Why do people share their deepest, darkest secrets with total strangers?
"Lesbians are all sinners," my female Lyft Nancy driver announces through the rearview mirror, her lips smacking with the sort of definitive confidence of someone who thinks they've got it all figured it out. "I used to have those feelings, but, yeah, I learned to tune them out. It's the same sin as adultery, you know. Straight to hell."
Obvious bigoted commentary from Nancy's end of the car aside, I did not ask for this conversation. As the only passenger in the back of her Nissan Something, I was hoping for a silent, air freshener-scented, 14-minute ride into Hollywood from my house. I was not expecting to play the role of backseat psychologist, I was not prepared to waste energy defending the queer community to which I belong to someone like that, and I was definitely not interested in being my driver's unwitting opinion dump.
This happens to all of us, all the time. Some total stranger feels compelled to word-vomit their life story onto you, trapping you in an unsolicited and uncomfortable conversation that you can't easily escape. It's the worst on public transportation when we're sandwiched between other people for long periods of time, or in vehicles we can't just walk out of (although sometimes, walking out of a plane seems more tempting a fate than listening to Terri in 10B tell you about her niece's graduation for the 14th time).
Why do people do this? What could possibly motivate someone to spill their deepest, darkest secrets — and their blandest, most insignificant familial minutia — to a person they'll never see again? It's an important question, given that doing this is not only awkward and inconvenient for the begrudging listener; but because sometimes, what people say is hurtful, offensive or just straight-up wrong.
This question has fascinated researchers for some time.
Studies by Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small have found that the tendency to confide in strangers is much more prevalent than we realize. Half his survey respondents said that the person they'd most recently confided in wasn't a close friend, partner or relative, but instead, a total rando. Bartenders, hairdressers, or — you guessed it — fellow airplane passengers.
Small found that this is partially because of the sheer availability of someone who will listen (or is just too afraid to tell the other person to shut up). Often times, with close relationships, people don't get the opportunity to talk about themselves, lest they be branded as "selfish" or "conceited." A stranger, on the other hand, has no frame of reference for how often someone talks about themselves. That gives some people the false illusion that a non-intimate conversational sponge will be more receptive to hearing them blab on about me, me, me. And their communication is indiscriminate — you just happen to be in the line of fire during a time when they really needed to re-tell the story about how they scored the winning touchdown in high school but even that didn't make their papa love them.
The other side of the story, though, is that people seek out non-intimate human contact for the exact reason that it's non-intimate. Makes sense — it's not like you're going to tell your partner you've been having hot, spiritually connected sex with their dentist. You might not want your family members to judge you about the job drama and money problems you have. A stranger knows none of the people you do, and you don't care what they think of you because you'll never see them again — you just want to get some shit off your chest and they happen to be the closest shit receptacle.
To top off that ice cream sundae of irritation, Small also found people enjoy subtly engaging in what's called "downward social comparison," which is the gross practice of making ourselves feel better with the thought that we're doing better than others (that explains Terri's stupid Terri bragging).
However, the tendency to over-share with people who couldn't care less about you also stems from much broader places than a person's individual desire to be heard. There's actually a societal-level benefit from over-sharing, something that's evidenced by a sociological theory called the "strength of weak ties." That term comes from a paper by sociologist Mark Granovetter which elucidates how the benefits we get from belonging to social networks actually comes from our weakest bonds, not our strongest ones. For example: people looking for a job find more job listings through weaker social ties — weaker ties means more resources, and more resources means more mobility.
Scott Schultz, who runs a public transportation-themed live storytelling show in Los Angeles called BUSted says he sees instances of awkward over-sharing all the time, particularly when he's taking long bus rides. Sometimes people's desire to chat up strangers works out, he says (like when one of his storytellers recounted a time where she saved a woman from homelessness just by striking up a conversation with her at a bus stop). Other times, though, it's not so pretty.
"I've had people tell me, out of nowhere, that they've been putting all types of bodily fluids into the food at the McDonald's where they work," he tells me. "I don't need to know that stuff."
He, like me, has also experienced the gamut of people's political, spiritual and personal beliefs being thrust upon him by people in transit. He's more open to this sort of conversation than most people are (I mean, he runs a bus-themed storytelling show), but he's still had many experiences where he felt the information being shared with him went way beyond what he wanted, or needed, to know.
Schult'z theory is that, on public transportation in particular (but also in bars and hair salons), the great diversity of mankind gets funneled down into an atomized space where people of all races, genders, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds are forced to clash. That can lead to some very memorable reactions, he says, referencing one time a woman who was huffing nitrous locked eyes with him as she inhaled gas from a balloon while singing a little song about how he was her soul mate.
Then there's the fact that people have become accustomed to communicating through their phones. We speak a certain way over email, text and social media that we don't when we're in person with someone. And so, when there's an opportunity to partake in the actual sort of revealing, rewarding, me-focused conversation, we relish in the opportunity. We become giddy with the delight of speaking to each other how people have been speaking to each other since the dawn of man — face-to-face and unhurriedly because talking was the main form of entertainment for every person born before about 1900.
"It's kind of like sound-boarding," says Schutlz. "It's less about having an actually conversation, and more about just seeing your response because when people tell stories, they become real." Why do we need a response? Because an objective person's interpretation of ourselves helps us wade through our own identity to figure out what other people think of us, and therefore, what think of ourselves.
Lastly, there's something to be said for people who are chatty.
"There are people that are just social," Schultz says. "That's why my show is popular. Without people breaking the barriers of social awkwardness to talk to strangers, no one would have a story to tell."
And I guess that's where my own story ends — with me telling you about a time someone else told me their story. I've already talked your ear off, though. I'll just show myself off this airplane and let you listen to your Bon Jovi album in peace.