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Olsaitha Ros Something that I really loved about the way that I grew up is we had a family business. It was a donut shop, like all other Cambodians out there. I was there from probably when I was eight years old, up until I was about 26. You know, even when I moved to the city, I would go back and help out at the shop.
But there was always that kind of connection with us and the clients and, you know, all the customers that would come in, you knew them by name, you knew their grandkids, you knew their favorite donut, their favorite color, their birthday. You know, they’d come in on holidays and buy boxes and boxes of dozens of donuts to give off to their family.
And so it’s like, it was really like that connection that I fostered from those clients. And that’s something that’s really been difficult during this time, because it’s hard to connect with your normal clients and normal people because everybody’s completely masked.
Dacher Keltner Conversations with strangers. Aren’t quite what they used to be. These days, we’re staying at home as much as possible. And when we do step out wearing a mask and social distancing, that can really change the feel of our interactions.
I’m Dacher Keltner. And this is the Science of Happiness. Our guest today is Olsaitha Ros. He’s a makeup artist who covers weddings and beauty events around the world. Now during COVID, he works closer to his home in San Francisco. And when he does see customers or most anyone for that matter, it’s six feet apart. When we asked Olsaitha to try a practice, to bring him a bit more joy, he chose one to help him connect more with people during the pandemic.
Later in the show, we’re here about why small talk with strangers can actually make a big difference in our lives.
Olsaitha, thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
Olsaitha Ros Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner I was thinking about the personal dynamics of your work. What would you say about the intimacy of being a makeup artist?
Olsaitha Ros There is definitely a whole nother level of trust that you have with, you know, your hairstylist. Also the, proximity of you and the client, like you’re like centimeters apart, basically, you know, and yeah. I mean, how often do you let somebody put something in your eye? Like, it’s just putting an eye pencil on somebody and putting mascara on like you’re literally right on top of their pupils.
And also being in such close proximity, you really get to know so much more about the client and they trust you so much more. The person who shared, tends to kind of divulge a lot of secrets that they would not normally tell a normal person.
Dacher Keltner What’s it like for you now? You’re not having this unique form of connection or intimacy with people what’s, COVID been like for you.
Olsaitha Ros You can’t foster the same connection because you don’t have the ability to register whether or not it’s pleasing or it’s, you know, something that’s funny or not funny.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. No, I feel that out in public with a mask on it’s like we’re missing the smile.
Olsaitha Ros The smile is like a reaffirmation of, okay, this is a good connection, you know? Whereas like you can look at somebody and see them and like you see them, but you don’t, you don’t really feel them, I guess.
Dacher Keltner Without being able to read the smile, we lose a sense of another person’s joy, their intentions to be kind, and that can really make small talk really challenging. Can you walk us through the steps of the practice?
Olsaitha Ros Yeah. So, um, the first step would be to ask questions related to the immediate context. So basically like if you’re at a grocery store, you know, Oh, what are you shopping for? If you’re at the bank is like, you know, how much money do you have in the bank? I don’t know if that’s a great question.
What’s your checking account number. Yes. No something fun like that, or I don’t know, but it just depends on where you are. Like, you know, you’re not going to ask somebody, Hey, what car do you drive when you’re like, you know, at a bus stop? I don’t know, you know, things like that, like be sensible. And then, you would have to have some questions that would basically kind of help to make conversation more fluid.
So, you know, what’s your favorite type of cheese? I don’t know, you know, random questions that I think really kind of keep it less, keep it more open-ended and less a yes or no. I really want to kind of keep the conversation going, so.
Dacher Keltner So now I’ve told you what my favorite cheese is, what happens next?
Olsaitha Ros So have you ever tried that with, you know, prosciutto or something like that? So keep kind of light with your conversation, but also keep thinking about what you’re asking next and listen carefully to what they’re saying so that you can take the cues from that.
Dacher Keltner There are certain social scientists who feel that the fabric of our society is built upon, you know, just everyday exchanges and questions and, and your example gives us such a rich sense of that. So I know that the small talk practice has you ask them questions and maybe talk about current events and, or have go-to questions that you tend to lean on. What were some examples of how you use the small talk practice?
Olsaitha Ros I was at Walgreens waiting to pay for something. There was a couple in front of me. They were adorable. They had on these masks that were basically cut outs of like Donald Trump’s face in the most peculiar kind of like facial expressions. And I asked the woman, I was like, where did you get your mask? And she, you know, she told me she got an Amazon and then she like leans over to kiss her husband.
And she has this like pouty face, Donald Trump mask on. And we I’m just laughing so hard and she started laughing so hard and we were just talking and I was like, so what are you guys doing here? You know, they were visiting from out of town and then, you know, they have to pay for their things. They were next up in line and they left.
But like, that was like the richest deepest, guttural laugh that I’d had since, you know, February or something. It was just so random and so perfect.
Dacher Keltner Awesome.
Olsaitha Ros Yeah.
Dacher Keltner From serving donuts to doing makeup to the small talk exercise, like if you had somebody come to you and say, Like man, I, you know, I’ve been told, I need to ask better questions just to form connections. What would you say?
Olsaitha Ros Well, definitely like, you know, will be in the moment and be aware of like, you know, your surroundings and definitely be aware of your audience, you know, if she is, or he is, you know, in line somewhere where it’s like a public setting and you’re like, “Oh, what brings you here?” You know, or how are you doing?
I mean, even this, how are you doing question? Which is something we as a society really don’t do anymore. I mean, how often do you say hi to your neighbors nowadays in urban settings? I mean, yeah. I feel like, I don’t know, half of my neighbors.
It’s so hard. I feel like in most neighborhoods in San Francisco, if you have the stroller or a dog, it’s so easy, everybody wants to talk to you.
Yeah. But if you’re a fabulous gay man with sunglasses on, it just doesn’t, it’s like wearing a mask or something.
Dacher Keltner And you know, there were periods or I lived in the Midwest where, little bit more deep community there, and there’s just more small talk, you know, and it’s funny. Sometimes it would agitate me because it felt like, Oh, this isn’t quick enough or efficient enough, but I also miss it.
Olsaitha Ros Truly. I mean, I feel like if, if we would just practice this with people from other places, it would give us so much more perspective of, of what they’re thinking. There would be less of a divide politically. I feel if we were able to engage in small talk with people from different backgrounds.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. Just seeing people, you know, and asking them questions and little everyday pleasantries is so vital to our sense of home in a way. One of my favorite studies on this is by Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder. And it’s cool because they, they had people do this small talk exercise, you know, they’re on a commuter train, you’re randomly assigned to ask a stranger questions or not, or sit quietly. And they find that, you know, when you do this small talk, you feel more energized. You’re more excited about going to work. So it had a lot of positive benefits and you’ve talked about even richer experiences like the chills, which is, and I loved your phrasing, the guttural laugh. What did it make you feel to do this small talk practice?
Dacher Keltner Really, I felt gratitude from people who were able to speak and have been listened to.
I felt elated, joyful giddy, almost like when, when you have such a good laugh in such an unexpected place. I feel like it just kind of, it’s very freeing. And yeah, you know, there was definitely a lot of energy afterward, cause you kind of want to foster the next connection and find the same, you know, kind of energy somewhere else.
You know, with all that’s going on and, you know, with the mask being over you, I felt like, you know, stifled and in those moments I felt so free. Like so alive again.
Dacher Keltner Do you feel like how you were listening to their answers changed since it was so much more important to rely on the spoken word?
Olsaitha Ros It really helped to kind of give a deeper connection to a lot of different people that I normally wouldn’t really relate to or get to know like people who in line I had to actually really ask them a question that really would help penetrate. that outer protective shell, that mask of sorts that we wear for society. So yeah, I had to really get to know the person more.
Dacher Keltner I mean, one of the things we’re all grappling with right now, you know, is what has COVID taken away from us and our former guests Vivek Murthy called it a social recession, like just the eye to eye contact.
And the exchange of smiles is gone, which is one of the cherish resources. So I hear you.
Olsaitha Ros It’s easier to kind of make a deeper connection with a smile, but when you’re not able to smile, it’s nice to really probe and ask the right questions.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. So from all the work you’ve done, like give us your favorite questions that you ask people. What would be the top three?
Olsaitha Ros Top three?
Dacher Keltner Yeah you’ve told us, like, I really liked it, like be sensitive to the context, take into consideration who the person is. That’s really wonderful, but what are just some of your tried and true questions?
Olsaitha Ros How are you doing? Where are you from and what can I help you with?
You know, and, and in terms of like, you know, everyday life too, like, even if you’re in a grocery store and you’re like, Hey, can I help you with anything? Like, you seem like you’re struggling. Like I see that there’s like melons falling all out of your cart and you know, like your hands are full. Can I help you? That really makes a big difference, you know, especially for the person who didn’t know that they could ask for help.
Dacher Keltner Hmm. Well put. So, final takeaways from the practice or just this little return to small talk during a time of COVID?
Olsaitha Ros I think it’s a wonderful practice. It’s something that we should definitely utilize to, to feel less alone, you know, to foster that sense of community and to realize that there are people out there who you may not know that could still bring you like joy, just in a laugh or, you know, in a polite word or nice gesture of some sort, you know, people are going through the same things that you are going through, so.
Thank you, Osaitha, thanks for being on our show.
Olsaitha Ros Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.
Dacher Keltner We know that chatting with a stranger for even 10 minutes has been linked to feeling more joy.
Sonja Lyubomirsky And so we wanted to see if we could actually develop an intervention that would be longer lasting to see if people could act more extroverted, sort of in their day lives.
Dacher Keltner More on the science up next.
Sonja Lyubomirsky There’s a strong correlation between extroverted behaviors like small talk and feeling more positive emotions. Just because there’s a correlation doesn’t mean that actually extroverted leads people to be happier. So we were interested in manipulating extroversion, getting people, inducing people to act more extroverted.
Dacher Keltner Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. Her team had college students act more extroverted than they normally would for one week straight, then act more introverted for the other week. Or vice versa.
Sonja Lyubomirsky So for the extroversion week, we asked our participants to act more talkative, assertive, and spontaneous.
And for the introversion week, we asked our participants to act in a more sort of deliberate, quiet and reserved manner.
Dacher Keltner Then they had to come up with five different ways to act more extroverted or introverted.
Sonja Lyubomirsky So for example, they would have to write down like, you know, next time I’m in a lunch with a group of friends, you know, I’m going to speak up, you know, or I’m going to be quieter than usual.
Dacher Keltner They measured the students’ happiness levels before, during and after the study and found people felt better after acting more extroverted than they usually would for one week.
Sonja Lyubomirsky Participants reported more flow. The sort of the sense of enjoyment engagement, and especially a sense of connectedness, a sense of connection with others, which makes sense, because when you’re acting extroverted, you are usually interacting with other people.
Dacher Keltner But when participants acted more introverted than usual, they reported feeling less positive, less connected, and less of a sense of float.
Sonja Lyubomirsky We did not expect that extroversion would be sort of so beneficial and interventional would actually be not beneficial and maybe even a little bit harmful.
Dacher Keltner And it didn’t matter whether they were introverts or extroverts to begin with to enjoy these benefits of small talk.
Sonja Lyubomirsky And so connection really, I think is. Maybe the key to happiness, you know, I think it’s what makes life worth living. And so anything we can do to connect to others will increase our sort of sense of like we’re all in it together. And so I think that’s why acting more extroverted, you know, increased happiness in our studies.
Dacher Keltner Sonja thinks that even simple interactions can awaken these deep evolutionary instincts to connect and find pleasure in it because it’s a key to our survival as a species,
Sonja Lyubomirsky Even with a stranger, there’s always a potential, right? The stranger could be a friend. This venture could be an ally. This stranger could help me in my time of need. The stranger could be a potential mate. And we associate that with positive things. So I guess social attraction just have so many different functions that they’re inherent really rewarding.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the science of happiness. You can try this small talk practice by visiting our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good science center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manila, of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. We’ve got a new book out on the science of gratitude, featuring many of our past guests. Like comedian W. Kamau, bell and psychologist. Sara Algoe. Learn more at greatergood.berkeley.edu/gratitudeproject.