Talking to strangers but not smalltalk
May 1, 2011 4:40 PM   Subscribe

I want to talk to strangers, but not make smalltalk. What are interesting questions that I can ask random strangers, questions that, with just the right mix of playfulness, sincerity, etc., might actually be possible to ask without freaking out myself or the other person? Adapting an example I came across in a random book: "Excuse me, Iknowthisisweirdbut, what's the most important thing you know?"

"(Anddon'tworryI'mnotgoingtoaskyoutoacceptJesusintoyourlife!)" I'm going to look for eye contact and be sensitive to body language--I myself often just want to get on with my day without bother.
posted by zeek321 to Human Relations (34 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (I did look at this: I think a handful of these could work.)
posted by zeek321 at 4:44 PM on May 1, 2011

What context would you be encountering these people in? Ae you looking to talk to people sitting next to you on an airplane, random passers-by on the street, patrons at your local bar? I'd have completely different advice, depending.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 4:53 PM on May 1, 2011

I do this frequently ... in a tourist context though. We travel fulltime in an RV, and in small towns in particular, if I see a group of older men (usually over 60) sitting or standing talking together at a park, or a street corner, or in the local hangout, I go up to them and say something along the line of, "so tell me about your town", or "what interesting stories can you share with me" and invariably, one man out of the group will be more than pleased to take front and center and entertain me for the next hour(s) ... and I get an aspect of local history I never would have otherwise.

Not sure what your goal or reason is, but older men in particular tend to be less cautious and eager to share what they know.
posted by batikrose at 4:58 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: What context would you be encountering these people in?

Waiting for the bus and bookstores come to mind. On the bus and in coffeeshops, maybe--I don't want to bug people that are a bit of a captive audience.
posted by zeek321 at 5:04 PM on May 1, 2011

What is your primary purpose for this? Do you just want to talk to strangers for the sake of interesting stories, or are you hoping to eventually make friends with these people?
posted by corb at 5:05 PM on May 1, 2011

Response by poster: I'm also thinking of this when I'm waiting in a short line or someone's walking down the street in the same direction as me at about the same speed. Ok, no more thread sitting.
posted by zeek321 at 5:05 PM on May 1, 2011

"Hello. I'm zeek321. Where are you from?" With friendliness and confidence to the degree you can muster them.

Has worked best in hostels/travel situations for me.
posted by alexandermatheson at 5:06 PM on May 1, 2011

If you are a guy and I'm a girl, and we haven't met before, there's no circumstance in which the example in your original post wouldn't make me think you were trying to hit on me in a clumsy, kind of creepy way. Small talk exists for a reason: to establish your bona-fides as a non creeper.

Batikrose's first example, though, of asking a question about my town would come across as a good conversation starter. So I'd recommend NOT coming up with a one-size fits all question, but starting a conversation based on individual circumstances.
posted by MsMolly at 5:06 PM on May 1, 2011 [20 favorites]

Response by poster: I suppose my ideal scenario is that they're vaguely my age (30's, give or take), male or female, and yeah, they turn out to be fascinating, and they share my values and we become friends. Or it's just an interesting conversation that bolsters my faith in humanity. Ok, no more thread sitting for real.
posted by zeek321 at 5:07 PM on May 1, 2011

when I'm waiting in a short line or someone's walking down the street in the same direction as me at about the same speed

Sorry, still a captive audience. I don't care if your purpose is to tell me about Jesus, warn me about the impending alien invasion, or try to befriend me. Do not make me have to choose among (a) engaging you, (b) actively ignoring you, and (c) altering my pace on the sidewalk or leaving my place in line.

I'm sorry if this offends, but this is one of those cases where my answer to an AskMe on "How should I...?" is "Don't."
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 5:16 PM on May 1, 2011 [36 favorites]

Best answer: Thanks for the clarification, zeek. Okay, with that in mind, this is actually one of my life skills, striking up conversations with total strangers that lead to friendships, etc, so prepare for exhaustive answer.

First, walking down the street, same direction, same speed, is not a time for striking up conversations with strangers. I know how tempting it could look, but in fact, it is only a time to speak to them if you are absolutely certain that you share something meaningful, and even then, I'd consider it deeply.

When they are stationary, and you are stationary, and they are not already engrossed in something (phone, iPad), then yes, it is acceptable to say something, but /not/ asking random questions. They don't know you yet, they have no reason to answer them. You want to bring value to the conversation-and also, if you're looking for friends, you want to /get/ value from the conversation. So you want to approach people with something that you may be able to spark conversation about. The book in their hand, their quirky shirt, if you happen to catch their eye right after witnessing something amusing. Also, what is incredibly, incredibly key, is to demonstrate a willingness to go back to your previous position of motionlessness, so that you /don't/ look creepy. You've demonstrated your willingness to talk, you've done it, you leave the ball in their court on how to respond.

An example that I used to strike up a real friendship:
(1) "I'm sorry, I couldn't help but notice your tattoo. The coloring is incredible, was that done locally?" I have approached them on a subject of mutual interest (tattoos). I have given value (genuine compliment) and requested value (Can this also benefit me?) Upon getting the answer, I thanked them and went back to what I was doing. (browsing) A few moments later, they re-engaged me. I have found that to be crucial-allowing others the choice of whether to continue or not.
posted by corb at 5:35 PM on May 1, 2011 [56 favorites]

"Excuse me, Iknowthisisweirdbut, what's the most important thing you know?"

I live in Chicago. I would assume a question like that from a stranger is a prelude to hitting me up for money. (I've heard story lines you wouldn't believe.) So my response to a question like that would be a polite smile and a half-rude turning away.

If I may suggest, "small talk" is the gateway to meaningful interaction. It's not to be avoided; it is your friend. This is how strangers discover what they have in common. But the interaction needs to be organic to the circumstance, and that doesn't typically happen in a line, short or long.

That's just how it works.

(Sweet question, though. It made me remember my less jaded self.)
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:37 PM on May 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Talking to random strangers is a tricky one. Any "meaning of life" type question is likely to make me think that you're a bit weird.

From your profile, you're in Philly, which is a city in my book. And in cities, people tend to treat their commute / coffee time as "personal space" time, and not welcome any interruption to that.

If you have to do this, definitely scale back your opener to something innocuous relating to the environment that you're in. Or something about them (like the book they're reading). Smalltalk, in summary.

If you really want to dive into something meaningful, then I think you have to accept that a very VERY large proportion of people will react badly - although I guess there will be the odd person here and there who will take your question at face value and give you a thoughtful response, so it might be worth it, depending on your tolerance levels for rejection.

Think about how you would feel if the bloke behind you in the queue at Starbucks tapped you on the shoulder and said "so, what was your earliest memory?" or the woman sitting next to you on the bus turned to you and asked "so what do you think about the Arab Spring?". I would think "WTF? Creepy!". If the question was "hmm, I can understand it's a skill and all that, but do you know any 10 year olds who want to be a barrista when they grow up?" or "I've always wondered why they make you wear seatbelts in cars but not in buses!", then I'd be less creeped out and probably respond.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for conversations with random strangers - I've been known to chase women down train platforms to ask them where they got their shoes, and had lots of great conversations on London night buses by asking "so, have you had a fun night?". But the key for me is starting off with smalltalk... And giving them the opportunity to respond if they want to - and if they do, the conversation is on!
posted by finding.perdita at 5:54 PM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Upon getting the answer, I thanked them and went back to what I was doing. (browsing) A few moments later, they re-engaged me.

Brilliant, corb. So here's the thing, often I'm on my way somewhere. I'm bored and in the mood to talk. But I can't think of anything relevant about them or the situation to comment on or ask them about. So I let the moment go. That's what drives me crazy. I'm looking for generic stuff that doesn't require something specific about the situation. I tend to dress pretty drab and boring, so I tend to wonder if other drab and boring people that don't have a distinctive tattoo or whatever are interesting and worth talking to. And I hate sports, I can't bear to talk about the weather, and I already know the time.

So I should notice stuff that makes me curious, and ask about it, perhaps. I try. (Maybe another question is, what are interesting things about people that I might overlook that would be worth asking a quick question about?)
posted by zeek321 at 6:18 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh god, when I'm doing my own solitary thing in a bookstore or at a bus stop or where ever, it really doesn't matter, and some person tries to make friends, it's all I can do not to run away. I wouldn't start a conversation like this with a stranger unless they've already smiled at you or made a comment or shown a sign of being interested and friendlier than average. People are not out in public to "bolster your faith in humanity." They want to do their thing and they want you to leave them alone.
posted by MadamM at 6:20 PM on May 1, 2011 [26 favorites]

I have an ex who was extraordinarily great at this; but she's a tiny happy-go-lucky extra-outgoing cute little girl (you can tell that she's starting her 30's, but she could pass for a teenager).

If you're going to go this route, hit up old(er) people. Most pet walkers seem to be really annoyed by people asking about their (a-typical) pet, but older pet walkers (like, retirement age) tend to me more open about talking about their pet. If the caretakers are taking it really easy (like, not taking Fluffy out as a chore, but out with Fluffy to chill outdoors), smile, say hi, and if they're receptive, ask if you can play with their pet.

Talking with older people, smile, nod, say hi. I think that establishing that they're willing to spend time/attention to speak with you first is important. I've run across more than a few seniors who were more than happy to engage me, first, in conversation. A few of them were pretty interesting.

After that, ask whatever you want. Most people aren't interested in engaging with strangers. The key is to figure out who's receptive.

Unless the person is developmentally disabled (I have a soft spot and will make time), random people who hit me up for conversation on the street annoy the hell out of me, and in my experiences have never been interesting, and it especially irks me to be polite and politely end the conversation when my mood typically dictates me to say, "Fuck off."

Spontaneously developing a conversation with a random stranger on the street is different - but someone trying to start a conversation... totally different.
posted by porpoise at 6:21 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm trying and failing to come up with good ways to approach strangers in public with the goal of entertaining yourself when you're bored. I am not unsympathetic - but I don't think that Society At Large wants to talk to you. Do you have an iPod? If your only reason for talking to strangers is because you are bored on the bus or something, that may help a bit.

If you do decide to start asking random people about their animal spirit or something be very sure to be hypersensitive to polite, nonverbal dismissals. In fact, you should probably not start with a question that requires an answer, but something small like "howdy". If the other person looks away afterwards, or keep reading their book, or has earbuds in, or has a kid, they are probably not interesting in conversation. If they keep talking in return, it's a green light until they demonstrate one of the aforementioned behaviors.

Once again, I know that asking strangers about the most important thing they know is appealing, because it's an interesting premise. But it's a weird thing to ask. If you came up to me out of the blue, on the street, and said "Excuse me, Iknowthisisweirdbut, what's the most important thing you know?" I would gape and not like it at all because you are kind of breaking the social contract there with that question.
posted by amicamentis at 6:28 PM on May 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the only way to do this is to ask something generic about what you are both 'did the 63 bus already pass by' or whatever. But I guess the generic-ness makes it small talk. I don't think you can just jump into 'deep' conversations, unless it is very late and alcohol or some other type of social lubricant is involved! But if you want to say innocuous things without pushing it to strangers around you doing the same thing at the same time, I don't think there is anything wrong with that!
posted by bquarters at 6:50 PM on May 1, 2011

Agreed with other folks that, if you don't have something specific to say, using smalltalk is the way to prove to another person that you're not a creep, selling something, proselytizing, begging, or all of the above. I've had plenty of pleasant chats with strangers but they mostly started as targeted questions (getting directions or the time or the bus schedule, admiring someone's lunch, asking what I'm doing when I'mknitting, asking the age of someone's child). I've had a few people do the sort of thing you're describing and it's always some kind of con, to the point where now I'd have my guard up as soon as you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, or whatever. You can get to real stuff pretty quickly if the person gives you a conversational hook to grab onto--that's the indication that they're interested in talking to you, so then you're on much safer ground.

(Oh, and doing this if you're keeping pace with someone? Don't do that. If someone did it to me I'd walk to a public place, firmly say good-bye, and stay there for a while to make sure you weren't following me home. Exceptions to all this if it's someone you see every day, or a neighbor or something.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:51 PM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Please don't do this. It's creepy and intrusive. If it were me that you asked not-small-talk-ridiculous-"interesting"-questions of, I would bristle. I don't want to tell you what the most important thing I know is while standing in line for coffee, waiting for a bus, sitting on a bus or, frankly, not being your friend already. Why? You're not being charming or interesting. You're being someone who is freaking me out.
posted by kirstk at 6:54 PM on May 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

Sometimes when strangers talk to me out of the blue I feel obligated to respond in a friendly way, even when 99.9% of the time I'd rather be left alone - you're still likely to intrude on people even if you're looking out for overt "go away" cues. Maybe you would be better off asking, "How can I non-intrusively communicate to others that I'm bored and in the mood to talk?"
posted by DingoMutt at 6:56 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Its surprisingly easy to turn small talk into a deeper conversation. You just have to build up a little trust. Innocuious comments signal that you are in the mood to talk, something generic, like bquarters said. Then, agree with them on something that you ask and they respond to (e.g. asking a question then agreeing with them on some particular topic, like the weather being too hot or something about their favorite sports team not being good enough to make it to the playoffs). If they don't respond loquaciously, you should stop, otherwise, you're in! Then you have to segue into what their life and interests are like (e.g. do they have kids, hobbies, where they're walking to. It helps to be observant, such as noticing a wedding band, the fact that they're wearing sneakers with a suit, what they're carrying, stuff like that). Then you turn it into a deeper question where they're giving advice, such as: what is the best advice you could give to a beginner at [activity] or why did you start doing [activity]. This lends itself to deeper conversations because you can connect their advice with their personal philosophy or important advice they have received (sometimes. a lot of people unconsciously or consciously put up defenses to protect themselves from too much prying. alcohol, time/familiarity, distracting activity all help break down these barriers.). Its really fun trying to get to the heart of what people think (its also sometimes visibly uncomfortable for the other person, which kind of makes it a little more fun) but you will come off as creepy and/or prying to some people. ignore those people.

HOWEVER, if somebody does not want to talk, don't force the issue. If you don't get eye contact and positive body language, you're pissing off this person (some fun can be had with annoying people enough that they are forced to move away. don't make this a habit at places that you frequent). A lot of people are unfriendly, not because they don't like you, but because they happen to not want to talk. Don't take it personally.
posted by wayofthedodo at 7:08 PM on May 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Looking at this from a slightly different angle, you'd probably be well served by doing things to make yourself more interesting to strangers that might have interests in common with you. Although this is a less universal solution than what you're asking for, doing stuff like wearing unusual clothing, sports team gear, band t-shirts, shirt/hat/whatever with the name of someplace you've visited or lived previously, carrying books/magazines/a bag from a cool store, etc. that say something about who you are or what you do are all things that can generate cool conversations with strangers, especially with more niche type interests (e.g., I will often chat with strangers wearing non-local sports team stuff, but am much less likely to do so with strangers wearing local team stuff; I will definitely speak to someone reading Infinite Jest but wouldn't bother to talk to someone reading Dan Brown).
posted by jimmysmits at 8:15 PM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you're not above bullshitting:

carry a camera: say excuse me--would you mind taking a picture of me? (people ALWAYS say yes) make sure you ask them if they'd mind taking one or two more "just to make sure" then follow up with which one do you think is best? (while scrolling through shots), do you know any scenic places in walking distance, etc...

get a dog. great as pets, and man's best friend when it comes to breaking the ice with women. Just make sure the dog is well-trained--attacking/humping are terribly declasse. walk the dog every evening, taking different paths/routes to the same public and/or dog park each time. During warmer months bring large thermos filled with water. At park give water to dog, and offer water to anyone with a dog nearby

big winner in coffee shops, cafe section of Borders, library (basically any quiet place where everyone can hear a normal tone of voice) before you go in find two or three kids and pay them a couple dollars each to come up and say "excuse me, mr (insert your real last name), can I have your autograph?" Everybody will instantly look--trust me, they will--and then really sell it by saying "sure--what's your name?" before signing. Lots of ways to play this one--depending on how far you want to take it. This also works great in airport departure lounges and restaurants

Grocery stores are tough b/c people aren't there to kill time or relax, and even more b/c shopping requires constant movement. Never going to be in one place long enough to really strike up a conversation.

NB: a lot of guys are going to think you're gay and trying to hit on them if you approach them and try to make conversation. Girls will assume you're not gay and trying to hit on them, and will immediately have their defenses up. Either way, you'll come across as weird and creepy and over-familiar.

All in all you need to manufacture scenarios that will draw attention to you, promote "light" conversation about readily apparent mutual interests, and disarm the built-in mistrust we all have of strangers.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 8:20 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Half the time when I'm commuting or trying to get somewhere I lose patience with even talking to friends or acquaintances. I just want to listen to my music and read my book.

That said, 'I think I know you from somewhere' always works. I get engaged, trying to figure out where Inow them from.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:52 PM on May 1, 2011

How to track a deer?

It helps to be a squirrel. The deer intuitively knows you are no threat. You can give nor take anything it wants.

Some of us can approach random folks, and do. Others can and don't. Others can't and do. Of these scenarios, only the last is problematic.

In my heart lurks a spirit that is genuinely kind, and uninterested in exploiting. One who protects kittens and kids. I polish off the rough edges of it as I progress through life, and hope it's pretty enough to be seen from a distance, and benign enough to not chase off things.

That said, sometimes... maybe 1 to 5% of the time, my approaches fall flat or are ill advised. At other times, a random stranger will love to hear that her agonizing choice of shoes, a particularly cute child, or a kind act got noticed FOR SURE. Sometimes, it's a smile and a thumbs up, and other time it's a "Pardon me... may I pay you a compliment?".

It helps that I am slight, mostly don't look like I live under a bridge, and don't carry openly observable weaponry. I try and concentrate my focus on what I am doing, generally, and let many, most, nearly all impulses to connect take back seat to the comfort of fellow travellers, being as sensitive as I can to the responses, either direct or implied, of those I do consider approaching.

Then, when all is goodness and light, I hit them over the head and steal their goddamned iPad!

Just kidding. Usually, I just go straight for the iPad.

Don't sweat the occasional negative reaction. Life is a process you continually improve. Where do you want your personality to head? Take it there.
posted by FauxScot at 11:32 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

That said, 'I think I know you from somewhere' always works. I get engaged, trying to figure out where Inow them from.

Don't do this. I had someone ask me this once when I was walking through a mall. I have an identical twin sister, so assumed they knew her, because that's happened a few times before. Turned out they were just pretending to recognise me to sell me something. It wasn't the fact that they tried to sell me something that annoyed me, it was that I'd just spent 5 minutes having a conversation trying to figured out where they could know one of us from and felt duped.
posted by Kris10_b at 2:54 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please don't do this. It's creepy and intrusive.

I don't see what's so wrong with wanting to interact with other humans. It's pretty obvious when someone wants to stay in their cocoon and the OP said he's going to look out for body language.

Pets or children have been involved most times I can think where I've had a nice interaction with a random stranger.

I also once was sitting in the beer garden of a pub when my partner went to the loo, when another woman sitting beside me said out of the blue "I don't mean to sound weird, but you have the most beautiful feet I've ever seen". On paper it sounds really creepy but it was actually totally nice and we had a great chat til our friends came back outside.
posted by hannahlambda at 2:59 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

What are interesting questions that I can ask random strangers, questions that, with just the right mix of playfulness, sincerity, etc., might actually be possible to ask without freaking out myself or the other person? Adapting an example I came across in a random book: "Excuse me, Iknowthisisweirdbut, what's the most important thing you know?"

Although it doesn't sound like it from your follow-ups, if you just want to ask random people random questions, just carry around a hand-held voice recorder. Hold it up and and say "Hi, would you mind answering a quick question for a project I'm doing?" That gives you a reasonable excuse to be bothering them, and it gives them a socially acceptable way to completely ignore you (since declining to be recorded for a project is more straight-forward than ignoring someone directly engages you in conversation). If they ask you what the project is, you can just be honest and say that you're just interested in hearing what people have to say.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:54 AM on May 2, 2011

So here's the thing, often I'm on my way somewhere. I'm bored and in the mood to talk.
I don't see what's so wrong with wanting to interact with other humans.

You are both Extroverts. You get energy by talking to other humans. You make up about 60% of the American population (different cultures, different ratios). But here's the thing -- 40% of us (with a higher percentage on MetFilter, I think) are Introverts. We lose energy by talking to others. Please learn this about us, and don't get so irritated when we don't want to talk to you.
posted by Rash at 9:25 AM on May 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seconding wayofthedodo. This is what small talk is for -- for bridging the gap between nothing and real talk.

That said, there's a skill to making small talk work for you. Learn how to notice things about new people that suggest topics that might lead to big discussions, and particularly to things you have in common. This takes practice and a willingness to fail. The key is finding a real-conversation-opener that takes the right amount of risk. If you can take a few moments to talk small and then hit someone with a question that reveals some perceptiveness into the kind of person they might be, then you can often skip a lot of intermediate levels of conversation.

There are people who respond well to random strangers asking them Big Questions. I know a few people like that, but most people -- most interesting people, even -- are very much not that way.
posted by gurple at 3:00 PM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't lead with a question out of the blue -- that puts people on the spot and isn't fair to people who don't want to talk. If you make a good-natured observation, the other person is welcome either to follow up (if they feel like talking) or just smile and say nothing.
posted by tangerine at 4:42 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing, I've had memorable conversations that reaffirmed my faith in humanity with strangers at bus stops and whatnot--but they've always come about organically, i.e., after establishing preliminaries of "hey you're not a creep, you get how this social interaction thing works" via, yeah, comfortable small talk. They can't be forced outright.

Sometimes questions here feel like basically "how can I shortcut this social thing and not go through the channels we're all familiar with to get what I want" and sometimes I think the answer if usually "you can't". That is sort of how I'm feeling right now.

And I agree with the above sentiment that anyway, people out in public don't exist to interest you or inspire you or whatnot. Not that you said that, but it seems like an undercurrent beneath the question, one many people I've known (especially in college) sort of hold without realizing it. Life-affirming moments and social connections are happy accidents or lucky timing or whatever, it's hard to imagine trying to force them about, like that by definition would ruin the moment or something.
posted by ifjuly at 10:19 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because of the examples you give in your question, everyone's pretty much focused on situations like sidewalks or lines. But there might be some environments that are conducive to small talk amongst strangers.

Poker in a casino is a great one, although a lot depends on whether you're sitting on the side of the table with the outgoing chatty types, or the stone-cold silent ones (that rigid divide seems strangely common). And most importantly, it can get kind of expensive if you're not actually good at poker.

Working certain retail jobs would work also, where chatting with customers is pretty much commonplace. May I ask what kind of job you currently have?

And it sounds like you're thinking of a "cast a wide net" approach, but perhaps the usual MeFi recommendation of things like, classes, and volunteering would work also.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:16 AM on May 5, 2011

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