I’m a Little Bit Shy, but Talking to Strangers Has Improved My Mental Health
I’m pretty shy — maybe more of an ambivert since it depends on the situation, but recently I started to push myself to talk to other people who I don’t know but I sense may share some common interests with me.
I started reaching out a few weeks ago at a concert in Chicago by my favorite English singer-songwriter Frank Turner. Frank usually wields an acoustic guitar and plays mostly easygoing solo folk music, but on this tour, he’d gone primarily electric, performing a louder set of punk songs with his full band, The Sleeping Souls. It was among the best live music I’ve seen this year, with an encore of “I Still Believe,” his most famous song, to give you a taste.
Usually I would never muster the courage for “small talk” with anyone, but this ended up really great. I just turned to the blonde woman next to me and said, “Have you seen Frank before?” It turns out she had seen him 20 times, she had Frank Turner tattoos and along with her husband and friend, had been following Frank on his 50 States in 50 Days tour, which just wrapped successfully with a final show in Hawaii.
They were from Grand Rapids, Michigan. We talked about Frank’s sobriety — he is in recovery for cocaine addiction. We discussed my sobriety. And that deep conversation continued in-between bands. I told them I was a writer and that I had written a memoir about my mental illness, addiction, and recovery. I gave one of them my card so they could check it out.
The evening culminated with the three of them giving me a huge bear hug and a heck of an excited congrats when I told them I was 10 years sober.
They said Frank is very open with his fans and encouraged me to write him an email about my book, given the fact that we are both sober and obviously obsessed with music. So I did. Frank emailed me back within a week.
He’s psyched to read my book “The Bipolar Addict” and I’m sending it to London, where he lives.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Despite the fact that so many people profess to dislike making small talk, it turns out that talking to strangers and acquaintances can actually strengthen our mental health and enrich our lives.”
The small talk didn’t stop at the Frank Turner show. The other day, a woman at my neighborhood coffee shop was wearing a dress with a vibrant and colorful print. I complimented her on the dress and she said she bought it on her recent trip to London and Paris. While we waited for our coffees, we chatted about Europe, my love of Spain — where I studied abroad — and how Paris is hands-down the best city in the world (we agreed; settled truth).
I also talk to a couple of my baristas on the reg; they always comment on my t-shirts, whether it’s my Joy Division t-shirt or my Pete Buttigieg for President shirt, or others.
My best friend from college — the most outgoing person I know — has always been a “small talker” and she’s constantly having fascinating conversations in her life with strangers. I must say, she has been an inspiration to me.
I also enjoy talking to Uber and Lyft drivers. What’s playing on the radio is a natural icebreaker.
Not only that, I have started to break out of my social shell. I joined Meetup.com — an app where you can plan and join activities with fellow strangers/future friends. I’m trying Meetup to put myself out there because the dating apps aren’t yielding much of anything, and I’m looking for a partner. I’ve been to five “gay” meetups so far this summer and I started a group of my own — “Gay Creatives.”
This is not to say that I am abandoning my good friends; I’m just branching out a little.
The research on small talk makes it clear that the activity is good for our collective health. The Atlantic observes that “studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic.”
A 2020 study in the journal “Self and Identity” concluded that “People are often reluctant to talk to strangers, despite the fact that they are happier when they do so… Ultimately, this research shows that conversations go better than expected.”
From my experience this summer, I couldn’t agree more. Summer is my happy season. Maybe that’s why I feel more inclined to strike up conversations. I’m vowing to continue talking to strangers. You never know where a friendship or relationship could bloom.
While the search for a partner continues, my newfound burgeoning social life feels great!
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