influences interactions.) “When you have to talk with someone different from you, that can be the most enlightening and interesting experience.”
2. Be curious
Ask questions. Is the person wearing an article of clothing that’s noteworthy? Why did they decide to come to whatever event you’re both at? Research actually suggests that people who ask more questions are better liked by their conversation partners than people who ask fewer questions. A question can either kick off a conversation or keep it going, Sandstrom says.
3. Don’t be afraid to go off-script
Skip the stock questions (what do you do, where do you live, etc.), and ask a question that will make your conversation partner think, which is engaging, Nightingall says. Or start with a statement: “This painting really confuses me” or “I can’t believe how crowded the train is today.” Statements are invitations to share curiosities, Nightingall says.
And whether you’re asking a question, replying, or making a statement, be authentic, she adds. “People want to get the real you so they can express the real them.”
4. Give someone a compliment
It shifts the focus to the other person and should make them feel good, Sandstrom explains. When it comes to our anxieties about having conversations with people we don’t know, we tend to be in our heads a lot, overthinking what we’re doing wrong or what we could do wrong, she explains. Focusing the attention on the other person in those moments can help us get past those awkward spots, she says.
5. Talk about something you both have in common
At the very least, you’re in the same place and experiencing the same weather. But don’t be afraid to dig deeper and find more interesting commonalities: maybe you’re from the same place, maybe you have a mutual friend, maybe you have a shared hobby, or maybe you work in similar roles.
“We tend to overestimate how different people are from one another and how different they are from us, “ Sandstrom says. “In reality, you probably have lots in common, but you just don’t know what that is yet.”
6. Have more conversations with people you don’t know
The more you have, the more likely that you’re going to have good conversations, Sandstrom says. You get better at asking better questions, and answering with more interesting responses. “There’s some skill, but its as much confidence that come from just doing it more often,” she says.
We fear social rejection — that the person won’t respond positively or will ignore us, Schroeder says. Research shows the opposite, however, that people nearly always are willing to engage in a conversation when prompted by someone else. (Our fear assumptions fail to take into account the social norms of politeness, Schroeder says.)
7. Don’t let the awkward moments trip you up
Sandstrom says in her experience, she would describe the stages of having a conversation with a stranger as follows: First, they look at you as if asking, “Do I know you?” Then there’s recognition they don’t know you. Then it’s, “Wait, are you a weirdo?” Then they get past all of that and realize you’re just being friendly.
“You have to be OK that it might be awkward for a bit,” Sandstrom says. “But if you keep going, hopefully you’ll get to that stage where you’re having a real conversation.”
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