Earlier this year I found myself sitting at a table in a Melbourne cafe, feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious as I tried to summon the courage to talk to one of the other customers. I had started 2020, as many of us do, by downloading an app with the expectation it would transform me into an all-round better person. My first task was to find someone drinking a coffee and engage them in conversation. The researcher who developed the app says small talk is a powerful tool to combat loneliness and cultivate a sense of community. Her studies have shown measurable improvements in people’s moods and mental health if they take the time to talk to strangers. But interrupting the solitude of the people reading their newspapers seemed like a big social risk, and I was not confident it would pay off.
As I fought against my instinct to stay quiet, the words of the app’s designer were playing in my head. “Nothing horrible happens if someone doesn’t want to talk to you,” UK psychologist Gillian Sandstrom had told me. She had observed that people often wrongly assume others won’t like us, or will think we’re weird if we try to talk to them. But her research found only about 10 per cent of people will resist an attempt to engage in friendly chit-chat, and she reminded me rejection isn’t a big deal.
Gazing at the stony faces in the cafe, I was sceptical, but then I spotted a workaround – the barista was smiling as he frothed some milk. I had detected an Italian accent when I’d ordered so I sidled up to the counter.
“What part of Italy are you from?”
His expression changed from an absent-minded grin into a radiant smile as he told me he’d spent much of his adult life in Florence, but had actually been born in a small town on the coast. We chatted until he handed me my coffee and the conversation drew to a natural conclusion. As I left the cafe I felt a swell of happiness. I often chat with baristas but this was the first time I’d contemplated how the small tete-a-tete influenced my mood. The pleasant sense of wellbeing lingered as I walked the six blocks home. Huh, I thought, tapping my results into the app, the research was right.
The power of small social interactions is an area of study that has gained attention in recent years as governments grapple with the serious public health challenge of loneliness. In an epoch of isolation, psychologists are urging us to strengthen our sense of community by turning fleeting daily encounters with others into something more meaningful.
“We now live in a culture of disconnection,” Dr Sandstrom says. “People find it hard to make friends, and suffer emotionally and physically from a lack of belonging.”
As the daughter of chatty parents, Dr Sandstrom had an innate understanding of the warm feelings that come from a friendly chinwag in a supermarket aisle. But it was an experience during the first year of her Master’s degree that helped her identify these loose social connections as a potential research area. She spent the first few months of her postgraduate study feeling riddled with imposter syndrome and a sense that she didn’t belong. Luckily, there was a hot dog stand on a street corner between her research lab and her supervisor’s office.
“Somehow, I developed a relationship with the lady who worked at the hot dog stand,” she wrote. Every time she walked past, the lady would smile and wave, and this small interaction made Dr Sandstrom feel like she belonged. “We never spoke, but nevertheless she made a difference to my wellbeing.”
This relationship with the hot dog lady made Dr Sandstrom wonder whether we undervalue the minor interactions in our lives. It sparked a series of research projects, which in itself demonstrates that even the tiniest of interactions can lead to big events.
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