Monday, October 1, 2012

How to talk to your first stranger

At the request of Cat, I will be writing about talking to strangers. She figures that I might know a thing or two based on my thousands of kilometers of hitchhiking. She may figure right, who knows-- after you try out the tips in the post, let me know!

I haven't thought much about this topic in the past, although it is an interesting topic. My post won't be that theoretical; it will be rooted in practical experience. I'll leave it up to you to bring the theories.

I think it's important to realize that when going into a conversation that you and the stranger share a common interest and that you can shape the conversation to find and discuss that interest. Here's an example relating to a potential conversation I might have about sports, a topic that I don't think much about:

Stranger: Hey man, what's up?
Scott: Not a lot, how about you?
Stranger: Good.
*potential for end of conversation or awkward pause or recovery*
Scott: How's your day going today?
Stranger: Oh, it was alright, except the Pats [blah blah sports things].
Scott: Oh that sucks. I'm not a huge sports fan myself, except I:
 - saw that movie Moneyball and it was pretty interesting. I use statistics like that in my job and I think it's really cool how different industries are using technology and statistics to radically redefine themselves
 - went to my first Jays game a month or two ago. I'd never been to one before, and was surprised at the franchise's use of social media / how cheap and accessible to the public a game was / how expensive booze at the game was / how it was funny how hotdog prices went up linearly with how close to the stadium they were / etc
- was getting hcore into biking while I was in New Zealand. Upped my trips from ~20km to up to 50-60km. It's crazy that the limiting factor is your gooch / how big of a role that nutrition plays / how one's mind wanders when you're doing something for several hours / etc.

Two things of note here. Firstly, They start talking about sports, and then I take that topic and relate it to something I'm interested in that's tangentially related to the topic that they brought up. We're now talking about something fun and interesting: statistics, how technology is changing society, accessibility to public events, how old institutions have to change themselves to remain current, or an amusing anecdote related to my experiences. Neat! In this way I'm having a good conversation about something I'm interested about, and they might be having a conversation about something they're interested about. Sports might be the subject, but I'm getting something completely different out of the conversation.

TIP 1: Take what they're talking about, find a relation to something you're interested in, and change the conversation to something that you're interested in talking about.

Second item of note from Example 1. Notice my recovery after Stranger's response to "Not a lot, how about you?". "How's your day going today?" This is an extremely useful sentence. I'm going to say it twice more so you remember it. "How's your day going today?" "How's your day going today?" Anyone who you're talking to is coming from somewhere and they're feeling an emotion relating to their experiences that day. After someone answers that small talk question, take what they've said and ask a question about that. Distill until you're finding something interesting about that person. Here are some other power questions that you can use as a launching point to something interesting:

TIP 2: Use "small talk" / power questions to find something authentic the person is feeling or thinking about and then explore that feeling / thought. Here are some power questions:
- How's your day going?
- What are you up to today?

Sometimes, your small talk questions might lead you to something that you know nothing about. If you're interested, great! If not, great! Here are two such possibilities:

Stranger: ... and that's why my favourite show is Big Brother.
Scott: I don't know too much about Big Brother. Have you seen that fake reality show, The Joe Schmo Show? /  I don't know too much about Big Brother. ... What are you up to today?

Stranger: ... so Newfoundland should separate. 
Scott: I don't know too much about the situations leading NFLD to join Canada. Why should they separate?

I've italicized the important feature in these examples. Acknowledging to the other person that you don't know anything about what they're talking about is huge. You can either let them know that you're interested and to tell you more, or tell them that you don't know much and then change the subject. In any case, don't talk about something you don't know anything about.

TIP 3: Tell the person you don't know what they're talking about. Change the subject if it isn't interesting, or encourage them to tell you more.

That's all I got for you. Here are some other quick tips:

TIP 4: If you don't want to talk to someone, don't. Your life is too short to expose yourself to hate speech or boring speech. 

TIP 5: Pauses in conversations are okay, especially when you have a long time with the other person, such as a road trip. It's only awkward if you feel awkward. I love pauses in conversations -- gives me a chance to recollect my thoughts.

TIP 6: Seriously Cat + everyone else, read this book already. Fantastic read about how to communicate positively and effectively with others.

TIP 7: Don't worry if you put your foot in your mouth. There is a finite amount of ways you can do it, and after each you'll get better and won't do it the same way again :)

Hopefully these were helpful! If you only remember one, say "How's your day going?" in an awkward pause and you'll be good!


  1. As I progress through adulthood I find myself getting better at small talk but it's definitely not something I'm good at yet, so these are good tips for a novice like myself.

    PS I think your link to the book is broken?

  2. Good article Scott. I am going to try remember some of your tips as they sound rather effective. Your explanation were helpful.

    I also believe your link is broken... unless you want me to read Google... all of it...?

  3. link fixed! Dave, plz read 2 googles for me.

  4. Scott, this is fantastic. I've already tried out the "how's your day going" thing in my adventures here in a new city! I think we often use "what's up?" or "how's it going?" as a generic knee-jerk question that doesn't evince an honest or engaging response, so it's nice to think of rephrasing that in a way that prompts people to really answer, and that then helps to connect people. :)

  5. Great strategies, Scott. I like Tip 3. Yesterday I used it at work with someone I don't know very well, but in reverse. When I a topic came up that I could sense the coworker didn't know well, I changed the discussion to something else in current events. To my delight, the conversation did not die immediately as I had feared with the first topic.