photo by Peggy

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I could tell you a lot about Peggy.

The neighborhood where she grew up. The high school she attended and how much she enjoyed her last class reunion. How long she’s been married and how she and Mr. Peggy spend their free time. How she feels about her work.

Who’s Peggy, you ask? The server who helped Frank and me mark 31 years of marriage at Stefani Prime the other night.  

As you can tell, there was plenty of conversation along with our Caesar salad, steak and seafood, and celebratory dessert.

This kind of friendly conversation is typical for Frank.

He could offer a similar profile of his favorite cashier at Whole Foods. The young woman who works the dry cleaners’ desk. And the manager of the Mobil station down the street.

Frank talks to strangers. Until they’re not strangers anymore.

Me? 🙄 I roll my eyes.

When it comes to small talk with the barista, the mail carrier, and that random guy walking his dog in front of our house, I don’t do as much. Oh, I’m nice enough, but I don’t get engaged in long exchanges. And by long, I mean more than a minute. My policy: Polite … without palavering.

Well. It turns out my chitchatting husband is on to something.

There it is in the New York Times.

“Social connection makes us happier, healthier, and more successful and generally contributes to the sweetness of life.”

David Brooks writes about University of Chicago behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley. He set out to discover why, say, all those people on a train car wearing earbuds and avoiding eye contact aren’t doing the very thing that will make them happy—talking to somebody else.

Bottom line? Those silent people staring at screens are mistaken about how much they’d enjoy a conversation with a stranger.

Epley’s research found most of us think talking to someone on a plane or a train or in a waiting room will be awkward, dull, and tiring.

The research found the exact opposite.

People assigned to talk with a stranger enjoy themselves more than those who keep themselves to themselves.

Yes, even self-described introverts tended to have a better time than they would have predicted when they break the ice and start a conversation.

When it comes to these ordinary interactions in our daily lives, in general, folks underestimate how much they’ll enjoy longer talks. They underestimate how much they’ll enjoy deeper exchanges. And they underestimate how much they’ll like the person they’re talking to.

And get this. People even underestimated how positive a compliment would make the other person feel.

Epley calls it “undersociality.”

Humans are naturally social beings. In spite of that, we often see the world through a filter that makes us stay away from social situations that could have been fun. And yes, educational and rewarding too.

Apparently, many of us fret about how others will see us. Some of us doubt our own ability to start a conversation well or convey what we’re thinking.

Epley says the reality is this.

When you talk to someone and they’re looking at you, they’re not usually judging how competent you are. They’re mostly noticing how warm you are. If you seem friendly, decent, like a person who cares, they’re good with that.

And they like it.

As for David Brooks, he points to all the books out there about how social relationships have broken down in 21st Century America. Loneliness is epidemic.

It’s a problem. And Brooks says the solution—and our society’s future—rest on how we treat each other in these small, ordinary interactions.

“More lives are diminished by the slow and frigid death of social closed-ness, “ he says, “than by the short and glowing risk of social openness.”

I’m going to add that our businesses benefit too, from that social openness.

Think about it: would you rather buy, well, just about anything, from someone who’s silent, distant, or even surly? No! We like to do business with people who are warmer, more open, more human.

And we’re inclined to reward people who treat us well.

That might mean a long, lucrative professional relationship with the accountant or attorney or ad rep who’s created a connection with us.

It might include promoting the employee who went the extra mile for us and smiled while they did it.

And I’m going to guess we’re not the only diners who tip generously when we encounter someone like Frank’s new friend Peggy.

Ready to go out and talk to a stranger? Let me know how it goes …