How to Talk to Strangers

We’ve all been in a situation which we’re minding our own business, engulfed in our own thoughts (or worries), when someone really intriguing comes along. This person might be wearing an interesting outfit, they might be carrying an amazing book, or they might be hanging out with a really cute dog. How do we make a connection with them without being painfully awkward? Even the most outgoing of us can end up with a foot lodged firmly inside of our mouths. The following is some tips to avoid that unfortunate acrobatic feat.

1. Frequent Areas Conducive to Friendly Chatter
Most of us live far away in both space and time from the great communal bonfires of our ancestors. In fact, many of us journey from lonely one-bedroom apartments, to lonely one-person cubicles with only the human voices on our music playlists to keep us company (and even those are increasingly robotic). The interactions we have in shops are courteous, but usually devoid of any real substance (speaking of robots.) It is therefore a good idea to frequent public spaces, or spaces with an atmosphere conducive to chatter. For students, these places are widely found across campuses in common rooms, foyers, and even hallways. For those of us who don’t attend school (or are too cool for school, perhaps), we might have some luck in coffee houses, hobby stores, parks, or communal areas in libraries. Places where we wait around can also work, such as line-ups and waiting rooms. It is, however, important to respect a person’s space. It would be unkind to follow someone into an alleyway for a conversation (especially while shouting, “But wait, I like your t-shirt!”), likewise to subject a person to soliloquies while they’re using public transportation. They key is not to hold a person captive. There must be an escape route for them, should they want it. Conversations are best when they are mutual.

Parking garages are highly unrecommended places to greet someone.

2. Know Body Language
This tip goes along the same lines as not holding a person captive. We must be aware of our stranger’s body language as well as our own. For instance, we can seem approachable and non-aggressive by keeping our arms and legs uncrossed, by smiling amicably (read: not like Jack Nicholson in The Shining), and by tilting our head slightly to indicate interest. We don’t want to stand too close, touch them, or lick our lips while rapidly raising and lowering our eyebrows (save that sort of behaviour for close friends). Signs to be aware of from our stranger: their arms are crossed, their eyes are darting to the ground or to their phones, they are not smiling or their smile seems forced, they are looking at others around them (possibly for help), or they are giving us a firm and unshakeable middle finger. These are all signs to disengage at once, no matter how neat the person seems.

 And if someone is wearing these, it’s best to leave them be.

3. Offer Compliments
Living in a city, a suburb, or even certain rural areas can lead to a sense of anonymity: everyone is a stranger. We come to feel that it’s advantageous to have our guards up, because there is no way of knowing if someone is friend or foe. It can therefore be beneficial to offer a compliment by way of introduction, in order to disarm someone. The caveat, however, is that the compliment should be genuine. Most people can tell if you don’t really like their purple hair, especially if you immediately follow the compliment with “But why would you do something like that?” Even if the remark is out of genuine curiousity, it usually comes off as an affront to their tastes, rendering them more on their guard than ever. The other caveat is that it is best not to compliment a stranger on their body. People have hang-ups about their bodies. Of course, freckles, scars, and birth marks can be interesting and beautiful, but they may also be something the person is sensitive about. (And while it is nice to compliment friends and family about these things, my be-freckled sister will attest that this can also be annoying.) Furthermore, telling a stranger “you have super nice boobies,” is a tough opener, because where do you possibly go from there?  Basically, we want to find the thing about them that makes us want to reach out, without making them uncomfortable.

 Giving compliments will also avoid resorting to gripping topics like the weather.

4. Ask Questions
We’ve all been in the unfortunate one-sided conversations where a person will yammer on about their current big project, and how successful they already are, and how they own a yacht, and how they are actually seen as a prince in some countries. (No? It must be my unfortunate luck to meet these characters.) The point is, engaging people in conversation is simple, because people love to talk about themselves. If they are carrying something that interests you, such as a specific phone model, a book, a bag from a favourite shop, or sports equipment, then we can ask questions related to these things. If we notice something about their behaviour, (perhaps they are looking for something,) then we can ask them about this. If we see the same person at the same time and place we can allude to this as well (though only if they show recognition as well, since knowing someone’s schedule without their knowing us is apt to seem suspicious.) Getting a person to open up is like most things: we can improve our skills the more we practice. Eventually we develop an intuition as to which topics to pursue and which topics to avoid.

Like maybe not all books are appropriate to open dialogue with.

5. Know When to Stop
Every conversation comes to an end. And if that conversation is with a stranger, it should err on the side of short and sweet. When our stranger begins to shift, then they are likely needed elsewhere, and it’s time for us to gracefully bow out. We can do this by saying “Well, I should be getting back to work now,” or a genuine “It was really nice talking with you.” We can thank them for the chat. We can introduce ourselves if we haven’t had a chance yet, and let them know that we’ll see them around. What we want to avoid, unless the stranger volunteers, is to jump into the promise of being best friends. This means that asking for personal information, unless there is a clear business objective to the exchange, is likely to make the person uncomfortable. We can try this if we see the person on more than one occasion, but it’s important to make them feel in control. Therefore, we should leave our contact information with them, rather than demanding theirs.

 Do not leave your information as such. 

And there we have it: easy ways we can strike up a conversation with just about anybody. If we make a person feel comfortable by approaching them with relevant questions and in an open space, they are likely to respond positively and we may just score a new friend out of the deal. If nothing else, we’ll have had face-to-face contact with another human being and perhaps learned something about ourselves in the process.


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