The shortcomings of solitude
During last week’s multi-day sleet, rain, and ice fest, I slid to a stop at an intersection and saw a woman walking in the street. This was not surprising given the 3 inches of slush on the sidewalk, but her face was serene—not plastered with a scowl I’d anticipated. And she was—by my quick, superficial assessment of her clothes and hairstyle—of middle class means. As she hiked closer, I saw that her pants were rolled above her ankles; her feet were bare. She confidently strode through freezing rain and ice pellets. I shivered as I watched; her feet were scarlet.
I’ve fabricated a host of scenarios to explain her situation. Did her shoes and socks get so hopelessly soaked that she jettisoned them? Was she in the midst of a delusion that allowed her to be so calm? Was her barefoot walk through the slush a religious devotion? Was it simply a lark: What would it feel like to do something totally wild? I’ve also wondered why I did not offer a ride. Her peaceful demeanor was confounding; she did not appear to want help. And I did not wish to intrude on something I did not understand.
We constantly strive to make meaning as we meet—or simply view—people. We assess, consider, and then often categorize. Our evaluations provide a scaffold for understanding someone and incorporating them into our worlds. But these immediate assessments—devoid of rich and critical context—also limit true connection and understanding.
I have an acquaintance who asserts that colleagues often underestimate her worth before they have any real context for understanding her: “I pull up in a mini-van, and I am coded as the forty-something—rather simple—‘Mom.’” They construct a story about her life and experiences with the scantest of information. She feels misjudged in her intelligence and ability to contribute meaningfully. Eventually, they realize that she listens to every word in every meeting, synthesizes the many details, and makes important observations few others can.
Although it heartens me that she’s come to peace with this uncomfortable situation, it also feels like a tremendous waste of time, energy, and resources. What if we asked better questions of each other? What if we let our genuine innate curiosity drive conversations instead of a desire to get to the next step in a project? Research shows conversations aren’t just an important tool to build connections; talking with people—even strangers—elevates our own sense of well-being.
Nicholas Epley—behavioral scientist at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago—and a doctoral student, Juliana Shroeder, challenged conventional wisdom about commuters and their unwritten code of bus and train travel: don’t make eye contact and don’t talk to one another. They offered $5 gift cards to Chicago commuters. Members of one group had to talk with a stranger during their commute. Another group of straphangers were to follow social norms and not interact with anyone. Those who had conversations with strangers reported having more positive commutes than those who sat in solitude. This contradicted the commuters’ own predictions about which situation would be more pleasant.
Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School found similar findings in one of their experiments. They asked some Starbucks customers “to have a genuine interaction” with the cashier—to smile and chit chat. Others were instructed to get in and out as efficiently as possible. The dawdlers reported feeling more cheerful than those who kept their interactions brief and businesslike.
As I face the long, dark winter, I plan to employ any means necessary to stave off the doldrums. Be forewarned, I plan to linger a bit with cashiers and bank tellers, and I may stop to chat with strangers on the street. I will cut you the same slack.