When we want to really connect with others, we usually limit ourselves to family and close friends. Opening up to a stranger would likely seem a daunting prospect to most of us – but it looks like our expectations may not always match reality.
New research suggests that people's expectations about their interactions with strangers are mismatched with the outcomes of these interactions: People thought that deep conversations with strangers would be more awkward and less fulfilling than they actually were.
Over 1,800 participants took part in a series of experiments that measured people's expectations and outcomes from a range of 'deep' and 'shallow' conversations with strangers and known confidants.
In the first set of experiments, participants reported how they expected to feel after having a deep conversation with a stranger. They then reported how they actually felt after the talk.
This gave the researchers a comparison of expectation versus actual experience. Researchers supplied questions that encouraged vulnerable topics like, "Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?"
From this first set of experiments, participants were likely to underestimate their own interest in listening to a stranger and how interested they perceived their partner would be in their own answers. Awkwardness wasn't as present as the participants thought it would be, and they also felt more connected and happier than expected.
Further sets of experiments compared shallow conversations with deeper conversations (by manipulating the intimacy of conversations with prompts) while also comparing conversations between known family and friends with strangers.
Participants' expectations were more accurate for deeper conversations with close friends or family, whose care and interest are more assured.
Researchers wanted to see if participants were likely to misunderstand the outcomes of deep conversations with strangers, whether relatively deeper conversations with strangers would build stronger connections, and whether people's expectations of interest and care would create psychological barriers to having more meaningful conversations with strangers.
"Our experiments test whether people systematically underestimate others' care and concern in the context of deep conversations," explain the authors of the paper.
Participants also chose deeper questions when they expected a more caring partner, supporting the authors' hypothesis that a person's miscalibrated expectations about the sociality of others may act as a psychological barrier to having deeper conversations with strangers.
People's general wellbeing is deeply connected to the quality of their social relationships. It seems like no surprise then that we have strong desires towards making and maintaining strong relationships.
We often achieve such relationships through intimate and vulnerable conversations. Participants in the study even reported wanting to have more deep interactions in their daily lives than what they currently have.
But if people want more deep conversations with others, why don't they have them?
"Our data suggest that underestimating others' deeply social nature – assuming that others will be more indifferent and uncaring in conversation than they actually are – could help to explain why conversations in daily life are shallower than people might prefer," suggest the authors.
Although these conversations took place in a lab and under supervision, the researchers believe these findings can be generalized to contexts that are more familiar to our daily lives.
"Previous research in both the United States and the UK indicates that people may underestimate strangers' willingness to engage in conversation in naturalistic field experiments on trains, buses, and cabs," state the authors.
"Our experiments may provide a more conservative test of whether people underestimate the value of deep conversations compared to more naturally occurring conversations."
The authors also wonder how these effects may vary across cultures, with different cultures having varying views on their openness to strangers and how some may prioritize in-group relations.
So the next time you share a space with a stranger for a prolonged period of time, ask them about their lives and try not to resort back to your default weather commentary. Who knows, you might even make a new friend.
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition.