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Why conversations with strangers make us happier

Why conversations with strangers make us happier

By Joe Keohane/ In a world full of suspicion, many of us hesitate to interact with strangers. But talking to people we've never met before, even in passing interactions, can make us wiser and happier.

Like many people growing up in America in the 1980s, I grew up afraid of the unknown.

'Stranger danger' was all the rage in those days. Parental concern and humanity's natural wariness of strangers was heightened by sensational media coverage and falling levels of social trust, which led to panic.
Police officers, teachers, parents, religious leaders, politicians, media personalities, and child welfare organizations put aside their differences and worked together to spread the message—that interacting with a stranger—a stranger—can endanger children.

There is no doubt that some people have traumatic experiences with strangers.

However, then as now, based on statistics, most sexual and violent crimes against children (and adults) are committed by people known to the victim: relatives, neighbors and family friends. Abductions by non-family members – which include those where a child is taken by someone unknown to them – account for only 1% of missing child cases reported to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

However, could this way of thinking have affected our interactions in later life for many of us? Have we missed something valuable?

Some scientists believe that teaching children that everyone they don't know in the world is dangerous may have been actively harmful. Sociologist Dietlind Stolle, of McGill University in Canada, argued that decades of this message may have damaged an entire generation's ability to trust other people. This is problematic because trust is key to the functioning of many societies.

How many social or economic opportunities do we miss simply by being afraid of the unknown? Especially when we are adults, we lose something valuable. We lose the opportunity to talk to strangers. Which turns out to be something healthy, both psychologically and emotionally.

Even on public transport, chatting with a stranger can turn the journey into something extremely pleasant.

Talking to strangers can teach you things, deepen you, make you a better citizen, a better thinker and a better person. It's a good way to live. But it is more than that. In a rapidly changing, infinitely complex, furiously polarized world, it's a way to survive.

Getting up the courage to have a conversation with a stranger may seem complicated, but it is not impossible and worth it.

*Joe Keohane is a New York-based writer and author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connection in a Doubtful World.