How to Talk to Strangers?
July 31, 2016 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I’m terrible at striking up conversation with people that I don’t know. Some of this is my thought patterns and attitudes, some of it is my anxiety, but I’m realizing more and more that I just never quite learned how to properly do it.

Apologies for the long and rambling nature of this post, but this question is really of two minds. On one hand, I’m curious about the actual mechanics of meeting strangers and striking up a conversation with them to make new friends, but on the other hand I’m looking to reexamine my attitudes toward friendship and insecurity and get some advice about how I may be able to move forward. If you want to skip all the personal stuff and just have advice about how to actually talk to new people, feel free to skip toward the end or just stop here and give advice on that.

The vast majority of people that I’ve become friends with in the past I’ve met through an already established friend. Occasionally I’ll meet someone through a class or through work, but even then I generally end up getting closer with a friend of theirs rather than that original person. But recently I’ve had a fairly major shakeup of my friend group and find myself in a position of wanting to meet new people without a connection to anyone from my past.

I love going out to comedy shows, music shows, and movies. It’s been fairly rare for me to meet people who actually want to to out and join me in these activities. Maybe I’ll have one friend who wants to see a movie once a week or every other week, and then another friend who wants to go to to a music or comedy show once a month. I’d say about 90% of the time it’s me offering, and it generally feels like pulling teeth trying to get people to come out.

Now, this could certainly be a skewed perception as I do tend to get insecure about putting myself out there. If I offer one or two times to somebody to go to an event or activity and they turn me down, I rarely ask again. But it also feels like I rarely get asked to go to events by others. Part of this may be that a lot of my friends tend to be broke, so they stay in a lot, or I just know a lot of homebodies.

Because of this, I’d say 2-3 times per week I go to some sort of activity alone, because I don’t want to let the lack of a companion stop me from enjoying live music or comedy or whatnot. However, from my observations I’m generally I’m the only one who is alone at these shows, which is very isolating. Occasionally I’ll see other solo people at shows but I’ll have no idea how to approach them or breech conversation, or even what I’d say. Occasionally I’ll be at some indie theater at a cult movie showing or something and see some other solo people folks and recognize that these people probably like the same sort of movies I do and wonder how I can transition to chatting with them. But then either their friend shows up late and they start talking, or they’re just staring at their phone and I don’t want to bother them.

I definitely have a fear of putting myself out there and getting rejected, or looking stupid. I often enter into situations that I’m new to and overcompensate for my insecurity. For example the other night I went to a comedy show in my neighborhood that I’d never been to and instead of walking in and asking “Is this where the show is tonight?” to someone at the door or asking someone waiting in the courtyard “Are you here for the comedy show?” I wanted to look confident and knowledgeable so I popped $5 in the suggested donation bucket outside the door, didn’t make eye contact with anyone and just entered the venue and sat down at the back of the room waiting for the show to start.

I ended up sitting there for 5 minutes looking at my phone until I realized that despite being 10 minutes after the listed start time, the show doors hadn’t even opened and I had barged into the backstage when the organizers were still setting up. The other audience members were just waiting outside, and the organizers ignored me, likely assuming that I was supposed to be there there since I entered with such conviction that I belonged there.

I also notice that I can get very judgemental when I overhear other people’s conversations at these sort of events, especially if I feel like what they’re saying is obvious or if they sound like a neophyte - even if I’m one myself. My eyes rolled last night at a comedy show when I heard two people discussing that they had just heard of the UCB Theater, which is a large comedy theater and community in New York and LA and that most people fairly knowledgeable about the comedy scene know as a bedrock. I caught myself and remembered that there was a time that I didn’t know what UCB was, but my initial instinct was definitely judgement.

I know that’ something I need to drop in order to be successful at this, and I’m trying, but it seems to be a very hard pattern of thought to break.

But (I think) because of these things I’ve never had much success integrating myself into a community of any sort. I’ve taken improv and sketch comedy classes at schools with strong communities, or I go to a lot of shows at DIY music venues with strong communities, but I never manage to feel like I’m ever part of the community there, likely because I never go out of my way to meet people I don’t already know at these sort of events, or because I’m afraid of asking questions and looking stupid, or have some false sense of superiority that is born out of my insecurity. I’ve made one or two friends through comedy classes, but they generally also aren’t people who are part of the community.

I’d say I’m neither an introvert nor an extrovert. I have social anxiety so I tend to be very inward at times, but once I know people or have a modicum of confidence I’m generally outgoing and boisterous. I’d say I’ve been leaning more toward extroversion in the past few years, but I definitely feel like I rubberband between the two quite a bit. And a note: I’m also not being treated at all for my social anxiety, which I don’t feel is debilitating most of the time, but I don’t like the idea of being medicated for it and my insurance doesn’t cover therapy. I feel like that’s going to be a sticking point in getting advice here.


But lately I’ve been thinking that I just need to put myself out there more and strike up a conversation with strangers, whether that’s at bars, coffee shops, book stores, etc. It seems like one of those Habits of Highly Effective People® that I just never quite cracked. I always have had the feeling that I don’t want to bother or interrupt people, or that I’d be perceived as a creep. Part of that may be that the only way that I’ve actually found success at talking to strangers is in a sexual/romantic context in bars or at parties. I’m fairly good at it after I’ve got a few drinks in me and don’t feel like I ever come across as too much or as creepy, but I think I have trouble separating out that same attitude in a platonic context. Or a sober context.

But this also means that when others talk to me out of nowhere, I’m often ill-prepared and feel flummoxed, responding out of panic rather than anything measured, then kick myself two minutes later when I realize that I could have actually had a conversation with that person rather than responding with a short, simple answer and moving on.

Maybe all of these issues aren’t as connected as I’m feeling they are right now, though, or I’m being too hard on myself. Or maybe I’m missing some crucial perspective, or simple way to solve this. Or maybe it’s as simple as “Just put yourself out there and try not to let your anxiety or insecurity get in the way of just saying ‘Have you heard this band before?’ or ‘Is that a detective novel? I love detective novels.’ to someone you haven’t met.” Or maybe even “You recognize your bad habits and poor attitudes, so just do the opposite.” But I’m not quite sure how to transition from where I am now to that.

Am I going about this the right way? Should I start smaller? Do I just go to Meetups and not put pressure on myself to have them be total strangers? Do I completely change the way I think about people, friendship, and my relationships to other human beings?
posted by gregoryg to Human Relations (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Start playing Pokemon Go. (actual serious suggestion).
posted by aecorwin at 11:47 AM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Can you volunteer at these shows?
posted by aniola at 11:49 AM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Go to meet ups. Join a club. Volunteer. Find a new activity. If you're sporty, join an adult sports league! Join an improv troupe. You meet people when they think you're part of their group. You don't meet people by just hanging out where people happen to be- not as often.
posted by slateyness at 12:02 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Those little questions like "is this where the show is?" Are prime opportunities to start conversations. "Is this where the show is? I've never been here before," "it's in the courtyard." "Ok, thanks. Have you been here many times before?" And now you've got a conversation started.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:14 PM on July 31, 2016

Best answer: If you were a brash idiot who automatically thought this was a good idea, you'd be saying that the worst thing that could happen is that they don't want to talk to you, in which case you're exactly where you started: not friends with that stranger. Take the risk, because it's not really a risk. But you know that's not true, good for you! Because on another level, the worst thing that could happen is that the other person doesn't really want to talk to you but can't figure out how to say so, and leave the interaction feeling bad. They think you're some creepy person trying to chat them up for a date, or they just really really like detective novels and would like to get back to reading it please. So my advice is to boldly start a conversation, carry on for 1-3 polite responses, and then say "well, enjoy the show, I'm off to the lobby for a bit" (or off to get a drink, or whatever"). Practice your polite conversation, but do it on a timer so you'll never run the risk of trapping anybody.
posted by aimedwander at 12:23 PM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I definitely have a fear of putting myself out there and getting rejected, or looking stupid. I often enter into situations that I’m new to and overcompensate for my insecurity.

Asking for help is a great way to connect sometimes. Acknowledging you don't know something allows others to have the enjoyment of being the expert / knowledgeable person for a minute or two.

I think it's hard to connect with people at shows or other one-time events. Groups that meet up regularly so that you can see the same people every week or so, over time, are more likely to create successful connection. So volunteering and classes can be one way to accomplish that.

But you can also work on being just a little more social in your day to day life. I do better at this where my goals are small and achievable. Instead of "meet my new best friend" a better goal is "talk to a stranger for a couple of minutes."

Another thing you could try is reaching out to people you already know in a different way. If you suspect people may not be open to attending shows because of the expense, look for free or cheap events and try inviting them to those. See if you get a different response.

One more thing - part of my social anxiety is rooted in the belief that if I talk to people I'll be intruding, that they will be annoyed that I spoke to them. However I have a friend who is one of he most extraverted people I have ever met. Everywhere we go, she talks to everyone with open enthusiasm. And people usually respond to her happily. So one way to think about this is that a lot of other people in the world are looking for a chance to connect, and you are giving those people that opportunity.
posted by bunderful at 12:31 PM on July 31, 2016 [10 favorites]

It does sound to me as though you are being hard on yourself, but some of that may stem from overthinking and anxiety. A few thoughts:

- Have you thought about taking some of the improv maxims to heart? For instance, say "yes, and" to people when they talk to you. If they say something that you already know then add something to the conversation. So "I totally know about UCB but did you know that Tina Fey... etc"

- Part of improv is listening, so do your best to refer back to or repeat what other people said earlier in a conversation - it is AMAZING how much people love you for doing that. Good comics do that too, so that the whole room is "in" on the joke.

- Remember in improv, you can't "mess up". It's just a unique experience when you find yourself "accidentally" in the back stage. You can turn that into a conversation with someone who looks lonely later on "you'll never believe what I did earlier - I totally crashed backstage! I felt like such an idiot." Or even talking to the people who ARE backstage: "I think I kind of messed up here - I thought I was supposed to come in already... Oops! [cue goofy grin]".

- Consider people you are around in any setting members of your improv "team" and do your best to support them. "I don't know you but I just overheard you say you love Tina Fey is the best and I totally agree. She's amazing! Did you see ___"

- Compliments, particularly nonsexual and non-intuitive compliments are really great conversation starters. "I've never seen shoes like that before, they look so cool?" or "I couldn't help but notice that you have a really amazing sense of style - I look horrible in green but you're rocking it." or "Your laugh is infectious." The key is to be authentic and to not have any attachment to their response or to continuing the conversation. If they want to say thank you and move on - that's ok. But you might find that people really light up.

- You might consider de escalating your success bar. Consider saying to yourself that you'd like to exchange words with three people who aren't taking money from you. Decide that = success.

- Smile at people. Heck, just set that as a bar for the evening. I will smile at five people.

- A really really easy place to meet people and talk to them is a church. Hear me out here. You don't have to join, you don't have to go back, you don't even have to be religious but I bet if you go you'll probably be surprised by how warm the welcome is and how many people come up and talk to you and say hello. If it's even vaguely interesting to you, I encourage you to try.

- Consider also that the best way to not be a creep is to make the interaction short. So if you're worried that you're being creepy, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. If someone enjoyed talking to you, they'll let you know they want to keep up the conversation.

And keep trying, it's hard - but it's doable.
posted by mulkey at 1:08 PM on July 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like Jerry Seinfeld's idea for launching small talk: ask a question for which a number is the answer. "Do you know how much longer before the doors open?" "When did you get your tickets?" "How many opening groups are they having?" etc. etc.
posted by Elsie at 1:34 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Everybody's favorite subject is themselves. When in doubt, simply ask questions - not too personal obviously.
posted by COD at 7:27 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's a slight tangent from your main question, but one thing worth keeping in mind if you are going to put effort into talking to strangers, is to pay attention to how you make the decision who to talk to. My partner has "resting nice face" and she gets approached by strangers all the time. They're not generally creeps and as far as I know it's not just guys doing this - most of this stuff comes from people wanting directions or other information, or people who are nervous and just want to talk to someone, or someone who just suddenly feels the need to be sociable "for no reason". It's mostly harmless. But it's always her that people suddenly decide to talk to "spontaneously". You can sometimes see them coming at a great distance: they "somehow" pick her out of the crowd and make a beeline over to start with the smalltalk. She's pretty tolerant of this (more than I would be), but you can tell it's wearying at times. People are pretty rubbish at noticing that they're doing this, so it's worth keeping an eye on that habit. The approach I've been taking with this sort of thing is ask myself whether the person I'm considering talking to looks so friendly that I might be the 15th person to approach them with a friendly conversation starter today.
posted by the existence of stars below the horizon at 10:31 PM on July 31, 2016

As for reexamining your attitudes toward friendship and insecurity, I think you're already there. You seem very self-aware about what you're doing and why you're doing it. I think you just need to take the plunge. So, here are a few things that helped me get over social anxiety:
- I made a goal of talking to someone on the bus every day. Even when it was painful.
- I did actual research about how to talk to people, which I was embarrassed about but it helped. I would recommend the book "How to Talk to Anyone" by Leil Lowndes.

When I started doing this, I became a lot more comfortable talking to people (although I definitely still have moments of social anxiety, and give myself permission to take breaks from being social), and I also started understanding the value of small talk and loose connections with people. I realized it's OK to have a two-sentence conversation with somebody I'll never see again, or hang out with somebody who won't become my friend. It made me feel a lot more connected to people and my community, and it also created a lot of casual ties that have strengthened over time.

I'd also suggest cultivating your curiosity toward other people, and reminding yourself that everybody has something to teach you. When you feel yourself getting judgmental, you know that's really projecting your own insecurity on to them. Pretend you're that friend you have who gets really enthusiastic about everything, and doesn't seem to care if it's dumb or geeky.
posted by chickenmagazine at 4:23 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

In Scandinavia, where I come from, and many other parts of the world, what you describe as "social anxiety" is just normal functioning in society. Like, of course I feel reluctant to talk to strangers—I have no idea who they are. It's not necessarily a medical condition.

My friends who've been to the U.S. all report how strange and unusual it was for them to see strangers randomly starting to talk to one another. Many of them like it and wish we had more of it, but it's not like it's a human universal value and talent to do random stranger chitchat.

I think if you look at it this way, the obvious next step is to find some situation where you get to talk to new people without it being this kind of random spontaneous "hey guy, so what's up?" thing. Like board game nights or volunteering at the art house movie theater or whatever.

Those people at the DIY music communities are probably happy and satisfied with how they've managed to get into those communities by knowing someone or by playing gigs or however they got in there. Most of them probably didn't insinuate themselves into the group by making smalltalk, or?

Basically I think we shouldn't assume that "normal, healthy" people need to be super extraverted and friendly with strangers at all kinds of events. It's totally fine to just get a beer and sit down and enjoy the concert. Maybe then you can ask the people in the venue if they need any volunteer help.

Here's how I recently met some strangers without doing anything extraverted. I moved to a new city where my girlfriend has been living for a while. She works some nights at a little art cinema. I tagged along a couple of times, mostly sitting awkwardly at the counter chatting with her, and meeting some other people who worked there, chitchatting a little bit. Then this cinema organized a small film festival in another city, and I came along, helping out a bit, watching films, drinking wine and dancing stupidly at the party. Turns out one of the cinema people is getting married in a couple of weeks, and nicely enough after the festival they invited us to the wedding (in yet another city), so we went to that, too. I've gotten to know a handful of these people now; they were strangers just weeks ago, and now I feel like we're semi-close in some ways, even though I'm not very sociable in general.

Kinda boring anecdote but, like, that's how social life as I know it works. It doesn't have to be about going up to randoms and cracking jokes or whatever. It's just one thing leads to another in a kind of easy way if the situation is right. And when you're in situations there's always something to talk about, some question to ask, somebody who needs help, somebody who wants to go for a smoke, whatever. Sometimes there's some awkward pause or whatever, but that's fine.
posted by mbrock at 8:15 AM on August 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Random strangers ask me for directions, my opinion on color of plums, what's good at the sandwich bar and I'm pretty relaxed about these interactions. I give compliments, advice, directions and make off-hand remarks, but to tell the truth--I've never had any of these people turn into actual friends. Sure, I see the same check-out clerk, the same bartender, the same UPS guy almost daily, but being a regular isn't the same as being a friend.
I go places alone, I do stuff by myself, and if I am fortunate enough to talk to someone at the intermission, it's a plus.
I think joining groups or clubs is a rather easier route to making friends. Volunteering is also good--at least you'll have something in common and a reliable schedule.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:45 PM on August 2, 2016

I have to put "talk to a stranger" on my to-do list every time I leave the house. Scares the hell out of me every time I do it. But you can't get good at something if you don't practice. A couple tricks I use:

* Give a sincere compliment. Shoes, hair, purse, car, whatever. You like it, say so. Cheers people up every time. Carry on from there. Where'd you get it, what do you like best about it, anything you dislike, etc.

* Ask an opinion. What do you think of this weather we're having? (Always a good one, because there's weather 365 days a year.) What do you think of [insert news event here]? How 'bout them Yankees? I've seen that book you're reading; what do you think of it? Have you read others by that author? Or in that genre? Have you seen this new movie?

* Just blurt it out: "I’m terrible at striking up conversation with people that I don’t know. Some of this is anxiety, but I just never quite learned how to properly do it. I need to ignore my mother's warnings and START talking to strangers; can I talk to you for a couple minutes?"
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 9:10 PM on August 3, 2016

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