Service of Speaking with Strangers

May 30th, 2019

Categories: Conversation, Strangers


I find it easy to speak with strangers. It may be a New York thing. It came natural to me because when I was small I often saw my mother chat with fellow passengers on public busses or in the grocery store.

In the day, most guests passing one another in a hotel hallway at a resort would say, “good morning” or “good afternoon.”

Some people silently shout out to be spoken to. At an opening at MoMA a friend and I passed a man wearing a tie in primary colors with giant Warhol-style images. I commented on his choice, he beamed, and my friend said, “How can you do that?” I thought, “How could you not?”

I met my first husband in a college library and two of my dearest friends on a train.


On my walk to work last week on a 50 degree day I saw a 30-something man who was well-groomed walking across Second Avenue in the 40’s, towards the UN, wearing jogging pants and no shirt, with a backpack. I half turned to a young man waiting for the light to change on 43rd Street as I was and said, “I wonder if he’s going for a job interview?” When I faced him, the stranger in a sweat shirt with a plumbing company logo was giggling. He replied, “I bet he gets the job!”

Speaking with people you don’t know is a good thing according to Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal article, “The Surprising Boost You Get From Strangers.” The subhead, “Sometimes a stranger—not a friend or a loved one—can significantly improve our day, providing comfort or helping to broaden our perspective.”


She wrote: “ ‘People feel more connected when they talk to strangers, like they are part of something bigger,’ says Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, in Colchester, England, who studies interactions between strangers.” The doctor has studies that show people have better days when they’ve spoken with strangers. The same with students who speak with classmates.

“And yet most people resist talking to strangers, she says. They fret about the mechanics of the conversation—how to start, maintain or stop it. They think they will blather on and disclose too much—or not talk enough. They worry they will bore the other person.”

Bernstein continued “And in a study in which she asked participants to talk to at least one stranger a day for five days, 99% said they found at least one of the conversations pleasantly surprising, 82% said they learned something from one of the strangers, 43% exchanged contact information, and 40% had communicated with one of the strangers again, an indication they might be making friends.

“Scientists believe there may be an ancient reason why humans enjoy interacting with strangers. To survive as a species, we need to mate outside our own gene pool, so we may have evolved to have both the social skills and the motivation to interact with people who are not in our tribe.”

Is speaking with strangers a New York City thing because there are so many opportunities to do so? Do you do this? Can you remember a conversation with a stranger? Because so many are wrapped up with their phones, is chatting with strangers a lost art?



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27 Responses to “Service of Speaking with Strangers”

  1. Hank Goldman Said:

    One of my favorite activities… It really does brighten my day, when it works! Leaves me with a smile on my face.

    It’s not for everyone… Since it could backfire if the person is not talkative, or doesn’t understand your level of humor, or maybe doesn’t even speak your language!

    But generally speaking, people like being talked to about their current activity, so I think it does help both people to enhance communication and put down the ubiquitous smart phones!

    Great topic. Don’t know how you keep thinking of them but it’s always a pleasure.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    It sure doesn’t always work but so what? Some people love when you speak with and admire their dogs in the street or elevator and others look as though you’re about to hold them up. When I had a dog I’d love it when someone said something nice.

    When I told a friend I was going to write about this she said “Oh I wouldn’t dare! I’d be afraid of a confrontation. It’s too dangerous.” I never felt scared. Should I?

  3. Hank Goldman Said:

    No reason for fear.

    Some people like it, some people dont, some people just don’t want to be bothered, but in the long run I, like you, find it fun!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Obviously neither of us would speak with a loony or menacing looking person nor would we say something that might cause another person to become angry, although today, I suppose, that could happen because some are ready to be insulted at the slightest thing. Say “God bless you” to someone who sneezes and you might be subject to “I beg your pardon! I don’t believe in God!” but that hasn’t happened to me yet.

  5. David Reich Said:

    I talk to strangers all the time. Makes life a bit more interesting and usually brings a smile to me and the person I talk with.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I sometimes don’t notice, these days, that the person is listening to a podcast or music. When they see I’ve said something they rip out the pods in their ears but having to repeat a quip loses the spontaneity required for some remarks to be successful.

  7. ASK Said:

    I frequently use the subway and there are opportunities to connect…but I usually smile tentatively at my seat neighbor before speaking. If they smile back, I’ll comment and most often get a response. I also do this in shops and other public places. No response? Then I don’t pursue it.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Much of the time, in the subway, if I grumble a comment about a much delayed train, I get no response. As Hank pointed out, maybe the person nearby doesn’t speak English!

    A young man, sitting next to me, offered an old man who stood in front of him his seat and the old man thanked and said he didn’t care to sit. I mentioned to the older man how gracious the young man had been and he agreed and we struck up a conversation. I did this because as I mentioned in a post years ago some young people have been rebuffed almost rudely by people to whom they’ve offered a seat and told me that they’d never again do that. I wanted to encourage the young man to do so in future.

  9. EAM Said:

    On occasion, when watching a play, I have asked the person next to me, “What do you think?” Or, if in NYC, I’ve asked people if we might share a table and have had some very interesting conversation. My sister, Mom and I shared a table with a woman who was an usher for “The Ferryman.” We found out we shared a love of theater which led us to purchase tickets to the Broadway show.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What fun and a good idea if there’s a long line at a restaurant.

    Before the advent of Uber, Lyft, Via etc., when free yellow taxis, the only choice, were at a premium at certain times of day, I’ve heard of strangers sharing a ride if both were going in the same direction.

    I also think that folks who hang around bars strike up wonderful conversations. My husband dropped in to Kean’s Steak House for lunch on his birthday one year and chatted with some young men at the bar as well. He discovered that they’d paid for his martini when he got his check, a happy surprise.

  11. Debbie Kunen Said:

    Debbie wrote on Facebook: I chat with strangers all the time.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I know all the people who have commented so far and they represent a range of personalities. Most are or were in some form of communications–PR, advertising, marketing and publishing–but so different one from the other. Fascinating!

  13. Helen Rabinovitz Said:

    I had a doctor appointment and to enter the garage you take a ticket from a machine(I miss humans)! When you finish your visit another machine that takes the ticket, stamps it and collects your $6.00.

    As I was waiting for the elevator I was standing next to a woman with very nice finger nails and we started a conversation. I commented on how lovely her nails looked . We were still chatting when we got to “the machine.” She did her payment and I asked if she could you stay for a minute to make sure I’m okay and the machine doesn’t eat my ticket. She said give me your ticket and I’ll do it for you and much to my surprise not only did she do it she paid the $6.00!!! I was so surprised.

    I said you didn’t have to do that and tried to give her the money. She said it was her pleasure because we had so much fun talking. I hugged her and said I would pass the generous gesture on. I’m actually going to add some money to that $6.00 and write a check to the Massachusetts Society for The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It goes to show you that there are still some kind, thoughtful and generous people in the world.

  14. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You sound like a generous person yourself and lovely to mention the stranger’s nails. So many people don’t notice nor do they bother to say something if they do.

    I’ve not met anyone to pay my parking ticket but one day, when I went to pay for my lunch at the deli right next to my office my wallet wasn’t in my handbag and as I pulled everything out to look for some cash with my face buried in my bag the cashier said, “someone paid for your lunch.” I looked up and the woman was gone. I asked if she knew her–the same people tend to go to this place–so I could thank and repay her. The cashier said he didn’t know her. [My wallet was on my desk, thank goodness.]

  15. Martha Takayama Said:

    I often talk to strangers. My office building has a huge and diverse range of occupants and visitors. Our Security crew is sophisticated and efficient. However the checking procedure means that there are often clusters of people including children and infants waiting to get in. I often compliment parents on babies which just about always generates warmth and cheer. As I born New Englander I almost always make a typical observation about the weather! I also always acknowledge a pretty outfit, or special accessory especially if the person is older or very plump. On the train or shopping in malls I often chat with strangers as I find that “small talk” can be pleasant and entertaining. I try to be positive! It makes for a much more pleasant day. Helen Rabinovitz sounds like an extremely kind hearted person. In the current era of Trumpism people like this are an even greater treasure than ever!

  16. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I often smile at a parent in the subway with a child of any age but I don’t speak; rather I mouth “beautiful” or similar word and smile–they get the message. Sometimes the parent is so harried or angry, screaming at the child. Then I don’t distract them.

    One of my friends has lived in his co-op apartment for many years. He told me recently that he and one of the doormen have become friends and for years have visited a neighborhood bar. He’s a man with many friends but now in his 90s and a widower, it’s a blessing that he is garrulous and makes new ones of all ages.

  17. Helen Rabinovitz Said:

    I actually try to say something nice to someone every time I’m out. Just a simple comment like…what a pretty dress or I love your pocketbook can make someone happy for the rest of the day!

  18. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I notice that you and Martha are interested in making others feel happy or cheerful. The study seemed to focus on the conversation initiator and his/her happiness, not on the recipient. It says something about both of you that this is your focus.

  19. Lucrezia Said:

    Speaking with strangers is not exclusively a New York City thing, but mostly a personality thing. It’s also an event thing. People gathering to witness a happening, be it anywhere from historic to tragic, are often found discussing the matter with their “neighbor.” New York is one of the greatest places on this planet, but has no monopoly on the good, bad, or exotic manifestations of human nature.

    You don’t believe me? Then travel — New Orleans is a good place to start. If preferring the North, folks greet you on the street in Anchorage; offer a lift if they’d seen you somewhere before, and take you on a tour of the city, should you show interest…..No kidding!

  20. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Many years ago we were walking in a village in the Cotswolds. We passed a charming garden in front of a house and on the way back the owner was working there. We told her how we loved her house and flowers and she invited us to tea. Unfortunately, we had to leave and couldn’t accept her invitation but I’ll always remember how gracious and unsuspicious she was of two strangers.

  21. Tom Stier Said:

    Tom wrote on Facebook: I speak with strangers every day. One or both of us are usually uplifted as a result. Sometimes I start the conversation but always show I am ready if they want to. Cheers!

  22. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I was renewing my license at Motor Vehicles today and a chat with the person behind me made waiting in one of several lines go by quickly. It’s funny how so many–but not all–of the people who work in this department in Manhattan can be grouchy. Several were just the opposite and they were in delightful and welcome contrast.

  23. Sherrie Bellman Rott Said:

    Sherrie wrote on Facebook: Isn’t that how we met?

  24. Jeanne Byington Said:


    For sure! Yea to you!

  25. Helen Rabinovitz Said:

    This is true and happened a few months ago:

    I was in line to check out at supermarket with a cart filled to the brim. In front was a very good looking young man…looked like a college student. Behind me was a very pretty girl with two items. I insisted she go ahead of me. They started talking and as it turned out both single, both from out of the country and both in college. By the time my turn came they had a date planned. The girls at the supermarket call me the matchmaker now!

  26. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What a great story! I wish the supermarket staff would learn what happened after that first date and could report back to you!

    My husband used a car service, in the dark ages–long before Uber, Via and Lyft were born–to pick me up on our first date.

    A year or more later he was off on a business trip and the car service driver, who picked him up at his Manhattan office, remembered him and asked: “What happened to the woman we picked up in Brooklyn?” My husband said, “I married her!”

  27. Helen Rabinovitz Said:

    I always speak to people everywhere I go and I’ve made some wonderful friends that way. One of my favorite stories:
    I had breast cancer(I’m fine)and after surgery one of the treatments is radiation. You go five days a week at the same time for four to six weeks. My first week I sat in the waiting room. Smiled and said hi to a group of three women who obviously had gone through chemo..I didn’t. They nodded but didn’t speak a word to me. Fast forward one week…I walk into the room and sitting there with with long brown hair and a big hold cross is a lovely young woman and she’s swearing like a truck driver because they’re running late! I broke up laughing and sat down next to her. Gina and I are close friends now for six years. We wear matching necklaces that say “ strong” with the understanding that we will pass it on should we know someone going through any sort of hard time. I still have mine but Gina recently gave hers away. I tell everyone that the silver lining to breast cancer was Gina!!

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