The Surprising Benefit of Talking to Strangers on an Airplane

Instead of putting in your earbuds, try striking up a conversation with your seatmate.

Westend61 / Getty Images
Westend61 / Getty Images

Do you welcome conversation with a stranger on an airplane? Or do you use earbuds–the universal sign that you’re in a no-talking zone–to silence your neighbor?

Despite our increasingly “social” world, many airline passengers prefer to pretend the stranger sitting just millimeters away doesn’t exist.

But researchers say you might want to think twice about tuning out your seat-mate. Talking to the stranger next to you could make you happier.

The great lengths people take to avoid conversation.

If you avoid conversation on airplanes, you’re not alone. A 2012 survey by corporate travel management company Egencia found that 24 percent of business travelers prefer to avoid conversation on a flight.

Many of them use these not-so-subtle hints to send a message that they’re not in the mood to talk:

  • 73 percent put in earbuds
  • 45 percent read a book or magazine
  • 16 percent pretend to sleep
  • 17 percent simply don’t respond
  • 6 percent fake an illness

Interestingly, only 17 percent of travelers use an honest and direct approach. These assertive individuals make their preference for silence known by saying, “I don’t want to talk.” One percent of respondents said they are purposefully rude if they get seated next to a Talkative Tommy or Chatty Cathy.

Talking to strangers is better than you think.

While you likely recognize the importance of connecting with your friends, you might underestimate the benefits of connecting with strangers. A multitude of research shows that talking to strangers is good for your mental health.

A 2014 study found that many people incorrectly assume that isolation leads to more happiness than talking to a stranger. When commuters on trains and buses were instructed to talk to strangers, their conversations made them happier.

Additionally, the study found most people incorrectly assumed that talking to a stranger would reduce their productivity. But the study found that wasn’t true. In fact, some people said they became more productive when they engaged in social interaction.

It didn’t matter who started the conversation first–both participants in the conversation gained equal benefit. So whether you start the conversation, or your seatmate starts talking first, you’ll gain the same boost in happiness.

Don’t let one bad experience scare you away.

If you fly often, you’ve probably had at least one bad experience with a stranger on an airplane. Perhaps your neighbor wouldn’t stop telling you about her health problems. Or maybe you were stuck next to a loud talker who thought his jokes were much funnier than you did.

Not all airplane conversations are going to be wonderful. But don’t let one or two bad experiences convince you that talking to strangers on a plane is painful.

Be willing to say hello–or at least take out the earbuds once in a while in case your neighbor wants to talk. Chatting with the person next to you could be a quick and easy way to become a little bit happier on your next flight.

Originally published at www.inc.com

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