I consider myself a social person. I take part in office jokes; I feel happy when something good happens to someone; I feel concerned when something bad happens to someone. I consider a day without making a connection with another person to be a wasted opportunity. And yet, there is always a moment, when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, in the doctor’s office, or for a vanilla latte at Starbucks when I catch myself thinking, “I hope he doesn’t talk to me.”
Thankfully for my self-image, I don’t seem to be alone. All over the internet, people are coming up with creative ways to avoid making conversation with strangers, from wearing headphones, yawning loudly to feign exhaustion, to faking an important phone call. (I’m guilty of at least two of those strategies.) But why do we go to such extremes to avoid making eye contact with the people standing three feet away from us? The possible reason, I found, is complex.
When I began to search for the explanation to this common social phenomenon, I thought of a variety of options. Many people have rational reasons for why they don’t want to make small talk. As children, we were taught not to talk to strangers. When we were older, we realized our parents gave us this advice because those strangers could have taken us for a ride in their windowless van. The idea that strangers are dangerous may stay with us as we age, even if it is beneath our conscious awareness, convincing us that the world is a dangerous place and we’re better off avoiding new people whenever we can.
Next, I searched for answers in the sphere of evolution. During prehistoric times, there were plenty of reasons to avoid talking to strangers. The introduction of strangers into a social hierarchy would mean a smaller share of group resources and more competition for potential mates. Today, we still have our personal in-groups made up of family and friends, and we weigh our choices for new members carefully. Though most people aren’t thinking about protecting their resources while waiting in line at Best Buy, the consequences of allowing encounters with strangers may have been ingrained in us a long time ago.
Unfortunately for my theory of evolved selfishness, research into the subject tends to suggest that people are generous with strangers. In fact, people are inclined to be kind to strangers even if they never expect to see them again. So why doesn’t this rule apply to small talk? Making a stranger feel worthy of your time and conversation must constitute a significant act of generosity toward them.
The answer may lie in the diffusion of responsibility. This psychological principle suggests that people are less likely to take action in a situation if there are other people present who could share in the responsibility. Though often used to explain why competent adults don’t step up to help in crises, it can also explain why we don’t feel an obligation to talk weather with the people around us. Most small talk with strangers occurs in public places, with the duty to make conversation spread out among many possible candidates. I know I’m more likely to chat with a stranger when I’m alone in an elevator with them instead of behind them in a crowded supermarket.
So the next time that you’re staring at your shoes while waiting for the bus to come, remember that we can be responsible for great acts of generosity toward strangers, including asking the person next to us if they caught the game last night.
If you want to ask them, that is. It’s really your call.