I read about a study recently, taken over a number of years involving about 30,000 people which focused on whether you were more likely to speak to a friend or a stranger when you are happy or unhappy. What intrigued me about the study was the findings were a lot more negative about interacting with strangers than has been my experience.
Now I need to stop here and make it clear I am not advocating wandering up to some random person and sharing your life. I know that confiding or speaking to strangers isn’t always a good idea or necessarily even safe. And I am very careful about my personal security. With that in mind, let’s go back to the study and then I will share how talking with (selected) strangers has been so positive for me.
What surprised me about this study (published in Psychological science in July this year), was it concluded if you’re feeling happy, you are more likely to make conversation with a stranger. If you are less happy, you are more likely to confide their problems to a friend. I know that doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking but the twist is the study found there was a connection between interacting with a stranger which made someone less happy and as a result they would turn to their friends to make them happier. What I found fascinating was the implied idea that speaking to strangers usually made you less happy.
I first learned to reflect on the different reactions between friends and strangers when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After talking through treatment options and practical issues, my specialist warned me that people would avoid me in the street once they knew I had cancer. I thought this was quite a bizarre statement and asked my specialist to explain He just shrugged and said people would avoid me because they wouldn’t know what to say once they knew I had cancer.
Clearly my ego was in control, when I mentally dismissed his advice and thought this must happen to other people because I didn’t know anyone who would do that. Of course, pride comes before a fall.
Only a couple of days later I was picking up my daughter from childcare and was chatting to another mother, called Patricia. She used to arrive to collect her baby at roughly the same time as me, so we had fallen into a pattern of chatting as we arrived. This particular day, she commented I was looking tired and I told her I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a little astonished (as you would be at such dramatic news) but she said all the right things, then we parted ways to collect our babies and I didn’t see her again that day.
The next day I arrived to collect my son and I saw Patricia just down the street getting out of her car. Patricia saw me, flinched and got back into her car pretending that she lost something. I immediately sent a silent apology to my specialist and made a mental note to apologise in person at my next appointment. This wasn’t the only time that Patricia tried to avoid me. It got to a point where I actually saw her trotting away down the street in the opposite direction, desperate to avoid me as soon as she saw my car pull up. I can’t recall her ever speaking with ma again in the remaining two years my son was at that childcare centre.
This experience with Patricia made me reflect on who I could share personal information with and who I couldn’t. At that point I could have decided to close up emotionally and only share with nearest and dearest but when you’re diagnosed with cancer, you do stop sweating a lot of the small stuff. I actually found myself with more courage to be vulnerable and in certain situations I did open up to strangers I felt comfortable with. And it was so valuable for me and didn’t diminish my happiness.
One incredible experience happened before I started chemotherapy. I wanted to make sure I kept my time having chemotherapy separate from the rest of my life and I was worried if I wore my favorite fragrance when I had chemotherapy, I would associate that dark time with my favorite perfume. I went to the department store, found a friendly looking sales assistant and described the kind of fragrance I wanted and asked her to select three options for me.
She helpfully dashed away and sprayed three fragrances on pieces of cardboard for me to try and there was one I really liked. When I asked the name of the perfume, she replied that it was Poison by Dior. She looked a little surprise when I started to laugh. I explained that I found the name of the chosen fragrance a little ironic because I would be wearing it when I was being given a helpful poison called chemotherapy. The sales assistant looked at me and asked me was I scared or was I okay? Quite frankly, it was a far more sensible question that many of my friends had asked me so far.
I explained to her that I was a little scared, but I was sure I would be able to pull through. I completed my purchase with an impromptu hug from the sales assistant and went on my way. I have never forgotten her kindness.
In one of my podcast episodes I revealed my weird talent of meeting incredible people on planes and maybe this is another version of having amazing interactions with strangers. I don’t believe that interacting with strangers automatically means you have a dent in our happiness as indicated in the study but maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. There are so many other times when I have shared a small piece of my day with someone I didn’t know and felt enriched.
I treasure my friends but there is incredible support everywhere.
If you dare to look.