How to talk to strangers

The rich rewards of random conversations and how to have them.

Imagine we told you that there was something easy, fast, and free that you could do every day to increase your happiness. Imagine this activity could also help you learn a new hobby, discover a different culture, or even spark a friendship. Chances are you’re not going to believe us when we tell you, but the activity we have in mind is: talking to strangers.

Extract from a blog post by Sandstrom, Boothby and Cooney.

No — don’t talk to ANY random stranger in the street or online! I am sure you understand that the ‘talk to strangers’ message in this article must be context appropriate.)

This isn’t just a safety warning, it is a ‘culturally appropriate’ warning. There will always be ‘social norms’ to consider — explore more here.

The point is — we need to stop our irrational avoidance of good opportunities to interact with people we don’t know. Humans are sociable creatures.

There are some amazing organisations that reach out to the lonely elderly – Marmalade and The Silver Line — but lonliness is increasing amongst the young too. This may be down to social media and probably not helped by the pandemic. A sense of disconnect exists across the generations.

Whilst the occassional interaction with strangers might not solve all of this it does remind us of human connection and nurtures our interpersonal communication skills and confidence.

Social scientists have come up with a perfect term for our increased unsociable tendencies. You need to be aware of how much ‘turtling up’ you are doing. All things in moderation!

I heard about ‘turtling up’ for the first time whilst listening to this episode of ‘Speaking of Psychology.’

If you are going to come out of your shell more and dare to interact in spontaneous ways with strangers — how might this look?

Everyday opportunities to talk to strangers.

  • Cafes
  • Queues
  • Walks
  • Business and Social Events

The recent research by Sandstrom, Boothby and Cooney found that if you hone the habit of ‘talking to strangers’ you will view the practice as ‘a positive opportunity for connection, rather than something to dread’.

The upsides seem to outweigh the downsides — and the downsides listed below are going to be either harmless or extremely unlikely!

But I get it — no clever pros and cons list outweighs our inner critic.

Do you over think your approach to ‘talking to strangers’ and ruin the spontaneity?

As Mark Rhodes reminds us — ‘over-analysis is a short cut to missed opportunities’

You are likely to come up with some very convincing reasons to avoid striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Reasons such as –

  • They will think I am rude or too ‘out there’.
  • They will make it obvious they don’t want to talk to me.
  • They won’t like me.
  • It will be painfully awkward.

Biggest reason — fear of rejection!

You have now talked yourself out of what could be a delightful moment of human connection.

This engagement might be a passing comment and response lasting no more than seconds. It might be a conversation lasting an hour. It might be a meeting of minds lasting a lifetime.

That has to be worth a step into the unkown surely.

So — how do you approach the ‘talking to strangers’ challenge?

4 Top Tips for Talking to Strangers

The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.

Malcolm Gladwell.

  1. Thinking reframe
  • Conversations with strangers go better than you expect.
  • People like you better than you think.
  • Talking to strangers is good for you and them.
  • People consider minimal social interactions to be an act of kindness.

Inspired by ‘Talking to Strangers’ Gillian M Sandstrom

2. Turn up your curiosity.

It is extremely helpful to use your sense of curiosity. Think of yourself as a scientist who is finding out more about social interactions. You could carry out two-way experiments, in easy situations first; and you could turn yourself into an accurate, interested and curious observer.

Gillian Butler

Curiosity is a great anitdote to fear.

There is nearly always something that you and the other person are sharing at that moment — use it.

The environment is your inspiration — and it takes you out of your ‘self-conscious’ state.

You don’t need to say the awkward cliche — ‘do you come here often?’ You can say — ‘Have you been here before?’ You are interested in their knowledge of the building, town etc. If they haven’t you are now sharing a novel experience and can share your feelings about that.

You don’t need to look like you are being ‘weird’ if you are in a shared space and remark on something you are both ‘viewing’. The art gallery cliche of ‘pick up lines’ won’t apply unless that is actually what you are intending!

‘I’m interested in your response to this painting/play … I’m on the fence… (insert similar).’

You see someone next to you in a cafe or on a train reading a book that intrigues you….

…. pick up the vibe….

and if it feels right (don’t over think) — say:

‘I am being very nosy — but that book looks just up my street — is it good?’ (Or similar).


3. Practice — step by step.

Take small steps. Make eye contact when opportunities arise for micro social connection around you. Smile. Practice with Baristas or people with dogs or babies.

4. Prepare exit strategy.

What if you start up a conversation and get trapped by a bore or just a series of awkward silences?

It could happen — there is no guarantee of a flowing conversation with a new found soul mate.

But fear not — you are not in a locked room (hopefully).

Easy escapes include:

  • I’m on a tight schedule — don’t think me rude but I need to circulate before I have to leave — great to meet you.
  • I mustn’t take up your time — enjoyed our chat.
  • I am not brilliant at chat — I’m out of practice and slightly socially awkward! Don’t think me rude if I go back to my book (or similar) — good to meet you. (Self-deprecation done with warmth — works wonders).

However — you might not need to escape. If you work at this you will become an expert in turning ‘small talk’ into ‘big talk’!

And Finally…

I love this good news item!

We just need to slow down a bit sometimes — give space for those moments of human interaction to happen.

And a few more thought-provoking on topic quotes (you could even use them as a conversation starter!)

Of the things that frighten us, the fear of being left out of the flow of human interaction is certainly one of the worst. There is no question that we are social animals; only in the company of other people do we feel complete.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Before the development of buses, trains and streetcars in the nineteen century, people were quite unable to look at each other for minutes or hours at a time… without talking to each other.

Simmel — quoted in ‘Conversation’ by Theodore Zeldin

“The results suggest that talking with strangers is surprisingly pleasant,” Epley said. “A recent experiment shows that this is even true of commuters in London. Even the British turned out to enjoy their commute on a train more when they talked with a stranger.”

The results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social PsychologyTHE TIMES

Open-plan offices were never merely about bosses controlling the workers and saving on floor space; they became the norm because they really did, in many industries, encourage accidental interactions as you wandered through different departments on the way to the stationery cupboard. However many awaydays and after-work events you organise, nothing can match the serendipity of snatched conversations with people from the other side of the office. If we are to avoid work morphing into a solitary, atomised endeavour, we need those exchanges more than ever.

Harry Wallop — The Times

Conversation confidence is just one of many communication sills I work on with individuals — solopreneurs to senior executives — making conversations, meetings and presentations engage!