As an avid traveller, teacher and part-time photographer, I’ve been lucky enough to meet lots of people from lots of different backgrounds. Some became lifelong friends while many more melted into the heap of faded friendships and acquaintances we all leave behind. That’s not to say that these fleeting encounters are immaterial – even a short conversation can prove to be unexpectedly enlightening or, at the very least, thoroughly entertaining.
I wasn’t always confident when talking to strangers. Travelling helped immensely. I’ve visited over 50 countries, nearly always on my own, and while I’m certainly comfortable in my own company, I don’t want to do it 24/7. This means that if I am to have company on the road, I must talk to strangers. It’s the same at parties and social gatherings: we all find ourselves having to speak to strangers and keep a conversation going.
Below are five key tips for talking to strangers that will help you break the ice and endear you to the unacquainted.
1. Use names – theirs and yours
Use the other person’s name several times in conversation to establish an immediate bond. It’s a little ‘telesales-y’ I’ll admit, but it works. It shows that you are listening and are focused on them. A less common trick I use is to mention my own name in conversation. For example, if we’re talking about travelling, I might say: “My girlfriend doesn’t like camping unfortunately. She’ll insist that she’ll be fine but within five minutes it’s ‘Peter, I’m cold!’”
This reminds the other person of your name, something easily forgotten in a rushed introduction when talking to strangers. It saves them the embarrassment of asking your name again or, worse, the awkwardness of talking to you for 20 minutes without the faintest clue what you’re called.
2. Choose groups over individuals
It’s always easier to initiate a conversation with another lone person when talking to strangers, but where possible opt for groups instead. It’s far easier to maintain an interesting conversation with three or more people than it is with two. In a group, no-one is left wondering if they’ll be stuck talking to one person all night; everyone has the option to leave the group and mingle with others with no fear of being rude. You might be reluctant to approach a pair but just because two people are at a party or on the road together, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to meet other people. Give it a go.
3. Don’t be that guy
He knows something about everything and never nothing about something. He’s done your job and he probably did it better than you. He’s been where you went on holiday last week… twice. And while he was there he climbed the same mountain you did, but he done it in half the time… and paraglided off the summit at midnight.
We’ve all met one of these guys and – as the saying goes – if you haven’t, you’re probably him. This type of one-upmanship is particularly prevalent in backpacker circles. It’s always about who stayed at the cheapest, dirtiest place, or who got invited to a local’s abode to eat dubious delicacies off rustic instruments with questionable hygiene. Don’t be the guy who needs to have the best story all the time; allow others to tell theirs too. It’s a conversation, not an open-mic night.
4. Avoid asking the obvious
So what do you do? How do you know [mutual friend]? Where are you from?
I know it’s tempting but people’s jobs are probably not the most interesting thing about them. Personally, I start with a lighthearted comment or joke – usually about the host or someone we have in common. I was once in the kitchen of a Swedish hostel when another guest told his table-mates: “Someone just asked me what city I would live if I had complete freedom to choose. What would be yours?” It was a quirky and interesting way to start a conversation. Failing that, offering your fellow travellers a drink, a snack or even a cigarette is sometimes the easiest way to win friends!
5. Show people that they’ve taught you something
If someone shares an interesting fact with you, demonstrate that they have taught you something. Smile and say “I never knew that!”
Everyone loves to feel smart so people will warm to you immediately if they feel appreciated. Don’t say ‘Yes, I read that a few weeks ago’ even if you have. Instead, make the other person feel interesting and knowledgeable. Once they are at ease, the conversation will flow more naturally and chances are they genuinely will teach you something interesting.