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How to Start a Conversation

Updated on July 2, 2018
Chuck profile image

I'm a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. I'm interested in aviation and military history.

First Determine if the Other Person Wants to Converse With You

We have all experienced the awkward feeling that occurs when we are with strangers and there is silence. We want to talk or at least break the silence, and we keep hoping that the other person will say something. If that person remains silent and embarrassed, what do we do?

The first thing is to size up the surroundings. If you are on an airplane, in an elevator, sitting in a restaurant or other public place, you have to consider that the other person may not want to engage in conversation.

Easy Ways to Determine if a Person is Not Interested in Conversing With You

A clear indicator that a person does not want to engage is if they are occupied in some solitary pursuit. If they are awake but have their eyes closed or are staring intently up or into space they are probably immersed in their thoughts and don't want to be disturbed.

On an airplane, bus or train, if the person is reading, writing, listening to music, working on a laptop, etc. it is a no brainier – they don't want to be bothered. It should also be noted that leaning toward a person to get a better look at what they are reading, writing, viewing on their laptop is impolite and will upset many people.

Similarly, in an elevator, a line at a store or other places like these, if the person is fiddling with their smartphone, has ear buds and is listening to music, or doing other things that make them appear occupied and not interested in social interaction, don't try to initiate conversation.

Despite being open and in public, things like airplane seats, standing room in an elevator, a line at the checkout counter in a store, etc. can be considered private space and you should not assume that the person next to you wants to converse.

Knowing that the space occupied by the person may be considered private space, you should check their body language to see if the person shows any interest in conversation.

Ways to Determine if the Person Next to You Wants to Converse

On the other hand, the person may be doing nothing. In this case you have to try to determine if they just want to be left alone with their thoughts or if they are like you, feeling uncomfortable and wanting to talk.

If you can't tell from their body language, attempt to start a conversation. Smile. Say hello. Comment on the weather or other thing that the two of you are momentarily sharing in common.

If their face lights up and they look interested, then you can probably start conversing.

However, if they give you a short abrupt answer and then resume staring ahead, they probably want to be left alone.

Private and Public Social Gatherings are a Different Matter

Social gatherings, parties, business functions, networking events, etc. are places where those in attendance share some common interest and come looking to engage with others all of whom share at least one thing in common which gives them a basis for engagement.

Now, if you are at a social function or a business networking function, the assumption is that people have come to meet and talk with other people.

However, just because everyone has come to meet and talk with other people, doesn't mean that they are necessarily comfortable with meeting and talking with strangers.

A good way to break the ice is to walk up and say “hi”. Introduce yourself and ask them what they do for a living or make a pithy comment like, “nice party” or “don't you hate being in a room full of strangers?”. With a little practice you can determine which comments are good ice breakers and which are not.

Another thing to do is to observe other people who appear to mix and start conversations with ease. Learn their techniques and use those that you feel comfortable with.

Be a Good Listener & Let the Other Person Talk

The final thing to remember is that the best conversationalists are good listeners.

If, once you get the conversation going, shut up and let the other person talk while you listen. If you do this, you will be remembered as a master of good conversation.

© 2006 Chuck Nugent


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