How to Talk to Strangers

It’s often been said that the number one fear that people suffer from is speaking in public. What is not quite as well known is that the second most popular fear is speaking to strangers. You only have to walk about during the day in a busy city to appreciate this. A buzzing metropolis of people going about their day with little awareness or apparent interest in the people they pass. It’s hardly surprising though given that we are culturally conditioned from a young age to believe statements like, ‘Silence is golden’, ‘Wait to be properly introduced’ or ‘Don’t talk to strangers’.

Perhaps these well intentioned commands had a place and function when we were young but in adulthood they mostly hinder the way we interact with other people…

In the field of social psychology there is a specific kind of experiment called a breaching experiment which was made popular by the work of sociologist Harold Garfinkel.

A breaching experiment is where you behave in a way that breaches the ‘normal social fabric’. At least what we have been conditioned to believe is ‘normal’ socially. An example could be walking up to a shop assistant with a piece of clothing and start haggling for a better price or walking into MacDonald’s and asking for a sirloin steak, medium rare with a side order of vegetables. Both of these examples breach what is considered in those situations to be ‘the social norm’.

The strange thing about breaching experiments is that, when you do one for the first time, it is an incredibly scary experience. The reality is that you are completely safe but you respond as if something terrible might happen.

However, once you have done a few in succession, a strange thing starts to happen…You reach a point where this fear suddenly melts away…It’s kind of like you are gradually peeling back the layers of fear and then, all of a sudden, you realise that they never actually existed in the first place. It’s a strange yet tremendously liberating experience that I’d recommend to anyone.

When it comes to talking to strangers, to a certain extent, many people have bought into the illusion that it’s like breaching some social norm and, as such, find it a terrifying experience the first times they do it.

Once you do it a few times, though, in the same way as the breaching experiments you’ll start to get this strange experience of the layers of fear peeling back then suddenly being hit with the realization that the fear actually never existed in the first place.

So my advice is, make a point to talk to as many strangers as possible throughout your day. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, just see how far you can push it each time and then make your exit.

You’ll be scared the first few times and every now and again you’ll get some strange reactions (which is mostly down to them, not you) but pretty soon you’ll get into it, this fear will vanish and you’ll get more and more positive feedback that’ll lead to some wonderful opportunities.

Of course it does help if you have some kind of strategy for starting a conversation with a stranger and keeping it going in a way that makes it interesting and enjoyable. While every conversation will, of course, be different and impossible to predict exactly, there are some guidelines that you can keep in mind that will help you immensely. There’s a bit more to it than what we are about to cover but this is certainly a great start…

The Opener

The purpose of the opener is, obviously, to start the conversation. When talking to a stranger the way you open the conversation can make a huge difference to how well it goes. Here are some quick tips to opening:

False Time Constraint

One of the main concerns that people have when being approached by a stranger is that they are going to be stuck with some weirdo that’s going to offer little value and eat up their precious time.

This sounds harsh but it’s true. An effective way to avoid being placed in this category is to use a false time constraint. It’s maybe not being entirely honest but it will help the conversation no end. A false time constraint is where you say something that implies you can’t stay for too long. For example it could be something like:

“Excuse me, I’m on my way to a meeting but I was wondering if you could give me your opinion on something before I go”.

False time constraints work really well as it lets the person know first of all that you are not some weirdo who has no place to go and secondly that you won’t be taking up too much of their precious time.

Opinion Openers

Opinion openers are where you start a conversation by gently asking for someone’s opinion on something. Opinion openers work really well as there aren’t many people who wouldn’t help you out by giving their opinion on something. As you start approaching strangers you’ll find that most people are happy to help you out and it’s a great way to kick start the interaction.

Here are a few examples of opinion openers. These will work even if they are not true for you but obviously it’ll work much better if you use ones that are:

“Excuse me do you know any good restaurants around here, I’m taking a friend out to dinner at the weekend and it’d be good to get a recommendation?”

“Excuse me, it’s my friends birthday next week…I have no idea what to buy her, do you have any idea?”

(in a book store) “I’m thinking about reading some new authors, do you recommend any?”

“This is going to sound strange but I’m looking for an outside opinion on this. I’m organising a themed birthday party and I’m kind of stuck for ideas. What do you think?”

These are just a few examples that work well to start a conversation. Have a think about some opinion openers that are personal to you that you can use to start a conversation with a stranger.

Transitioning

So once you’ve spent a short amount of time on the opener it’s time to transition into a normal conversation. There are lots of ways to do this but one of the simplest is just to ask them what their plans are. This will open up more avenues for further conversation. Another great way is to make a statement about something that is going on in the environment. Here are a few more transition phrases you can use to get you started:

  • “So where are you heading today?”
  • (If a group) “So how do you guys know each other then?
  • “What do you do for a living?”
  • “You know you give good advice, you should start doing this for a living!”
  • “So what do you enjoy doing when you are not giving advice to complete strangers?”
  • “Oh by the way, my name is (name), what’s yours?”
  • “This is only the second time I’ve been here and it’s an interesting place”

The aim of the transition stage is to reach a ‘hook point’. A ‘hook point’ is where you come across something that you both share an interest for. It doesn’t have to be one of your deep passions, just something that you both share an interest in and can talk further about.

The Awkward Bit

Sometimes you meet people who are very easy to talk to and the two of you click fairly quickly with little awkwardness. A lot of the time, though, there will be a moment at the start where the conversation is a little stunted and awkward. This is perfectly normal…remember…you’ve just met them and chances are they have their own issues about talking top strangers so just relax and ride it out.

Keep gently probing with questions and making comments and statements about stuff and eventually this awkwardness will pass. Interestingly enough this is usually the point that people want to bail out because they think it’s not going well but if you stick with it you’ll go past this stage fairly quickly.

Deepening & Connecting

Okay, so you’ve opened by asking for an opinion, you’ve transitioned it into a conversation and you’ve navigated the ‘awkward bit’. It’s now time to start connecting with the person. Here’s a couple of ways to do this:

Keyword Latching

You have been listening to what they’ve been saying to you haven’t you? Or have you been too much inside your own head thinking about what to say next? Don’t worry, again, this is natural…it’ll get easier with practice and soon you’ll be able to focus your attention more on the outside and begin to do something called ‘keyword latching’. Keyword Latching is where you listen to what the person is saying and then ‘latch on’ to something significant they have said. For example, they might say that they enjoy travelling. You could latch on to the travelling bit by saying something like:

“Oh that’s interesting I love travelling…Last year I went to Paris, it’s an amazing city…where’s the best place you’ve been to?”

The trick when using keyword latching is to reply with something that either allows them to latch onto or leads into another question.

Deep & Wide Conversational Rapport

Deep conversational rapport is where you start talking to someone about a topic that interests them and you go deep into that topic discussing various different viewpoints and aspects of it.

I’m sure you’ve had the experience at some point or another where you meet someone who you share a hobby or interest and you end up talking to them in depth about it for a considerable amount of time.

When this happens you generally develop a deep sense of comfort and it feels as if you understand each other at a much more powerful level than if you had just made small talk.

Wide conversational rapport on the other hand is where you talk about a wide range of topics that interest the both of you. Generally speaking, the wider the range of topics you talk to each other about that interest the both of you the greater the sense of mutual rapport and comfort you will experience...

If you then combine this with deep conversational rapport by going in reasonably deep in each of the topics, you will both begin to get a deep sense of connection that is both natural and honest.

When you are talking with someone you have just met there is a good chance that the both of you are heading somewhere and, as such, don’t have a lot of time to get into a deep and meaningful conversation. To get into deep and wide conversational rapport with someone can happen quickly but often occurs over the course of a few meetings. So your aim during the first interaction is to establish as much conversational rapport as you can in order to merit staying in touch. (Assuming of course you want to)

Keeping in Touch

So you’ve opened, transitioned, handled the awkward bit and managed to talk about some topics that interest the both of you. Hopefully by this stage you will have enough reasons to keep in touch. If you have then this next stage is the easiest of all. If you haven’t then hey…nothing ventured nothing gained, it’s all in the learning experience.

Keeping in touch is really just a matter of asking. It could be their phone book, email address or face book account. The key is to say it matter of factly and it can help if you compliment an aspect of their personality while you do it. For example:

“Hey, you have good sense of humour, it’d be good to keep in touch are you on face book/email?”
“You know I only stopped to ask an opinion but this has been a really interesting conversation…It’s be good to hang out some time, what’s the best way to keep in touch?”

Asking for someone’s details isn’t anywhere near as big a deal as what most people think. You’ll find if you don’t make a big deal about it neither will they.

To find out more about how you can become a masterful conversationalist and turbo charge you levels of confidence around people check out the Guide to Social Confidence Virtual Boot Camp.

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