Small talk with strangers is the worst. So is a really long commute, especially when packed like a sardine in a subway car or bus. One would surmise, then, that talking to strangers during said commute would be the ultimate worst experience, right?
According to a new study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that even though people think that talking to a stranger during their commute will be a negative experience, they actually report greater well-being after doing so.
"This misunderstanding is particularly unfortunate for a person's well-being given that commuting is consistently reported to be one of the least pleasant experiences in the average person's day," study researcher Nicholas Epley, a professor at the university, said in a statement. "This experiment suggests that a surprising antidote for an otherwise unpleasant experience could be sitting very close by."
The study included nine parts and involved Chicago commuters who talked to strangers, sat in solitude or did whatever felt natural to them as they commuted on a train, on a bus or in a cab. (Taxi passengers talked to the driver.)
Across the board, people said that they expected having to talk to a stranger to be a negative experience, with some who wanted to get work done or grab some shut-eye saying it would potentially be a hit to their productivity.
But in reality, talking to a stranger ended up being a positive experience, and it did not affect productivity. "Either people do not get as much done on the train sitting alone as they expect to, or forming a new connection comes to be defined as a reasonably productive use of time after having done it," the researchers wrote in the study.
So if connecting with someone is so much better than sitting by yourself, why do we negatively perceive interacting with others? Researchers found that one big reason could be that people generally think that other people have no interest in connecting, a product of behavioral norms.
"This research broadly suggests that people could improve their own momentary well-being -- and that of others," the researchers wrote, "by simply being more social with strangers, trying to create connections where one might otherwise choose isolation."