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You Should Totally Chat Up That Stranger

Although we may dread it, small talk (yes, even outside our social circles) has big benefits.

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Two women talking over coffee
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Small talk.

Did you just roll your eyes? If so, we get it. Not too many people actually like idle chatter. It can feel awkward and pointless. And ever since the pandemic and the whole social distancing thing, many of us have gotten used to not really having casual conversations with people we don’t know.

But light chitchat with people outside of your social circle (yes, strangers — just use situational awareness and stick to populated areas) can pay off in many ways.

Sometimes we keep to ourselves because we assume others don’t want to be bothered. However, as humans, we crave human interaction, Dr. Murray says.

You’ll be happier. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that people who have a “diverse social portfolio” — meaning a variety of different types of social interactions, including family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and strangers — were happier and more satisfied with life. A different study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, reported that striking up even a brief conversation with the cashier at a coffee shop boosted mood.

 It can lead to lasting relationships. “Small talk can be the entry point to new friendships,” says Nicole Murray, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist at New York Neurobehavioral Services. “It can help reveal common interests with strangers, leading to meaningful connections, especially in middle age.”

Jamillah, 46 (who’s proud of her skills making small talk with strangers but a bit shy talking with the media — I’ve changed her name at her request), knows this from experience. She met one of her best friends after they struck up a conversation on the street. And her relationship with her now husband started from a chat while they were waiting in a long line for a unisex restroom at a sporting event. “I was in line in front of him, and he started the conversation with a joke about a secret bathroom just for women upstairs, attempting to get me out of the line so he could move ahead,” Jamillah says. “We bantered back and forth and ended up talking throughout the night.” Boom, a connection. Now they’re happily married, all from a simple conversation. So if you’re single, being willing to engage in small talk may help you find that special someone too.

It can be good for your career. Dr. Murray, who works with clients to improve their emotional intelligence, says about 90 percent of her caseload is Black women who are high performing in their careers. Yet, “one of the things that keep coming up on their performance reviews is their supervisors or the people they report to feel like they don’t know them enough, wish they talked more or were more open,” she says.

Simply working hard isn’t necessarily the key to career advancement. “What’s indicated in research is if you perform well and have a good social relationship with your manager or higher-ups, you’re more likely to be promoted and moved up than someone that just works hard and doesn’t have that relationship,” Dr. Murray says. The only way to build that social connection is through small talk, she says.

You might learn some things. According to a study published in PNAS last year by researchers affiliated with the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, people underestimate how much they can learn in conversations with strangers. That makes sense. You never know what someone knows. The guy in the meat department at your local grocery store could recommend a new restaurant and a Realtor. An elevator ride with a random person could lead to some life advice you didn’t know you needed.

People will like you. A study published in Psychological Science suggests that after an initial conversation, people actually like us more than we think. And according to a 2017 study by Harvard business and psychology researchers, people like people who ask questions (just don’t get too personal too fast).

Small talk tips:

Assume people want to talk. Sometimes we keep to ourselves because we assume others don’t want to be bothered. However, as humans, we crave human interaction, Dr. Murray says. “There are more people that want to socialize than not,” she adds.

That said, pay attention to body language. If you make eye contact with someone and they look away, or you’re talking and they’re paying more attention to their phone, leave it alone. Sometimes people are in a rush or aren’t interested in chatting for whatever reason. Don’t take it personally.

Go with open-ended questions. Closed-ended ones, which require only a “yes” or “no” or a response of only a few words, don’t do much to push forward a conversation, Dr. Murray says. So if you’re at a conference, don’t ask another attendee, “Did you enjoy the session?” Instead, try, “What did you think of the keynote speaker?” Then, once you’ve got a dialogue going, ask deeper questions to push forward the conversation.

Use what’s around you. Let your surroundings help spark a conversation. For instance, if you’re at the deli and someone is ordering a cheese you’ve never tried, you could ask if they’ve had it before and what it tastes like. Or if you see someone wearing an “I Love New York” shirt, you might say, “I see you love New York.” Smile. “I plan to travel there later this summer. Any places and activities you would recommend?” You could also wear a conversation piece yourself — a unique necklace, playful glasses or a quirky handbag — to make it easier for people to approach you. And if you’re talking to a sista with a bomb do, hair talk is usually a good kickoff for a conversation — and can lead to so much more.

Mentally rehearse. “If you know you’re going to an event, have some questions or talking points internally prepared and kind of practice them so you’re not going into the situation completely cold,” Dr. Murray says.

Just do it. Go ahead. Try it today. Say more than “Good morning” to your neighbor during your daily walk. Compliment the sister with the fabtastic ’fro. Chat with one or two people on the subway. You never know what may come of it. At the least, it could put a smile on your face and theirs.

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