How to talk with strangers

Anyone who’s an extrovert can probably stop reading this now. The hard work of meeting other people doesn’t exist in your world. But for those on the introvert-ambivert end of the spectrum, perhaps these reflections on how to talk with strangers may help.

If you internally freeze joining a large crowd of people, or find yourself taking deep breaths as you enter even a small room of unknowns, you’re not alone. The first official Myer-Briggs analysis (in America in 1998) put just over 50% of us into the I, or introvert, category – despite an ‘educated guess’ by one of the founders decades earlier making the percentage much smaller. I know that’s where I land on analysis, despite this confession shocking many people I tell!

What other’s reactions to my revelation proves is that years of practice does reap rewards! Your personality doesn’t have to be a life sentence; all it indicates is your starting point.

Although I still do mental prep work before I step out in some contexts (“You can do this Sharon!”), an introversion rating need not equal social awkwardness. And given this time of year often places us in situations with an expanded circle of unknown people, I thought I’d reflect on some of the things I’ve learnt about not merely surviving those Christmas and end-of-year parties, but actually doing ok:

Getting started:

A key moment of terror is when you first arrive. Entering the room with another person can help. In fact, it’s even ok to hang off the energy of an extrovert to start with, whilst you warm up. There’s nothing wrong with standing round the edge of a group for a while. Just don’t stay there forever – the temptation to stick with only those you’re familiar with guarantees comfortable but boring conversation. Launch yourself out. You can always come back!

Beyond the name swap:

Unless there’s an obvious alternative topic, it’s ok to do some basic fact swapping for the first bit of chatting with a new person. What do you do, how did you come to be here’s fine to start with. But you’re looking for an interesting bounce – a way to switch to something more engaging for you both. What can you find in common? Yours and their plans for the next few months is a safe version of that, but if your new friend throws out an alternative, go with it. Two things to keep in mind: firstly, small talk is happy talk (it’s rare you’ll both enjoy talking about someone’s bad something), and secondly, good small talk is mutually beneficial. Either party bored isn’t the goal.

When it gets awkward:

One of my biggest weaknesses is trying to drag things out when the conversation’s run dry. A 5 minute chat’s perfectly normal. It’s ok to expect that much of your mingling won’t last the whole evening, so learn to read the signals and feel free to move on. Just do the exit well. Use yourself as the excuse, not them -“I’m going to get a drink” – face the person straight on, look them in the eye and use their name. “It was nice/fun meeting you ____, I’ll see you round.” Then comfortably walk away.

Work to your strengths:

You’re more than an introverted personality – there are other parts of you as well. Work with those aspects of who you are too. Some of us are competitive. Well, set yourself a goal. Aim to meet one more new person than you did last time. Use your trait in a good way, rather than limiting your options.  Or consider being quirky instead of smooth, if that’s a reflection of who you are. There’s something undeniably fun about a person who says, “I’m hugely over-caffeinated right now, so I may pass out at some point. How’s your year gone?” What’s your equivalent line? – there’s nothing wrong with working on one or two now! If you’re a helping kind, handing round drinks or food might be a useful tool.

And finally:

Do the maths. If one of every two people finds talking with strangers hard, and this new person doesn’t have a laughing crowd hanging off their elbow, its quite possible you’ve just met someone similar to yourself! So don’t feel too bad about your discomfort, you’ll be fine. Oh and as a last resort you can always ask questions! Most people these days are quite happy to talk about themselves at length. Just be ready to keep that polite smile plastered on your face!

I’m curious to know you’re best tip for talking with people you don’t know. Why don’t you share it with us?