How to make conversation with strangers

When was the last time you spoke to a stranger? Research shows that connecting to new people makes us happier, more confident and better understood. According to one study, even the greatest taboo – talking to someone on your daily commute – can create a valuable sense of belonging. In an age when loneliness is at an all-time high, we need new people more than ever before. And yet, reaching out to others can still feel awkward.

Partly, this is because we’ve fallen out of the habit. As we get older, our social circles narrow (research shows this process begins at the ripe old age of 25) and our chaotic lives mean we often leave no time for making new friends. The universal lure of social media doesn’t help. ‘Everyone is on their phones these days,’ says life coach and health psychology specialist Emily Hodge. ‘It creates a physical and emotional barrier to talking to people.’

In this tricky landscape, travelling is one activity that still naturally lends itself to making new friends. ‘When you’re on the road, you have the time and incentive to meet new people,’ says Lee Thompson, whose company Flash Pack unites solo travellers in their 30s and 40s for dynamic vacations around the world. ‘You learn pretty quickly how to get chatting to strangers in an easy and natural way. And the more you do it, the better you become.’

Below, seasoned travellers and conversational experts reveal their top tips for speaking to strangers, in a platonic and easy way. Whether fancy meeting a few new faces on the move, or simply want to expand your social circle, here’s everything you need to know about the art of non-awkward conversation:

It’s normal to feel anxious

‘Talking to strangers is a very common fear,’ says Stefan G. Hofmann, psychology professor at Boston University. ‘In hunter-gatherer times, humans who were excluded from their peer group were less likely to survive. In evolutionary terms, the most feared thing is to be rejected by others. It’s a healthy and natural fear to have.’

Bear in mind that many people are intimated by speaking to strangers; you’re certainly not alone. You could even tackle the discomfort of the situation head-on, by making a joke or being honest about it. ‘Acknowledging awkwardness makes you authentic,’ says Emily. ‘Arrogance is a turn-off, but people respond well to vulnerability, as it shows lack of cunning and manipulation. You could just say, ‘I’ve set myself a task to speak to 10 new people every day’ as your opener.’

It also helps to flip the focus away from you. ‘Humans are inherently sociable, and everyone loves a good chat,’ says London-based events manager Jenni Shaw, who often travels the world alone. ‘Instead of feeling nervous, consider that you could be making someone’s day by reaching out and saying hi. Many people are probably trying to pluck up the courage to come and talk to you, so they’ll appreciate that you’ve made the effort to start a conversation.’

Take away the pressure

The fewer expectations you have when it comes to speaking to strangers, the easier it will be. ‘I think that often people overthink it when it comes to approaching people that they don’t know,’ says Teha Kennard, who quit her job in a large Washington DC firm last year to travel the world. ‘Fundamentally, we are all just human beings. I truly believe that we can learn something from every single person we meet. That there is very little downside to initiating a conversation – it’s not a lifelong commitment.’

Lee from Flash Pack agrees. ‘Everyone worries whether they’ll get on with other people in the group, the first time they travel with us,’ he says. ‘But we usually throw in a challenge – like learning to make Pisco Sours, or canyoning through a mountain valley – at the beginning of any given trip. It distracts everyone, and very quickly, they start to relax and bond with one another.’

Read body language

‘Body language is key, whether it’s eye contact or a smile. Paying attention to those cues can help to identify who might be more open meeting someone new,’ says Teha. ‘That being said, I often strike up conversations with the person at a party or on a trip whose body language reads that they aren’t comfortable being there. Those are the people who would probably most appreciate a friendly face initiating a chat.

‘One of my best friends in the world I met at a university orientation in a large room of very chatty women. She sat at a table by herself during lunch and I remember feeling bad for her and thinking she must be shy. So, I walked over with my lunch, smiled, and sat down. She was wearing white jeans and a white blouse and the first thing I said to her was ‘I love your outfit but could never wear it – I’d be so nervous I’d spill something on myself!’ She couldn’t help but laugh and it broke the ice on our initial conversation. It turns out she is painfully shy in situations like that and was both surprised and grateful that I had gone out of my way to introduce myself.’

Find common ground

‘I love hearing people’s stories, so I often stick with a standard, ‘so, what brings you here?’ explains Jenni. ‘Generally, people like to talk about themselves and their experiences. I tend to ask loads of questions, as this gives you the opportunity to identify any common areas of interest, which you can then latch onto and build rapport from.’

‘Most people don’t mind talking about themselves,’ adds Teha. ‘Start there, by asking the person a few questions about themselves and 99% of the time you will find a commonality of some sort. All it takes is one thing, and you’ve established that initial connection.’

Ask good, open-ended questions that can’t be stonewalled with a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – and remember to listen properly, too.

‘Listening is such a powerful tool, it makes people feel like they’re really being heard,’ says Emily. ‘Focus on common areas of interest, and flatter the other person by seeking their opinions and recommendations. Mirroring is also a good technique for intimacy. If you can match the other person’s tone, body language and pace of conversation, it helps to bat the ball back and forth.’

Be open about yourself

While it’s important to ask questions, make sure that you don’t end up interrogating the other person. ‘If you’ve approached the other person then it’s your responsibility to lead more,’ says Emily. ‘Allow the other person to respond as they feel comfortable.’

Build up chemistry by being candid about your own opinions, thoughts and fears, too. ‘There’s nothing more uncomfortable than one-sided sharing of information when getting to know someone,’ adds Teha. ‘Be prepared to share about yourself.’

This can sometimes happen via activities, rather than talking alone. ‘Flashpackers bond quickly because they share these intense experiences together,’ explains Lee. ‘You’re trying new things and in doing so, you reveal part of who you are. There’s nothing to hide behind. And by being open and non-guarded, you invite other people to respond in a similar way. It’s a shortcut to intimacy.’

Don’t take rejection personally

‘If a stranger doesn’t respond to you, it’s not personal,’ says Emily. ‘That person doesn’t even know you and they would have objected to anyone. Stay positive and friendly. It’s a good idea to ask your friends to tell you what they love about you. Hold their words in your mind when approaching anyone new, to help with self-esteem.’

‘There is always the underlying fear of rejection when approaching a stranger, but you can’t let that stop you,’ says Teha. ‘You don’t know what a stranger has going on in their life or in their head at any given moment. And hold your head high as you take your friendly face to the next potential new friend.’

Face your fears

Ultimately, many of us already have the knack we need to speak to strangers – it’s just fear that gets in our way. In his job at Boston university, Professor Stefan works with people who suffer from social anxiety (one of the most common mental health ailments).

‘People with social anxiety naturally don’t think they have what it takes when it comes to social interactions,’ he says. ‘But there’s no magic formula for it. Most people will be just fine with the skills they that have. And, actually, being a bit awkward is likeable, to an extent. If you’re too confident, it will put people off. So, there’s no big preparation.’

‘We tend to exaggerate social costs of approaching strangers; there will be no arrests, no crowds ridiculing you,’ he adds. ‘There’s a big difference between what you fear will happen in any given situation, and what actually happens. It’s about being comfortable with being uncomfortable.’

Talking to strangers IS a risky process, and it takes practice to feel OK with that. Yes, you might be rebuffed. But equally, you might make a friend for life. And either way, you’ll build your confidence into a habit that becomes self-fulfilling. So, why not take the leap and see what happens?