The Art of Talking to Strangers … and Why You Should

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Do you talk to strangers? If you’re like me, when you travel for work, you chat it up with the guy waiting to board the plane. You always talk to people in line at the grocery store. Random parents at PTA meetings, waiters, workers, walkers, cab drivers, innocent bystanders … beware. If you’re within arm’s reach, I’ll probably strike up a conversation.

And the stuff you can learn and hear is fascinating. People are fascinating … and they’re wise in all sorts of ways. Yes, all of them. And the opportunities and information that come of this are equally interesting. You can get job offers … hear about current events, recipes, best restaurants, funny kids, arrowheads and bad relatives. You can make new friends or hear hilarious stories about pets and co-workers and gardening projects.

And there’s always something in it for you. Whether it’s a laugh or information, 99 percent of the time, you’ll feel happy after these chats. In fact, over the years, I’ve often wished I’d journaled some of these encounters so I could better remember the fun, from the startling “I have 15 cats in my basement” kind of stuff to the mundane—what great clips of humanity.

Turns out scientists are interested in random conversations too. Commuter studies reported in Psychology Today have assessed benefits, proving that filling waiting time with conversation is more enjoyable for most people. One study took things a step further to find out if it’s only the initiator who enjoys the exchange. Turns out, it’s not. Both parties share in the enjoyment—there’s something in it for everyone. 

If you’re not a chatter … but want to give it a try, lead with a compliment such as “nice shoes” or consider something you obviously have in common: “So, are you from Oakland or are you headed home?” If they’re a visitor to your city, ask them what they saw while there. If they’ve got a sewing project on their lap, ask about it. Be curious. Need more tips? Check out this article. Be sure to take your cues from your neighbor; if they stop talking, take the hint. Also, don’t lead with a complaint. This is not a therapy session. (Recently while on one of the Southwest Airlines flights that was delayed by the computer glitch, a perturbed woman standing in the aisle near me leaned toward a fellow passenger to complain and regale him with information she was getting online about the “problem.”  He smiled, nodded and returned his attention to his magazine.)

If the thought of starting a conversation with a complete stranger is a little daunting, reassures you with this advice: “Initiating a conversation doesn’t mean carrying the whole thing. People who worry about not knowing what to say forget that when you communicate with someone else, you have the use of two brains. It’s not so much: ‘What am I going to say?’ as: ‘What are we going to say?’”

Talking to strangers is fun! Occasionally, stop staring at your phone and avoiding the person sitting next to you. Try it just once—your next business trip, your next commuter train. Look up. Make eye contact. Turn ordinary commuting or traveling wait time into something more interesting.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.