This is why talking to strangers is scary (and why it shouldn't be)

Earlier today, I was talking with someone I know who’s a marriage and family therapist. We were chatting about “being social”, and how rare it is for people who are strangers to randomly strike up conversations with one another.

At first, I pushed back on him a little.

“Come on… it’s not THAT rare…”

Then he said to me:

“I want you to think back on the last time you were at the airport, waiting to board a plane. Everyone’s lined up, ready to shuffle on. How many people who aren’t in the same group are chatting it up while in line? Not just exchanging some small talk here and there, but *really* having a conversation?”

I travel a lot for work, so I have three or four recent trips I can pull from.

“Actually, on my last trip, I can remember two people, out of a group of 200 or so, doing this.”

On the trip before, I could only recall a single person.

Wow.

This made me think about a book I read a few years ago called “Mean Genes”. It’s a fun pop evolutionary psychology book.

In one of the chapters, the authors talk about why, from an evolutionary POV, we’re so socially timid:

“We've been looking at situations in which people like risk too much. In many cases, however, we have exactly the opposite problem: we are too timid. The social arena is one important area in which we ought to take more risks.

For ancestral humans, social failures were presumably much more costly than they are for us. Remember that, until recently, people lived with the same group from early adulthood until death. In such an environment, people were doomed to hear about their social mistakes for years as the same group gathered around the campfire to joke about Johnny the Overeager.

Far beyond a never-ending series of jokes, social mistakes could have had fatal consequences for ancestral humans. Single humans did not fare well in the dangerous world of our ancestors. Offend the wrong group of people, and a social risk could rapidly turn into a very bad day. Among the Yanomamö, individuals thrown out of their villages could sometimes join neighboring groups, but they also risked being killed.

So our ancestors were right to be timid in a variety of situations.”

If you took the Big 5 inventory or the HEXACO (both of which I sent out in an email about a month ago), you have your “neuroticism” score.* This is a measure of how sensitive your brain’s threat detection system is. Those with anxiety disorders, and social anxiety/shyness, score quite high on this trait.

In fact, social anxiety is less of a result of one’s introversion/extraversion, and more of a result of one’s neuroticism.

Given the evolutionary explanation I quoted above, it should be obvious why. Those with social anxiety are particularly sensitive to social rejection, and therefore take the “safe” path of doing nothing, of being unnoticed.

But we no longer live in the high-stakes social environment of our evolutionary past. It's OK to come across as weird to a stranger at a party--you'll probably never see them again. It's OK to awkwardly say hello to the cute person next to you at Starbucks. Even if you're rudely blown off, it won't stick with you, a scarlet letter, for the rest of your social life.

We no longer live in 150 person tribes. We need to stop acting like it.

So this is your invitation to open up more. Chat with more people. Be socially bolder. Take more risks. Your safety net is larger than you think.

*This is called "neuroticism" in the Big 5 and "emotionality" in the HEXACO.

Jason Hreha