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We asked our colleagues to talk to strangers – this is what happened

Could we encourage our co-workers to strike up new social connections on their way into the office?

  • Blog
  • 26th Jun 2019

We’ve blogged recently about the lack of evidence around what works to facilitate social connections. Inspired both by the Government’s Tackling Loneliness week, and our contributions to Crossing Divides, a day organised by the BBC that encouraged people to speak to each other on public transport, we set out to generate some data using ourselves as test subjects and try to get our colleagues to talk to strangers.

We sent out three different emails around 180 colleagues in London, Manchester, New York, Sydney, Singapore and Wellington. One group were asked to smile at others on their commute, the second were asked to strike up a conversation, and the third were asked to start a conversation and given some tips on how to do so. We sent out a survey after the fact to learn more about how it had gone. 

Reactions were mixed: 32 people filled out the survey – that’s a response rate of ~17% for those of you keeping track at home – which wouldn’t pass muster with our evaluation team. So take these insights with a pinch of salt – the majority of our fellow BIT staffers either didn’t try to talk to strangers, or didn’t tell us if they did. Because of the response rate, we haven’t linked our results to specific treatment arms. 

Some respondents who told us they didn’t take up the challenge reported a classic behavioural barrier we see all the time: we sent an email the night before encouraging behaviour the next day, and so they simply forgot to do it. This is the intention-action gap, where even if people had intended to start a conversation when they read the email, we didn’t help them to convert this intention into an actual conversation. To serve as a reminder, a colleague suggested that we create a small token that people can give to the stranger at the conclusion of their conversation. We could even include a prompt to ‘pay it forward’ so the token gets used as a prompt for further conversation between strangers. 

Others reported that they tried to do it but couldn’t work up the courage. Some felt that their commute was downtime before a day talking to work acquaintances and clients, and that speaking to others would intrude on this valuable rest. Still others said that no amount of nudging would encourage them to speak to someone – it’s always valuable to recall that nudging is typically useful on the margins, and that our ambition should match our interventions. 

What worked well? Some colleagues took a methodical approach: “during the walking part of my commute, I made an effort to make eye contact and say good morning to anyone who returned said eye contact. Twelve people in total returned eye contact. Three said hello back”. 

Perhaps cyclists have an easier ride? Pulling up alongside a fellow pedalling commuter at a red light leaves the perfect amount of time for a quick compliment about their bike and an equally convivial response before the interaction is naturally terminated. Here’s a glimpse of the interaction one of our cycling colleagues had: I said good morning to other cyclists at the traffic light when he looked around and caught their eye, two said good morning back – everyone looked surprised and smiled”. 

Two of us reported successful interactions with people who were holding giant balloons, so we’re now thinking that heavy investment in balloon-based interventions is the way forward. Not all conversations that happened went to plan: one colleague struck up a conversation by a train bathroom and accidentally implied that their hygiene practices may be sub par. 

Does this signal an end to our efforts? Some colleagues probably hope so, and our legal team may tell us that we are no longer acting in the “legitimate interests” of staff who just want to get in and out of the office in peace. But we are undeterred, and we have some more ideas up our sleeves for Behavioural Exchange 2019

Our experiment reminds us that behaviour change is hard, and asking people to break prevailing social norms is always going to be difficult. Changing our built environment to make connections easier, ensuring that services work well to help people who need more social contact, and improving the ease and impact of volunteering opportunities don’t require as big a psychological shift as getting city-dwellers to have a chat in a quiet train carriage.