On a crowded subway car yesterday afternoon, I quietly sat and observed the people around me. When I looked down to my left, I noticed a woman reading Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, a novel I'd finished less than two weeks ago. I wanted to say something about the book, but I felt paralyzed with fear — and for no good reason. Finally, as I got up to exit, I looked over my shoulder and said, "Great book. Hope you enjoy it."
At that point, we didn't have much time for a lengthy discussion, but the woman fully acknowledged me and responded that she was happy to hear the praise. She wasn't very far along yet, she showed me, pointing to page 71 of the big book. While I was glad that I'd mustered up the courage to engage with this stranger, I thought how silly it was that I'd almost been too shy to open my mouth. Apparently, I'm not alone in this unusual introversion and unwarranted fear.
A recent piece in The New York Times discusses a study performed by behavioral scientists, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, who convinced people in Chicago to break the ice (or the rules, as it were) with strangers in public places. Others were instructed not to engage with anyone, which seems to be the behavioral norm for most commuters. The reward for all participants was a paltry $5 Starbucks gift card, but what the researchers discovered was huge.
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Although the commuters directed to strike up conversation with fellow strange commuters anticipated feelings of awkwardness and discomfort, what they discovered was that their conversations were actually quite pleasant and no one was snubbed. In fact, in the assessment at the end of the train ride, the conclusion was that individuals who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive commuting experience than those who had sat minding their own business.
One of the things I found most striking about the article was the authors' note that we often behave better around people we don't know, which, in and of itself, has the power to be improve our mood: They found that the great thing about dealing with strangers is that we tend to put on our happy faces when we engage with them, while we reserve our grouchier side for the people closest to us. Many of us can probably relate to that more than we'd like to admit.
Initiating a conversation with complete strangers has us putting our best foot forward. By engaging others, we drown out our own grumpiness, or, at least, temporarily mask it.
It's often the slightest smile and nod that contributes to others' overall well-being, and, subsequently, to ours—a message worth remembering as we go about our hectic days.