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Why talking on the train isn’t as bad as you think

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Why talking on the train isn’t as bad as you think

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Last summer I looked at some research emanating from Singapore that explored what the researchers called our hidden social network.  The hidden social network is the collection of people we typically encounter on our daily routine, but who we don’t know beyond their familiar face.  They’re the people we always see on the train to work or at the gym.

The researchers suggest that the connections that evolve between these familiar strangers grows stronger over time.  In other words, the more frequently we see that person on the train each morning, the more likely we are to become socially connected to one another.

Of course, striking up that conversation with a stranger is often easier said than done, especially here in famously anti-social London.  A study published by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business implores us to overcome our fears however, as the benefits of striking up that conversation far outweigh any potential risks.

“At least in some cases, people don’t seem to be social enough for their own well-being,” said study researcher Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “They think that sitting in solitude will be more pleasant than engaging in conversation, when, in fact, the opposite is true.”

For largely social creatures, we often have incredible difficulty being social with one another.  In scenes akin to those in Fight Club, the researchers recruited people and gave them a mission.  Rather than pick a fight with a random stranger however, they had to start a conversation.

This group were then compared with other participants, some of whom were instructed to remain silent throughout their journey, some of whom were instructed to behave as they normally would.  Each participant then had to fill in a survey revealing how they found their commute.

It emerged that people nearly always had a more pleasant journey when they talked to a stranger compared to staying silent.  Interestingly, these findings were consistent even when the participant was introverted.

“Everyone seems happier and has a more pleasant interaction when they connect versus sit in isolation,” Epley said.

What’s more, the recipient seemed to enjoy the connection as well.  Not a single participant in the study was rebuffed in their attempts at conversation.  The impact on the recipient was tested in a second study conducted in a waiting room, so they could readily quiz both parties on how the conversation made them feel.

Interesting stuff.  I have to confess that this isn’t something I ever do.  I tend to regard commutes as a great opportunity to read, free from the distractions that often arrive via the web.  Maybe next time I’ll break the habit and try to be more social.

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