Why we Like to Tell our Life to a Perfect Stranger

We usually reserve the most intimate confessions for our closest circle, but it is not entirely strange to choose a perfect stranger for personal confidences.

One of the things that the confinement and all the months of social distancing took away was the interactions with strangers. Those small exchanges, which are more important than it seems , although they are usually limited to something strictly pragmatic (with the person who attends you in the supermarket, for example) or simple exchanges about the time in the elevator. However, sometimes we also find ourselves telling very personal details of our lives to a complete stranger. Perhaps someone we just met on a trip and with whom we end up talking about our deepest fears. Or maybe a girl who becomes our best friend during the five minutes we share in the bathroom of a cocktail bar late at night.

We tend to think that the usual thing is to reserve confidences for people who are very close and with whom we have a lot of trust, but both our own experience and some studies show that this is not the case. According to the results of a survey published in 2013, 45% of the circle with which we discuss issues that we consider important is made up of people who are not close to us . Sometimes, they are professionals such as doctors or psychologists or people who we consider to be knowledgeable about the subject at hand. At other times, they become confidants just by being present at that moment when we need to share something. But there are also times when precisely being a stranger makes it what we need.

“A stranger sees us as we are, free from idealizations and self-deception, and that is something very liberating to relate to and be able to express ourselves,” explains psychologist Fatima Servian Blanco, from the Renacer Psychology Center . For the expert, strangers sometimes become confidants because, not knowing what we are like, not having a preconceived idea of us, we feel that they will not judge us. “There is no final advice, that want or believe that the person is a certain way,” she says.

The psychologist Aintzane Goikoetxea breaks down the different reasons that lead us to this situation. First of all, being a stranger, we have little to lose if he does not listen to us or is not as empathic as we want. In addition, by not knowing us and not having a prior idea of what we are like, perhaps they can give us more objective feedback . Finally, it is a way to let off steam without having to take on any more responsibility. “When you talk about it with someone you trust, they may bring it up again, get more involved than you need, or pressure you to take this or that step that you are not prepared for. A stranger is not going to demand that of you, because you will probably not see him again, ”explains Goikoetxea.

Personal & Social Effects

The latter is also what a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded . In particular, the authors focused on conversations in which we reveal insecurities, and sought to answer the question of why we prefer to discuss this topic with a stranger rather than with a friend. His conclusion tested his hypothesis: With friends, we anticipate reminders of that conversation, bringing it up again, which can be painful. Someone we will never see again is a safer confidant. It happens even in imaginary conversations: When study participants were asked to imagine telling insecurities to a friend and a stranger, they gave the latter more details.

Goikoetxea also points out that we can feel safer with strangers because “the fact of not seeing him again also gives you a feeling that your privacy is protected, that what you have told him is not going to spread around like a rumour, because the stranger and you have no people in common”.

Intimacy Bubbles

Confidences to strangers are not always born from the desire to vent about something: it may be the simple spatial context, the place and the situation in which we find ourselves, which fosters a feeling of intimacy. If, for example, we find ourselves discussing our most intimate concerns with the person sitting next to us during a flight, this may be because sharing a rather small physical space for a time causes us to experience “a sense of intimacy as consequence of physical proximity”, indicates Marta Santarén, Professor of the Psychology Degree at the International University of La Rioja (UNIR). “We usually share our personal space with the people closest to us and these types of situations can trigger this feeling of false intimacy,” she notes. On the other hand, she adds she,principle of reciprocity , that is, our interlocutor begins to reveal his personal ins and outs and we are forced to reciprocate that false sense of trust”.

Of course, not everyone ends up telling strangers about their life as soon as they find themselves in a favorable situation. “Personality traits such as extroversion and their social identity can make this profile relax in a situation of anonymity, at least occasionally,” says Santaren, who gives as an example the confessions that can take place at a bar counter. “Anonymity can provide us with a very inspiring context for the reconstruction of the experience we are revealing and, therefore, of ourselves,” he adds.

Yet whenever we share something very personal with both strangers and our circle of trust, we seek the same thing: social support. “Empathy, unity and social awareness are registered as necessary maxims for the physical and psychological health of the individual,” says Santaren, who refers to the distinction made by the author Paula Augustina Caccia between confidential social support and affective social support. “The first refers to the importance for an individual of being able to count on people to whom they can entrust conflicts, problematic situations or issues that require understanding and help. Affective support refers to the support that a person can find through communication with another, satisfying emotional needs, feeling valued, accepted and loved by others”, she explains.

Does all this mean that it is somehow preferable to tell certain things only to strangers? No way. The psychologist Aintzane Goikoetxea points out that “it is always more gratifying to talk about yourself with someone you love than with a stranger”, since that is how relationships are strengthened. “Showing your privacy is a risk, of course. It implies the possibility that the other does not like what you tell him or even that he rejects you, but it also opens the possibility of building a stronger and more solid affection, based on respect for everything that you are. Hiding parts of yourself with the people you love is usually more harmful than beneficial, it usually generates anxiety symptoms, because when you hide parts of yourself you are not treating yourself with dignity, ”she concludes.

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