Download this episode | Subscribe | Review | Submit a Question
The Almost-Complete Transcription (there are a few added bits in the audio!)
We spend a lot of time thinking about how to have conversations with people we care about. After all, these are the relationships that have the biggest influence in our lives. But what if we spent as much time thinking about the conversations we have with strangers? Could there be new experiences we’re missing out on that would enrich our lives?
Our question this episode: how do you start a conversation with a stranger that might serve as a lead-in to friendship?
FIRST, THANK YOU!
I want to start this episode with a huge thank you to two recent reviewers who took time to leave their thoughts on Apple Podcasts. Captivate the Room wrote, “Communication is hard for so many people and this show helps everyone, no matter whether they struggle with effective communication or not. So much great information and every episode has relatable stories and actionable techniques. We can all learn to not fear saying what we need to say and we can all learn to say things well thanks to this show.”
And Janbanmarie shared, “Beth’s podcast has brought me much relief, helped me with my communication and helped me remain calm when getting my thoughts and feelings out to others. Thank you.”
It totally makes my day when I hear that the show is making a difference in your lives, and it keeps me coming back to make new episodes when things get busy, which they have been lately. I so appreciate each and every listener who sticks with me, and I especially appreciate those who take what they hear and apply it in their own lives. We can bring more peace and compassion to this world, one conversation at a time!
“HOW ARE YOU?” FOLLOW-UP
Before I dive into the listener question, I want to follow-up from my last episode, about answering the question “How are you?” I’d asked if anyone had insights to share about how that question was used – or not used – in any country but the United States. I heard from Kim, who had this to share about what she noticed about different cultural responses to the question:
“When I was living in Eastern Europe for 3 months, I realized that the people in that culture found it SO weird that Americans would start a casual conversation with a stranger with “how are you?” I found that if I asked someone that question, they would pause, be a little caught off guard, but then really open up. It seemed that they were definitely not used to be asked that question, especially by an acquaintance. If they did open up, they felt a close bond.
I never liked how in American culture we would flippantly ask and not care to hear the answer. I felt more comfortable socially in their cultural dynamic. I stopped asking people that question unless I had the time and space to listen. Now I just say, “It’s so good to see you” or, “How’s it going today?” I try to be a little bit more specific. This pandemic has made it harder to have casual conversations with customers at the farmers market without getting too personal.
Let’s move to the focus of our episode and respond to a listener question from Anubhav Singhal:
“I like talking to new people, listening to their experiences in life, and hopefully making friends with them. There have been numerous occasions when I’ve been traveling and I had the urge to talk to the stranger beside me, but I could never do that. Sometimes, I do end up doing small chit-chat, but that’s all. How can I just say, ‘hi,’ and initiate a simple conversation where we share our life experiences and perspectives with each other?”
This is such an interesting question. I read this through my lens as an introvert, and like Anubhav, I enjoy hearing about people’s life experiences, especially those who live very different lives than mine. And when I travel, it’s likely that I’ll encounter exactly those kinds of people!
I noticed something interesting about 7 years ago; I was at a conference in California, and when I was out and about – having dinner, sitting on a bench, people watching – I was downright chatty. There was something liberating about talking with strangers, since we had no history and no future. If I said something goofy or didn’t say anything interesting, the interaction would be over and I’d most likely never see the other person again.
To Anubhav’s point, when talking with strangers, we often end up in chit-chat about rather superficial things. We might talk about the weather or the activity we’re both doing or observing. I often strike up a conversation by complimenting the other person on something – their coat, shoes, purse, tie, piece of jewelry, the dog they’re walking, or other observable fact. That sometimes leads to a little story about where they acquired the item, or what they like about it, or what it means to them.
It’s not a sharing of life experiences exactly, but it opens up a little window into that person’s existence. And I often find myself responding with a follow up question if it feels appropriate, one that opens that window up just a little bit more. Or I might share my own perspective on what they’ve mentioned, for instance, if they got the coat at a particular store I’ve been to, or they talk about why they love the color and I have a similar – or really different – response to that color.
Those sound like tiny, trivial matters, don’t they? But for me, they make me feel a little closer to my fellow human beings in general, even if I don’t form a meaningful bond with that specific person. It always gives me a reminder of our shared humanity – that we all care about something or someone, that we like to be seen and heard by others, that it’s fun to share a piece of our lives with others, even if we never see them again.
This question made me think of those times when chit chat with a stranger led to a friendship, and there are certainly a few examples. One is when I had just moved to a new city maybe 7 months before, and I was at a political caucus event for a presidential campaign. I overhead the woman next to me talking with the person next to her about a book I’d read a few years previously, and it wasn’t a book that you usually overhear people talking about. So I chimed in with “Oh, I’ve read that book!” and we got to chatting. We ended the conversation with her inviting me to be part of their book group. I was part of that group for the next 8 years until I moved again, and now I keep up with their lives via Facebook.
A few other friendships have had their roots in small talk at networking events. What the book group friend and others have in common is that we were strangers at an event where there was a unifying purpose for us being there. I didn’t go into the situation wanting to meet someone new, so it happened organically.
If you have the urge to talk to someone you encounter while traveling, I say go for it! Unless they’re giving off clear signals that they don’t want to engage – maybe they’re buried in their phone or a book, have on headphones, seem to be intentionally avoiding eye contact, or something in their body language says they’re not open to chatting – most people welcome a bit of low-risk human connection.
I’d recommend keeping it light, commenting or asking a question about something that’s easily observed, like a piece of clothing or something in the environment you share. If they’re responsive, you can have a bit of pleasant banter. Asking someone, “Are you local?” or “Do you live here?” and if they do, asking for a recommendation of something – a good coffee shop or place to get a gift for someone back home – is another way to learn something about the other person without getting overly personal.
Just like the question “How are you?” might be received differently depending on what culture you’d in, so might trying to get past trivial small talk topics when you’re talking to a stranger. So much depends on context and timing. My suggestion for your consideration is to release any pressure or expectation you might put on an interaction and just let it be light.
I find myself going back to something I shared a few episodes ago about the different types of relationships we have in our lives – they’re either for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Sometimes that might be a continuum – a person starts out being in your life for a reason, which becomes a season, which becomes a lifetime. Other times, they might stay in one category and never move. I’d assume that conversations with random strangers would be in the “reason” category. We’re chatting for the sole purpose of connecting with another human being, just for the enjoyment of hearing a snippet of their story. There could be times when we find ourselves clicking with another person and the snippet becomes a saga – but I don’t start out with the intention that I want to know their life story. That happens naturally if we make a meaningful connection first.
YOUR CALL TO ACTION
My call to action for you, Anubhav, and anyone else who want to have more interactions with new people and make more friends, is to set the intention to be open for chit-chat anytime, anywhere. Be an observer of the people around you, and if you see something that catches your eye and they seem like they might be receptive, test the waters. Tell them how much you like their shoes or computer bag. See if they give you anything to work with for follow-up questions.
And release any expectations that the conversation will develop into anything more. Just by being interested in another person, you’re giving them a huge gift! We all want to be interesting to others, but one of the ways we become interesting is to be interested in them first.
And if someone rebuffs your attempts at conversation, it’s okay. It’s not about you. They might just be preoccupied or tired or not feeling very talkative. I know I’ve felt that way at times when someone’s tried to talk to me. I do my best to rally, but I don’t always have it in me. And it’s not about them; it’s about me and my energy and openness. Most people appreciate compliments and questions that allow them to help someone else. Those are usually safe ways to initiate an interaction that might end up being a richer conversation than you’d imagined!
If you’d like your communication question addressed in a future episode, you’ll find the Submit a Question form on howcanisaythis.com. And did you know I offer facilitation and interpersonal communications coaching services? If you want to learn more, send me a quick email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contacting me doesn’t obligate you to anything, it just gets us connected so we can have a conversation about what you’re looking for and if we’re a good fit for one another. Please be in touch if I can be of service.
And I hope you’ll share this episode with any friends, family members or colleagues that you think might find it interesting. I also appreciate your reviews and ratings on whatever platform you find this podcast. And please, subscribe and come back for future episodes! Be part of the movement to bring more courageous communication into the world.
This is Beth Buelow, and you’ve been listening to How Can I Say This. Our podcast producer is Paul Messing, and our theme music is by Brett Anderson. Thank you so much for joining me today, and I invite you to take what you’ve learned here and use it to speak up, speak out, and speak courageously.