science of us

Here’s a Much-Needed Strategy for Getting Good at Small Talk

Photo: Masterfile Productions/Getty Images/Radius Images

Unless you’re maniacally extroverted, there’s a good chance that talking to strangers is super uncomfortable. To avoid it, you may retreat to your phone or headphones, stare at the subway ads, or bite your fingernails. But there’s lots of evidence for why talking to previously unknown humans is good for you. When Chicago commuters in an experiment were asked to talk to people on the train, they had happier commutes than they’d predicted. Similarly, introverts may say they don’t want to go to a party, but if they do, they have a good time. And small talk helps build bonds between people that would otherwise be neglected.

But even with all that, knowing what to say to someone you don’t know is hard. You could rely on the weather, you could try to not sound creepy saying something about their clothes. Or, as Kio Stark, author of “When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You,” recently told The Atlantic’s James Hamblin, you could “triangulate.” You draw a conversational polygon between you, a stranger, and some third thing that you’re both experiencing. The benefits are obvious, namely that you come off less threatening or creepy than commenting directly on your prospective conversational partner, and it’s less boring than saying something about the weather.

“There’s you, there’s a stranger, there’s some third thing that you both might see and comment on, like a piece of public art or somebody preaching in the street or somebody wearing funny clothes,” Stark said in a TED Talk. “Give it a try. Make a comment about that third thing, and see if starts a conversation.” When you talk to a stranger, she continues, you’re making a “beautiful interruption” to the narratives that you and your potential conversation had about your daily life. You’re less just seeing them by some number of demographic labels, she reasons, and more as an individual.

Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, the University of Chicago researchers behind the study on commuters making conversation with other commuters, capture the irony around stranger conversations in their paper. “People seem to ignore strangers because they mistakenly think that forming a connection with them would be systematically unpleasant, whereas isolation would be pleasurable,” they write. “Humans may indeed be social animals, but may not always be social enough for their own wellbeing.” In this way, talking to strangers is kind of like working out: unpleasant at first, but awesome in the long run.

A Much-Needed Strategy for Getting Good at Small Talk