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How to talk to strangers | Oliver Burkeman

Dec 2nd, 2016 by

People are happier when they talk to strangers, even when they predict they’ll hate it

I know I risk having my British citizenship revoked for saying this, but I admired how Jonathan Dunne – the American behind those “Tube chat” badges, encouraging conversation on the London Underground – responded to the hostility his project provoked. He ordered twice as many badges, recruited volunteers, and plunged back into the fray. Don’t get me wrong: true to my nationality, my first instinct is that anyone proposing more conversation between strangers should be imprisoned without trial. But on reflection, that reaction’s odd. After all, Tube chat isn’t encouraging unwanted conversation (if you aren’t up for talking, don’t wear a badge). The main objection seemed to be how excruciating it would be to have to listen to other passengers’ stumbling attempts at dialogue. And when you’re that horrified by the prospect of humans willingly engaging in mundane activities in public, isn’t it possible the problem isn’t with them?

Because the truth – according to an accumulating body of research, and now a book, When Strangers Meet, by the American educator Kio Stark – is that people really are happier when they talk to strangers, even when they predict they’ll hate it. This topic quickly gets derailed by questions of street harassment, but Stark is clear she’s not excusing that. (Nobody who thinks it’s OK to pester a woman to remove her headphones, as per that sleazy blogpost that went viral this summer, will find solace in Stark’s argument.)

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