Head of Content at Mecomi, Lauren Comiteau is a journalist and columnist who has covered the Netherlands for TIME magazine, CBS Radio, CBC, BBC, The Chicago Tribune and others since 1996, when she made the move from New Amsterdam to Old. A former deputy editor of Time Out Amsterdam, she lives with her two daughters and dog Lucy, who often become fodder for her columns. You can follow her on Twitter @LaurenComiteau
04/19/2021 Lauren Comiteau
The Bartender Effect
A friend of mine was working at a hotline helping people improve their English. They would dial in for casual conversation, and she would talk alternatively about the weather and weddings, gently correcting and coaxing the English out of these would-be speakers.
But there was one repeat caller who consistently asked for my friend. And once connected, she would talk about her recent divorce—her heartache, loneliness and sadness. Her English was pretty damn good. But she needed someone to talk to, an anonymous shoulder to cry on.
I think of it as The Bartender Effect.
It may seem like a cliched movie scene, the broken-hearted office worker crying into her glass of Chardonnay as she bares her soul to the man behind the bar, but many researchers are finding there’s comfort in anonymity.
Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small, author of 2017’s Someone to Talk To, found that while people say they confide to those nearest and dearest about their most personal matters, they often open up to everyone from the hairdresser to the person sitting next to them in the waiting room when sharing secrets. Small chalks it up to people sometimes shunning complex personal relationships with high expectations, saying our need for understanding or empathy trumps the fear of misplaced trust.
A 2019 BBC study found that talking to strangers led, against people’s expectations, to a happier commute.
“Humans are inherently social animals, who are made happier and healthier when connected to others,” wrote behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder on BBC News regarding the benefits of talking to strangers. “Feeling isolated and lonely, in contrast, is a stress factor that poses a health risk comparable to smoking and obesity. Having positive social relationships has been put forward as a key ingredient for happiness, more significant even than how much we earn.”
Clearly, they’re onto something. It’s not an accident that bookstores and coffee bars have become places where people can linger and work, sitting at today’s equivalent of King Arthur’s round table—alone but together. (Actually, research has shown that even talking with your barista can improve your mood.)
I sure do miss my bartender at the local pub, which remains closed for the foreseeable future. But in these coronavirus times when human interactions often take place behind masks and plexiglass, I find it comforting to talk to fellow dog walkers or to Bobek, who sells me chicken in the market and was the first to hear about my new job.
For others, it will be the anonymous ear at the end of a phone line or someone they seek online. Whoever it is, research shows we should continue to reach out and connect for our health. No liquid courage needed.