April 8, 2024 — Some people love to chat. I learned this 15 years ago when I moved to a small village in France. 

They chatted with the boulangerie owner, with the grocery clerk, with the town hall official, and with each other: joking, gossiping, bantering. For me, fresh from urban North America, this was inefficient and frustrating.

But it’s probably healthy. Talking to strangers may be good for our bodies and minds, science suggests. Call it “vitamin S,” for social contact. That’s the term used by social psychologist Paul van Lange, PhD, and his colleagues at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, for the boost we can get from talking with strangers.

“We are social animals and cannot afford to live without social connections,” Van Lange said. 

When connected, “people are happier, healthier, and live longer,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. 

That is well established, though most research has focused on our closest ties, such as those with spouses or friends, said Gillian Sandstrom, PhD, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex in the U.K. 

Many studies have attempted to untangle what matters more: the quantity of our relationships or the quality. Is it how many friends you have or how often you hang out with them? 

But “maybe there’s a third thing, which is diversity,” Sandstrom said. You can add to that diversity by connecting with acquaintances (like your hairdresser or mail carrier) or even total strangers (like the guy in line next to you at the boulangeriea French bakery). 

Evidence: A 2022 study showed that people who have the most varied social interactions — talking not only with relatives and partners but also with colleagues, clients, classmates, and strangers — report better physical health. Another study, conducted in Finland, revealed that people who had a strong network of close relationships but few weaker ties had a 28% higher risk of early death than those who also connected with acquaintances and strangers.

Yet the amount of time people spend chatting has been trending down for at least 2 decades, data suggests. In 2003, Americans spent 54 minutes per day, on average, interacting with neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers, and the like — but that went down to 43 minutes in 2019. And that was before the pandemic gave many a newfound appreciation for staying and working from home.

The Benefits of Connecting

Chatting up people we don’t know has been linked with better mood and a higher sense of belonging, both predictors of longer life. It can elevate your spirits, even if the idea doesn’t appeal to you. In one experiment, scientists asked commuters on London public transit how it would feel if they had to talk to a stranger. Most said it would be awkward and unpleasant. Yet the researchers instructed some of the commuters to do just that: chat up a stranger during a ride. 

To the commuters’ surprise, the task was easy and pleasant. What’s more, their moods lifted. “A conversation can reliably increase people’s happiness levels compared to doing other things,” said Juliana Schroeder, PhD, a social cognition researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study’s author.

Sandstrom’s experiments, meanwhile, showed that striking up a conversation with a barista can boost a sense of belonging. The researchers recruited people who were approaching a Starbucks, then randomly assigned them to two groups: Some were asked to make their interaction with the cashier as efficient as possible (minimal engagement, pay, move on). Others were asked to interact: smile, chat, make eye contact. When surveyed afterward, those who’d made an effort felt not only more cheerful but also more included in the community. 

A growing number of studies are showing similar results. When commuters were encouraged to talk to their bus driver, they ended up feeling happier than they did before boarding the bus. When university students were prompted to compliment strangers around campus, their feelings turned more positive, too. In a 2023 study in Turkey, simply saying hello to a passerby boosted people’s life satisfaction.

Such brief emotional uplifts may add up to better health in the long term. Plenty of evidence links “positive affect” — the experience of positive emotions — to better health across a wide range of outcomes, including improved cardiovascular health and a stronger immune system. 

Recently, researchers in Germany showed that this positive affect may help buffer people from the negative health effects of loneliness. In that study, middle-aged and older adults who reported loneliness were partly protected from its harmful effects if they often felt enthusiastic, interested, alert, or inspired — feelings you might get from talking to your bus driver or the shop owner. “Those little things give us that little hit of connection, this feeling that someone sees us and we’re not completely alone,” Sandstrom said. 

Some interactions we have with strangers and acquaintances can have direct, positive effects on our physiology. In one study, participants who were assigned to conduct random acts of kindness once a week for 4 weeks, like “paying for someones coffee in line behind you,” saw reductions in pro-inflammatory gene expression — meaning they became less vulnerable to inflammation. Other research shows smiling helps our cardiovascular system recover faster from stress. In general, positive social interactions tend to blunt the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis — the body’s acute stress response.

This friendliness can build on itself: When more people in a neighborhood practice talking with bus drivers, passersby, and fellow commuters, their whole community may flourish. Communities where residents agree with statements such as “most people in this area are friendly” or “I really feel part of this area” tend to see fewer strokes and a lower incidence of diabetes, studies show. People who live there may also be more likely to get cholesterol tests, mammograms, and yearly flu shots. 

Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at people passing you by and silently acknowledging them instead of glancing away. As a result, one experiment suggests, people feel more connected. 

It’s Not as Hard as You Think

If talking to strangers and acquaintances is so beneficial to health and feels good, why do few people actually do it? In one pre-pandemic survey, 93% of participants admitted they would avoid talking to a stranger in a waiting room; 68% would keep to themselves on a plane. 

Smartphones may be at least partly to blame. A November 2023 study showed that people in a waiting room who are deprived of their phones are more likely to chat with others — and, as a result, end up feeling happier. 

But our reluctance to talk to strangers may go deeper than that. People “tend to overestimate the riskiness of those interactions,” Schroeder says, “such as the likelihood that the other person will reject them.” 

When Sandstrom and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of seven studies, they found that fears of talking to strangers tend to be overblown. “When two people talk to each other, they actually underestimate how much they are liked by the other person,” she said. Schroeder’s experiments revealed that we tend to focus too much on whether we will say the right thing or use the correct words. But what the other person really cares about is the gesture. “People often just appreciate the effort,” Schroeder said. 

What’s more, the mood-lifting effects of talking to strangers work for shy and introverted people, too. “It seems like everybody benefits from having a conversation with a stranger, but introverts are more worried about doing it,” Sandstrom said.

That’s why researchers recommend that introverts merely try to act more extroverted. In one series of experiments, when introverts were instructed to talk to strangers as if they were extroverted — in a bold, talkative, energetic manner — they ended up enjoying themselves as much as extroverts did. 

How Do You Start?

Sandstrom admits that it’s not easy to make people overcome their fear of talking to strangers. “We’ve had all these messages as kids: don’t talk to strangers, they’re scary, they’re dangerous,” she said. 

Of course, some safety concerns are real. And common sense is important — maybe don’t talk to strangers “in a dark alley at night,” Van Lange said.

But what appears to work is repeated exposure: Approaching strangers again and again teaches us that people are generally nice and fun to talk to. 

Sandstrom and her colleagues designed a scavenger hunt game in which volunteers had to repeatedly approach and converse with strangers. After a week, the participants were less fearful of rejection and much more confident about chatting up people they didn’t know. 

Try some tricks, if you dare. Put down your phone in waiting rooms or when commuting. Or give up Google maps in favor of — gasp — a real person. In one experiment, people who had to ask strangers for directions found the location slightly slower than those equipped with smartphones but felt considerably more socially connected. 

In Sandstrom’s scavenger hunt experiments, though, one simple piece of advice seemed to resonate most: “Be brave.” Just remember, Sandstrom said: “People like you more than you think.”