We were five minutes into the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced—approaching Boston’s Logan International Airport in a severe winter storm—when I turned to the woman next to me and said, “Hey, would you mind chatting with me for a few minutes? I’m really nervous.”
We hadn’t spoken much during the flight, other than the usual pleasantries. But my seatmate seemed friendly. And I suddenly felt desperate for a human connection.
“Sure. My name is Sue,” the woman replied, smiling warmly. “What brings you to Boston?” I started to explain that I was on a business trip. Then the plane lurched violently, and I blurted out, “I might need to hold your hand too.” Sue took my hand in both of hers, patted it, and held on tight.
Sometimes a stranger can significantly improve our day. A pleasant encounter with someone we don’t know, even a nonverbal exchange, can soothe us when no one else is around. It may get us out of our own heads—a proven mood booster—and help broaden our perspective.
“People feel more connected when they talk to strangers, like they are part of something bigger,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Essex who studies interactions between strangers.
In research studies, Sandstrom has found that people’s moods improve after they have a conversation with a stranger—say, a Starbucks barista, a volunteer at a museum, or the person next to them in line. Overall, people report that they are happier on days when they have more interactions with acquaintances they don’t know well.
And yet most of us resist talking to people we don’t know or barely know. We fret about the mechanics of the conversation—how to start, maintain, or stop it. We think we will blather on and disclose too much, or not talk enough. We worry we will bore the other person.
We’re typically wrong. Sandstrom’s research shows that people underestimate how much another person will like them when they talk for the first time. In a study in which she asked participants to talk to at least one stranger a day for five days, 99 percent said they had found at least one of the exchanges pleasantly surprising, 82 percent said they’d learned something from one of the strangers, 43 percent had exchanged contact information, and 40 percent had communicated with one of the strangers again.
Scientists believe there may be an ancient reason why humans are able to enjoy interacting with strangers. To survive as a species, we need to mate outside our own gene pool, so we may have evolved to have both the social skills and the motivation to mingle with people who are not in our tribe.
You don’t even have to talk to complete strangers to reap the benefits. Multiple studies show that people who interact regularly with passing acquaintances or who engage with others through community groups, religious gatherings, or volunteer opportunities have better emotional and physical health and live longer than those who do not.
While reporting this story, I heard from people who spoke of meaningful connections with strangers that led to all kinds of benefits. One person took up the cello after chatting with a woman on the subway who was carrying one. Another recalled how the smile of a fruit vendor from whom he regularly bought bananas made him feel less lonely after he’d first arrived in a new city. A young woman having trouble conceiving was buoyed by a woman on a plane who talked about the joys of being an older mother.
When Sue Pernick took my hand on that scary flight to Boston, I almost wept with relief. She was so calm, validating, and reassuring—“Yep, this is a little bumpy, but we’ll be on the ground safely soon,” she told me—that I asked her what she did for a living. “I’m a retired physical education teacher, and I coached women’s volleyball,” she said. Immediately, I could see what an awesome coach she must have been.
Sue and I talked—about our families, our vacations, our love of the ocean—until the plane finally landed. Then the businessman sitting on the other side of her, who’d been silent the entire flight, remarked that he’d enjoyed our conversation. “It distracted me,” he said. “I was scared too. I wanted to hold Sue’s hand!”
When we said goodbye, I gave Sue a big hug and my card. A few days later, I received an e-mail with the subject line “Broken hand on Jet Blue.”
“I have to admit that I was just as scared as you were but did not say it,” Sue wrote. “I just squeezed your hand as hard as I could. Thank you for helping me through this very scary situation.” She added that when she’d told her friends about our conversation, they teased her because they know she loves to talk.
I told my friends about Sue too. I explained how kind she was to me, and what I learned: It’s OK to ask for help from a stranger if you need it. Now if I mention to my friends that I am stressed or worried, they respond, “Just think of Sue!”