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Savta was wrong; talk to strangers

The apps on our phones make us efficient and productive, but at what cost do we miss opportunities for human connection throughout the day?
Why the loneliness pandemic needs less focus on social media and more on our everyday behavior. (
Why the loneliness pandemic needs less focus on social media and more on our everyday behavior. (

Imagine one day, getting on your routine daily train early in the morning. The smell of coffee wafts in the air as you make your way into the train and you can barely hear yourself think. All you want is to sit down, grab your phone to get some work done, and maybe catch up on some of your latest Twitter feed. But when you finally get to your seat, you pull out your phone and find that the battery is dead. Urggh…. It will no longer be a resource to pass the next 40 minutes to your next station.

Exasperated by the unsettling news and desperate to find a way to pass the time, you take a look around and see the stranger sitting next to you, proudly peeking at a glowing screen. And then an idea comes to your head. Would speaking with this person, a stranger perhaps, be able to help pass the time on this commute? Would it potentially even make the commute more bearable, perhaps even more pleasurable than using the phone? And would this make him or her uncomfortable? 

Well, that’s what Nicholas Epley wanted to find out when he tested a group of commuters on trains and buses in the city of Chicago. In fact, he conducted the experiment not long after a survey done by the Metro revealed that 84 percent preferred the idea of a “silent” train car — in other words, a commitment among passengers to refrain from conducting phone calls or open conversations. So, he put it to the test and gave instructions to three separate groups: one to keep to themselves, one to go about their normal routine, and the final group to strike up conversations with strangers on the train.

It would seem obvious who would be the happiest at the end. The ones allowed to keep to themselves, of course. Yet, the opposite was found. Those with the third condition, the ones who were prompted to make conversation, regardless of whether they were introverted or extroverted, reported having a more pleasant experience on the commute. In other words, it was nice to spend their time talking to someone they didn’t know.

Other experiments since are seeing similar findings. One study showed that when college students were tasked to find an obscure location without using their phones (and hence incentivized to ask for directions from strangers), they were more likely to say at the end of the experiment that they felt more socially connected than the same population who completed the task having used their phones. Another study had two separate groups, with one group permitted to have their phones and one that was not, sit in a waiting room for 10 minutes. During this waiting period, their behavior was analyzed. The results: almost everyone in the no-phone condition had some kind of conversation with the others in the waiting room, whereas in the phone condition, 30% did not. And more noteworthy: those with the no-phone condition smiled genuinely more than those with the phone condition did… 30% more. Yes. People may just smile significantly more when conditions are set up to have opportunities for real social interaction.

Loneliness Today 

Loneliness is becoming a problem. Some want to believe it is an issue primarily for the older generations. It’s not. On the contrary, often, the younger the generation, the more loneliness they report. And the numbers for each decade have been growing. In 2017, pre-COVID-19, 64% of college students reported feeling very lonely in the past 12 months. And in 2020, 58% of all adults reported feeling lonely

Okay. So we’re a little more lonely nowadays. Is that such a big deal? It’s unpleasant, but ultimately harmless, right? Wrong. Loneliness, especially in its chronic form, is as bad for our health as 15 cigarettes a day. It’s been correlated with heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, suicide. The list goes on, making it more dangerous than obesity.

And just because someone has a lot of friends doesn’t necessarily mean they are impervious to these feelings. At the end of the day, loneliness does not equate to being alone, but to a perception that one’s social needs are not being met. Plenty of people may, on the surface, know plenty of people, but they may lack a sense of closeness or meaningful connection.

The Culprit

When I brought this matter up in a class to a group of gap-year students, the first culprit for this subtle pandemic was SOCIAL MEDIA. It seems obvious that spending our free time scrolling endlessly through the most exciting occasions of other people’s lives can take a toll on our own feelings of social connectedness. And there is indeed some truth to this. Spending more than three hours or more on social media puts a person at greater risk of developing mental health issues. The habit of excessive scrolling is linked to depression. But we also see that, up to a certain amount of time on social media, it really is more a question of how you are using, rather than how much you are using, the platform. Is the primary purpose to communicate to others, build community, and keep on with old friends? Or is it to see what other people are doing that you’re not? Those in the former group, even if a good amount of time is spent on social, may report feeling more socially connected than the average person. It’s all about how we opt to use a given platform. So what else might be going on? 

RavKav and Keeping Social

Those who lived in Israel anytime before 2012 may recall those small punch-cards that were used to get around on public transportation. One would get on the bus and have to either buy a new card from the driver or have him punch a previously purchased card. This was a pretty inefficient system, considering the fact that handing out the card, divvying out change, and punching the card all were done through the driver, the one who was first and foremost supposed to be getting us safely to our destinations. It was a slow process, but nowadays, with the installment of RavKav readers on every bus, the passenger can enter through any of the doors of the bus, choose a scanner, and process his or her bus pass through either a RavKav card or a phone app. Much simpler, right? Looking back at the old system, the idea of keeping a flimsy little card tucked into the crevice of my wallet, periodically checking if there were any numbers that still didn’t have a hole (sometimes, that little slice in the number was unclear if it was a punch or maybe just a wrinkle), gives me the jeebies. What primitivity! Yet, I also recall having an occasional conversation with the driver. It was sporadic and in an era when my Hebrew was still pretty broken, but it did happen and I enjoyed it. Nowadays, I can’t seem to recall when a bus driver and I exchanged more than hello, and even that hardly rings a bell. 

The RavKav is just one example of how technology has allowed us to get rid of the middleman, and has been the trend going as far back as the invention of the ATM. Don’t get me wrong; this is all for good reason. Technology as an alternative to a human providing a service has proven to be more cost-effective, quicker, reliable, and easier in more cases than not. And we prefer that. Self-checkout machines, Alexa, phone GPS, online booking, selfies, and, more recently, ChatGPT are just a few examples of how we have embraced the idea over the past decade that technology reigns supreme in getting the job done. But could it be that this comes with a cost? 

The case I mentioned before, where the students were assigned to find an obscure location; having a phone meant that they were automatically excluding themselves from one social connection. Nothing major, right? Now, let’s say on the same day, instead of going to the gym, they use a great workout phone app instead. And when grocery shopping, they head straight to the self-checkout counter so they don’t have to waste time in line. And instead of asking others waiting which buses have passed, they rely on their app or the electronic screen at the stop. Add up all these missed opportunities for connection throughout the day and into the night; they may just start encountering a more intense sensation, one that was mentioned before: loneliness. And even if it’s minor; if many of us are in the same trap, then few can help us out of it. 

The phenomenon here in Israel 

As a disclaimer, many of these studies and statistics brought in this blog were taken from the US. Yet, here in Israel, it could be argued the situation is different. I mean, as of last year, we were one of the top 10 happiest countries in the world. And much of that attests to our feeling of community. Yet, I would think it’s naïve of us to think that we are impervious to this feeling of solitude. We have more sense of a purpose larger than ourselves as Israelis, I believe. And making time for family and friends does seem more of a virtue here in the land flowing with milk and honey. But we as Israelis also very much embrace the very digital paradise these new times are offering us. And if we aren’t careful, we will become victims just as much as anyone in the world may be at this time. 

So, do I believe we should all throw our smartphone into the Mediterranean? That’s one idea. Should we go back to the old bus payment method? Heck no! But would it hurt if once in a while, we ask for directions from a real human being? Or that here and there, we exit the bus from the front in order to say thanks to the driver who has gotten us to point B? Or that, when we are out with our partner for dinner, we choose not to have our cellphones out and focus instead on the person in front of us? 

These are all minor steps, but they could be just the path to giving us the feeling that we belong and that we enjoy the people around us, even if it takes a little more time. 

The idea and many of the sources in this blog were based on a podcast episode called Mistakenly Seeking Solitude by Dr. Laurie Santos in the Happiness Lab pdocast 

About the Author
Raised in Baltimore and an oleh since 2008, I now work for a yeshiva in the old city. Aside from being a dedicated husband and father, I spend my free time biking throughout Jlem and practicing Capoeira.
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