How I start conversations with acquaintances and strangers

Do you ever think “Should I start talking to this person or not?”

Last weekend, we had amazing weather. I took the opportunity to go down to my allotment to do some gardening. Unsurprisingly, a lot of other cooperative members had the same thought. So it became more of a social gathering than anything else.

The thing is, most people in the cooperative barely know each other, if at all.

So this situation is ripe for awkward introductions if you’re feeling sociable. But I actually enjoy socializing there, because it’s not awkward when you get it right. It’s fun and a little bit exciting.

So how do I start conversations with people I’ve never met, or only met a few times?

After all, if you end up in close proximity to someone, like when you garden in an allotment, it’s weird to NOT start up a conversation.

My recipe to start a pleasant conversation with an acquaintance

First, I think about an opening line to get the conversation going. For me, this is almost effortless nowadays as I use a simple technique.

I usually start the conversation through association. That means I start talking about something immediately obvious in our surroundings. Here are just a few conversation topics I can use when I come across someone in the cooperative:

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  • Are that onions you’re planting?
  • Wow, your tulips are looking great!
  • Amazing weather we got today! (Weather is a safe bet for us who live in temperate climates)

Then I usually ask something about what they’re up to today (at the allotment) or how their allotment is doing. If I see something extra interesting growing, I like to ask about that, too. I know, I’m a nerd. I could talk for hours about gardening.

strawberry start conversation

Look at this HUGE strawberry I grew in my allotment! (Ok, I might have asked my girlfriend to hold it to make it look bigger…)

After this, the conversation is well established and I could start talking about more personal stuff by asking them about it. But because I’m such a nerd, I like to keep talking about gardening (if they’re knowledgeable about it). If I wanted more friends, I’d definitely try to go more personal. But I’m content with just being gardening-friends.

Lastly, whenever I tire or just feel that it’s time, I try to end the conversation by saying I need to fix something in my allotment. Any sort of reasonable excuse works well in these situations if you get stuck in the conversation.

What most people do wrong when they start a conversation with a stranger

I have a corner allotment, just beside a pavement. This means a lot of people start conversations with me when I’m gardening. They usually also start the conversation through association, but most of them do a big mistake after that.

Let me tell you about this man who recently started talking with me. First, he started the conversation by asking what I was planting. I answer and even give him some extra information, to see if he’s as nerdy about plants as me. (That’s called scouting for mutual interests because then he’ll probably bite that hook and we’ll have an interesting conversation.)

Instead, he does the same thing as most people. He starts asking random questions about everything I’m growing. “What’s that green thing over there?”, “Oh, and what’s that?”. It’s immediately obvious to me he has no real interest in gardening and is only asking questions to keep the conversation going.

This is a prime example of getting stuck in dry facts. You want to ask about the person’s’ relationship to the subject.

Facts are great to start a conversation. Even a fact as stupid as “Nice weather today” works because what you’re really saying is “I’m not dangerous and I’m open for a conversation”.

After that, just exchanging dry facts sucks. If I’m interested in dry facts, I go to Wikipedia.

As far as I see it, he has two choices:

  1. End the conversation

He could have ended the conversation by saying “Nice to meet you, now I need to get going”. This is the most natural choice in this setting.

  1. Moving away from dry facts and making the conversation more interesting

But perhaps there would be a situation where he would have wanted to bond with me. Maybe he’s moving in as a new neighbor and wants to make new friends.

Here, he could have asked about my relationship to the subject.

“How come you decided to get an allotment?

“What’s your plans for all this?”

Funny thing is, I think I meet a person like that man almost every time I’m down there.

Do you have any similar experiences? And what’s going on in your head when you are about to start a conversation? Do you have a special strategy or do you just wing it? Let me know in the comments below!

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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