By Steve Martin, CMCT (not that Steve Martin)
What sort of business traveler are you? Are you the sort who likes to keep yourself to yourself, who welcomes the solitude that an hour or two in an aircraft offers—to catch up on paperwork, read or, just be alone with your thoughts without the interruptions that typically blight your busy day?
Or are you a more social traveler? Someone who seeks out connections with others, always alert to the possibility of meeting interesting new people. People who, if you’re lucky, might turn out to be useful business contacts in the future.
We humans are the most social of all creatures. When we feel involved and connected to others our feelings of well-being soar. In contrast, when we are isolated or marginalized from the group we feel unhappy. So why is it, for a species that so clearly benefits from connecting with others, that many people who find themselves in close proximity to others (with business travel being the likely most common context here), often value isolation more?
Several reasons come to mind. We might start talking to a stranger only to find that they are actually quite unpleasant. Worst still, they might think that we are! Or maybe our modern, super-connected world offers so many technology-based opportunities to connect with others that we simply overlook the existence of the most basic of them.
Whatever the reasons for our reluctance to reach out, a new series of studies by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder from the Booth School of Business in Chicago suggest there are considerable upsides to connecting with strangers. In one of their experiments, they approached a random sample of commuters and asked them to strike up a conversation with someone on their journey to work, find out something interesting about them and to share them something interesting about themselves too. They also approached a second group of commuters and explicitly asked them to keep to themselves to themselves and enjoy the solitude. Everyone the researchers approached was given a survey which they were asked to complete and send back at the end of their journey.
From trains to buses, waiting rooms to airport lounges, a common pattern emerged from the completed surveys. Those instructed to proactively make a connection reported having a significantly more positive journey experience than participants in the solitude condition. Conversations on average lasted around 14 minutes, were pleasant and most reported a positive impression of the person they spoke to. Interestingly, these positive connections didn’t appear to come at any significant cost to productivity. Whether this is because as commuters people aren’t generally as productive on journeys as they would like to think they are is unclear. What is clear, however, is that none of the people who engaged with a stranger reported feeling that a potentially productive commute was wasted.
So how about on tomorrow’s ride to work on the bus or train, or on that flight you’re taking next week, you put down your iPad, work report, Kindle or whatever else you might be attending to and turn to the person next to you and say “hello.”
There’s a good chance you’ll feel more positive about your journey and, who knows, within 14 minutes time you might even have a great new business contact.
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Source: Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980-1999.
Please comment below:
Have you ever started chatting to someone on a journey who turned out to be a valuable and memorable contact? What happened?