How to talk to strangers

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Talking to strangers is one thing that many people – including myself – have struggled with in the past.  It IS something you can learn to do better and more confidently.  Gillian Sandstrom of the University of Essex has researched this topic extensively and has an excellent resources page on her website (h/t to Eden Project Communities who ran an excellent online seminar with Gillian recently).

Some of the things that can make talking to strangers difficult at first might include:

  • What to talk about/say?
  • What if they don’t like me?
  • What if I get trapped into a long conversation I don’t want?

Fortunately, there are good answers to all these.

What to talk about

In the UK, the weather is the traditional starting point! This is not really a conversation about the weather though – as anthropologist Kate Fox pointed out in her excellent book Watching The English, this is a traditional and culturally acceptable way of asking ‘will you talk to me?’. It’s more interesting to look at what makes the weather such a good starting point:

  • There is ALWAYS weather – so a remark or question always makes sense
  • It’s a common factor for both of us (if we are in the same place) so some kind of agreement can be negotiated quickly (agreement is a great place to start!)
  • A remark about the weather can be answered in all kinds of ways, from no reaction to a grunt/nod to a more fully formed reply. All these give us different clues about how (or indeed whether) to proceed.

Something in common, something we share, is often a good starting point. Are we both over (or under) dressed for the conditions? Are we both in the line for a concert or movie?  Are we shopping at the same store?  Have we read the book the other is clutching? All these offer starting points.

Another way to start a conversation is to offer help or support to someone who seems to be struggling.  Reaching a high shelf, managing a heavy shopping basket, finding the way… if someone seems to be frustrated or unsure, a gentle offer of help may be very welcome. (Of course, if they don’t want help, that’s their privilege.)

How to build a conversation

Don’t try to impress the other person, show off, or act superior. Much better to take these simple approaches:

  • Smile and look interested! Tons of studies from Dale ‘How to win friends and influence people’ Carnegie onwards show that smiling and attentiveness are big factors in making a good first impression.
  • Encourage people to talk about themselves. Most people love to do this and very rarely find a place and willing audience. And whatever is their experience is their experience, it’s not a question of right or wrong. (And avoid jumping in with your own experience too quickly, especially if it’s very dissimilar to theirs.)
  • Ask for stories, not for facts. Facts are all very well but they are at best just ‘there’ or at worst the source of heated debate. Stories, on the other hand, are much more personal and interesting, and offer all kinds of opportunities to expand and develop. So, ‘how long have you lived here?’ is a fact question (but might be the start of something). ‘What do you like about living here’ is much more interesting and personal, and is a great jumping-off point.
  • Look for similarities, not differences (at least to start with). Points of connection, common interests, similar experiences, are all safe points to build a conversation
  • Ask for advice. This is a great way to build further. What’s a good place to buy paint? When are the recycling bins emptied? What’s a good place for a walk? People love to be asked. (And of course, in the moment you shouldn’t disagree or try to top them.  You don’t have to take the advice, but at least listen politely and enthusiastically.)

Ending the conversation

One of the things that stops people starting conversations with strangers is a fear of being trapped into a boring or tiresome exchange that you can’t get out of. Not to worry – there are plenty of ways to politely but firmly draw things to a close (for now at least).

  • Got to be somewhere Next – an end to the pleasant chatty Now (whether you really need to be there Next or not…)
  • Use the past tense: “It was lovely to meet you” signals that things are ending very soon, without any commitment to future encounters. (And of course you can still have future encounters if you like.)
  • “I mustn’t keep you…”. It is always polite to value someone else’s time highly, even if they don’t appear to.
  • Or simply “Well, it’s great to meet you! See you around.” This leaves all options open for the future. In Scotland, I had to adjust to the way everyone says ‘See you later’ when they don’t mean later, they just mean ‘Goodbye’.

(This section is taken from our Village Builder Handbook, version 4.)  The Handbook is available on the resources page of the website.

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