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Research says talking to strangers is good for your health

(Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash)

The Atlantic recently published an article called, “The Surprising Benefit of Talking to Strangers.” We already know how important friendships and other close relationships are to our mental health and happiness, but new research is suggesting that striking up conversations with strangers is just as beneficial.

According to researchers, these interactions can “make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic.”

Seattle’s Traca Savadogo gave a TEDx talk on what she calls “Curiosity Conversations.”

“It’s kind of a game that I play with myself, I make a point to talk to three people a day,” Savadogo said.

That’s 90 curiosity conversations with strangers every month. She’s been doing this since 2006.

“I think it’s helpful to know that I’m from the Midwest and my dad was a traveling salesman. It was something that was very ingrained in my family,” she said. “Having a conversation on the spot, at a store or a restaurant, was always very exciting.”

Then she moved to Seattle and found that she was the only one initiating these conversations.

“I noticed it was very different. I decided that was something that I wasn’t willing to let go of,” Savadogo said. “I wanted to be the anti-Seattle-Freeze.”

Savadogo sparks conversation everywhere she goes; with the cashier at the grocery store, with truck drivers at truck stops, or if she’s waiting in line at a taqueria she’ll ask her line neighbor what their favorite thing on the menu is. Recently, while on a road trip, she asked to pet a woman’s dog outside a bakery, which led to a conversation, which led to the woman offering her a place to stay. Savadogo ended up staying a week. They had dinner parties every night, went to the beach, and became friends.

If talking to strangers makes us feel good, leads to romantic partners, friends, and business opportunities, why are so many people afraid to do it? In the article, researchers say there are lots of reasons, like being raised with “stranger danger,” or not knowing how to do start.

“How do you start a conversation with somebody? I like to notice something. ‘Tell me about that patch on your jacket,’ or ‘tell me about your tattoo. Why did you get that particular tattoo?’ The conversation can start in any number of different ways,” Savadogo said.

Researchers name two main reasons for our resistance: We’re afraid people won’t like us and, on the other side of the coin, we’re afraid we won’t like them. Savadogo tells a story in her TEDx talk that reminds us that the stories we create about strangers aren’t always true.

“There’s a guy in my neighborhood and, frankly, I was afraid of him,” she said. “He has a shaved head, he wears heavy black boots and a trench coat. Across his broad shoulders it says, ‘Don’t touch me.’ But one day I got curious and I decided to say hello. I learned he was soft spoken, with an Australian accent — that’s a bonus, right? He was an author. He wrote five books. So finally I got a chance to ask him my burning question, ‘Dude, what’s the deal with your jacket? Don’t touch me?’ He said: ‘My wife suffers from anxiety in public places and her support dog died. So I told her I would be her support. I sewed that patch on my jacket to help when we’re together in public places.’ That story I made up? I was completely wrong!”

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Studies show our fears of being rejected by a stranger aren’t realized. No one in the study was rejected when they started a conversation and, in most cases, both people reported enjoying the interaction.

Savadogo spoke with me from San Diego, where she’s currently passing through, and says she was surprised how many strangers there are starting conversations with her. She doesn’t have to work as hard as she does in Seattle.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.

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