We teach our children that making friends is easy: you just walk up to any kid on the playground and say, “My name is [whatever], do you want to play?” And if you’re four or five years old, this works pretty well. But it’s a lot more complicated when you’re a grown-up.
The tips here are for starting a conversation with a stranger, but of course, they also apply to starting a conversation with someone you already know (which is considerably easier and less risky).
You want to practice your role in advance so that when the time comes, you don’t have to take time to think about what you need to say, and can instead focus your attention on the other person’s reaction, so you know whether you are being encouraged to continue the interaction or being told to back off (see expressing emotion).
There is always a (pretty good) chance that your attempts to strike up a conversation will be rejected. Don’t be discouraged – this happens to everybody – and try not to take it personally. Review in your mind whether you broke any of the “rules” described here, but remember that there are times, even if you do everything “right,” that these strategies just won’t work. The other person might have something on their mind, or just isn’t friendly, and that’s no reflection on you.
Starting A Conversation With Someone You Don't Know: WHY??
There are times when you can’t avoid meeting new people: when you start a new job (or a new worker starts at your workplace), when you start a new class, when you meet new neighbors, when someone you already know introduces you to someone else, etc. It does matter what these people think of you, even if you don’t become close friends. If your co-workers or boss don’t like you, it will make your work more difficult. If your classmates or teacher don’t like you, it will make the classroom experience very difficult. If your friend’s friend thinks you’re a jerk, your friend will be embarrassed by you. For most people, then, small talk with strangers is a way to practice the skills they will need to make a good first impression on those whose opinions of you do matter.
You should be aware, however, that men are much more likely to interpret a woman striking up a conversation as an attempt to flirt than women are apt to do when the roles are reversed, so if you are a woman, you want to be especially careful about approaching an unknown man, especially if there aren’t other people around.
How to Start a Conversation
Be sure that the person you’re greeting understands that they are the one you’re talking to. The easiest way to do this is to make eye contact with them while greeting, but you should also match your volume to your distance from the person (speaking relatively quietly if you’re standing or sitting next to the person, a bit louder if you’re a few feet away). Do NOT try to greet someone you don’t know from far away, but also do NOT move close to them in order to greet them, as this may seem threatening. (See more about proximity in recognizing and responding to social initiation cues below.) If you already know someone, you can greet them from farther away – but this can sometimes fail, with the person failing to notice you, and be intensely embarrassing for the person who calls out a non-reciprocated greeting.
Here’s a nice example of a non-verbal acknowledgment. Note how the young woman in the striped shirt makes eye contact with the young man, and he bobs his head in greeting, while mumbling something fairly unintelligible (because his mouth is full). (The woman in the dress does not interact with the other two and is a great example of a “closed” posture, showing that she does not wish to interact, as discussed below under “body language.” Note how she keeps her body oriented away from the other two, does not glance at them or in any way acknowledge their presence, and keeps her arm folded across her body.)
Safe Positive Comments
Make sure your comment is made casually, without too much intensity or emotion, or you may alarm the person you’re talking to, and make sure your comment is brief (one short sentence is good).
The weather is always a safe topic, whether you’re indoors or out, whether it be nice, awful, the same as it’s been for a while, or changed. Another safe topic is the surrounding environment (especially if it has changed): “Nice mural, isn’t it?”, “Boy, they’ve really cleaned this place up,” etc.
Another common strategy is to respond to a “comment” contained on the person’s clothes or accessories. E.g., if the person is wearing a Cardinals shirt or hat or carrying a backpack with the team insignia, you could say “Go Cardinals!” If the person is wearing a tee-shirt with something intended to be humorous, you could say “funny!” If the tee-shirt contains a quotation that you recognize (say, a quote from a character on a show), you can respond with “I love that show.”
It doesn’t matter very much what you choose to comment about, since the main purpose of the comment is not to convey information, but to establish whether or not the other person is open to interacting socially with you. That said, there are certain topics you should avoid.
Avoid Awkward Topics
DO NOT attempt to discuss religion, sex, politics, or anything about which people tend to feel passionately and about which you might disagree. These topics should be reserved for people who already feel comfortable with you.
Other Subtle Signals You May Be Missing
Obviously, if someone greets you, you should greet them back. (This is common courtesy.) If someone makes a comment, whether a positive comment or a shared gripe, you should feel free to reciprocate with a comment of your own (agreement is always safe, if you can), but it is also perfectly polite to simply smile and/or nod. If you do not acknowledge the comment (at least non-verbally), you will appear unfriendly. But often people will send signals even before they speak to you, signs that it would be okay if you spoke to them
Eye Contact with a Small Smile
Be careful not to make too much eye contact! Protracted eye contact (longer than a few seconds) generally indicates an intense interest in the person (often sexual) and/or aggression. Although there are cultural differences in what is considered ‘normal’ gaze, most Americans “check in and check out” regularly, sending regular glances at the person they’re talking to, but looking away again just as often. (See showing interest for more about eye contact.)
If you went to sit near the woman above, and she continued to maintain the pose on the left (even though she is certainly aware of your approach), the closed body posture and the engagement in the activity (studying) would show that she doesn’t want to talk to you. If, however, on your approach, she looked up, and made brief eye contact while smiling and maintaining the open posture on the right, it would be a sign of friendliness, and you would feel comfortable starting a conversation.
(Another great example of this is in the video we showed above for nonverbal acknowledgment.)
Should you Introduce Yourself by Name? If so, When?
We asked a bunch of people. Here’s what they said: (Note: you may need to turn up the sound — this video is pretty quiet.)
- Coupland, Justine. (2003). Small Talk: Social Functions. Research on Language and Social Interaction 36(1): 1-6.
- McKinney, Dell Hastings & WIlliam C. Donaghy (1993). Dyad Gender Structure, Uncertainty Reduction, and Self-Disclosure during Initial Interactions. In Kalbfleisch, Pamela J. (Ed.) Interpersonal Communication: Evolving Interpersonal Relationships. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 33-50.
- Miller, Patrick W. (1988) Nonverbal Communication, 3rd Ed. National Education Association.
- Wood, Randy. (1993). Deceptive Schemata: Initial Impressions of Others. In Kalbfleisch, Pamela J. (Ed.) Interpersonal Communication: Evolving Interpersonal Relationships. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 69-86.
- Indiana University Southeast Shyness Research Institute. (2012). How to Make Successful Small Talk: The Key to Connecting, Not Just Conversing. http://ius.edu/shyness/faq/how-to-make-successful-small-talk.html
- Nelson, Brett. (2012). Six Reasons Small Talk is Very Important — and How to Get Better At It. Forbes.com http://www.forbes.com/sites/brettnelson/2012/03/30/six-reasons-small-talk-is-very-important-and-how-to-get-better-at-it/