What We're Missing, By Missing Strangers Now : Short Wave With a lot of us stuck at home, trying to physically distance from each other, one part of daily life has largely disappeared: bumping into strangers. On today's show, Maddie talks with Yowei Shaw, a reporter from NPR's Invisibilia, about the surprising benefits of stranger interactions. And Short Wave tries out QuarantineChat, a workaround to our current strangerless existence.

What We're Missing, By Missing Strangers Now

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ..From NPR.

Maddie Sofia here today with somebody new - Yowei Shaw. She's a reporter from Invisibilia, NPR's podcast about human behavior. Welcome to SHORT WAVE, Yowei.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: Hi, Maddie. Thanks for having me.

SOFIA: So you have a story for us about a particular interaction that's happening a lot less these days.

SHAW: I do. So recently I heard about this app called Dialup. It was created by these two artists, Max Hawkins And Danielle Baskin, and they recently put out a new feature called QuarantineChat that randomly connects you to strangers from all over the world.

SOFIA: Ooh, I am suspicious and intrigued.

SHAW: Well, you know, a lot of us are stuck at home. We're pretty isolated. We're not running into random people like we normally would.

SOFIA: Yeah. Honestly, Yowei, I've kind of missed strangers and their dogs - you know? Mostly their dogs but the strangers, too - fine.

SHAW: You totally seem like somebody who's always trying to chat up strangers and their dogs - the person I would try to avoid.

SOFIA: Wow, wow, wow, wow, Yowei.

SHAW: Just kidding. Just kidding. But anyway, because I'm an introvert perhaps, when I heard about QuarantineChat, I was immediately repulsed but also really drawn to it. So I downloaded the app, and I ended up having a series of conversations with very random people.






UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Sorry, that's the guinea pig.

SHAW: Like this guy in Ohio who told me what he'd been eating recently.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Bananas - I have a pineapple, apples, plums.

SHAW: Do you have enough food to eat?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I do have enough food. I just eat a lot of fruit.

SHAW: I also talked to this guy, John (ph), who told me how he'd been laid off from the magazine industry a while ago and was trying his hardest to get back but for now was working in a hand sanitizer factory, where he said morale has been down lately.

JOHN: Couple of people saying, hey, the whole world's going to end, and here I am stuck doing this crap.

SHAW: And then there was this woman in Rome who'd been having terrible nightmares. She told me the night before she dreamt that she was getting chased by people with giant hands instead of heads.

SOFIA: Nope, nope - don't like that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I think it's just afraid of getting the virus, of being infected because they're always telling us, wash your hands, wash your hands. But it actually was kind of funny. It almost looked like a movie, you know, but like a scary but funny movie at the same time.

SOFIA: Man, Yowei, way quarantine dreams are wild.

SHAW: I know. But here's the weird thing - I was talking to all these strangers, and there was this one night where I felt distinctly high after a conversation. Like, I went for this walk in the park right after, and I could not wipe this smile off of my face.


SOFIA: So today on the show, what we're missing by missing strangers - the science behind that jolt of happiness.





SOFIA: So Yowei, to find out why you were feeling high after talking to random people, you delved into the science of strangers.

SHAW: Yeah. I started looking into it, and it turns out there's this newish line of research examining this very question.

When is the last time you yourself talked to a stranger?

ELIZABETH DUNN: Gosh - you know, usually that would be so easy to answer.

SHAW: This is Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor who studies happiness at the University of British Columbia. So Dunn first started thinking about the importance of strangers when she noticed something odd happening with her boyfriend back in grad school.

DUNN: Benjamin was a lovely person. But if Benjamin happened to be in a little bit of a bad mood, you know, he would act a bit cranky, grumpy around me, his longtime girlfriend, knowing that, you know, that was OK and I would put up with it.

SOFIA: We are crankiest around the ones we love.

SHAW: True, true. But then they'd run into a stranger on their way to dinner or something and her boyfriend would perk right up - like, he would suddenly become pleasant and cheerful. And he'd often stay that way - be in a better mood even after the run-in.

SOFIA: Like - a little stranger boost.

SHAW: Yeah. And Dunn wanted to know why. So she conducted a study. She got a bunch of couples together in a lab, and she asked everyone to predict if they'd feel happier interacting with their own beloved partner or a complete stranger from one of the other couples.

SOFIA: I'm guessing they chose their own partner. Like, that feels like the safest choice.

SHAW: That's definitely what they chose. But what Dunn found was that people actually ended up reporting feeling just as good after interacting with a total stranger as they did after interacting with their own partner.

SOFIA: Ooh - drama, drama, Yowei.

SHAW: I know. It was also surprising because for a long time researchers had mainly focused on the effects of spending time with intimates like our friends and family, not complete randoms.

DUNN: You know, I think we consider these interactions to be trivial. They happen quickly and spontaneously. Most of the time, we don't really give them a second thought.

SHAW: So Dunn wanted to know, like, what is up with these stranger interactions? And over the next decade, she conducted a few more studies looking at how these interactions affect our well-being, including this study at a coffee shop in Vancouver, where she got people to either have a conversation with a barista or to just get their coffee and get out - be totally utilitarian about it - which, by the way, is how Dunn usually likes to roll.

DUNN: I really like efficiency.

SOFIA: Oh, this is a woman after my own heart.

SHAW: Yeah. Me, too. But what Dunn found is that just having brief interactions with a barista would, on a scale of 1 to 5, make people feel happier - like six-tenths of a point better in terms of positive affect.

DUNN: And a half a point might not sound like that big a difference. But actually, compared to a lot of other findings in our field, it's pretty solid given how minimal the intervention that we're using here is.


SOFIA: Do we know why, Yowei?

SHAW: Well, there's only been a handful of studies so far, so researchers don't really know what's happening just yet. But Dunn's theory is that when you talk to a stranger, you generally try to be friendly and cheerful because that's the social norm in a lot of places.

SOFIA: Right.

SHAW: And so just by acting more cheerful, that can shape how you feel.

SOFIA: Yeah. And I imagine, like, you know, bumping into a stranger kind of jerks you out of the routine of daily life. It maybe makes you feel, like - I don't know - I feel, like, a little more awake after I have a nice interaction with a stranger.

SHAW: Mmm hmm. And I think when these interactions go well, it can also affirm your existence. There's this study that showed when participants were given eye contact by a stranger passing them on the street, they reported feeling more socially connected than when a stranger looked through them as if they weren't there.

DUNN: These are such fleeting moments in our daily lives and yet can be really powerful in just making people feel, you know, I am seen; I am connected; people around me, you know, notice my presence.

SOFIA: But what about people who maybe don't like talking to strangers?

SHAW: Yeah. I looked into it, and there's this interesting study by behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder that found that commuters on trains and buses routinely reported a more positive experience when they talked to strangers even when they said they preferred riding alone in solitude.

SOFIA: Oh, yeah, yeah - yes, I remember this study. There was this, like, big gap between how they thought interacting with a stranger would make them feel and what actually happened, which I kind of loved.

SHAW: Yeah. I mean, I think it's also kind of tragic because it means that there are people who think they don't like talking to strangers and so don't, even though it would probably make them happier in the moment. And then the cycle just goes on and on.


SOFIA: So what does this mean for pandemic times, Yowei? Like, most of us are pretty much only talking to whoever we're sheltering in place with or calling friends and family or co-workers, people we already know.

SHAW: I had the same question, so I asked Elizabeth Dunn.

DUNN: Well, it's not the first thing that people think of in terms of the negative ways that life has changed as a result of the pandemic. But I think it is an important one. We're missing these little bursts of happiness and connection that we might otherwise be having.


SHAW: I have to say, I realized something else from doing those QuarantineChat calls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: I have my (unintelligible).

SHAW: I didn't feel as stale afterwards. Like, I think when you're just interacting with your friends and family, you can become almost static.

SOFIA: Yeah because, you know, you have all this history. And you occupy this, like, certain role in your relationships. And so there's this kind of version of you that feels fixed in those close connections, you know what I'm saying? Like - then when you're talking to a stranger and you get to be, like, a new person.

SHAW: Yeah, yeah. You can be whoever you want to be in that moment.




SHAW: (Laughter).

Which I think also allows you to catch glimpses of yourself through a new person's eyes, like parts of you that you might have forgotten about.

SOFIA: Yowei, that's nice. I like thinking about it that way.

SHAW: Mmm hmm.

SOFIA: OK. So basically you're saying that even though a lot of us are trying to stay physically apart from each other, maybe it's a good idea to, you know, like make some eye contact, smile or wave as we pass somebody on the street or the grocery store because that might make us all feel a little better right now.

SHAW: Yeah. Can I take us out, though, with my favorite solution I heard for entertaining oneself while stuck at home?

SOFIA: Absolutely, you can and should.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Voguing is my love life.

SHAW: What's your favorite song to vogue to?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Oh, my God. I guess my favorable would be "Gypsy Woman" (unintelligible) just be like la-da-dee, la-dah dip (ph), fall to the ground like bop.

SOFIA: Dead-drop (ph) them - you got to (laughter). Yowei, have you ever dead-dropped?

SHAW: I have definitely never even attempted 'cause I know I probably wouldn't be able to get up.


CRYSTAL WATERS: (Singing) La-da-dee, la-da-da, la-da-dee, la-da-da, la-da-dee, la-da-da, la-da-dee, la-da-da...

SOFIA: This episode was reported and produced by Yowei Shaw, edited by Deborah George and Viet Le. The facts were checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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