Mind & Body

We Can Have Deeper Conversations With Strangers

What do we gain from connecting with strangers—and what holds us back? A new study suggests some answers.
TIMEDecember 15, 2021

When we talk to strangers, if we talk to them, we often default to “small talk” or “chit-chat.” We may muse about the weather or a recent movie or what we did over the weekend. This surface-level talk may keep us comfortable, but it’s often unfulfilling.

What prevents us from deepening our conversations with strangers?

A recent study by Michael Kardas, Amit Kumar, and Nicholas Epley published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that we tend to underestimate how much strangers are interested in and care about our more personal revelations. We also mistakenly assume that conversations with strangers will be uncomfortable and unrewarding. These miscalibrated expectations create a psychological barrier that prevents us from having more “deep talk.”

The study raises a question for all of us: What if we took more chances in connecting with strangers?

Asking the Big Questions

In the study’s first set of experiments, the researchers told participants that they would answer and discuss four deep questions with a stranger, such as “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” and “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?”

After reading the questions, but before meeting their randomly assigned conversation partner, participants predicted how interested they would be in hearing the other person’s answers, how interested they expected the other person would be in hearing their answers, how awkward they would feel during the conversation, how much they would like the other person, and how happy they would feel about the conversation. After 10 minutes spent discussing the deep questions with their partner, participants answered questions about how the conversation actually went.

Overall, participants weren’t very good at predicting how the conversation would go. They underestimated how interested they and their conversation partner would be in each other’s answers, as well as how connected and happy they’d feel afterward. They also overestimated the awkwardness of the conversation.

“Not only does having a deep conversation with another person seem to be a surprisingly positive experience, it seems to be more positive than having a shallow conversation,” write the researchers.

The researchers hypothesized that the reason people have such a tendency to avoid deeper conversations with strangers is because they believe strangers won’t care about their answers or find them interesting.

Experiments bore this out. For example, in one experiment, participants were able to choose from a list of shallower and deeper questions to answer with a stranger. Participants who were told beforehand that people tend to underestimate how much strangers will care about each other’s answers selected significantly more of the deeper questions than did participants who were told people tend to overestimate the caring of strangers.

Throughout the experiments in this study, a simple theme emerged: Our expectations about how conversations with strangers will go often run in a negative direction. Unfortunately, these assumptions likely govern how we interact with people we don’t know well in our day-to-day lives. As the researchers write:

“Our data suggest that underestimating others’ deeply social nature—assuming that others will be more indifferent and uncaring in conversation than they actually are—could help to explain why conversations in daily life are shallower than people might prefer. Our participants consistently expected their conversations to be more awkward, and lead to weaker connections and less happiness than they actually did.”

What Strangers Can Give Us

What’s unknown is to what extent these findings are generalizable. Although the experiments in this study included a range of different groups—American undergraduate and master’s students, financial services employees, international MBA students, community members in a park, and online participants—most of the experiments were conducted in the United States. So, it remains to be seen if the same results would be found in other cultures.

Here’s another open question: Do impromptu conversations with strangers differ from conversations prompted by experimenters? As the researchers acknowledge, it’s a lot easier to engage in deeper conversations when instructed to do so. And because “small talk” is a social norm in many settings, trying to engage in a more intimate conversation in the “real world” may make some people wonder if you’re angling for a date or trying to sell them something.

But other studies in more naturalistic settings suggest that we frequently make false assumptions about how interactions with strangers will likely go. In a study of train and bus commuters, people predicted that they would have a more positive experience keeping to themselves than while talking with a stranger, when the opposite was actually true.

In another study, people instructed to give a compliment to a stranger overestimated how uncomfortable and bothered—and underestimated how positive—the compliment recipient would feel. And a study that included pairs of new dorm mates and strangers at a workshop found a robust “liking gap” between how much people thought strangers liked them after a conversation and how much they actually did.

Together, these studies show that we may benefit from experimenting with talking to strangers even when we don’t feel like it—and consider moving beyond small talk when we do engage in these conversations.

“If you think that a deep conversation is likely to be especially awkward, then you are unlikely to give yourself the chance to find out that you might be a little bit wrong,” write the researchers. “Only by engaging with others do people accurately understand the consequences of doing so.”

There’s another possible benefit from deepening our conversations with strangers: feeling more socially connected and even maybe gaining more friends. After all, all friends were strangers at one point, and studies have found that “deep talk” speeds up the formation of friendships.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we need to go straight for the vulnerability jugular, exposing our worst fear or past traumas while ordering a cup of coffee. Instead, we may consider asking gradually more intimate questions—or disclosing more vulnerable information about ourselves—the next time we have the opportunity to have an extended conversation with a stranger.

In fact, in this study, the researchers noticed that some pairs assigned to discuss shallow questions eventually gravitated to deeper topics, suggesting there may be a natural drive to increasing intimacy over the course of a conversation.

So if you see yourself veering toward more vulnerable territory the next time you talk to your seatmate on a plane, consider using this study as a reason to give in to the impulse. You might just walk away with a new friend—or at least feel happier and more connected than you expected.

Summer Allen, Ph.D., is a research/writing fellow with the Greater Good Science Center. A graduate of Carleton College and Brown University, Summer now writes for a variety of publications including weekly blog posts for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is also very active on Twitter: Follow her, or just reach out and say hello! This article was republished from Greater Good Magazine.

Summer Allen