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What to Tell Students Who Keep to Themselves (Opinion)

by Staff

What’s the point of small talk? Are people better off keeping to themselves?

Most people think others would rather be left alone, but the research says otherwise. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

“There goes Mister Chatterbox.” So said one of my father’s neighbors after he exited the elevator—not realizing that I, his son, was standing right behind her.

My dad’s tendency to reach out to strangers could make me cringe, especially when I was a kid. I would inwardly groan when he struck up a conversation with someone next to us when traveling or at a store. Wouldn’t people just be better off keeping to themselves?

But research finds that’s not the case. When commuters were offered a $5 gift card to a) do as they would normally do on their train or bus, b) sit in solitude, or c) strike up a conversation with a stranger, most expected the attempted conversation would be awkward. Surprisingly, it was not, and they were in a happier mood on finishing their ride.

Similarly, other studies found benefits to bantering with the barista when buying a cup of coffee and giving a compliment to strangers on the street. These small acts of kindness made both the giver and the recipient feel better—and better than they expected.

Easy enough for extroverts, you say? Perhaps, but intentional micro-friendly acts have been found to create an equally happy experience for both extroverts and introverts.

The moral of the story: Micro-friendships can brighten others’ days and our own. My amiable father was both a well-loved residents’ council president and someone who found joy in connection.

Don’t avoid interacting with strangers.

Do engage in conversations, even when unnecessary. Chat up the rideshare driver. Ask the checkout clerk how their day is going. Compliment the restaurant server on their helpfulness. And if the young people in your life say you’re embarrassing them, explain to them the happy science of micro-friendships.

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