I’ve always considered myself an introvert.
I enjoy being alone and doing things by myself — like going to the movies, visiting museums, eating at restaurants, and traveling.
Some people consider me brave for enjoying my own company. However, there are times when I want to be around people.
Yes, introverts get lonely too.
What Is Being Alone? What is Being Lonely?
Being “alone” is a state where you are physically by yourself, whereas being “lonely” is an emotional state where you feel alone and disconnected from others (Melin).
Indeed, you can experience loneliness while with people.
Loneliness Can Happen To Anyone, Even Me
There is nothing more exciting than visiting a new place. Unfortunately, my trip to Europe was more stressful than enjoyable. Being an explorer by nature, I jam-packed my entire trip with things to do and places to see. But, during the first three days of the trip, I realized that I hadn’t spoken to anyone.
Not a single soul.
Wasn’t I supposed to be having the time of my life?
Why was I feeling sad all of a sudden?
Being in a country where I didn’t know anyone made me realize that the rest of the trip would be a drag if I didn’t at least talk to someone.
The loneliness was crippling. I would never start a conversation with a stranger if I didn’t have to.
Talking to strangers is crazy. “Strangers are bad.”
Not necessarily. At a cafe the next day, I started chatting with a stranger sitting just a few tables away from me.
At first, it was uncomfortable talking to someone I didn’t know. However, during the conversation, I realized that nothing was threatening about our talk. Instead, most of my anxiety came from being worried about not being able to contribute much to the conversation.
Thankfully, he loved talking, and I let him do most of it.
But, the simple encounter motivated me to slow down and initiate a social connection with new people I’d never met before. Not to mention, I grew an overwhelming amount of self-confidence while realizing that strangers aren’t necessarily bad people.
We just believed that they were bad based on what we were taught.
Talking to strangers is not something people do. Most of us grew up believing that strangers were bad people.
But in reality, strangers aren’t all that dangerous. We interact with strangers more often than we think — on the checkout line at the grocery store, ordering food at a restaurant, and more.
Unfortunately, the “stranger danger” ideology still exists and is still taught by understandingly protective people. But according to psychotherapist Sheila O’Malley, instilling this kind of fear can paralyze children. Rather than preaching “stranger danger,” they suggest that parents should teach their children to listen and develop they are instead of developing a fear towards strangers (McHale).
If Humans Are Social, Why Are We Being Anti-Social?
It is in our genetics to form communities and interact with other people.
In tribal times, being part of a community was vital to your existence. It made you feel connected and contributed to your sense of happiness. Most importantly, it meant survival.
But thousands of years later, it became normal to be in a space full of people without ever acknowledging each other’s existence.
Have you noticed how much we tend to ignore each other, despite knowing that there are people all around us?
Sometimes, we are more connected to our digital devices than to others. But if connecting to people increases happiness, why do we continue to pretend that they don’t exist?
Studies Suggest That Connecting With Others Leads To Positive Experiences
A study conducted by psychologist Nicholas Epley, Ph.D., and his doctoral student Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago focused on how people interacted with strangers during their commute.
They wanted to understand why people, innately social creatures, chose to ignore each other instead of socializing with them.
For this study, two sets of experiments took place with commuters in the Chicago area.
In the first experiment, commuters were instructed to:
- Connect to a stranger near them
- Remain disconnected
- Commute as normal
In a second experiment, another set of commuters was asked to predict their experiences under the same conditions.
The results were surprisingly contradictory.
Those who participated in the first experiment reported having a more positive experience talking to a stranger than sitting in solitude. In comparison, those who participated in the second experiment predicted having a negative experience talking to a stranger while expecting a more positive one sitting in solitude.
So if talking to strangers provides a positive experience, why do we choose not to engage with the person next to us?
One reason is that talking to strangers violates social norms (remember “stranger danger”?).
Another reason is that people underestimate others’ interest in connecting. Commuters in the second experiment mistakenly believed that forming a connection with a stranger would be unpleasant.
There Are Benefits To Talking To Strangers
Other studies also support that social interactions can make us happier, connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic (Keohane).
Sure, these micro-interactions may not be substantial. They are quick and fleeting. But psychologists suggest that talking to strangers can be good for us but not necessarily a replacement for close relationships but should help complement them.
As human beings, socializing is part of our nature, and our ability to connect with others influences our well-being.
Every day we are surrounded by people, and each person is an opportunity to catalyze a social connection. Unfortunately, we misunderstand the consequences of these social interactions and don’t initiate social connections more often.
Overall, pleasant experiences can come from chatting it up with a stranger.
So the next time you are amongst people, acknowledge them and see how things go. Maybe you’ll realize that a simple “Hello” can make your day — and perhaps also theirs- a little brighter.