Social Initiation

Getting Started in Social Situations



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??

In several places in the U.S. (especially the big cities), it would be considered rude to initiate a conversation (or even say hello or make eye contact) with someone you don’t already know. In these places, the polite thing to do is to avoid imposing on people – and striking up a conversation is an imposition, as it requires them to either respond to you or to appear rude. In most smaller towns, however, it is considered polite and friendly to chat with someone wherever strangers might have to pass a few minutes together (in an elevator, in a check-out line, if you end up sitting next to each other waiting for a show or a game or some other event to begin, e.g.). If you think of yourself as a loner, someone who isn’t interested in making new friends, this may seem absurd and pointless to you. Even if you are interested in making new friends, most of the time when you strike up “small talk,” you’re talking to people you’ll never see again. So why bother?

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


You might start with a verbal greeting, saying “hello” or “hi,” but acknowledgment can also be nonverbal: brief eye contact with a smile or a nod. If you see someone repeatedly (e.g., the same barista at the coffee shop, the same check-out clerk in the store or library, someone who waits at the same subway platform as you, or takes the same bus, or visits the same gym, or whatever), it would be considered rude if you didn’t at least acknowledge that person and exchange greetings. Often, this is all that is required, but sometimes you can work your way up, from nonverbal acknowledgment on one occasion, to verbal exchange of greetings on another, and then once you have successfully exchanged greetings on a few occasions, you may find it easier to begin slightly longer conversations.

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

Whether or not you have explicitly exchanged greetings, if you are within conversational distance (see proximity, below), making an unobjectionable comment is a way of showing that you are open to having a conversation, without placing too much of a demand on the person you make the comment to. That is, the person can choose to simply nod or smile, acknowledging the comment without responding verbally. This does not result in a longer conversation, but it is a successful social interaction, one that you can both feel good about. If the person does respond verbally, this shows that they also have the time and inclination to make conversation, and you can then continue.

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 comment on someone’s physical appearance or behavior, even if the comment is positive – this is too personal, and could imply a more-than-casual interest in the other person, and would likely cause the person to be suspicious of you and uncomfortable with you. Such comments are fine between friends; you haven’t yet earned the right. Likewise, do not reveal anything too personal about yourself at this stage (other than what may be obvious: that you’re both fans of the same team, or both students in the same class or major – basically, public information about you). The goal is to have a casual interaction without risk to either party. After you’ve had a few casual conversations, you can try asking a more personal question, or sharing a bit of information about yourself, but only if you’re willing to pay close attention to their reaction, and back off immediately if they seem uncomfortable taking the conversation to a more personal level.

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.

Shared Gripes

It is quite common to bond with others over shared problems and complaints, though this is a riskier strategy, since if you appear too negative, you might appear to be angry and scare the person you’re talking to. If the weather is awful, if you have both gotten soaked or are both freezing or wilting from the heat, (or whatever), it’s fine to say (smiling) something like “Can you believe this weather?!” If you are waiting in line and it’s taking a long time, it’s okay to share a good-natured complaint – smiling and shaking your head and saying something like “Good thing I’m not in a big hurry!”

Trying Again

If the person acknowledges your first comment non-verbally, but does not make a reciprocal comment, it’s okay to try again, but if the person then shows signs of annoyance or just fails to make a comment in turn, let it go. That person does not wish to have a conversation at this time. If someone feels trapped in a conversation with you, they will be less willing to interact with you in the future.


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

Most people will make eye contact before they strike up a conversation. If you refuse to make eye contact with them, or if you look angry or upset, they will avoid you, because they assume that you are not open to conversation at that time. If you reciprocally make brief eye contact with a smile, you send the signal that you are friendly, and they might then continue. If you find eye contact difficult, you could try looking quickly at their mouth, nose, or hair (in the vicinity, close enough!) 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.)


Most often, Americans will stand just over an arm’s length away from a friend they’re talking to (1.5-4 feet for friends). If you’re close enough to touch (too close!), we feel threatened (unless we’re already so intimate that we wish to whisper secrets, speak privately, and/or be romantic); if you’re several arms-lengths away (too far!), we feel that you’re not being friendly. For someone who is not yet a friend, a distance of 4-12 feet is more appropriate. (12-25 feet is generally reserved for one-way communication, such as a public lecture.) If someone moves away from you, they probably do not want to talk to you. But if someone is in “conversation range,” they may be open to conversation. You don’t want to try to strike up a conversation across the whole distance of the bus, only if you’re within a few seats/rows. But you don’t want to purposefully move into conversation range unless the person has indicated some willingness to converse, because that could be seen as threatening.

Body Language

If you do not have control over proximity (because you are in assigned seats or in a crowded line, e.g.), there may be body language cues. Someone who shifts in a seat to angle away from you is avoiding conversation with you; someone who angles towards you may be open to interaction. Someone who is unavoidably close to you but avoids eye contact is trying to avoid interacting. Someone with “closed” body language (arms crossed, shoulders hunched) is not feeling as relaxed (and therefore probably not as open for interaction) as someone with “open” body language.

greet2           greet3

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.)

Nonverbal Behaviors

If someone seems absorbed in the book they’re reading, or playing with their smart phone, or is otherwise engaged in some sort of activity, they may be doing this as a way to signal that they are not open to conversation at this time, and they may be annoyed if you interrupt their activity. Someone engaging in mild and socially acceptable self-stimulatory behaviors (gently scratching a not-private body part, gently biting one’s lip, drumming one’s fingers, doodling in one’s notebook, a girl twirling her hair, etc.) are likely exhibiting signs of boredom and may be sending a signal that a bit of conversation would help pass the time. If you engage in less socially acceptable self-stimulatory behaviors that involve clenched muscles, quick jerky movements, rocking, or vocalizations, strangers will likely be afraid to talk to you, and even people you already know may be embarrassed to be with you in public.

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.)

Scholarly Sources

  • 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.

Recommended Reading

  • Indiana University Southeast Shyness Research Institute. (2012). How to Make Successful Small Talk: The Key to Connecting, Not Just Conversing.
  • Nelson, Brett. (2012). Six Reasons Small Talk is Very Important — and How to Get Better At It.