We all know that talking to strangers opens up new opportunities for personal and professional growth. Whether it is for your job or socially, the ability to comfortably and confidently engage with strangers can lead to new friendships, valuable connections, and a more fulfilling life.
But, let’s be real, talking to strangers can be intimidating and uncomfortable. It’s natural to feel nervous when approaching someone new and striking up a conversation. Don’t worry. You can learn how to become a master at talking to strangers with the right information and some practice. You can improve your confidence in meeting and connecting with people you’ve never met before or don’t know very well.
Think about all the potential connections you could make, whether it’s a new friend, a potential business partner, or even a romantic interest. The confidence to talk to strangers will literally open up a whole new world of possibilities of ways to improve your life.
So, whether you’re at a party, a networking event, or just out running errands, let’s help you not be afraid to strike up a conversation with someone new. You never know where it might lead. This article will explore what makes talking with strangers scary and some strategies to increase your confidence when talking to strangers.
Why Is Talking to New People Scary? Blame Your Biology.
Believe it or not, humans are biologically predisposed to be nervous when talking to new people because of our basic survival instincts. In prehistoric times, encountering a stranger was often dangerous. It often involved encountering a rival tribe or even a predator.
Our brains have evolved to be cautious in these situations, triggering what is known as the “social threat response.” This activates the “fight or flight” parts of our brains. This releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, increases our breathing rate and sweating, pushes more blood to our muscles and less to our brain, and makes us more anxious.
So, the parts of our brain that protect us from danger are triggered in modern times when we face social situations that are uncomfortable or make us nervous, such as talking to strangers. The physical symptoms of this response include a racing heart, sweating, and butterflies in the stomach.
These physiological responses are great when we’re in a situation where we need to punch someone or run away from them. They can be disastrous if we just want to have a conversation with a new person. Instead of using the parts of our brain that are creative, empathetic, and confident, we’re hijacked by the scared parts of our brain that leave us sweating, breathing hard, and looking for an exit.
The result? We can get in a spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies about how scary it is to talk to new people and how bad we are at it. When we expect it to be scary, we prime our brain to act as if it is scary, then our body responds as if it is scary and we walk away thinking that it was scary. Obviously, that’s a problem.
The key is to interrupt that spiral and reframe the way we look at meeting new people. This starts with recognizing that we have to retrain our brains about talking with new people. The good news is that you can become a master at talking to strangers. The bad news is that it requires more than a catchy opening line or two.
Let’s start by addressing one of the biggest misconceptions.
People Like You More Than You Think…and You’ll Like Them More Than You Think
In a research study titled Why do people avoid talking to strangers? researchers Gillian Sandstrom and Erica Boothby studied people’s fears about talking with strangers and whether those fears were valid.
Two of the primary fears that people express are:
- That the other person will not like them or find them interesting
- That they will not like the other person or find the other person interesting
Guess what the research finds? Well, you probably already figured it out from the heading. Based on Sandstrom’s and Boothby’s research, we significantly overestimate the risk of both not liking and not being liked by new people.
While we will not dive into the biological reasons for our overestimating these risks, it is useful to look at why we do tend to like new people and why they tend to like us.
For all of the crazy things about humans, we remain social creatures. As a result, while we are biologically wired to be afraid of strangers, we are similarly wired to create social connections with people we do. In fact, our brain has various built-in ‘biases’ that are specifically designed to accelerate how quickly we connect with others.
One such cognitive bias is referred to as the “halo effect.” This is a cognitive bias that causes people to form positive impressions of others based on a single positive trait or characteristic.
For example, if someone is friendly, we may assume that they are also intelligent, kind, and trustworthy. This can lead us to like new people more than we expect, as we focus on their positive qualities rather than any potential negative traits.
Another reason is the “similarity-attraction effect.” This refers to the tendency for people not only to be attracted to others who are similar to them but to seek out such similarities, even when they are a bit of a stretch. Similarities can be in background, interests, values, and beliefs.
Finally, believe it or not, people are naturally inclined to be kind and generous to others, often unconsciously. Most people are willing to give others the benefit of the doubt and are willing to give them a chance, especially when they sense a person is making an effort to connect.
In short, when we meet new people, our brains tend to focus on the positive traits and find common ground, and we are naturally inclined to be kind.
Guess what? The same is true of the other people you meet. It doesn’t mean that we are going to click with everyone that we meet, but fears that they are not going to like us or that we are not going to like them are way overblown.
Engage Your ‘Smart’ Brain Instead of Your ‘Fight or Flight’ Brain To Become A Master At Talking To Strangers
Retraining your brain’s response to meeting new people is actually a geography problem. Different parts of our brains handle different functions. The part of the brain that handles ‘fight and flight’ is not the part of the brain that you want to engage when you meet new people.
Our brain tries to automate our emotional responses to as many stimuli as possible. This reduces the decisions we have to make, which is great UNTIL we don’t like the automated response. Unfortunately, when we don’t like the automatic response, like feeling nervous when meeting new people, it is not as easy as simply telling your brain to respond differently.
But all is not lost. We just have to reprogram the automatic responses of our brain to those stimuli. That is, we need our brain to automatically respond to meeting a new person with confidence instead of nervousness.
Easier said than done, for sure. The key to getting started is identifying which emotional responses engage the ‘smart’ part of our brains or the pre-frontal cortex.
There is some great research on the interaction between certain emotions and your ‘smart’ brain. Just like certain emotions create negative spirals with your ‘fight or flight’ brain, there are other emotions that create a positive spiral with your smart brain. A great book on the subject is Emotional Success by Dr. David DeSteno.
For example, Dr. DeSteno’s research found that gratitude engages the prefrontal cortex. As such, working to connect meeting new people with gratitude instead of fear will engage the ‘smart’ brain instead of the ‘fight or flight’ brain. This gives us at least a better shot at avoiding or minimizing the anxiety/stress cycle that fear initiates.
One of the most common suggestions for increasing gratitude is a daily gratitude journal. Consistently identifying specific things we are grateful for can help your brain to respond more automatically with gratitude and increases our capacity to leverage gratitude to engage our ‘smart’ brain.
Another positive emotion that triggers our ‘smart’ brain is kindness or compassion. Like gratitude, consistent practice is the key to automating our brain’s response with these positive emotions instead of their negative counterparts.
In his book The Happiness Advantage and his associated Ted Talk, Shawn Achor recommends daily random acts of kindness as a key to strengthening these emotional responses.
Unfortunately, the bad emotions come much more naturally than the good emotions. This doesn’t mean we can’t rewire our brains to default to positive emotions, but it does mean we will have to work to make it happen.
Now that you have your ‘smart’ brain engaged, let’s discuss the actual conversation.
Context, Context and More Context
Using context when meeting a new person means being aware of the surrounding environment, situation, or circumstances and using it to initiate and guide a conversation.
It means taking into account the setting, the purpose of the interaction, the people involved and their interests, to find common ground and topics to talk about. By doing so, it can make the conversation flow more smoothly and increase the chances of making a connection. You also decrease the risk of saying something particularly awkward.
For example, if you’re at a networking event, you can use the context of the event to initiate a conversation by asking the person about their profession or the company they work for. In that context, employment and business-related topics are expected and make sense.
If you’re at a party, you can use the context of the party to initiate a conversation by asking the person about how they know the host or what they think about the music.
On the other hand, bringing up more sensitive topics like politics or religion would generally not be contextually appropriate at a networking event or party. Conversely, at a political rally or a church meeting, talking about business or music may feel out of place.
Using context also means being aware of social cues and body language. It can also mean adapting to the conversation style of the person you’re talking to and being sensitive to cultural norms and expectations.
Paying attention to context when meeting a new person means being aware of the situation, surroundings, and social cues and using them to initiate and guide a conversation. Doing so increases the chances of connecting with the person you are talking to.
Remember, People Love to Talk about Themselves
This is pretty much a given. People love talking about themselves. In fact, according to scientific studies, people become happier when they speak about themselves.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Talking about oneself is a way to express one’s identity, share personal experiences and feelings, and connect with others. It also provides an opportunity for people to feel heard and understood.
As a result, people tend to be more engaged in conversations where they feel that the other person is genuinely interested in what they have to say. Showing interest in the other person’s life, experiences, and opinions makes them feel valued and respected. This can lead to deeper connections and more meaningful conversations.
Not sure what to talk about? As questions to get them talking about them.
However, remember to consider the context. Avoid asking questions that are too personal. Sticking to general topics that are non-threatening and easy to talk about is the best route.
Finding Common Interests to Open Up the conversation
When beginning a conversation with a person you don’t know, mentioning something familiar will enable you to bond faster with that person. This puts them at ease.
If you are at work, talking about work and the job is familiar territory, as long as the talk is not threatening or putting the person on the spot.
Most people have an experience or object that they can relate to, so use it. This could be hair color, children, partners, what they like to eat for lunch, the nearest restaurant’s food, clothing styles, favorite shoes, hobbies, or the weather. Just make sure if you bring something up that it fits with the context.
Many salespeople use a good sales tactic to notice something familiar in the office or room and relay that to the other person. Perhaps they have golf clubs in the corner. Ask them about how often they play or if they have a favorite course.
Immediately, you and the other person share some common ground. Common ground builds trust. Trust is a great conversational platform, and familiarity builds trust quickly.
Making Someone Else’s Opinion Matter
People love to have others ask for their opinion. If you are in the grocery store and are up for a new challenge, then while standing at the shelf packed with breakfast cereal, ask whoever is near you which cereal is their favorite.
You’ll find many people will happily share their favorite cereal in this situation.
At a business networking event, ask the other person for an opinion about business trends. At a party, ask the other person their opinion on underrated bands. Often validating the person by asking their opinion is an invitation for a longer conversation.
Again, be sensitive to topics that are either not contextually relevant or that are inappropriate to discuss with someone that you are just meeting for the first time.
Don’t Personalize Things
When it comes to striking up conversations with strangers, it’s important to remember that not everyone will be receptive to chatting. People may be in a hurry, preoccupied with their own thoughts, or simply not in the mood for a conversation. It’s important not to take it personally and to empathize with the other person’s situation.
It’s also important to understand that rejection is a normal part of the process of learning how to chat with strangers. It’s not a reflection of your worth as a person or your ability to connect with others. It’s simply a part of the journey, and with practice and perseverance, you will become better at starting conversations and connecting with people.
To become better at talking to strangers, as with overcoming any challenge, practice is key. The more you put yourself in social situations and engage with people, the more comfortable you will become.
Start by initiating small talk with people in low-pressure settings, such as a store or park, and gradually increase the level of difficulty.
Additionally, having a positive attitude and an open mind can also help you become better at chatting with strangers. Remember that people are generally friendly and open to having a conversation and that everyone feels nervous at times.
By approaching conversations with a positive attitude and a willingness to connect, you will be more likely to make a positive impression and have a successful interaction.
Again, it’s important to remember that not everyone will be receptive to chatting with strangers and that rejection is a normal part of the process of interacting with new people. Just don’t personalize it and keep on swinging.
Know the Difference Between Open-Ended and Closed-Ended Statements
When it comes to starting a conversation, one of the most effective strategies is to use open-ended statements. An open-ended statement is a question or statement that allows the other person to elaborate and provide more information rather than a simple yes or no answer. This can make it easier to engage in a conversation and keep it flowing.
For example, instead of saying, “Nice boots,” you could ask, “What made you choose those boots?” This open-ended statement allows the person to talk about why they chose the boots and provides an opportunity for further conversation.
Another example is if you’re in a coffee shop and you want to start a conversation with someone, you can ask an open-ended question like “What brought you to this coffee shop today?” This question allows the person to talk about why they chose that particular coffee shop. It can lead to a conversation about the coffee, their favorite types of coffee, or their habits of visiting coffee shops.
It’s also worth noting that closed-ended questions can also be transformed into open-ended questions. For example, instead of asking, “Do you like the coffee?” you can ask, “What do you think of the coffee?” This question allows the person to express their opinion on the coffee, and it can lead to further conversation.
It can be helpful to practice turning closed-ended questions into open-ended questions. It’s a fun exercise that can improve your conversation skills and make it easier to connect with people.
- Did you find this meeting helpful?
- What did you learn during this meeting?
- I love your boots!
- Where did you buy your boots, did they have other types?
- Do you catch the bus daily from this bus stop?
- Are there other bus routes that leave from here?
- Do you like working here?
- What is your favorite part of working here?
Throw in a Sincere Compliment
Another great conversation tip when talking with someone new is to give a sincere compliment. Fair warning, people can often sense insincerity, so it’s important to keep your compliments genuine.
A simple and sincere compliment can make a person feel good and put them at ease, which can make it easier to engage in a conversation.
Compliments can be about anything, from someone’s appearance to a specific trait or skill. For example, you can compliment someone’s outfit, hairstyle, or even a specific accessory they are wearing.
You can also compliment someone on their personal traits, such as their kindness, sense of humor, or intelligence.
It’s important to remember that too many compliments at once can come across as insincere or overwhelming, so be careful not to overdo it. Also, be very mindful of context. Appearance based compliments can be dangerous in work settings. It is better to steer clear of any possible hazards.
A few examples of types of compliments are:
- Your coat is so stylish
- You look great in yellow
- Your smile is contagious
- You have a great laugh
- People warm to you quickly
- You are hilarious! I bet people love having you around
- You have fantastic ideas
- Your hairstyle compliments your face
Imagine how much happier the world would be if people would take the time to compliment other people sincerely.
Brush Up on Body Language
When it comes to communicating with strangers, it’s important to pay attention to not only what is being said, but also how it’s being said. This is where meta-communication comes in, which includes reading a person’s body language.
It’s important to be conscious of your own body language, as it can convey your level of comfort and openness in a conversation. For example, if you approach someone with your arms crossed, it can give off the impression that you are closed off, even if you are trying to appear open.
Similarly, if the person you are talking to has their arms crossed, it may indicate that they are not comfortable in the situation or not open to communicating. It’s important to be aware of these cues and adjust your approach accordingly.
To appear open and relaxed, practice speaking with your arms unfolded in an open body stance. Smile and maintain eye contact, but not overly so. Relaxed people will engage with someone’s eyes, then look away briefly to engage again. People who look down or away appear shady.
It can also be helpful to study body language and learn more about how to read and interpret nonverbal cues. However, for the most part, simply appearing relaxed and open is the best way to go and will get you further in a conversation. Understanding the body language of the person you are talking to can also give you insight into their feelings at that moment, which can be useful in guiding the conversation.
Avoiding the ‘Creep’ Factor
When you start speaking to strangers, the best way to avoid the creep factor is to understand the things that could cause prospective conversationalists to back off. These couple of areas may be something you should think about.
It’s a bit of a no-brainer, but great hygiene makes you more personable. That means clean hair, clean breath, and clean clothes.
Read Cues and Clues–Particularly When Romance May Be Involved
When engaging in conversation with strangers where there may be some romantic undertones for either person, it’s particularly important to carefully read the situation. This includes taking into account the setting, the purpose of the interaction, and the people involved.
It’s important to avoid using flirtatious or sexual language or behavior if the setting is not appropriate or if the person is not interested. Instead, take an upfront approach and be sincere. If you’re shy, it’s okay to let the person know and express your interest in getting to know them.
It’s also important to be aware of the other person’s boundaries and respect them. If you sense that the person is not interested, it’s best to back off and move on. This can prevent any discomfort, misunderstandings, or worse.
Finally, just know that using pickup lines or trying to deceive someone can backfire and make the person uncomfortable. It’s always better to be upfront and sincere in your approach.
Avoid Forcing Conversations
A person who is not responsive is simply not interested or it may be a bad time. Sometimes it is better to back off and move on.
Similarly, here are some other things to avoid in order to not make the conversation feel to forced.
- Be mindful of personal space and don’t come on too strong
- Don’t wave your hands around too much
- Don’t stare at people while you are talking–relax and look away occasionally
- Be extremely careful with any physical touch–better just to avoid it
- Remember to keep compliments sincere and minimal.
Empathy and a great smile will give you the ability to be a great conversationalist, even with strangers. The ability to understand the context you are in and not to come on too strong. Keep it light, throw in a joke now and then, even corny jokes can break the ice!
The biggest factor in successful chatting, as in all daily habits, is practice. Start small, and also start on people you find less threatening, and grow upon that experience. These days, with so much going on with Social Media, it is obvious that people are trying to chat and reach out. So having a chat with a stranger or new person is often welcome, even if everyone is a bit out of practice.
Knowing how to become a master at talking to strangers does not have to be stressful. Take the tips and advice listed above and think about your own personal situation. Put things into action, and see the difference it makes when you find yourself trying to talk to strangers.
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