Basic Tips For Conversing With Strangers
In high school I was shy and reserved until I started waiting tables. Nowadays I can strike up a conversation under a large variety of circumstances, and I believe that this ability, with the right approach, can be developed by many.
Interacting with strangers comes more easily to certain individuals because of personality preferences, work duties, and even family dynamics. In other words, if your parents and older brother can chat easily with strangers, it is more likely you are able to. Moreover, even the most skilled person in this arena will occasionally encounter roadblocks.
One way to enhance your ability to strike up a conversation with a stranger is to put yourself in situations where you need to or at least can do so. This may involve joining a book club, riding on public transportation, or even getting a volunteer job, such as a receptionist in a hospital gift shop, where you are required to regularly interact with strangers.
Opening phrases such as “Hello. How are you?” and “Are you enjoying today’s weather?” have their place, yet I suggest moving beyond these opening questions in favor of asking more personalized inquiries. If properly applied, these techniques can turn conversing with strangers from a chore into an edifying experience.
The first way to do this is to ask questions which can be answered with a number. Possible questions include, “How long have you lived in Arkansas?” or “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” or even "How old are you?" Asking for this kind of information can lead to additional questions or even into a full-blown story. For example, if the man you are chatting with shares that he has lived in Arkansas for only six months, you have the option to next inquire where he was raised or where he lived immediately before moving to Arkansas. Furthermore, if a woman tells you that she has six older sisters, there are other obvious questions you can ask to help continue your discussion. What you ask will depend partly on who you are and what interests you. This means that while I may want to immediately know how much older her oldest sister is, you might be more interested in finding out if she was forced to wear her older sister’s clothing and never had new clothing of her own.
Questions can also be generated by looking at this person’s appearance and clothing to see if there are any related inquiries to make. This doesn’t mean you ask an overweight individual if they like to eat at McDonald's, of course; it does mean, however, that you can ask if the man wearing the Chicago Bulls baseball cap if he is a Chicago Bulls fan. Visible tattoos can be asked about as well. I’ve learned that most people are happy to explain the story behind their tattoos, and, in my experience, there is usually a story of some sort.
One example (not the best) of interacting with a stranger
Unless you have reason to believe otherwise—such as if you are at a Democratic convention or at a special church service—it is often best to avoid the thorny subjects of religion and politics. Furthermore, try to avoid discussing what everyone does for a living because this so often forces the conversation into a corner and ignores who people are outside of their jobs.
Another way to start chatting with a stranger is by offering a compliment. This can mean anything from telling a woman that she has a beautiful baby to telling a fellow hiker that you like their backpack or hiking poles. Sincere compliments is one way to grease the wheels, so to speak, to lead into additional topics. Overdone, inappropriate, and insincere compliments, in contrast, can make the person you are complimenting uncomfortable and shut down any possibility of additional interaction.
Questions which require a number answer
Which of these questions would you most like to be asked?
Another way to open up a conversation with a stranger is by mentioning the last movie you saw and/or book you read. The simple comment and question combo, “I just read Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Have you ever read this?” may open into a much larger discussion if the person you asked has also read this book. As a bibliophile, I’ve had numerous experiences discussing books with strangers, and, if you stumble upon someone who is equally excited about books, you could be in for a long, animated discussion. Or, in case they respond with, "I'm not much of a reader," this is an opportunity to delve into other topics or ask this person about his or her favorite hobbies.
Other conversation options include opening questions such as “What brings you to this event?” or “How long have you been a member of this book club?” While certain individuals will find such inquiries rude, in my experience most people are willing and often pleased to answer any questions. Also, if you are attending a Star Trek convention for the first time, asking others which Star Trek series is their favorite may help you find like-minded individuals you will want to stay in touch with after the convention.
May you live long and prosper and make new friends in the process
Part of learning how to talk to strangers is learning when to be silent. If a person is clearly annoyed or offended with your comments and questions, it is wise to stop speaking to them unless you must continue interacting with them. Also, a person wearing ear buds probably doesn’t want to be bothered with your inquiries. A man diligently reading a newspaper may likewise want to be left alone.
Learning to listen attentively is a must if you want to improve your interactions with strangers. Especially in our ultra-distracted modern existence, finding someone, even a stranger, who listens closely is a priceless gift. And, since everyone has a story to tell, you will likely benefit from listening to them.