The other day, I had a realization. Every person you’ve ever encountered except for your parents (and maybe your siblings) was a stranger to you at one point. Literally, every person in your life (again, except for your parents and some siblings) started out as a stranger.
This thought was astounding. In a world where everyone around you is a stranger, it must be extremely challenging to navigate if you have difficulty talking to others. I’m not sure if this communication breakdown is the product of a digital age that requires less human communication. Maybe we have an increase in shy or introverted people, or maybe people are just unsure of how to break the ice.
Regardless of the cause, if you have difficulty talking to strangers, life is going to be challenging.
Strangers give you jobs. They make your burrito to your specification. In most situations, they’ll be the ones doing your surgery, colonoscopy, etc. But that’s not the extent of their presence in your life. If you’re really lucky, strangers evolve into friends.
I decided to enlist the help of one of my friends, a former stranger, for this article. Of everyone I know, I cannot think of a person who is better at talking to strangers than Todd. He has his own business, Twilight Gardens, and, because of his love for music, frequently has the opportunity to talk to musical legends.
Because of the complexity of this topic, here’s advice from both of us. If you can make one change in how you interact with people, it will be progress. Being able to talk to strangers takes time and practice. Just keep trying and do your best.
Talk to Strangers
I talk to strangers all the time. Honestly, I come by it genetically. My mom has talked about how her father, a minister, would “work the room” when they went to lunch on Sundays. He would walk from table to table talking to everyone. I’d guess that if there was anyone in the restaurant that he didn’t know when he walked in, he knew them by the time he walked out.
My dad also has “the gift”. I remember watching him have an in-depth conversation with a woman because they both reached for the same cheese while they were grocery shopping. By the time we left the grocery store, Dad knew her name and that she lived in our neighborhood. He even knew which house she lived in!
Even though I do incorporate both of these techniques, I do have my own way of talking to people. I am very comfortable talking to strangers even if we appear to have nothing in common. This is because you will always have something in common with someone. You are at the same place at the same time, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to them.
This mentality has helped me make friends, connect with professionals, and even talk to celebrities. Plus, because I happen to believe that I have more fun when I’m with someone else, I have a lot of fun. Here are some of my tips about talking to strangers.
- Think before you speak. Yes, I’ve just encouraged you to speak to strangers, but you do need to think about what you’re going to say before you open your mouth. Whatever you do say should be a reflection of yourself.
- Have something positive to say. People love compliments, both giving and receiving them. Saying something nice to someone else will also make you feel good.
- Find some common ground. This isn’t always immediately obvious, but if you’re wanting to talk to someone, look to see if you have anything in common. At a minimum, you are at the same place at the same time.
- Make eye contact when you talk to people. I believe that when you stop and make eye contact with a person, you will bring your conversation to a deeper, more genuine level. Your actions tell them that you are focused on what they will say, and that your mind is here in the present moment. This will encourage them to also focus on the present moment. Consequently, the quality of your conversion will be better.
- Be appreciative. If someone does something nice like hold the door for you, don’t be afraid to speak up and tell them how kind it was or how much you appreciate it.
- Be honest. I know, it seems weird that I should have to say this, but I think that sometimes people choose words that aren’t necessarily fitting, and it’s noticeable. So, refrain from using words that you wouldn’t use in everyday conversation and be sure that what you’re say is appropriate for the subject.
- Ask people questions about themselves and listen. Truly, I think this is the most important tip. This is where you really get to learn about other people. Plus, having a meaningful conversation will deepen your relationship, lifting you from strangers to acquaintances or maybe even friends.
Although, I consider myself to be very good at talking to strangers, my friend Todd is a master. Because of his business, Twilight Gardens, he regularly talks to strangers. Todd is also a music lover and avid fan of many kinds of music.
He said the most interesting stranger that he ever met was Mike Muir, the lead singer of the band Suicidal Tendencies. What made the conversation interesting was that Mr. Muir went beyond the typical conversation that might happen between a rock star and a fan boy. The conversation was relaxed and covered several topics. Todd appreciated that Mr. Muir seemed to be enjoying the conversation as much as himself.
My thought is that if Todd can make rock star strangers want to talk to him, he must have some pretty sage advice about having conversation.
- Know your audience, especially when you’re young. Todd remembers reading the Three Investigators book series when he was a kid. Frequently, kids would have problems with adults not taking them seriously. However, the Investigators would carefully select the words to express themselves depending on who they were talking to. In other words, they knew their audience and specifically chose to use words that would best convey their thoughts.
- Listen to people who excel at communicating with others. When he was a young boy, Todd’s family had a moving business. His grandma would answer the customer calls and scheduling. “I was always amazed at how my grandma could tell someone that she was kind and caring and that she appreciated their business in about two sentences without actually saying any of those words.”
- Find a balance in what you say and how you say it. Todd’s father was also a part of the family business. He was the representative who was on site during the move. Because moving is stressful and accidents happen, Todd’s dad had the potential to deal with angry customers. Although there were some rough days, Todd remembers that his dad always was kind, polite, and respectful. He also remembers that when customers would act rudely, Todd’s dad had a way of speaking so that he commanded their respect. This would help neutralize the situation.
- Trust your gut. Before you talk to someone, read the situation. If they look busy, now might not be a good time to try to talk to them. However, if you’re in a fleeting moment and you see, say Kris Kristofferson in the Denver airport like Todd did, you might want to try anyway. “Kris Kristofferson had just stepped aside to check the flight screen. I walked up right next to him and said, ‘I don’t want to bother you, but it would be a really big deal to me if I could shake your hand.’ Kristofferson’s face lit up and he said, ‘Well, sure son!’ and gave me a hearty hand shake.”
- Start with “Excuse me?” Todd likes to start conversations with this question because it shows that he understands that a conversation is not owed to him, but he’d appreciate if it could happen. (I’d like to interject that it also tells the person that you’re wanting to talk to that you are respectful of them and their time.)
- Practice. If you’re not used to it, talking to strangers is challenging, but the more you do it, the easier it will be. Todd remembers hiring a friend’s nephew to work during the summer. When a customer said Hi to him, he literally came inside and asked what he should do instead of simply saying Hi back. There are so many opportunities to practice talking to strangers. If you have a job, internship, or volunteer somewhere, strangers are all around you. This is your opportunity to practice. Put yourself in positions where you have to talk to people.
It’s not hard to learn to talk to strangers, but it is hard to get started. Make a deal with yourself that you will initiate conversation with one stranger a day. As you talk to more and more strangers, notice how many of them become acquaintances and friends.
What are some tips you have for talking to strangers? Let us know in the comments below.
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