Saturday, July 19, 2014

Making Small Talk with Strangers

It’s a skill like another. In large cosmopolitan cities like New York it is harder to practice.

John Corcoran calls it the art of striking up conversations with strangers. One suspects that the heightened diversity of a place like New York causes people to withdraw into themselves. There, a stranger is not just someone you don’t know. He’s being a potential danger.

In his “art of manliness” blog (via Maggie’s Farm), Corcoran offers the views of University Chicago researcher Nicholas Epley:

Our daily lives are guided by inferences about what others think, believe, feel and want,” writes Epley in Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want. The problem is, our inferences are often wrong. And it turns out we’d all be happier if we just talked to one another. The reason? When we talk to strangers, we’re motivated to show them a happy, friendly version of ourselves. As the Art of Manliness has hit home before, the way you act changes how you feel – by acting you become! In other words, if you’re in a grumpy mood, but turn on the warmth while talking to a stranger, you’ll start actually feeling a lot better. Interacting with strangers is a great way to lift your mood. 

Corcoran has made the point before. I have also.

If you want to change the way you feel, you should change the way you act, the way you behave, the way you conduct your life.

In the case at hand, Epley suggests that if we are engaging a conversation with another person, we are likely to pretend to be in a better mood. The more we pretend to feel better, the more we will feel better. As they say in AA: fake it until you make it.

Furthermore, and perhaps too obviously, unhappiness and despair are often the result of feeling disconnected and disaffected, feeling like a social reject.

How do you cure such feelings of anomie? By connecting with another human being, of course.

Corcoran’s recommendations and suggestions are surely apposite. I would only add a point that I argued in The Last Psychoanalyst: connection begins when two people find common ground.

If you read through Corcoran’s examples, you will see that he often strikes up a conversation with a stranger by referring to something they have or see in common, something that is objectively external to both of them: a place, the weather, a pet or work.

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