Have you ever been standing at a bus stop, in an elevator, or at a party and a stranger starts up a conversation with you? Sometimes these chats go well and relationships (either platonic or romantic) are able to develop. Other times, however, something goes terribly wrong and these interactions can end in embarrassment, awkwardness, or confusion. Initiating a conversation with a stranger is a difficult task that many of us do poorly or even avoid altogether. Below are three strategies to keep in mind when you're trying to get a conversation up and running (Garner, 1981; Ratliffe & Hudson, 1988).
1. Find a Topic
Whenever you start a conversation with someone new, you should have an idea about what you're planning to say. Choosing a relevant topic is the first step. Generally, there are three main areas that people use to find a topic: themselves, the other person, and the situation. In my opinion (and in the opinion of my references below), looking at the situation is your best bet when it comes to choosing a topic. For instance, you may decide to talk about the reading load if you're in a classroom setting, the fitness classes available if you're at a gym, the weather if you're standing at a bus stop, or the food if you're at a restaurant or party. Talking about something relevant to the situation that you are in is a great place to start. You're both at the same place for a reason; use this to your advantage. Second, opening a conversation by talking about the other person is another good tactic. This is where complimenting by way of a little harmless flirting could be useful. But remember, whenever you're complimenting someone, especially a stranger, you want to follow three guidelines: make specific and unique compliments, compliment things the person has chosen, and consider compliments that lead into conversation. Last, but not least, is talking about yourself. I would only use this as a last resort. Sometimes, you can come off as arrogant and egotistical if you talk about yourself too much. And anyways, people really like talking about themselves in initial interactions.
2. Ask Questions
Once you've delivered your opening line, asking open-ended (instead of closed-ended questions) will help keep the conversation going. To clarify, closed-ended questions are any inquiries where a 1 or 2 word answer would be appropriate as a response. For example, "Do you like ice cream?" is a closed-ended question. A response to that question would simply be "yes" or "no" without much elaboration. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, require that your conversation partner offer up more information, which can keep your conversation up and running. For example, "Why do you like ice cream?" is considered open-ended because it requires a person to give more than a 1 or 2 word answer. Obviously, the larger an individual's answer is, the more likely you will be able to continue the conversation. In the end, you want to choose an open-ended question that is interesting and engaging. The hope is that your conversation partner will offer up some free information that you can use to continue talking.
3. Use Free Information
"Free information is extra information contained in a response, information that can suggest additional topics" (Trenholm & Jensen, 2008, p. 107). Going back to the previous example, if someone were to ask me why I liked ice cream, I could say, "Well, I love ice cream because it tastes so damn good, but I think I really love ice cream because when I was little, my sister and I would eat ice cream in these rocking chairs on our front porch every summer." In my response, I provided some free information (for example, I let my interaction partner know that I have a sister). If my interaction partner was paying attention, he or she would pick up on this free information that I offered and maybe say something like, "I have a sister too, is your sister older or younger?" Or, he or she could say, "I loved sitting on my front porch in the summer when I was growing up too. Where are you from?" Whenever you're in a conversation with someone, listen for free information so that you can keep the conversation going strong. Also, make sure that you offer some free information of your own so that your interaction partner can also find new things to talk about.
While you may think that starting up a conversation by talking about the crazy weather or commenting on a recent sporting event is cheesy, your opening line is not what determines the success of your interaction. Instead, most people just want to have a conversation that is interesting and progresses from topic to topic. Discussions that drag on and don't seem to go anywhere are boring and usually end in some kind of awkward closing statement like, "Uh... (pause) okay... (pause) well, bye."
The next time you work up the courage to talk to someone new, make sure that you have a clear topic (or two or three) to discuss, ask questions to show interest, and use all of the free information that's thrown your way to keep the conversation going. You never know, you could be starting up a conversation with your future BFF or soul mate!
- Garner, A. (1981). Conversationally speaking: Testing new ways to increase your personal and social effectiveness. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Ratliffe, S. A., & Hudson, D. D. (1988). Skill-building for interpersonal competence. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
- Trenholm, S., & Jensen, A. (2008). Interpersonal communication (6th edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.