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Be WEIRD, Say “Hi”. It’s good for you.

by Richard Pooley



Photo: Keira Burton on Pexels

 

When I first read the headline on the news website, my immediate reaction was “Don’t tell me the bleeding obvious!”. I can’t recall the exact wording but it was something like “Greeting, thanking and conversing is good for you”. It was only when I read the article beneath that I realised that the headline writer had missed a key point of the research the journalist was reporting on. It’s long been shown that if you regularly conduct warm, friendly conversations with people you know well it doesn’t just make them happier. It makes you feel good too. But this new research, conducted by academics in Turkey and the UK* and published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows that even everyday, minimal social interactions can  make you a lot happier with life. Saying “Good Morning” to someone you often see on your journey to work, thanking the driver when you get off the bus, saying a few words to the person at the supermarket till will lift you (and, probably, them).


I have gone out of my way to hold conversations with strangers for most of my adult life. It was a conscious attempt to overcome my crippling childhood shyness. I soon learned that it made me feel better and more confident. Only later did I realise that such chats, especially if I was listening more than talking, often made my interlocutor happier too. I have never forgotten the remark a British client made to me one day. He admitted that I had persuaded him to buy my company’s services not by the brilliance of my pitch but because we had spent most of our first meeting having a chat about his years in his company’s head office in the USA from where he had just returned. “You were the first person to show genuine interest.”


My family cringe when I ask our waiter in a restaurant how long they have worked there. They cringe even more if I ask where he or she is from. Yet never has any waiter seemed put out. Quite the opposite. Their stories are almost always interesting and they clearly enjoy telling them.


Yet this Turkish research is saying that you don’t need to converse at length with strangers or acquaintances (what the researchers call “weak ties”) to feel better. Just a simple “Hi” or “Thanks” will do. Over the last few weeks I have been making an effort to conduct such minimal interactions with strangers in the UK. I took a bus to and from our local hospital and thanked the driver each time I got off (and heard others do the same). I have greeted and thanked my way into and out of shops. I have made a point of greeting people on my daily walk rather than just smile or nod. In the countryside, I often get a greeting in return. In town, the reactions have ranged from a scowl to a startled response (reminding me of the reactions to Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee’s “G’day” to one and all on the streets of New York in the 1986 film). Just today, I guided a woman who was backing her car out of a driveway on a blind corner. How have I felt? Better, yes. Also, as a cross-cultural trainer for much of my working life, pleased. Because that article missed the most important finding of the research: that this improvement in life satisfaction as a result of such simple behaviour was found to be statistically valid in two very different countries – Turkey and the UK.


A representative sample of 3,266 adult Turks from all twelve regions of Turkey were interviewed face-to-face by KONDA, a Turkish polling firm. A far bigger group of 60,141 English-speaking adults, mostly Brits**, were asked to complete an online questionnaire as part of The Kindness Test, a survey done between August and October 2021 by the University of Sussex in collaboration with the BBC. In the abstract of their report Dr Aşçigil and her colleagues say that previous research “relied on Western samples.” But in their study, they “examined…momentary interactions in a large, nationally representative, non-WEIRD sample from Turkey.” And they also “investigated the robustness of this approach” by seeing if they got similar results with a WEIRD sample – those 60,141 anglophones. Their conclusion? Across the two samples, even minimal social interaction leads to greater life satisfaction. A little to my surprise, the Brits, on average, registered more pleasure than the Turks did when having brief interactions with complete strangers.


Not come across WEIRD before? This acronym (or backronym) was coined by Joseph Henrich, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. It stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. I’m WEIRD. So are all those who usually write for Only Connect, bar Dr Jehad Al-Omari. He’s Jordanian and therefore, like those Turks, non-WEIRD. If you want to know more about WEIRD, read Henrich’s 2020 book – The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (and suckers for acronyms and alliteration).


What interests me most about Henrich is that he has pointed out that most published research on psychology and human behaviour is inherently biased, and so not universally applicable, because the participants in such research – researchers as well as those being studied – have up to now mostly been WEIRD people. Hence the importance of this Turkish-British study. As Dr Aşçigil says: “… whether our findings would generalize to other countries remains an open question.” She hopes to conduct more cross-cultural studies to find out.


So, if you are looking for a way to lift your spirits (and who doesn’t right now?), try a little bit of greeting, thanking and conversing.


Go well.



Photo: Fred Moon on Unsplash

 

 

*Minimal Social Interactions and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Greeting, Thanking, and Conversing. Esra Aşçigil and 3 others from Sabanci University, Istanbul, and Gillian Sandstrom, University of Sussex, Brighton. Published online November 17, 2023.

**Anglophones from 144 countries, including many British expatriates, as well as Brits living in the UK.

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