Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers

Why don't we like to talk to people we don't know?

| Published:

There wasn’t a vacant seat when I boarded the Metro in Bethesda early one morning more than a year ago. I stood in the aisle watching dozens of suburbanites crowd in after me, determined to get to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. There were delays on the Red Line, and no one was willing to let this train leave without them. I’d never seen a Metro train leave Bethesda this packed. I tried lifting my iPhone to snap a photo, but my arms were pinned to my sides in the crush.

Somewhere over the District line the train stopped between stations. A garbled announcement over the intercom was inscrutable. Minutes passed.

Too many minutes passed. People began visibly sweating.  My mind wandered to disaster movies about being trapped somewhere awful. My instinct was to crack a joke. “Anybody seen Das Boot?” I wanted to say, referring to the German movie in which doomed sailors are stranded in a damaged submarine. I didn’t say it. I didn’t say a word. Nobody did.

It would have been nice to commiserate. I’ve lived in places like Mississippi, where people chat with strangers all day long—on buses and trains, in line at the grocery store, bank or movies. Bethesda isn’t one of those places.

On the stranded Metro car, people who probably live in the same or adjoining ZIP codes stared into the distance, avoiding eye contact with one another. The longer we waited, the grimmer our silence. When at last the train moved, I wanted to cheer in relief. I didn’t. Nobody made a sound.

Finally rushing off the train, I confided to a stranger that I feared I would have lost my composure if we’d been trapped underground much longer.

“Me, too,” he said. “I think everybody felt that way.” Hearing him say that made me feel better.

All this time later, I still puzzle at the silence on that train. So I was intrigued recently to come across a 2014 academic article titled “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude.” The authors, University of Chicago researchers, conducted experiments on trains and buses, and in taxicabs to study why strangers in close quarters often don’t speak to one another. Study participants typically predicted that commuting in solitude would be pleasanter than talking with random strangers. They were wrong. Participants who spoke with strangers—either of their own accord or because researchers asked them to—reported having more pleasurable commutes. “Humans may indeed be social animals,” the researchers wrote, “but may not always be social enough for their own well-being.”

The degree to which we’re willing to talk to strangers is cultural and varies greatly from place to place. In Bethesda, unlike places I’ve lived in the Midwest and South, strangers typically don’t start a conversation with me in public places. I’ve wondered what’s different here. Are people who choose to purchase big expensive suburban homes—as opposed to a condo in the city—trying to buy some privacy?

To satisfy my curiosity, I walked around town recently talking to strangers about talking to strangers. Everybody I asked said they are less likely to converse with strangers in Bethesda—and the District—than in other places they’ve lived or worked. A Metro police officer who works throughout the region said commuters on the Orange Line in Fairfax and Arlington, Virginia, are by far the most likely to make eye contact with him, smile and exchange pleasantries.

Carly Roner, 23, lives in Rockville and works in Bethesda in business administration. In her native Peru, strangers who meet on the street often have extended conversations. “It’s very friendly,” she said. Here, strangers occasionally ask her for directions, but those interactions are brief. “Here, you ask a question and that’s it, gotta go,” she said. “People are focused on what they are doing and their work.”

Travis Hite, 33, a research scientist at a Bethesda-based startup, said this area is friendlier than the District, where he lives with his wife and infant. Still, the entire region is far less friendly than where he grew up. “In southwest Virginia, you couldn’t not talk to people,” he said. “If you ask someone how they are doing, you get an hourlong conversation. Here, if you say, ‘How are you doing?’ you get back, ‘Fine. How are you?’ And that’s the end of it.”

Hite sees a connection between people’s habit of not chatting with strangers and this region’s unusually intense focus on work. He misses the friendliness of southwest Virginia. Still, he said, “It’s more efficient here.”

Efficient. That word kept coming up. I was pondering it minutes later when I spotted a woman sitting alone in the center of a long communal table at Le Pain Quotidien in Bethesda Row. I sat near her, even though there were plenty of other empty seats. She looked surprised.

Melanie Eisner, 34, is a licensed clinical social worker who recently opened an office in Bethesda. She was eating lunch at the communal table—which, in theory, is a place to interact with strangers—because she liked the lighting there, she said. She had her laptop open and was writing something work-related. She’d been at the table for 45 minutes, and I was the first stranger, other than a waitress, to speak to her.

I asked Eisner, who grew up in Rockville, what she thought about the inefficiency of talking to strangers and the consequences of being so efficient that we often don’t. “I think people feel very isolated and alone in general,” she said. “They think they are the only ones. They don’t realize so many people feel the same way. It’s the rare person who has this wonderful sense of community.

“In Bethesda, people are raising kids. They are trying to get them into the right activities that will help them get into the right schools. It’s all about efficiency. They don’t feel like they have time to get to know some stranger. There is a huge hierarchical thing here, a merciless striving to get to the next level in the hierarchy. I work with kids who are 11 and worried that if they get a B, they don’t get into the college of their choice.”
After I finished interviewing Eisner, neither of us got much work done. We sat for a long time in the sunny restaurant drinking green tea and chatting about things like life and love. She told me about a blog I might like on the creative process. I told her about a book I like on the same topic. It was a very inefficient conversation. And I felt happy.

April Witt (aprilwitt@hotmail.com) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.

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