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As you grow older you’ll find that you enjoy talking to strangers far more than to your friends.

~Joy Williams

If you’re like me you might be starting your morning with a good cup of coffee. I started drinking coffee when I was eleven years-old in Boy Scouts as it was something hot to start the day with on cold morning camping trips. By the time I was later in the Army, my Platoon Sergeant and I would be on our second pot of coffee by nine every morning. My mother used to say that the best part of each morning was that very first sip of hot black coffee and I believe she was a very wise woman.

When we lived in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1990’s, I was delighted to discover Starbucks Coffee which was just becoming more known in the Pacific Northwest region and had not yet spread across the rest of the US or the world. I’ve been a fan and consumer of Starbucks ever since and along the way I have come to realize that an important part of Starbucks culture is the human engagement it promotes. Whether it’s the warm connection from a friendly or chatty barista or the gathering of fellow coffee drinkers in their cozy gathering places, Starbucks is not just a place for coffee, it’s a place for community.

So I’m a little disappointed that while we’ve been blessed to move into a nice beach house, we’re about ten miles from the nearest Starbucks. I remember being pretty happy when Starbucks finally arrived at the hometown where we just moved from. I never considered it a “real” Starbucks though because the line was always incredibly long and moved slowly, they often got your order wrong, and it was almost always a new barista who didn’t know your name or your regular order. Those of us in our town who liked Starbucks were still glad it was there because even though it wasn’t like a real Starbucks, we appreciated that at least they tried to be like one and we were proud to say our town finally had a Starbucks – sort of :)

I got to thinking about all this because I just started bought a book I plan to read called “The Power of Strangers” by Joe Keohane. The book talks about many different experiments and studies which have been done over the years which all point to the real benefits of talking to strangers. Many of the early experiments were conducted at the University of Chicago where they had people intentionally talk to coffee baristas or vice versa. Reading that and realizing the impact of a human connection when buying a cup of coffee made me think that’s likely a big part of why Starbucks grew in popularity.

Over and over again the book points to research that makes the point that we are social beings and there are real health benefits to engaging with others. Research has proven that there are both physical and emotional and mental health benefits of engaging with others. That also fits with the earliest depiction of people in the bible because right after God created the first person He said: “It is not good for man to be alone” and then another person was created. I’m thinking that was likely so they could talk to each other :)

Talking to strangers can also help us feel less isolated and lonely. A growing body of research is establishing that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic. But most people are not aware of those research findings unfortunately, so loneliness is a growing problem in modern society, with many people feeling disconnected from others despite being surrounded by technology and social media. People are not realizing that by talking to strangers, we can create meaningful connections with others, even if they are brief. This can help us feel less alone and more connected to the world around us.

The problem we face in getting started is that most of us believe strangers don’t want to talk to us, so we shouldn’t bother them. We think that strangers won’t like us and that we won’t like them, and it seems to fit with the early lessons we may have heard from parents that “it’s not good to talk to strangers.” That may be an important safety precaution for children to not talk to strange adults, but for the rest of us we would be far better off if we pushed ourselves to engage more with the strangers around us.

If you’re in doubt, take this challenge – if you’re buying a cup of coffee this week, whether it’s at Starbucks, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, or somewhere else - try striking up a brief conversation with the barista or server. If the research that’s out there holds true, you’ll find yourself feeling a stronger sense of community and an improved mood, as well as greater satisfaction with your overall coffee-buying experience.

If you really do try my suggestion this week, you will likely feel a sense of satisfaction as well as relief when you finish the experiment. That sense of relief might be from overcoming that sense of apprehension so many of us have in thinking that we won’t like strangers, or they won’t like us. The research has proven that both of those beliefs prove untrue when we push ourselves to engage.

I think that the sense of relief and the happiness we experience after a positive stranger interaction is also because we may be starting to realize, little by little, one stranger at a time, that maybe the world isn’t such a bad place after all :)

Have a great week!


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