A little over a month ago, on our blog, weexplored the unspoken rule of the sidewalk: Don’t walk at the same speed as a stranger. Now, we’re tackling the secret of the subway: Eat, drink, sleep on the train, but whatever you do, don’t talk to someone you don’t know.
Behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder approached commuters in a Chicago area train station to be part of an experiment. The rules were simple—one group was asked to talk to strangers who sat down next to them on the train that morning, while the other group was told to follow standard commuter practice and keep to themselves. Neither group had anything to lose—and a $5 Starbucks gift card to gain, simply for participating. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to strangers reported having a more positive experience than the group who sat in silence. As for their initial fear—that it would be difficult to start a conversation—not a single person reported having been snubbed.
What’s so interesting about this is that we’re talking about a city that, when surveyed in 2011, voted for “quiet cars” on every train that would discourage talking—not only to each other, but on cell phones too. Think of the money spent developing and purchasing products like noise canceling headphones and more spacious seating to block out social interaction. What are we really blocking out?
In a recent study done by the University of Cambridge, customers walking in for their morning coffee were offered a $5 Starbucks gift card (seemingly the currency of behavioral research) to participate in a similar experiment—either asked to indulge in conversation with their barista, or take the “get in, get out, get going” approach, and leave as soon as possible. What they found was those who lingered and had a genuine interaction with the cashier left feeling more cheerful.
At the end of the day (or ride), what both of these studies show is that we need to stop being afraid of small talk and get to know each other. At a time when networking is the key to advancement, how do we expect to get anywhere with silence?