Why are humans so reluctant to communicate in public?
Yes, we’re all social creatures with friends and family that we interact with on a daily basis, but what happens when you’re surrounded by strangers? Every day, we find ourselves in public settings with countless people around us. Whether it’s shopping in a mall, being on a crowded subway, walking down a busy street, or even in an elevator fillled with people. How social are we then?
Once in a long while, we may strike up a conversation with someone while waiting to board a plane or in a doctor’s office, though this tends to be rare. More often than not, we consider any attempt to talk to a stranger as being awkward, and even unwelcome depending on how uncomfortable this makes us feel (especially if you’re a woman being approached by a strange man). For the most part, the strangers around us go on being strangers.
At least in terms of face-to-face interaction. Communicating with strangers online is a critical part of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Casual conversations that might seem unthinkable in a crowded room seem much easier when there is no physical contact involved. I have numerous Facebook and Twitter acquaintances that I interact with on a regular basis that I’ve never met in person and I am hardly unique.
But why are ordinarily social humans so unsocial in situations involving face-to-face interaction? Do we prefer being isolated when physically surrounded by strangers? Or do we feel that the consequences of connecting with people we don’t know are too risky to want to take a chance? Research studies looking at how we are affected by social interactions typically find that connecting with people who are close to us (friends and family) are more important than how often we interact with strangers. Since we tend not to regard strangers, or even distant acquaintances, as being a good source of social support (except in extraordinary circumstances), we’re less likely to try interacting with them.
Or is it simply the physical location that makes a difference? A survey of 203 participants using Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk marketplace were asked about the likelihood that they would talk to a friend or a stranger in a waiting room, a train, an airplane, or a cab. Virtually all the participants agreed that they would talk to a friend in any one of those settings. For strangers however, the numbers were very different. Ranging from 93 percent saying they would avoid talking in a waiting room to 51 percent saying they would avoid talking in a cab, most people apparently prefer to sit in silence rather than chatting with a stranger.
A new research study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General presents the results of nine field and laboratory experiments exploring why people apparently prefer to remain isolated among strangers. Conducted by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder of the University of Chicago, the experiments explored some of the underlying beliefs that might explain this strange need for solitude in public places.
Feature continues here: Being Alone Together