Networking in the air

By Steve Martin for British Airways Business Life magazine

Photography by British Airways

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May 2016

Striking up conversation with strangers on your journey could be good for you and your contacts book, says business author, Steve Martin.

Are you the sort of traveller who prefers to keep yourself to yourself? The sort who welcomes the solitude that an hour or two in an aircraft offers, to catch up on paperwork, read or just be alone with your thoughts without the interruptions that typically blight your busy day?

Or are you a more social traveller? Someone who seeks out connections with others, alert to the possibility of meeting interesting new people who may even turn out to be useful business contacts?

When we feel involved and connected to others, our feelings of wellbeing soar

We humans are the most social of all creatures. When we feel involved and connected to others, our feelings of wellbeing soar. In contrast, when isolated or marginalised, we feel unhappy. So why is it, for a species that so clearly benefits from connecting to others, that most people who find themselves in close proximity to others (like on a flight for instance), appear to value isolation more?

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  • We humans are the most social of all creatures © 123rf
  • Our modern world offers so many opportunities to connect © 123rf
  • Feel more positive about your journey

Several reasons come to mind. We might start talking to a stranger only to find that they are actually quite unpleasant. Worse still, they might think that we are! Or maybe our modern, super-connected world offers so many technology-based opportunities to connect with others that we overlook the existence of the most basic of them. Whatever the reasons for our reluctance to reach out, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder from the Booth School of Business in Chicago suggest there are considerable upsides to connecting with strangers. In one of their studies they approached a random sample of commuters and asked them to start a conversation with someone on their journey to work and find out something interesting about them, and also tell them something about themselves. They also approached a second group of commuters and explicitly asked them to keep themselves to themselves and enjoy the solitude. Everyone the researchers approached was given a survey, which they were asked to complete and send back at the end of their journey.

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From trains to buses and waiting rooms to departure lounges, a common pattern emerged from the completed surveys. Those instructed to proactively make a connection reported having a significantly more positive journey experience than participants in the solitude condition. Conversations on average lasted around 14 minutes, were pleasant and most reported a positive impression of the person they spoke to. Interestingly, these positive connections didn't appear to come at any significant cost to productivity. Whether this is because commuters generally aren't as productive on journeys as they would like to think they are is unclear. What is clear, however, is that none of the people who engaged with a stranger reported feeling that a potentially productive commute was wasted. So next time you’re on board, why not turn to the person next to you and say, "Hello"? There's a good chance you'll feel more positive about your journey and, who knows, in 14 minutes time you might even have a great new business contact.