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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

Saying “G’Day!” to Strangers

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

Personal development? Here’s an idea

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Studies show epidemic levels of loneliness across the developed world – we’ve become deeply and dangerously alone. The pandemic has made things worse.

Loneliness is impacting every age group.

In a remarkable development, the young – people between 16 - 30 are recording levels of loneliness that surpass even those of the elderly. And medical research has found that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.’ (1)

On 23rd January 2022, McKinsey published their latest set of articles – ‘New Year, New Goals, Your Guide to Personal and Professional Development:’

‘The first month of the year is almost over, but it’s not too late to start setting your personal development goals. Whatever your plan, getting intentional is an essential first step.

Kick off the year with a growth mindset.’ (2)

George works in recruitment – at an agency in the Adelaide CBD.

Every day George buys his breakfast from the bustling coffee shop on Pirie Street. Lockdown permitting, George has been going there for months.

George hurried into the coffee shop on Thursday last week – there’s a queue all the way to the door (but it moves quick). And, no surprise, George is short of time.

George looks down, scanning the sandwiches in the fridge at the side of the store. George makes his choice and waits to collect his long black.

But last Thursday, George did something different.

Last Thursday, George raised his head and slowly looked around – just a few seconds – George had never done this before on all his visits to the coffee shop.

And this is what George saw.

George saw people in suits just like him – with gym bags and laptops and iPhones - all in their own individual worlds -messaging or reading the news or listening to music or checking the time as they waited.

George saw people like him.

George thought he knew the lady in the blue business suit. He was sure they’d been in the same class at school.

George looked away as she turned her head. George paid the barista as he was now at the front of the queue – and left the coffee shop.

People like him.

Brought up in the same neighbourhoods, educated in the same way at the same kind of school, wearing similar clothes, similar jobs – all wanting to do their best for their kids – and all with the same issues, stresses, challenges and hopes in life.

Not only did the people in the coffee shop fail to acknowledge how similar they all were – they didn’t acknowledge each other at all.

Then something dawned on George:

If you’re standing next to someone so like you – you don’t say ‘hi,’ you don’t smile, you don’t say anything – if we can’t connect with people in this world who are so like us - what chance have we got connecting with people who aren’t like us?

Why don’t we talk to strangers?

(It might just be the best investment in personal development we’ll ever make.)

Strangers get a pretty bad rap:

  • The great American country singer, Merle Haggard, didn’t call his band ‘The Strangers,’ to portray them as friendly good citizens. He did it because he wanted us to believe they were dangerous.

  • The Alfred Hitchcock thriller, ‘Strangers on a Train,’ isn’t about making a new friend on a long journey – it’s about meeting a psychopath who tricks you into murdering your wife.

  • William Goldings novel ‘The Lord of the Flies’ was originally called ‘The Stranger from Within.’ (3)

  • Even Elon Musk described the subways of America as homes to a ‘bunch of random strangers – one of which might be a serial killer.’ (4)

But there’s a growing body of psychological research showing that talking to strangers makes us happier, healthier, and less lonely:

  • Going back to 2014, researchers at the University of Toronto found that people who were asked to talk to strangers on their commute to work reported improved mood, a greater sense of belonging and enthusiasm for their work. (5)

  • In research in 2021 by the University of Chicago, it was found that both parties to the conversation welcomed the interaction - disproving the idea that other people wouldn’t respond if approached by a stranger. (6)

  • In a recent (2021) article, ‘Social contact, even with strangers, is so important to wellbeing,’ European psychologists Paul Van Lange and Simon Columbus, argue that it’s not only strong relationships that improve mental health (close family and friends) – but also weak ones (passing acquaintances and strangers). (7)

  • Leading author Malcolm Gladwell is so sure of the benefits of talking to strangers, he wrote an entire book on the subject in 2019 – ‘Talking to Strangers – what you should know about the people you don’t know.’ (8)

  • In a YouTube video, Gladwell says: ‘it’s better for us if we’re trusting than suspicious. It makes better sense. Virtually everything we do of value in the world relies on u having faith in the honesty of others. You can’t build a successful business or have a great relationship if you don’t trust others. You can’t do anything – it works because most of us are decent people.’ (9)

  • In his new book, ‘The Power of Strangers, New York journalist Joe Keohane writes: ‘I did wind up talking to strangers when I moved to a new town. It went well – it opened a new world. I gained something – a new insight, a joke, a different way of thinking about an issue, a good story. I grew as a person.’ (10)

Meaningful conversations are found to be the best – but simply acknowledging someone in the park as you jog passed them says you have seen them (and when repeated daily, chances are the relationship grows). (11)

So, come on Adelaide – let’s get talking.

On Friday last week, George left home early.

The coffee shop was quiet when he arrived.

George sat in the corner - next to an old guy who was drinking his latte alone. George asked if he had any plans for the day.

The old guy said he was going to stay home – he was waiting for his son to call from Melbourne.

His son had managed a printing business which had gone bust in the pandemic. With three young kids to care for, his son had gone through a terrible time – but using sheer determination and effort he’d got back on his feet. He hoped soon to have enough money to bring his Dad close by. The old guy desperately wanted good news – he’d been lonely since his wife died.

‘The lesson we’ve learnt is that no matter what you do in life, if you put your heart and soul into it, you’ll eventually succeed,’ the old guy told George.

The new friends parted company.

George felt great and uplifted for the day by his conversation in the coffee shop. Hr felt he had somehow grown, even by a small amount, from the experience.

The old guy also felt great – for once, someone had seen him.

Personal development?

Growth mindset?

Why don’t we talk to strangers?

  1. The Power of Strangers, Joe Keohane

  2. New year new goals, your guide to personal and professional development, 12 January 2022, McKinsey

  3. The Power of Strangers, Joe Keohane

  4. Elon Musk calls transit Expert ‘an idiot’ and says public transport ‘sucks, Fortune magazine, 16 December, 2017

  5. Social interaction and wellbeing. The surprising power of weak ties, Sandstrom and Dunn, Sage Journals, 25 April 2014.

  6. Hello, stranger? Pleasant conversations are preceded by concerns about starting one, Epsley, Lyons and Schroeder,, 7 October 2021

  7. Why is social contact, even with strangers, so important to well-being, Paul Van Lange and Simon Columbus, Sage Journals, 27 May 2021

  8. Talking to strangers – what you should know about the people you don’t know.’ Malcolm Gladwell

  9. See, YouTube. Talking to strangers, Malcolm Gladwell at the How-to Academy, 5 December 2019

  10. The Power of Strangers, Joe Keohane

  11. Why you should talk to strangers, Kio Stark, Ted Talk, 23 September 2016

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