Talking to Strangers

New study shows you can turn fear into confidence.

What a fantastic study: Research just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when people are prompted to talk to a stranger, surprising things happen:

They start to feel less awkward after doing it a few times.

They feel less likely to be rejected.

They are more willing to do it in the future.

They consider themselves more convivial and approachable.

All of which adds up to OPTIMISM and CONFIDENCE. And aren’t those what we want for our kids?

You can INSTILL confidence.

The experiment was clever: Researchers at two universities — one in the U.S., one in Britain — divided about 300 students into two groups. Both got a “scavenger hunt” app that gave them daily prompts about a type of person to be on the lookout for: Someone in an interesting shirt, someone with a goatee, a barista, someone who’s a different generation, etc., etc. Simple, random folks. The participants had to find at least one a day for a week, and were eligible for prizes for completing the task.

The control group was told merely to observe this person. The “treatment” group was told: Go up and talk to them.

Yep — talk to a stranger.

We are naturally fearful. But that can change.

Surveyed at the beginning, only 40% of the treatment group thought that the first person they’d approach would talk to them. But in fact 92% of the time they immediately struck conversational gold. As they did this again and again for a week, a lightbulb went off: People are HAPPY to be spoken to — not annoyed.

By the end, folks in the treatment group were way more confident talking to strangers, and in fact, kept doing so even after the experiment ended!

Meanwhile, the control group was asked at the end how likely THEY thought the first stranger they’d approach might talk to them. Their assumptions were just like the treatment group’s — before the intervention. Most figured that strangers would rebuff them, they’d feel awkward, and it would be a humiliating flop.

Not having had the intervention — “Try it in real life!” — their pessimism remained unchanged.

Reality is a game-changer.

Moral of story: “People seldom strike up conversations with people they do not know,” wrote researchers Gillian M. Sandstrom, Erica J. Boothby and Gus Cooney. In fact, people go out of their way to avoid it, wearing earbuds, or staring at their phones. “They expect that others will not be interested in talking to them.”

But in fact, people “underestimate how much others like them after meeting them for the first time.” The only way to counter their pessimism about themselves AND others? “Give people concentrated and repeated practice talking to strangers so that they may realize their fears are exaggerated.”

In our heads, the world is a less welcoming place. In our heads, we are too dumb/awkward/boring for people to like. It is only when we are forced OUT OF OUR HEADS and INTO REALITY that these incorrect perceptions change.

The importance of discomfort for us — and kids.

And that, my friends, is also why we here are so keen on The Let Grow Project. It’s the homework assignment kids get from school that says, “Go home and do something new — on your own.”

Like the talk-to-strangers experiment, it can feel weird and worrisome for both the parents AND the kids when they first walk to the store, ride a bus, or play outside unsupervised for their Project. Parents worry their children will be hurt. Kids fear they’ll “mess up.”

But in reality, these little experiments are life-changing. Kids realize it’s GREAT to try something new. It’s brave. THEY’RE brave.

Parents get a reality check, too: Look at my kids! They’re amazing!

Even when things go a little wrong, it’s STILL a game-changer because everyone gets to see that one “mess up” is not the end of the world. What a relief!

The Brain vs. The World.

It’s not fun to perceive rejection and danger all around. But those fears seem to crop up almost inevitably when there’s no reality to counter our inner din of doom. (Not to mention the media’s.)

ONLY ACTION BREAKS THE CYCLE.

That’s true whether we’re talking about chatting with a stranger, running an errand, looking for a job, or even writing a blog post. Ahem. It all seems daunting until we actually do it.

Confidence is what grows when fear is met by action.

If that is something you’d like to help your kids grow this year, how wonderful. We’ve even got a “10 Weeks to a Let Grow Kid” Action Pack you can sign up for. Free, of course. We’ll send you one fear-busting, world-opening action a week. It’s our Let Grow New Year’s Resolution Kit. Get it here.

Schools hoping to instill more confidence and openness in their students can find The Let Grow Project implementation guide here. Also free. (Here’s a 3-minute video of how it works.)

And if you want to experience the same surprise and excitement that your kids are going to feel when they do something new on their own, try this: Strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Here’s to a joyful 2023. – Lenore