How to Talk to Strangers
My daughter repeatedly asked me to sign her up for gymnastics camp. I kept putting it off because the camp was for 4- to 12-year-olds, and since she was 4, I knew she would be one of the youngest in the class. I worried about her and told her I didn’t want to sign her up because of some made-up reason. Deep down inside, I remember how nervous I was that she wouldn’t make friends. That she would feel left out. That the older kids would ignore her. That everyone would be better at gymnastics than she was.
She looked me right in the eyes and said “It’s OK, Mommy. I’ll just say, ‘Hi, my name is Lucy. What’s your name?’”
I was shocked. She was right. Her approach to meeting new people was simple and authentic—exactly how I try to be in corporate America but often fail because so many insecurities pop up. Will the other person want to talk back if I strike up a conversation? Will they think I’m smart? Is my experience impressive enough? Am I consuming too much of their time?
I think about my daughter’s innocence and have to wonder what went wrong over the years to make me tense up the moment I have to say, “Hi, my name is Rachel.” As human beings, it seems our self-consciousness builds up as we get older. We close off to new people because we think they may reject us. A situation makes us uncomfortable so we turn our backs and run the other way. Our pure intentions to strike up a friendly conversation get overshadowed by our fear that others are judging us. This can muddy our wonder and creates a barrier for us to confidently introduce ourselves and be OK in our own skin.
But think differently the next time you have the opportunity to meet someone new—take your lead from the kids on this one. Watch a child’s enchantment with another child. It is genuine and straightforward.
Fight the urge to wait for others to come introduce themselves to you. Be brave with your initial “hello.” There are ways to get that conversation off the ground.
When in doubt, go with the FLOW:
(F) Family—This is an easy topic for most to discuss. People typically love to talk about themselves, so draw it out of them with simple questions such as: Where do you and your family live? Where did you grow up? If you know they have children, ask about recent family vacations or plans for the summer.
(L) Leisure—Don’t be scared to lead with something about you. Often, this encourages people to feel more comfortable and talk a bit about themselves. “We went to the Bronx Zoo this weekend. I haven’t been in years. It was so amazing. Have you been there recently? (Other person answers.) No, well I highly recommend it. What did you do over the weekend?”
(O) Organization—Talk about groups you are involved in and ask the other person what he or she does outside of work—whether in the community, church, synagogue, alumni associations, professional networking groups, PTA. We spend so much time talking about our jobs that changing up the normal work banter and asking about outside organizations is usually a welcomed change of pace.
(W) What’s in the news?—Obviously, some things are off limits. Religion, politics, things that have a clear divide, no distinct right or wrong, things that aren’t black and white. Stick to interesting articles you read, like the top 20 new restaurants in your particular city or big pop culture topics, and the major headlines.
Take the pressure off of an initial introduction. Go in with the hope of meeting someone new and interesting. Reach out your hand, say, “Hello,” and ask the other person his or her name. Then go with the FLOW.
It’s apparently not that hard—at least according to Lucy.
Rachel Lamb is a consultant at Exec|Comm, a communication skills training firm based in NYC. She helps clients across the globe present, lead meetings, and write with confidence and passion. She can be reached at email@example.com or 212.252.5863.