Most people hate making small talk – whether it be in an elevator, standing in line at Sephora or with your S.O’s colleagues – and it can be an awkward experience. But what if we told you there’s more to it than "so, weather’s really heating up, eh?". Shocking, we know.
As it turns out, psychologists have found these conversations to be beneficial for your mental health and overall happiness. Here’s how - our relationships are categorised into ‘strong ties’, like your spouse, family members or childhood BFF, and ‘weak ties’, which are strangers and acquaintances like your manicurist or favourite barista, and pretty much anyone you’d wave to if you saw them in the street.
Conversations with weak ties build a sense of community and belonging, stopping us from feeling lonely (which can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety). Studies have also shown individuals with more weak ties reported higher levels of overall happiness than those that relied solely on their strong ties for comfort. Plus, highly integrated people smoke less, eat better and exercise more. Who knew that was the secret all along?
Now, you may not be able to see yourself striking up conversations with strangers, but the importance of these interactions isn’t apparent until your strong ties are broken – had a falling out with your colleague or an argument with your partner? You can still count on that friendly neighbour’s smile or mailroom lady’s jokes to brighten your day.
And, no matter how insignificant the conversation may feel, it could make a bigger impact than you think – to your own happiness and someone else’s. Maybe it’s asking your taxi driver how they are (and not the usual post-brunch "busy night tonight?"), or perhaps it’s asking someone about their day, and really listening to what they have to say. You never know what someone else is going through, and a friendly interaction may be just what they need.
Think about it this way – how many of your Facebook friends would you actually say are strong ties? Would you delete the ones you consider weak? Probably not, because you still feel a sense of attachment. Need another reason? Interacting with others can even boost your career – making connections is important in fast-paced cities, and these conversations can lead you to people you wouldn’t have met in the first place (which may even include your very own prince charming).
In the end, nothing is worse than standing in a (silent) packed elevator with everyone on their phones (even though there’s no signal and they’re just flicking through their camera roll). And while it may not be appropriate to loudly ask someone why they’re crying in the office, a reassuring word could do a world of good. Plus, who doesn’t want to be known as the friendly one?
Compliments are a good place to start, and make people feel comfortable, before you move on to discussing common interests - for example, you might go to the same gym, work on the same floor or have kids at the same school. Don't start a conversation in the hopes they’re going to be your new best friend – nobody needs that kind of pressure and TBH, it’ll probably scare them away, so just a simple "how’s your day?" will suffice. We suggest giving it a few days before asking them their cat’s name.
And don’t worry – no one is going to point and laugh, even if your anxiety tells you they will. The worst that can happen is they nod and get back to scrolling. If that's the case, keep your chin up and be happy that you tried a new thing. And maybe take a different elevator tomorrow.
Photos: Unsplash and Instagram