By Emma Young
Every time we catch up with a friend, we share the stories of our lives, from the mundane to the profound. Swapping stories — and especially secrets — helps to create friendships in the first place. Now new research is providing some intriguing insights into how to get that process going, and keep it going — on how best to handle conversations, to turn acquaintances or even strangers into new friends, and new friends into life-long confidantes.
Do talk to strangers…
Back in 2014, a pair of psychologists published a now classic study of Chicago commuters, which found that although our instinct is to ignore strangers, we are happier when we chat to them. Importantly, this was true for introverts as well as extraverts. The researchers also found that the commuters’ reluctance to strike up a conversation with a stranger was down to a mistaken belief that strangers wouldn’t want to talk to them. In 2021, a team that included Nicholas Epley, one of the authors of the initial paper, published very similar results from a study of train commuters in the London area. Clearly, this phenomenon applies to British people, too. So, go on, next time you’re with a stranger, why not try striking up a conversation — it’ll probably go better than you think.
…But be aware of their personal space
Our preferred personal space — the distance that we like to keep between ourselves and whoever we’re interacting with — varies with sex, culture, context and familiarity, and the Covid-19 pandemic is having an influence, too. A 2017 study of almost 9,000 people from 42 different countries found some big geographical differences, especially between what the researchers referred to as “contact cultures” (South America, the Middle East and Southern Europe) and “non-contact cultures” (Northern Europe, North America, Asia), where people prefer to stand further apart. So the cultural background of the person you’re talking to is certainly worth bearing in mind, if you don’t want to make them uncomfortable. The research also found that women from most countries prefer more space than men. And in 2021, a small study in the US found that the preferred personal distances that these participants had reported before the pandemic grew during it, both in reality and virtually. We’ve got used to giving other people a wider berth. This research suggests that with Covid-19 infections continuing, we still want it.
Do go deep
We want deep and meaningful relationships with others, and we know that sharing intimate stories can create them. But how soon after meeting someone should we move past the small talk? According to a 2021 study again involving Epley and led by Michael Kardas, the answer is: right away. The participants in this research overestimated how awkward a deep conversation with a stranger would be — and also underestimated how interested strangers would be in their revelations. And though the participants expected to prefer a shallow over a deep conversation with a stranger, this was not the case. The deep conversations left them feeling more connected.
Do be complimentary
Do you worry that saying “Oh, I love your dress!” or even “You’ve got a great sense of humour!” might sound insincere or too personal, and create awkwardness rather than fellow feeling? Well, don’t is the message of yet another new study involving Epley, also published in 2021. Earlier research has shown that giving compliments draws both strangers and friends closer together. It also costs nothing, either financially or in terms of effort. And yet this work, led by Xuan Zhao on participants in the US, consistently found that pairs of friends undervalued the positive effect of compliments made to the other — they underestimated the resulting feelings of warmth in the recipient and overestimated how awkward that recipient would feel. This mistaken viewpoint seemed to have real-world effects: the participants also reported generally giving fewer compliments than they felt they should give, or even would like to give.
What if you don’t fully believe in the compliment that you’re giving? “People may be reluctant to flatter others with insincere compliments because they overestimate the likelihood that their insincerity will be detected,” the researchers write. In other words, do it anyway — odds are they’ll take your comment at face value.
Don’t fret after a conversation
One of the most positive, feel-good findings I’ve ever reported on was this: other people like us more than we think. This was the conclusion of a study of strangers who were paired up for brief conversations. Afterwards, they rated how much they liked their partners and how much they thought their partners liked them. And they consistently underestimated how much they were liked — they’d made a better first impression than they thought. What’s more, the shyer the person, the bigger the “liking gap”. So don’t let worries about how you might have come across to a new acquaintance put you off building on an initial conversation; they’re probably keener to talk again than you might assume.
In 2021, a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General revealed the existence of another conversation-related gap: the “thought gap”. After a conversation, we tend to think about the person we’ve been talking to, reflecting on their stories or perhaps their advice, note Gus Cooney at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues. But though we do this ourselves, the team found in a series of studies that their participants mistakenly believed that they thought more afterwards about a person they’d had a conversation with than the other person did about them. “Collectively, these studies demonstrate that people remain on their conversation partners’ minds more than they know,” the team writes. One of the reasons this message is important is this: in one of the studies, learning how much the other person was actually thinking about them affected their willingness to reconcile after an argument.
Overall, then, for such a social species, we’re surprisingly bad at judging how conversations, and the specific content of these conversations, affect our relationships, and our own wellbeing. But the overwhelming take away message from these studies, at least, is positive: it’s all better than you think, so stop worrying, and get sharing.