“You can talk to anybody.” I hear this a lot from friends and coworkers. They’re right; I can talk to almost anybody. Now, it’s part of my job. I wasn’t always like this.
The idea of talking to strangers and even acquaintances used to make me anxious. When I was younger, I avoided it whenever I could. If I wanted an extra packet of honey mustard sauce at Wendy’s, I’d make my little sister, Christa, go up and ask for it or I’d go without. If I thought someone seemed cool, I’d send Christa over to scout him/her out. Wherever we went together, she was my mouth piece (unless we were around people I was comfortable with, then I did all the talking). I got so in the habit of letting her talk for me that to this day, when we’re with people I don’t know well, I expect her to do the talking for me.
In high school, I began to get better at conversing with strangers. By the time I started 9th grade, I had switched schools four times. I was getting used to meeting new people and creating a social network from scratch. Still, the idea of talking to strangers was daunting. I got a D in Journalism my freshman year, despite the fact that my teacher loved my writing, because I wasn’t willing to go out of my comfort zone and interview people I didn’t know.
One simple realization has helped me overcome anxiety: The idea of talking to strangers is more intimidating than the experience. Whenever I am forced to talk to someone new, the actual conversation is rarely as uncomfortable as I imagine. If I start psyching myself out, when I’m heading into a situation where I know I’ll have to talk to lots of new people, I remind myself that people are just people. There is nothing to be anxious about.
Working in student activities and promotions over the last few years has helped me to perfect the art of talking to anybody. These are my top 3 tips for how to strike up conversations with new people:
1/ Look for a Natural Lead In
Walking up to a complete stranger and saying, “Hi. My name is Lindsey, what’s yours?” is undeniably awkard. If someone did that to me I would give them a false name and excuse myself from the conversation quickly. Actually, something similar to that did happen to me the other day while I was training at a store in Monroe. That is exactly how I responded. You don’t have to be that person.
Instead of starting off with your name, take into account your setting and the person you want to talk to then make a statement or pose a question that will draw that person into conversation. For example, if you’re at a networking event you could walk up to someone who is also alone and say, “Hi. I never know what to do at events like this.” Or “Hi. Would you mind if I joined you? I was feeling out of place in that corner by myself.” Most likely that person is feeling equally out of place and will appreciate your company. Addressing the elephant in the room, in a casual way like that, also gives that person something to relate to. If that person invites you to join him/her, you now have an opportunity to introduce yourself and launch into a real conversation.
2/ Be Willing to Hand Out Compliments
Compliments are a great conversation starter. I do this a lot. I’ll compliment a woman on a unique necklace she’s wearing or a beautiful scarf. Most women, when complimented on an item of clothing or an accessory, will tell you where they got it. If it’s unique enough, they’ll sometimes tell you a story about it. It creates a great opportunity for you to share your fashion taste or exchange stories. The pettiest of topics can lead to awesome conversations.
I don’t strike up as many conversations with men through compliments. I have done it. It’s usually more affective to complement them on something other than their clothes.
A good compliment is specific and sincere. General compliments seem phony. If you don’t care about women’s scarves, complimenting a woman on her scarf won’t spark a conversation. After she says thank you, there will be nothing more to say.
3/ Don’t be Afraid to Start with a Story
One of my quirks is that I think that small talk is invasive. If the first thing a stranger or acquaintance asks me is how I’m doing or what I did today or what I do for a living, I feel like they’re trying to invade my privacy. It makes me defensive and unease. I know, it’s irrational but that’s how I feel. While I try to give people grace when they do this to me, because I realize it’s my own bit of crazy, I avoid starting out with small talk whenever I can. I’ve discovered that exchanging stories is a far better way to spark a conversation and get to know people.
Asking someone you don’t know how they are doing is either going to get you a sob story (this has happened to me…talk about uncomfortable) or a pat reply. Starting off with a story engages the other person gives you both something to banter about once the story is over. For example, if you’re at a wedding reception solo and you’re stuck at a table with people you don’t know, tell a story about the bride or groom to break the ice. In most cases, someone else at the table with share one of their stories and the whole table will start talking.
These are the three best ways I know to strike up conversations with strangers. If you are pleasant to people, they will usually be pleasant in return. There are some exceptions; of course, some people are overly defensive and some people just plain like being rude. They are the exception, not the rule. It’s important to remember that their harsh reaction is a reflection on them and not on you.
No matter how nice you are, not everyone will like you. That’s okay because you won’t like everyone either. It doesn’t necessarily mean that either of you is a bad person. It just means you don’t have compatible personalities. That’s fine. You’ll never know if you could become friends if you don’t have that first conversation.
Do you have any stories about talking to strangers? Are there any tips that you would add to my list?