4 Health Benefits of Socializing with ‘Strangers’

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My boyfriend recently requested I have dinner with an ex-colleague of his. He and his wife had invited us for dinner at their house. Saturday night. My immediate reaction? I pushed back on the request. “Why do you want to have dinner with people you barely know?” “There’s so little time and you want to give up a whole Saturday night?” “Aren’t they much younger than us?” I pulled plausible excuses out like a magician’s endless color changing handkerchief trick. Alas, to no avail. My BF pulled the coup de grace trick of them all. “This is one of those times – where I really want to go do something and really want you to go with me.” Plans set. What to wear?

Saturday night arrived and we were knocking on their door, wine bottle in hand, appropriately ten minutes late. No one ever really wants you to show up for dinner exactly on time.

Here’s where I admit my miscalculation.

I had a wonderful evening. The four of us found many subjects to chat about. Their craft Negroni cocktails were perfectly mixed. Ken (yes, the name is made up) is an amazing chef and he spared no effort in preparing a meal that many highly regarded restaurants would be pleased to offer. A delicious triple-cut pork chop, covered in some complex and nuanced rub, prepared Sous-vide. For those of us who had no idea what sous-vide is, and I was one of them, it’s a method of cooking in which food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic pouch or a glass jar and then placed in a water bath or steam environment for longer than normal cooking times. Carrots and kale, each with their own unique preparation, and farro interspersed with hickory smoked flavored bacon, accompanied the protein. The Montepulciano paired divinely.

Before this blog post turns me into a Gael-Greene-food-critic, let me get back to my ‘miscalculation’. I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed the evening. So much so that I decided there must be actual health benefits to interacting with people you don’t know very well. At 53 I have a defined set of people I call ‘friends.’ I barely have time for them, and until this weekend saw no reason to expand my social network.

At the risk of being accused of confirmation bias, I’ll just admit to it now. I went looking for positive health benefits. Here are just four, of the many I uncovered:

  1. “When you interact with people you don’t know who aren’t like you, you get the chance to break out of your comfort zone and change your view of reality altogether. This can spark creative ideas, give you new ideas to think about, and plenty more.” We don’t know what we don’t know; interacting with individuals who don’t share years of common experiences or maybe our own world views can be eye-opening, educational, and expansive.
  2. Comfort can really decrease your productivity – without a little bit of unease and unpredictability we can get lazy, turn our minds to auto pilot, and ‘phone it in.’ Spending time with individuals that you don’t know very well keeps your mind alert and active.
  3. Being nice to others is good for you. You can’t be cranky with people you don’t know very well so of course you’re going to put your best-self forward in a social setting. Studies in The Journal of Social Psychology and the Journal of Happiness Studies suggest that giving to others makes us happy, even happier than spending on ourselves. What’s more, our kindness might create a virtuous cycle that promotes lasting happiness and altruism.
  4. You can meet really interesting, cool people that quickly turn into ‘non-strangers’. For me this one hits particularly close to home. I have a long line of life-time friends that started off as, not only strangers, but people I didn’t like too well or didn’t like me.  I know this about myself; one of the many benefits of aging is deciding to do things differently.

Now, realistically, I won’t be rushing out to meet and greet strangers everyday. But, there’s a higher likelihood that the next request to socialize outside my core friendship group won’t have me practicing a vanishing act.

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