When American expat Jonathan Dunne got tired of sitting in silence during his commute in London, he figured others must feel the same way. He started a movement to get people talking to each other, handing out free “Tube chat?” badges.

He couldn’t have anticipated the backlash. Media coverage in The Guardian said: “‘Tube chat’ campaign provokes horror among London commuters.” Hundreds of people took to Twitter to protest the campaign:

“What is this monstrosity?! This is too much. Make it stop. Say no to #tube_chat”

“Some irresponsible fool trying to undermine the fabric of society by encouraging talking on the London Underground”

People created their own badges in response:

“Don’t even think about talking to me”

“Wake me up if a dog gets on”

Why did people have such extreme reactions to what amounts to a suggestion to have a friendly chat?  Our research, conducted in England and the U.S., finds that many people harbor a wide range of fears about talking to strangers. When we’ve asked people specifically what they are concerned about, some common responses include: not enjoying the conversation, not liking their conversation partner, and not having adequate social skills. 

But that’s not all...People also worry that their conversation partner will not enjoy the conversation, will perceive them unfavorably, and will lack social skills.  

We studied people’s concerns by looking at data from seven studies we ran over the past few years. In some studies people had to approach a stranger “in the wild” and start a conversation, and in others we arranged for them to talk to a stranger in the laboratory. One study was conducted at a “How to Talk to Strangers” workshop.

Across the board, we found that people worry more about their partner not enjoying the conversation than they do about not enjoying the conversation themselves.

Similarly, although people worry that they won’t hit it off with their partner, they are even more concerned that their partner won’t like them. This finding is consistent with the “liking gap” that people experience after talking to a stranger: falling prey to the negative voice in their heads, people tend to underestimate how much their conversation partner liked them and enjoyed their company. In other words, people are liked more than they know.

The good news therefore is that people’s fears are overblown. People worry before talking to a stranger, but when they report back after talking to a stranger, they admit that the conversation went better than they expected, and the things they worried about didn’t happen nearly as much as they anticipated.

And yet these fears can be a barrier, preventing people from talking to strangers even when they could benefit from doing so. Multiple research studies, conducted in Canada, the U.S., and Turkey, find that when people do talk to strangers—like a barista at their local coffee shop, a fellow commuter, or a shuttle bus driver, in the respective studies—they are in a better mood, and feel more connected to other people. In other words, talking to strangers is a readily available source of happiness that people often fail to benefit from, because they are overly pessimistic about how well these conversations will go.

Given that people have these fears, is there a way to overcome them? You might think having some conversational tips at the ready heading into a conversation would help. Something like: “Talk about something you have in common,” or “Give them (or their dog or baby) a compliment.” When we put this to the test, we found that tips only helped people a little. It didn’t remove their concerns about not liking their partner or not having the skills they needed to carry out the conversation successfully.

We also tried letting people get some practice talking to strangers. After all, practicing a musical instrument or a backhand swing does increase our confidence in our ability. Does the same logic apply to conversations? We found that after having one pleasant conversation with a stranger, people worried less than they had before their conversation, but their fears were still higher than their recent pleasant experience warranted. It’s all too easy to think, “Just because I had a nice chat with the dog walker doesn’t mean I’d also have a nice chat with the bus driver.”

Although having a single pleasant conversation didn’t fully calibrate people’s expectations, we found that repeated practice did do the trick. In one of our studies, people played a scavenger hunt game that involved talking to at least one stranger every day for a week. After participating in this study, people’s fears about future conversations were quite well-aligned with their recent experiences. In other words, practice might really make perfect when it comes to taming one’s fears about talking to strangers.

As American-in-London Jonathan Dunne discovered, when he tried to encourage people to chat on the Tube, people are often reluctant to talk to strangers. Our research suggests that these commuters are more worried than they should be, and they would probably enjoy talking more than they expect.

For Further Reading

Sandstrom, G. M., & Boothby, E. J. (2021). Why do people avoid talking to strangers? A mini meta-analysis of predicted fears and actual experiences talking to a stranger. Self and Identity, 20(1), 47-71. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15298868.2020.1816568

Boothby, E. J., Cooney, G., Sandstrom, G. M., & Clark, M. S. (2018). The liking gap in conversations: Do people like us more than we think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742-1756.

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Is efficiency overrated? Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affect. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 437-442.

Gillian Sandstrom is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Essex in the UK Her research focuses on the social interactions we have with strangers and weak ties. This research focus stems, in part, from the micro-friendship she developed with a lady who worked at a hot dog stand.

Erica Boothby is a postdoctoral researcher at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social connection and the psychological barriers that inhibit connection. Erica completed her PhD at Yale University and worked at Cornell University’s Behavioral Economics and Decision Research Center.