No forced office karaoke, no awkward hallway chats with the strange neighbor in your apartment building — 2020 has done away with most interactions with people we hardly know. Even if these encounters made you cringe before the pandemic, they likely had more value than you realize.
“From a scientific perspective, we know that close relationships are the most important ones,” says Timon Elmer, a psychologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. "It's good to focus on those. But there is merit in talking to strangers, if that is in your personality.”
Some of us might not realize the benefits of the impromptu grocery store or office hallway conversations until they're gone. As social distancing continues to shape our lives, experts say finding safe ways to replicate small talk can be worthwhile for our mental health and well-being.
Small Talk, Big Impact
One of the biggest differences between talking to strangers and talking to friends is how much mutual knowledge you have about one another, explains Kaitlin Cannava, a communication studies specialist at San Jose State University. Feeling as though someone understands you is a valuable effect of interpersonal relationships. Although it may be somewhat superficial, strangers can quickly find themselves on the same page. This is particularly true if the two people chatting find common ground — including similar anecdotes or experiences, Cannava says. The way we share these details with strangers even takes on a unique cadence, with each person using about as much time as the other to volley comments back-and-forth.
Building rapport with strangers can leave people feeling heard, respected, and emotionally validated. These random opportunities to engage in small talk can help boost moods and erode loneliness. Researchers who study relationships sometimes define loneliness as feeling as though the quantity and quality of social interactions you participate in don’t live up to what you’d like them to be.
For example, if you were looking forward to a heart-to-heart with a friend but the conversation never went beyond discussing the weather, you could walk away feeling unfulfilled. But the inverse is also true. “If you have an unexpectedly fruitful conversation with a mailman, that could improve loneliness,” Elmer says. It’s worth noting, however, that diving deep into your problems with a stranger might leave you feeling worse than before you started, Cannava says.
The Value of Work Friends
In a work setting, a chat with someone you barely know doesn’t even have to be particularly fruitful for it to affect your mood. In a study published this year, Jessica Methot, an organizational psychologist at Rutgers University, observed office employee conversations and found that a third of what people said every workday was chit-chat. These superficial, brief interactions helped stave off workplace loneliness, and did so in part because participants were reminded that they’re a visible part of the team. “Small talking is recognizing that you acknowledge someone's presence,” Methot says.
The short interactions also pave the way for acquaintances to turn into work friends. Closer relationships with colleagues — even if work dominates discussions — help people find validation for frustrations and successes, as their coworkers are often the people in their lives with the best understandings of the ins and outs of the job. A better rapport with colleagues also allows people to show vulnerabilities in ways they may not with friends outside of work, as they can ask questions and show confusion about work matters with less fear of being judged, Methot says.
The two primary types of work interactions — the brief greetings and the longer, collaborative chats — can make people less likely to quit their jobs and even boost overall team performance, as Methot and other researchers have found. And lest you think a friendly work experience only benefits your employer, know that workplace loneliness bleeds into your personal life, too. “If someone makes us feel good, it makes us feel better when we stop work,” Methot says. “If we feel really lonely, we withdraw, our energy goes down, and it makes us burn out and withdraw from families as well.”
Together in Loneliness
Loneliness seems to be a common thread during the pandemic. But healthcare professionals were concerned about growing isolation across the nation well before 2020. Dubbed the "loneliness epidemic," public health authorities expressed concern that ongoing trends of increasing social isolation would take a toll on people's health, as loneliness has been linked to sleep problems, depression, as well as a higher risk of dementia and strokes.
Researchers also have found that loneliness and depression often perpetuate one another. While a conversation with a stranger is unlikely to end a cycle of depression, insufficient interactions with others — no matter if it’s family, friends or the general community — can leave people feeling lonely. Extroverts, in particular, might crave and miss those spontaneous moments with strangers, Elmer says.
Before the pandemic, it was easy to make fun of office parties and forced socialization. But relationships with fellow colleagues, however, tend to form naturally and be more sincere. These days, you might find yourself wishing you could stop by a coworker's desk again to catch up. "When you ask anyone about their friends at work, they can talk for hours about their best work friend," Methot says. With many offices maintaining work-from-home policies these days, spontaneous chats between meetings have been mostly eliminated. An internal study at Microsoft found that the new remote work policies left some employees missing these interactions with their work friends.
In some ways, how remote-mediated relationships evolve is out of our control. Working from home and jumping on Zoom calls might mean you end up seeing more of coworkers' lives than you (or they) would have liked, Cannava points out. It’s up to you to choose how you move forward with that information — whether or not you make light of your own dog’s neediness after a coworker’s cat tramples their keyboard, for example. But there are also other opportunities to be intentional about reaching out. People in leadership positions might want to consider checking in on colleagues — without referencing work — even if it’s over email, Methot says, as that can help remind people of being “seen.”
And for your own well-being, check in with yourself and ask what kinds of relationships you're missing at this point in the pandemic. Take note of who you communicate with, and what you’re getting from those conversations. If you find yourself missing those heart-to-hearts with best friends or banter at a pickup basketball game, find ways to safely fill those social holes, Elmer recommends. "What is dear to my heart is that people — now that they are reducing social interactions — make sure they reflect on what they need."