A recent item on National Public Radio in America suggested that talking to strangers makes you happier. I think there is truth in this idea. Moreover, I believe it’s a knack that can be invaluable in business, too.
Most of us avoid conversations with strangers — because we’re shy, or busy, or because we think that those around us don’t want to connect — but scientific research shows that these assumptions are generally mistaken. Even modest interactions can have benefits — just try turning to a neighbour for a chat the next time you’re on a train, in a cafe or a lift, and see what happens. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior motive — you never know where a conversation can lead.
All hospitality industry professionals understand that outgoing, friendly staff are vital to the success of any restaurant or hotel. A warm greeting sets the tone for a meal or a stay; a genuine discussion with guests is likely to lead to better tips and repeat custom. Compliments or gentle humour can help lift the mood of all the participants.
Unfortunately, smartphones allow us to ignore the world too easily. I often look around a Tube carriage and see almost all the passengers staring at their personal screen — as if everyone else there is invisible. The Germans have a phrase for this: wie Luft behandeln, meaning to ignore people — to treat them like they’re air. In fact, we are all searching for the opposite: a feeling of community, of belonging.
Indeed, loneliness is seen as a modern epidemic, and isolation is increasing because of ageing populations and digital addiction. Social media does not offer the same healthy benefits as a face-to-face conversation; it isn’t really “social”.
Launched in 1938 in an effort to reveal the secrets of a happy and healthy life, the Grant Study has been monitoring the wellbeing of 268 undergraduates at Harvard for more than 80 years. Apart from the wisdom of avoiding alcoholism and divorce, the most important insight is that neither money nor fame makes the difference: human relationships are what matter. I think this includes even fleeting relationships with strangers, as they bind you to the outside world.
Talking to Strangers is the title of Peter Rosengard’s autobiography — an acquaintance and neighbour of mine. He claims to be the world’s most successful life insurance salesman and is certainly a master at cold calls — one having led to the sale of a $100m life policy. Before he went into selling, Rosengard founded the Comedy Store in London and managed the 1980s pop group Curiosity Killed the Cat.
Ultimately, all selling starts by talking to strangers — overcoming your fear of rejection, and persuading someone to buy something from you.
I used to think the best bosses were the toughest. Over the years I’ve changed my mind: I now believe the best leaders are frequently the most likeable — because they are the ones who can motivate staff. And that means talking to strangers, be they prospective customers or new recruits.
Great bosses can tell stories and do small talk, which is how you attract the attention of an audience. Popularity is important not only to politicians seeking election, but to entrepreneurs trying to build a business. They too need believers — investors, lenders — and talent who will go the extra mile.
In his book The Art of the Sale, Philip Delves Broughton digs deep into the true meaning of selling. He writes about one master salesman, Martin Shanker, who said that what we most want for our children is for them to possess the ability to meet their own needs. He believes selling is a crucial element of life, and so parents and schools should teach pupils to sell. Instead, we too often tell our children to be suspicious of strangers rather than developing confidence by talking to them. The best salespeople I’ve worked with have always believed in closing the deal in person; emails, phone calls and video conferencing are poor substitutes for actually being there.
The seminal book Bowling Alone, written nearly 20 years ago by Robert Putnam, argued that declining trust, reciprocity and civility with strangers was making Americans less content.
He introduced the concept of deteriorating social capital, especially in the public sphere, and this fragmentation has since been exacerbated by the emergence of digital devices — not improved. In a small way, talking to strangers helps to reverse this tide. Every capitalist should try to be a social capitalist, too.