How to talk to strangers – 20 tips

Being an introvert I usually felt awkward or off talking to strangers. Especially in extrovert environments like parties or bars. Thousands of interactions later, this is what I’ve learned.

1. Start small with a smile or nod

Practice smiling or giving a casual head nod as people go by. When you’re comfortable with that, you can take the next step and ask how they are or a question or comment about something around you. Gradually increasing your interactions like this makes it easier to talk to strangers.[1][2]

2. Accept nervousness rather than trying to push it away

It’s intuitive to try to shake off nervousness and “stop being nervous,” but that just doesn’t work. A better strategy is to accept that you are nervous and act anyway.[3][4] After all, feeling nervous is nothing more than a feeling, and feelings in themselves can’t hurt us. Remind yourself that feeling nervous isn’t different from any other feeling like tiredness, happiness or hunger.

Have a look at this article for more tips on controlling your nerves.

3. Focus back to the person when you get self-conscious

It’s hard not to obsess about what the other person’s thinking when you’re nervous and worried that you show it. To get out of the negative cycle of “I’m so nervous, I can’t think,” do this: Focus back on the other person.[5]

When you concentrate on what the other person is saying, you stop thinking about yourself. This accomplishes three things:

  • They feel great.
  • You get to know them better.
  • You stop worrying about your reactions.

4. Say to a stranger what you would have said to a friend

When you’re chatting with friends, it’s easy, right? You smile when you see them. You ask them how they’re doing. You talk about what you’ve both been up to. It flows.

When you meet new people, treat them the same way.

If it’s at work, ask them how their projects are going. Are they super-busy, or is it the regular workload?

If you’re at school, ask them about their classes. It’s casual and friendly without being overly familiar.

5. Signal that you’re friendly with your body language

Body language is a massive part of what people take away from conversations. It’s both what we do with our body and our tone of voice. Friendly body language looks like this:

  • Smiling
  • Head nodding
  • Eye contact
  • Relaxed, pleasant facial expression
  • Using hand gestures when talking
  • Arms at your side, relaxed when not gesturing
  • If you are sitting, casually crossed feet
  • A positive or neutral tone of voice

6. Dare to show that you enjoy talking with someone

Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in being cool that we forget to be passionate, and that is infinitely more likeable. If you show a person that you enjoyed talking to them, they’ll be more motivated to speak to you again. “Hey, I haven’t had a philosophical conversation like this in awhile. I really enjoyed it.”

7. Maintain eye contact

Eye contact tells people that you’re interested in what they’re saying. Yet there’s a thin line between too much eye contact and too little. A good rule of thumb is to give eye contact when the person you’re talking to is speaking. When you’re speaking, look at your partner to keep their attention. Lastly, when either of you is thinking between comments, you can break eye contact.

Have a look at this article on eye contact to learn more.

8. Keep your hands visible

When I’m feeling awkward, putting my hands in my pockets makes me a bit less self-conscious. Unfortunately, this can come off as if you’re hiding something. Open up your chest and let your arms hang loosely at your side. That way, you look relaxed and open.

9. Have a relaxed, friendly smile

A smile, even if it’s subtle, can mean the difference between someone assuming you’re inviting and starting a conversation or moving on, afraid you’re aloof or grumpy. Most people fear rejection, so they’ll avoid people who look like they aren’t happy to talk.

10. Lower your standard for what’s important enough to say

People don’t expect someone to be brilliant and charismatic when they first meet them. Be a good listener. Be open and friendly. Make casual observations about the event or your surroundings. Say what’s on your mind, even if it’s not profound. Something as mundane as “I love this couch” signals that you’re warm, and it can spark an interesting conversation. The brilliant insights can come later when you know each other better, and you’re getting into a topic.

11. Have good posture

If you have good posture, people will automatically assume that you are self-confident. That makes you a more interesting person to talk to. I struggled with good posture for years. I forgot about it after a while and tended to go back to my old posture. That changed when I started doing the daily exercises described in this video.

12. Use your surroundings for inspiration about what to say

When you meet someone, take a look around and make observations about what’s going on around you. Things like “this meeting room has the best windows.” or “I wonder if we’re getting lunch, as this is an all-day meeting?” They are casual, spur-of-the-moment comments that say you’re easy to talk to and friendly.

13. Ask sincere questions

Don’t ask questions for the sake of asking questions. It makes the conversations robotic, like “What do you do?” “I work as an accountant.” “Ok, where are you from?” “Connecticut.” “What brings you here?” “Zzz”

Instead, ask questions to really get to know someone. “Oh, you’re an accountant. Does that mean that you prefer numbers over writing or is that just a myth?”. One way to do this is to have a mission to get to know them as humans, past the professional top layer.

14. Talk about positive topics

Make positive, genuine comments, be it about what you’re doing, the weather, the upcoming weekend. This tells people that you’re open and accepting. People who complain about others, events or their surroundings create negative environments, and no one wants to hang out there. Positiveness is a self-fulfilling prophecy, just like negativity.

15. Allow for 1-2 seconds of silence before you speak

Your heart might be racing, but that doesn’t mean your speech must. If you answer really quickly, it can make you seem overeager or that you aren’t confident in what you’re saying. Take a beat of one or two seconds before you answer, and that will give the impression that you’re relaxed. After you do it for a while, it will become natural, and you won’t need to think about it.

16. Find commonalities

Look for mutual interests. You can do this by mentioning things you like and see how they react. If you enjoy history, you can check if the other person might too:

They: “What were you up to this weekend?”

You: “I watched this fascinating documentary about the Civil War. It’s about how…”.

If they react favorably, use history as a mutual interest to bond around. If they don’t seem interested, mention some other interest you have at a later point.

Or, when you talked about the weekend, maybe you learned that they play hockey. If you’re into sports, use the opportunity to grow your friendship around this topic.

17. Look at the direction of their feet and gaze to know if they want to talk

Are they looking at you with their feet pointed toward you? These are the signs that the person you’re talking to is engaged in the conversation, and they want to keep going. If they are continually looking over your shoulder or turning their body away from you, starting with their feet, they’ve got other things on their mind and are probably too distracted to continue.

Read more: How to know if someone wants to talk to you.

18. Share things about yourself in between your questions

Questions are a great way to start a conversation. However, to make it an exchange where you learn about each other in a balanced way, you want to add your own experiences and stories. This keeps the conversation interesting for both people, and it avoids multiple questions seeming like an interrogation rather than curiosity.

19. Keep the conversation simple

You want to keep the conversation light because it’s less intimidating for both people. Right now, you’re finding out about each other. What you do. Where you live. Who you know.

If you try to come up with smart, impressive topics, it will probably cause you to tense up. If you tense up, that’s when awkward silences happen.

The goal is to relax and enjoy each other’s company. That’s when you become friends.

20. Ask something slightly personal

How do you move past small talk and on to more exciting topics? You inject your thoughts and feelings into a small talk topic and ask their opinion. Say you’re talking about how high rent is in your neighborhood. Then you turn the conversation into Personal Mode and add that in a few years you want to buy a house in the countryside. Then you ask them where they think they’ll be living in a few years.

All of a sudden the conversation is about F.O.R.D. topics (Family, Occupation, Recreation, Dreams) which are much more fun and revealing.

References

  1. Stein, D. J. (Ed.). (2007). Clinical manual of anxiety disorders. American Psychiatric
  2. Katerelos, M., Hawley, L. L., Antony, M. M., & McCabe, R. E. (2008). The exposure hierarchy as a measure of progress and efficacy in the treatment of social anxiety disorder. Behavior Modification, 32(4), 504-518.
  3. Roemer, L., Orsillo, S. M., & Salters-Pedneault, K. (2008). Efficacy of an acceptance-based behavior therapy for generalized anxiety disorder: Evaluation in a randomized controlled trial. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 76(6), 1083.
  4. Dalrymple, K. L., & Herbert, J. D. (2007). Acceptance and commitment therapy for generalized social anxiety disorder: A pilot study. Behavior modification, 31(5), 543-568.
  5. Zou, J. B., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2007). The effect of attentional focus on social anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(10), 2326-2333.

Viktor is SocialPro's expert in communication and relationships.

He has a B.A. with a major in Psychology at University of Gothenburg and a B.Sc. with a major in Biological engineering at Chalmers University of Technology

Before he joined SocialPro, he worked as a relationship and dating coach.

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1 thought on “How to talk to strangers – 20 tips”

  1. You’ve mentioned #17 before, and I find it so interesting. I’ve started paying attention, and people’s feet really do point at each other! I’ve also noticed that, as a socially anxious person, my feet almost always point away. I find eye contact very difficult, and the added effort to turn my entire body toward someone makes socializing more painful. It’s like I’m stuck in fight-or-flight mode, and I need to be ready to flee if the person turns hostile! But I really do want to connect with others. Does anyone else have this issue? I’m planning to keep working on eye contact until I build up my comfort level. Micro-habituation! 🙂

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