The Power Of Perspective: How Talking To Strangers Can Improve Your Life
Regardless of where you fall on the introversion-extroversion spectrum, social support plays an important role in mental health. When you feel connected to and supported by others, you’re better equipped to manage life’s difficulties and combat the negative effects of loneliness.
To reap the benefits of social support, you don’t need a huge network of friends, family, and acquaintances. When you venture outside of your familiar circle, however, you may be surprised by the wisdom you can gain – and give – by talking to strangers.
For many of us, the idea of expanding our social networks and pursuing conversations with strangers can be intimidating. But fortunately, you don’t need to make radical changes to connect meaningfully with new people. We’ll discuss how shifting your social perspective can expand your community, plus easy-to-apply strategies that unlock the power of talking to strangers.
What Is Social Support?
As defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), social support includes any form of assistance or comfort to others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and/or social stressors.
While we almost always benefit from social support, certain situations may call for higher levels of comfort and care. Social support can take many forms, both formal and informal: some common examples include mental health support groups, donating time or money to an important cause, or completing chores for a friend who just had surgery.
What Are The Benefits Of Social Support?
As you might expect, high social support offers several benefits for mental health, including:
- Increased resilience to stressful situations
- Greater self-esteem and sense of autonomy
- Better coping skills
- Less susceptibility to loneliness, which is linked to numerous negative outcomes
- Better heart health, nutrition, sleep quality, and cognition
- Reduced risk of mental illness
- Overall, a higher quality of life and social relationships
Researchers are still studying why the relationship between social support and physical health exists, in addition to the link between social support and mental health. As we gather more information, it’s never too late to nurture your existing relationships and tap into the power of connecting with strangers.
Why Should You Talk To Strangers?
You might associate social support with people you already know and trust. But can exchanges of care, comfort, and wisdom occur between strangers?
Psychologists continue to study the power of talking to strangers, but current studies indicate that yes: strangers can give and receive high-quality social support to one another in both everyday contexts and during difficult life events. But compared to talking to someone you know, what are the added benefits of conversations with strangers?
1. Strangers Can Offer New Perspectives.
If you’re looking for a new outlook on a certain subject, it makes sense to seek out new conversation partners. Whatever the subject or scenario, strangers can broaden your perspective in unexpected and life-giving ways.
Who knows: your seatmate on the train might point out a building or sign you never noticed, or suggest a book that later shapes one of your major life decisions. If you open up to the barista at the local coffee shop about a problem you’re facing, they may provide a nuanced perspective on a tricky situation.
At first, the initiation of these conversations might feel awkward; but in many cases, both strangers involved in a conversation end up enjoying the interaction, based on a growing body of research on conversations with strangers. In one study, people who were asked to talk to strangers during commutes worried that the strangers wouldn’t enjoy the conversations, but the opposite was true. The researchers found that people had more positive commutes when they connected with strangers, compared to people who sat in solitude.
The next time you’re in a public space, take a moment to look up and notice the people around you. If you push past solitude and introduce yourself, your conversation may lead to exciting viewpoints, unbiased feedback, and even thoughtful solutions to a pressing personal issue.
2. Strangers Can Give And Receive Support.
Compared to the closest people in your life, strangers provide “weak ties”: relationships with limited emotional intensity and intimacy.
However, the word “weak” is deceiving. Strangers may have limited knowledge of one another, but weak ties are widely available in most public spaces and can provide high-quality social support.
Consider your social network: while you may have a handful of close friends, you may encounter tens or even hundreds of strangers or acquaintances on a daily basis. Just one interaction with one of these “weak ties” can enrich your morning commute, reduce your stress, and generally make you feel more seen and supported in your community.
3. Strangers Can Strengthen Your Sense Of Community.
With enough time and conversation, the strangers in your life may become close friends and neighbors. These interpersonal connections can make you feel more integrated in your local community, which has myriad benefits for mental health.
When you have a strong sense of community, you tend to feel more socially connected, purposeful, and like you “belong” in a place or social circle. The word “community” can take various forms, but some common sources of community include:
- A volunteering group
- A recreational sport
- A hobby-based group, like a book club or artists’ collective
Strangers are part of any community. As you find spaces and activities you enjoy, people who were once strangers may become trusted confidantes and integral people in your everyday life.
4. Strangers Can Provide Knowledge And Information.
After a conversation with a stranger, you’ll likely walk away with a new story, local knowledge, or general information. One of the joys of speaking with strangers is the prospect of simply learning something new and exchanging wisdom with another person.
Research suggests that weak ties are especially powerful sources of information, especially in contexts where strangers gather around a shared experience or concern. Support groups are a clear example of this phenomenon: for many people who join these groups, one of the key benefits is gaining information from new people.
5. Conversations With Strangers Can Enhance Your Social Skills.
In the cafe or during your commute home, it may be easier to tune out the people around you: a behavior described as civil inattention. After an emotionally difficult day, you might need this quiet time to reflect and recharge. But even on tough days, you may be surprised by the restorative power of reaching out to someone you don’t know.
In moments when you feel inclined to reach for your phone or the nearest exit, try to reach out to strangers instead. When we repeatedly avoid talking to others in public places, we may become stuck in a behavioral pattern that stops meaningful social interactions before they can happen.
Of course, shifting your social mindset is easier said than done. Start with small social gestures: perhaps smiling at the person who checks you out at the grocery store, talking to someone else in the line for lunch, or complimenting a new co-worker on a unique piece of clothing.
By regularly practicing these social acts, you may surprise yourself with your newfound social skills, and find yourself delighted by the people you encounter along the way.
Therapy Can Help You Find More Social Support
If you’re looking for tips and encouragement to expand your social circle, therapy is an excellent place to begin. Therapy itself is a form of social support, as your therapist can provide comfort, care, and research-backed strategies to enrich your social life.
While some people prefer in-person therapy, a growing number of patients use online therapy to support their mental health goals while balancing busy schedules. Using a digital platform like BetterHelp, you can match with a board-certified therapist within 48 hours of completing a brief questionnaire. Each BetterHelp therapist has at least three years of professional experience, and many help their clients develop social skills and find alternative forms of support.
Research shows that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face treatments for a range of mental health goals. Based on a 2018 review of internet interventions for mental health conditions, the author concluded that online therapy has positive long-term effects for patients with various mental health conditions, including social anxiety disorder (SAD). Past studies have observed moderate to large reductions in the severity of SAD symptoms after online therapy, with an average symptom reduction of 50% across studies included in this review.
While more research is needed to assess the continued impact of online therapies, research suggests that treatments like internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy can both complement and replace in-person therapies.
The strangers in your life may be unlikely sources of support, perspective, and community. Psychological research shows that connecting with new people can have powerful benefits for mental health – but the act of reaching out may be the most difficult step.
A therapist can offer the strategies and encouragement you need to make the first move. With their guidance, you can develop tools – and confidence – to strengthen bonds with acquaintances, fellow commuters, and other members of your greater community.
- Previous Article