The mini social interactions you have each day—with the barista, perhaps, or the cashier—provide a big boost, whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert.
My good friend Barbara Winter—who passed away a little over a year ago—had a philosophy she called her “Do Talk to Strangers” policy.
Unlike me and many of the other introverts I know, Barbara was apt to launch into a conversation with, for instance, her seatmate on the airplane … or with the person standing next to her in line at the post office … or with the taxi driver taking her to the hotel.
As she noted in a 2011 blog post, a Do Talk to Strangers attitude is “a vital component of traveling—and [of] being entrepreneurial,” both of which were central to Barbara’s remarkable life as a self-employment expert and author of the bestselling book Making a Living Without a Job.
But a policy like Barbara’s, it turns out, benefits a person in ways that go far beyond the business/ professional context.
In fact, studies show, brief interactions with people you don’t know personally—your 10-second banter with the barista at the coffee shop, for example—lead to positive outcomes.
Especially, and perhaps surprisingly, for introverts.
In other words, Barbara was on to something—something we all should understand and appreciate.
A Sense of Belonging
In 2013, Gillian Sandstrom—then a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of British Columbia—teamed up with UBC psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn to see what effect, if any, simple social interactions with strangers have on us.
Sandstrom and Dunn stood in front of a busy urban Starbucks and recruited 60 participants for what turned out to be an eye- opening study.
Half of the participants were asked to go inside the shop and be “social” with the barista while ordering. “[H]ave a genuine interaction with the cashier—smile, make eye contact to establish a connection, and have a brief conversation,” as Sandstrom and Dunn put it in a 2014 journal article they wrote about the study.
The other participants, conversely, were instructed to simply be “efficient” while ordering: to just “make your interaction with the cashier as efficient as possible— have your money ready, and avoid unnecessary conversation.”
The study’s key finding:
The people who interacted genuinely (if only briefly) with the barista reported greater positive affect afterwards—and less negative affect—than the participants who treated the experience as an impersonal transaction.
In particular, the interactors reported a greater sense of belonging compared with the non-interactors.
A Boost for Extroverts and Introverts
But perhaps these findings were merely a function of personality, you might be thinking to yourself.
In other words: Maybe the people who interacted genuinely with the barista were more naturally extroverted to begin with.
Or maybe the extroverts among them reported more positive outcomes than did the introverts among them.
But additional research conducted by Sandstrom and Dunn suggests otherwise.
In fact, in a series of 2014 follow-up studies involving first college students and, later, community members, Sandstrom and Dunn found that introverted participants who interacted with relative strangers (for example, classmates or community members they didn’t really know) were often more apt than extroverts to once again report greater feelings of belonging afterwards.
As Sandstrom and Dunn wrote in their journal article on these additional findings:
“Indeed, having interactions with a broad range of network members might be especially beneficial for those who are low in extroversion [i.e., introverts].”
Mini Social Interactions Are Powerful
So as you go about your life, you may want to change the way you think about—and, especially, act toward—the strangers you run into during your outings.
Maybe strangers, in fact, is the wrong term.
Perhaps, Sandstrom and Dunn suggest, it’s best to instead think of such people as weak ties—and to then treat them as such, not only for their benefit but, ultimately, for your own as well.
“[W]e should not underestimate the value of our acquaintances—interactions with weak ties are related to our subjective well-being and feelings of belonging,” Sandstrom and Dunn conclude.
“[T]he more peripheral members of our social network shape our day-to-day happiness. So chat with the coffee barista, work colleague, yoga classmate, and dog owner—these interactions may contribute meaningfully to our happiness, above and beyond the contribution of interactions with our close friends and family.”