Say hello to a stranger to smile today? Maybe

Published 6:39 pm Friday, August 2, 2019

“Want to feel happier today? Try talking to a stranger.”

This was the headline to an NPR article I clicked on recently. I like to click on the news website’s self-help articles every now and then just to see what they have to say. (I particularly liked, for example, a series of articles last year about proper posture to reduce back pain.) I may not always think their advice is helpful, but it’s usually something interesting to think about.

When I saw this particular headline, however, I was mighty skeptical about it. Talking to random strangers will make me happier? Not more anxious instead? I was even more skeptical when I began reading and the opening example was about striking up conversations in an elevator. I don’t believe I’ve ever willingly started a conversation while riding an elevator with someone, and I’m not sure the time spent inside is long enough to even try. No one around here at least is taking skyscraper elevators up 20 or more floors.

But the article goes on to mention a few other examples, such as talking with a cashier in the checkout line. “You’ve got to interact with them anyway, so you might as well make an effort to turn it into a friendly exchange,” the article suggests. And well, that’s true, so I can’t disagree with that idea. If you have to talk to someone, don’t go out of your way to make it awful!

For the socially anxious among us or the introverts like me who aren’t big fans of small talk, scientific research shows that even just making eye contact can be helpful to lifting your mood. You feel more connected with people when they acknowledge your existence, even if that’s just a quick head nod or a brief smile in your direction. A few seconds is all you need before you continue with your day.

Predictably, the article also warns against getting too absorbed in your phone that you don’t interact with anyone at all. Many of us have been guilty of using our phones as a barrier to interaction. It’s certainly easier, isn’t it? Bury your nose in reading something so you don’t have to talk at all. I admit doing this occasionally too.

(But then again, sometimes I’m just really invested in what I’m reading and don’t want to be interrupted!)

After reading the full NPR article, I’m still not quite sure if I fully agree with its suggestions. I don’t care how happy it will make me; I’m not striking up conversation in an elevator. And personally, sometimes I’m just so tired that I don’t feel like talking to strangers.

But on the other hand, it’s not hard to simply smile at strangers passing by, and it’s not hard to say a thank you to the cashier in the checkout line or a random person holding the door open for you. It’s a brief connection to another person, and for whatever reason, it helps boost your mood. Even on a good day, we can always enjoy something that makes us happier, right?

Even though I was skeptical of the idea presented in the article at first, I can definitely pinpoint times where interacting with strangers have brightened up my day a little. Like, for example, chuckling with someone next to me while we’re both waiting in line at Bojangles. Or chatting with strangers in passing at the anime convention I attend every year. They’re just brief moments with people I’ll probably never see again, but in hindsight, those interactions do add a little bit of extra momentary cheer.

What do you think about the idea? Do you prefer the silence in a crowd of people or a friendly hello every now and then?

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at 252-332-7206.