You know there’s an industry devoted to telling you how to talk to strangers. Ask people open-ended questions; make sure your body language makes you approachable; nod and really listen. We’ve all read that advice.
I have too, and I’ve tried it — the result was the stranger bolting away as soon as possible, leaving me standing alone looking as if I was just zapped with a stun gun. Even worse, the encounter must have triggered a silent alert, because everyone else I approached suddenly needed to get something to drink, or make a call, or scoot out the front door to make sure the house wasn’t on fire.
Talk about demoralizing. It’s not that the advice given was bad; it just didn’t address some underlying issues of social conversation.
After years as a social oddball, I decided to take action. After all, I’m a journalist. You’d think I could easily talk to strangers. And yes, I can — if I’m asking why a certain car should be rated a “best buy,” or what prompted a musician to write a song, or the best flowers to plant in particular regions. Otherwise? Disaster.
Perhaps my biggest fail was decades ago, when I accompanied my then fiancée, now husband, to a party of graduate students. Here’s the thing — when my friends and I had parties, we’d throw some chips and dips around, crank up the tunes, open some wine, and gossip, kibitz, or flirt, depending on who we were talking with.
I knew the graduate student crowd would be a bit tonier. I mean, the hosts lived in an actual house they owned, not some rat-infested student-housing dive like those that everyone else we knew called home. Yet the minute Wayne parked his falling-apart-Ford in front of the hosts’ digs, I swear I had my first-ever panic attack. Yeah, it was that ritzy. What graduate student lives in a McMansion with decorative lawn lights and a real fountain in the front yard?
It only grew worse when we stepped inside. Take the hosts: Robert had traveled extensively, was a star of his graduate school class, and grew up playing tennis with the infamous Menendez brothers. His girlfriend, Ellen, was her family’s renegade because she chose to pursue a PhD rather than a medical degree. The couple had just returned from a three-day jaunt to Napa Valley, California, and was serving some of the complex red wines they had shipped back after their visit.
A shared species was all I thought I had in common with the hosts and their guests… and that thought shows the mindset that led me to social disaster. Rather than worry about how others judged me or list what qualities I lacked, I should have focused on the others at the party. What were their interests? What could they share that would educate, enlighten, or inform me?
How to Make Small Talk That's Less Awkward
It’s important to realize that everyone feels awkward and uncomfortable making small talk, especially with strangers. The trick is to stop focusing on yourself — that focus is really selfish, when you think about it — and pay attention to others.
I read a few books that dissect social interactions — The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine and The Interview Rehearsal Book by Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro — and I discovered ways to boost my confidence and develop my own social style.
The authors defined some truths that I hadn’t considered. Here are a few that prompted me to step away from the appetizer tray and engage in some interesting conversations at parties and other social events.
1. Get the person’s name and only refer to them as such.
If someone introduces herself as Susan, don’t call her Sue. That’s an immediate turn off, said Fine. Ask. But then remember! Don’t keep asking.
2. Always say your name.
Even if you met the person before, mention your name. We’ve all encountered people we have met before and cringe when we can’t recall their names. Don’t put anyone in that spot, said Fine.
3. Channel someone else.
One of the best ways to rid self-doubt is to take on the persona of someone confident, smart, and engaging. In other words, present your best self or the self you most want to become, suggest the authors of The Interview Rehearsal Book. Actors inhabit the personas of those they want to portray; you will do the same by inhabiting your best self.
4. Seek out ways to showcase your best qualities.
OK, I’ll tell you how I did that, but please don’t tell anyone else. I channeled Christine Cagney from the 1980s TV show Cagney & Lacey. See, I knew how I wanted to appear, but wasn’t sure how to turn it into a reality. I mirrored some of Cagney’s actions in much the same way that the actress Sharon Gless (who played Cagney) likely mirrored female cops she had watched in action. And no, I didn’t think that was phony. I learned how to be my best self.
5. Stay centered and present.
You won’t have an effective conversation if you spend part of it frantically deciding what to say next or wondering if the person notices a stain on your blouse. Again, take your mind off yourself and focus on the conversation. Think of how Barbra Streisand presents herself on stage, suggest Gottesman and Mauro. She is physically and mentally focused, relaxed, and engaged. That attitude allows others to connect with her performance. When you are centered, it allows your conversational partner to connect with you.
6. Approach someone.
Fear of starting a conversation with a stranger is the second greatest fear people have (after public speaking), says Fine. Everyone fears rejection. That’s why it’s great to take the lead. And think of it this way — by doing so, you’re less selfish than those who wait for others to seek them out. Smile, say hello, and ask an open-ended question you think would be relevant. (A lot of people publish “ice breaker” questions; I personally find those awkward, unless you truly want to know the color of their childhood bedroom and why they chose it). When I attended that graduate student party, I would have been wise to ask another guest if they’d ever visited Napa Valley and then ask why they would or wouldn’t recommend going there, or I could have asked someone if they enjoyed red wine more than white, why they chose the graduate school they attended, or any number of other questions. Allow people to talk about themselves and follow up with more questions. In other words, engage.
7. Keep your expectations in check.
One caveat: You won’t always succeed. Some people just won’t talk. I just attended an event where one person was obviously not interested in chatting with me. I don’t know why — and really, I don’t care. It’s fine. Move on.
Everyone feels awkward talking to strangers, but if you don’t engage, you miss getting to know some interesting people. The key to building social skills is to focus on them — as a way to present the best version of you.
This post was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.