Table of Contents
- The Three W’s of Talking to Strangers (Why, Where, and When)
- How to Approach a Stranger (Without Being Awkward)
- 9 Tips to Start & Hold a Conversation with a Stranger
- How to Make a Good First Impression
- How to Talk to Strangers Online
- Key Takeaways: The Secrets to Successfully Talking to Strangers
As kids, people always warn of “stranger danger,” but as adults, you have to talk to strangers daily. How do you approach someone and start a conversation without feeling like the most awkward person in the world?
Everyone has anxieties about talking to new people, but data shows that most people overestimate how awkward they feel in conversations with strangers.
Walking up to strangers can be intimidating and nerve-wracking. But with a little bit of practice and a few tips, you could be meeting new friends at every turn.
Here’s where and how to approach a stranger (without looking creepy), start an exciting conversation, and make a great first impression.
The Three W’s of Talking to Strangers (Why, Where, and When)
Talking to strangers starts with a mindset shift. It is essential to embrace getting out of your comfort zone and sharing your unique personality with a new person that knows nothing about you.
But there is also a bit of un-learning required to talk to a random person.
If you’re willing to embrace a little bit of discomfort, the potential rewards of talking to strangers could be huge:
- Feel a deeper connection to humanity
- Practice your conversation skills in a low-pressure environment
- Learn how to read people
- Understand how people perceive you in different situations
- Gain a diversity of perspectives
- Get out of your comfort zone
- Expand your business network
- Potential to make new friends or romantic connections
Before digging into exactly how to talk to strangers, it helps lay a little groundwork with the Three W’s of Talking to Strangers: why, where, and when to approach someone you don’t know.
- Why? Figure out why you want to talk to strangers in the first place
First things first, define your goal for approaching strangers in different settings:
- Are you looking for new friendships?
- Are you practicing your “people skills” or trying to be less shy?
- Do you want to be more confident at parties and networking events?
- Are you simply seeking a deeper human connection?
These are all great reasons to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Your motives will inherently impact the direction you take in each interaction.
If you’re looking for friendships or networking opportunities, you may want to make an effort to exchange contact info at the end of the interaction.
On the other hand, if you’re practicing people skills or just looking for a way to pass the time in the airport, you’re likely more interested in an intriguing conversation.
Action Step: Use these 11 science-backed tips to hold a dazzling conversation.When networking, prepare to have your social media handle, a unique business card, or a digital QR code ready to easily exchange info with strangers that you feel a connection with.
- Where? Go to the right places to talk to strangers
Statistically, you’re unlikely to have a good conversation with the Amazon delivery guy at your front door. You need to get out in public to seek out people who may be open to chatting actively.
Some great places to find strangers to talk to:
- Coffee shops and cafes
- Public parks, dog parks (if you have a dog), playgrounds (if you have kids), or recreational areas
- Beaches, rivers, or lakes
- Gathering places (picnic tables, pavilions, open spaces)
- Checkout lines (such as a grocery store, convenience store, or coffee shop)
- Cafeterias or public eating areas
- The break room at work or school
- Conferences and events
- Bars and breweries
- Stores or shopping centers
- Airports and airplanes
On the flip side, some locations and scenarios aren’t great for talking to strangers, such as locker rooms, quiet spaces like libraries, or offices where people focus on their job.
Action Step: If you’re looking for more places and strategies for making new friends, check out our article about The 50 Best Ways You Can meet People in ANY New City.
- When? Use body language to know when to approach a stranger
Think about a time someone awkward came to you. What made you feel weird about them? Were they hunched over, concealing their eyes, arms crossed, or had a negative vibe to them? Or were they just trying to start a conversation at an awkward place or moment?
Learning to decode body language cues is a vital skill for any social interaction, but it is essential when you’re approaching strangers.
The key signs that someone wants to interact with you may include:
- Returning your eye contact
- Smiling at you
- Open arms or visible hands
- Appearing relaxed
- Facing their torso or feet toward you
- They are not busy with any other task or conversation
- They openly invite you to sit down
If someone doesn’t want to talk, they may use these body language cues to let you know:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Crossed arms
- A clenched jaw or tense shoulders
- Furrowed brows or a frown
- Tightened neck
- Headphones in their ears
- Grabbing their phone or a book to disengage
- The torso is pointing away from you
It may not be best to approach a stranger when eating, talking to someone else, or busy with something.
Rejection is part of talking to strangers, and it’s essential not to take it personally. In this video of approaching strangers in NYC, notice how people who are eating or trying to spend time alone are giving clear clues when they don’t want someone to talk to them:
How to Approach a Stranger (Without Being Awkward)
Learning to read body language and modify your own is the secret to approaching strangers without looking or feeling like a weirdo.
Walking up to someone you don’t know can be nerve-wracking, but you can take some simple steps to be friendlier so that you and the other person are more at ease.
Step 1: Start with eye contact
Scientific researchers have found that oxytocin increases with eye contact, creating more trust between two strangers. When you notice someone you may want to talk to, begin by making eye contact with them.
But how long do you hold eye contact? Find a balance between darting your eyes (moving your eye contact away too quickly) versus staring for too long (longer than 5 seconds could feel awkward).
Eye Contact Tip #1: A casual gaze for 3-5 seconds should suffice for demonstrating your interest. If someone raises their eyebrows, it could signify they are interested in talking to you.
Prolonged eye contact can make some people feel uncomfortable. If someone shifts their eyes away or avoids your eye contact altogether, this could be the first sign that they don’t want to talk.
Eye Contact Tip #2: If you wear sunglasses or a hat that conceals your eyes, take them off when you want to meet someone.
Back in the old days, a “tip of the hat” was a standard chivalrous greeting to show you’re polite and not trying to hide anything. Revealing your head and face can make you seem more approachable.
Step 2: Smile warmly
As you prepare to approach a stranger, make sure you smile a warm, genuine smile.
But remember, there is an art to smiling.
If you smile too quickly and then fade the expression from your face within a few seconds, you may appear fake or uninterested. Yet if you force a smile with a clenched jaw and tightened cheeks, you could show that you feel awkward or uncomfortable.
Cues of a comfortable, genuine smile include:
- Relaxed lips
- Face leaning slightly forward
- A longer onset
- Raised yet relaxed cheeks
- Slightly squinted eyes
Smiling Tip #1: If you feel nervous about smiling at a stranger, think of something familiar that brings you joy (maybe your puppy or a funny memory). This will help your smile appear more genuine and welcoming.
Smiling Tip #2: If a stranger returns your smile, this could be a sign they are open to you approaching them.
Step 3: Show your hands
Surveys found that people perceive others as more trustworthy when they see their hands.
Hiding your hands behind your back, in your pockets, or crossing your arms may give negative body language cues that look defensive or unreceptive.
This is why it’s so important to show your hands by keeping them relaxed to your side or reaching out for a handshake. This makes you seem more like a friend than a foe.
This video explains the essential details of approaching a stranger and sending off “friend signals”:
Pro Tip: Use our Ultimate Guide to Body Language to learn more about decoding body language cues.
9 Tips to Start & Hold a Conversation with a Stranger
Once you’ve read someone’s body language and approached them with the 3 social cues described above, it’s probably a good sign that you can strike up a conversation.
But starting and holding a dazzling conversation is as much an art as a science. Use these 9 tips to talk to strangers like a pro.
- The opening line
You know that feeling when you finally get the courage to talk to someone but freeze because you don’t know what to say? Yeah… awkward.
An opening line establishes the tone for the interaction. But contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to say something super profound or rehearse a profoundly intriguing question to start a good conversation.
Research has shown that people respond best to a simple “hey, how are you?”
How basic, right?
But it works. It’s easy, disarming, and natural. They don’t have to analyze their response, and you both feel a little more at ease.
Depending on your personality and the formality of the scenario, you may want to use another version of this simple opener:
- “Hey, how’s it going?”
- “What’s up? I’m Logan!”
- “Hello, how’s your day been?”
- “Hi, how are you today? I’m Vanessa.”
Action Tip: Starting a conversation doesn’t have to be super awkward. Memorize a few of these 57 Killer Conversation Starters so you always know where to go next.
- Introduce yourself
Putting a name to your face builds rapport and helps catapult you into more natural conversation. After all, once you know someone’s name, you’re technically no longer strangers.
If you’re at a party with colleagues or other friends, it usually makes sense to introduce yourself and reach out for a handshake. For example:
You: “Hey, how’s it going? I’m Logan.” (reaches for a handshake)
Stranger: “Hi there, I’m Brian. Nice to meet you.” (returns handshake)
You: “You too! This venue is so nice. Have you been here before?”
At this point, you can move on to the triangulation or complement methods described below to dig into a conversation topic and learn about the other person.
Bonus Tip: Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out when to tell someone your name and ask for theirs. If you’re talking to a random person on the street or striking up a conversation with a stranger in line at the grocery store, you may want to hold off on introducing yourself until you’ve talked for a few minutes.
You can say,
- “Oh, by the way, what’s your name?”
- “I didn’t catch your name?”
- “I’m Logan, by the way; it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.”
- Use triangulation
If you don’t know where to take the conversation after introductions, you can use “triangulation” to break the ice.
Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, describes this method in her TED Talk Why You Should Talk to Strangers. The concept is simple. Imagine three metaphorical points of a triangle:
- The stranger you want to talk to
- Something in your immediate surroundings that you can both notice and comment on, such as:
- The food or drink at the bar
- The host of an event
- A mutual acquaintance
- A nearby building with unique architecture
- Someone dancing or performing
- Wildlife (a special bird or insect)
- Artwork on the street or the walls
- Group of kids playing in the park
- Someone with a fantastic outfit
- A sign or menu item in a cafe
Science proves that people are more likely to connect when they feel a sense of shared experience. Take notice of your surroundings and use them as an instant source of commonality. After all, you both happen to be in the same place simultaneously.
- Try a compliment
Complimenting people is one of the easiest ways to initiate or enhance a conversation.
You could comment on,
- Their shirt or dress
- Their shoes
- A unique piece of jewelry
- Their hairstyle
- A bag or accessory
Style and clothing are vital pieces of self-identity that help us portray who we are. At best, a simple compliment on a stranger’s jewelry could lead to getting to know about their family and where they grew up:
You: “I like that necklace. Where did you get it?”
Stranger: “Oh, it was my grandmother’s.”
You: “That’s so nice. What is the charm on it?”
Stranger: “It’s a dove. That was her favorite bird.”
You: “Wow, how special. Did you grow up spending time with her here in Miami?”
Stranger: “Oh no, I’m from New York, and my grandmother grew up in south Texas. I used to visit her there in the summers.”
You can see how this conversation trajectory could easily lead to more questions and intriguing topics.
But sometimes, a compliment is just a nice comment. At the very least, it can make them feel warm and appreciated.
Action Step: Learn to give genuine compliments (and avoid fake ones) with this simple guide.
- Use the Ping Pong Method
To keep the dialogue flowing, it helps to think of your conversation like a game of Ping Pong: it should be an even amount of back-and-forth.
You ask someone questions about themselves to serve the ball into their court.
When they answer, they’ll (hopefully) send the ball back into your court, at which point you can expand on what they have to say.
It looks something like this:
- You ask a question
- They answer
- Talk about their answer
- You ask another related question to deepen the discussion
Pro Tip: If someone won’t stop talking about themselves and refuses to ask any questions in return, you may be dealing with a “conversational narcissist.” Learn how to spot toxic people, so you don’t waste too much energy trying to connect with them.
- Find common ground
Psychologists have found that humans naturally try to create a sense of shared reality by seeking out commonalities with others.
Whether it’s shared interests, beliefs, or perceptions, people actively search for ways to connect their reality to something familiar.
For example, while waiting in line at a coffee shop, you can use a comment about the cafe ambiance to uncover similarities you have with a stranger:
You: “Don’t you love the laid-back vibe of this coffee shop?”
Them: “Oh yeah, I always come here on the weekends to study/get some extra work done.”
You: “Oh, same, me too! What are you studying/do you work remotely?”
Them: “I’m in school to become a vet tech! So much biology and chemistry, but I love it.”
You: “That’s so interesting. I’ve always loved animals, too. Do you have any pets?”
Them: “I have two labs named Lucky and Jinx. They are my best friends.”
You: “No way, I have two golden retrievers! We go to the dog park up the road all the time.”
But sometimes, finding common ground may not be as easy as you’d hoped. There are still a few ways to keep the conversation going:
You: “What were you up to this past weekend?
Them: “I saw a concert with my friends.”
You: “Oh cool, it’s so nice to see live music again. Who did you go see?”
Them: “It was this amazing indie rock band called [obscure band name].”
At this point, if you haven’t heard of this obscure band, you can still find commonalities by asking about the venue, the genre of music, or their favorite part about going to concerts.
Perhaps mention another band you recently saw or say, “oh, I’ll have to look them up. I love discovering new music!” They may proceed to ask you about your musical interests.
If you have heard of the band, you can instantly connect and bring up memories of listening to their music or a time you might have seen them live.
No matter which route a conversation takes, you are more likely to make a connection when you subtly search for similarities between you and a stranger.
Pro Tip: Research shows that people can also bond over common enemies or dislikes. By sharing negative attitudes about something (like, say, both despising pineapple on pizza), people may feel like you are “in the same camp” as them. Just be sure that you don’t accidentally crossover your mutual disdain into the realm of gossip or unkind comments about others.
- Be interested instead of trying to be interesting
The truth is, people, love to talk about themselves.
Just because you don’t have any profound comments or unique topics to discuss doesn’t mean that your conversations with strangers have to be shallow or dull. Focusing on the other person takes the pressure off trying to be interesting.
In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie reminds us of an age-old tip for connecting with new people:
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” – Dale Carnegie
Instead of trying to impress strangers by being interesting, just focus on being interested in them. When in doubt, ask questions and show a genuine curiosity about the other person.
Action Tip: As you practice conversing with friends, family members, and strangers, keep a mental list of your favorite questions to ask people that demonstrate your interest in their lives.
Some great questions to ask include:
- Are you working on any exciting projects lately?
- What’s your favorite type of food?
- Where did you grow up?
- Do you have any hobbies?
- How did you do [the job/hobby/performance you’re discussing]?
- Do you listen to any podcasts?
- What brought you to [current city/place]?
- Assume closeness and act like a friend
At first, it may sound weird to “assume closeness” with someone you don’t know. This doesn’t mean asking probing questions about their childhood trauma or love life (please don’t!). Instead, it simply means approaching them like you would a friend.
You may have heard of Humans of New York, the groundbreaking blogging project wherein photographer and journalist Brandon Stanton approaches strangers, takes photos, and asks about them. Many people share incredibly vulnerable and in-depth stories for the world to read.
In this video, he describes how he has mastered the skill of walking up to people and making them feel comfortable:
After approaching over 10,000 people on the street, Stanton says his “competitive advantage is taking an atmosphere of fear and strangeness and uncomfortableness, and turning that into an atmosphere of intimacy where people feel comfortable to disclose in a concise amount of time.”
His simple secret— appearing calm and acting like a non-threatening friend. Stanton’s philosophy on talking to strangers is more about the subconscious energetic exchange than the actual words said.
Pro Tips from the Humans of New York Project:
- Use deep breathing to calm yourself, so you don’t appear nervous
- Don’t ever approach from behind
- Talk in a higher pitch, less threatening voice
- Physically lower yourself (for example, sitting down)
- Start with broad questions like “what’s your greatest struggle right now?” or “if you could give one piece of advice to people, what would it be?”
- Follow up with a more profound question about something they said
Brandon assumes intimacy with people to disarm them and take the pressure off the interaction.
- Wait 1-2 seconds before you speak
Do you know those who need to fill every moment of silence with a comment, joke, or filler words? Sometimes this approach to the conversation can feel hurried and awkward.
If you answer super quickly, you could be overeager or not confident in what you’re saying. It’s OK to feel a little nervous when talking to someone new, but keeping your mouth moving won’t improve it.
Action Tip: When talking to a stranger, practice taking a slow breath before speaking each time. Let the other person’s comments settle in the air. Use 1 to 2 seconds of silence to show that you are interested in what they have to say and relaxed in the conversation.
How to Make a Good First Impression
First impressions make a difference, but often not in how you think. Your appearance and vibe are the most potent parts of making an excellent first impression.
It’s not about whether you told the funniest joke or came across as the most brilliant stranger someone has ever talked to. It’s more about the feeling someone has after meeting you.
As the great Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When you focus on positive topics, you make people feel positive in your presence.
Positive conversation topics with strangers may include:
- The relaxed ambiance of the location
- What you love about your job
- An upcoming vacation
- An exciting project
- Your adorable dog
- Something interesting you read about this morning
- The good weather forecast
- How delicious your beverage or meal is
- Good news headlines
- A compliment about their outfit
Pro Tip: When you’re looking for a mood boost before interacting with others, positive affirmations are scientifically proven to help you feel more self-confident and joyful. Here are 120 Positive Daily Affirmations for Happiness.
Avoid negative topics
If a person only ever meets you for 5 minutes, would you want them to remember you as a “debby downer”? Of course not! Nobody wants to leave a conversation feeling negative or pessimistic. When approaching strangers, talk about anything positive listed above and avoid negative topics.
Heck, when in doubt, you can even talk about how much you love the antique chandelier on the ceiling of the coffee shop or how nice the rain sounds when it hits the metal roof. Mundanity is not the worst thing in the world, but complaining and or making negative comments can leave people feeling worse after talking to you.
When chatting with strangers, it’s usually best to avoid discussing:
- Negative news headlines
- Things you hate about your job or boss
- Negative comments about the weather
- Complaining about people or life events
- Your bad morning
- Something you don’t like
Remember, this isn’t about toxic positivity. There is no “win” in ignoring bad things altogether. Venting or being a little upset about something is completely fine when talking to your mom or best friend.
But when you first meet a stranger, focus on keeping the good vibes flowing by avoiding any negative comments.
Action Step: Watch this video to learn more about making your first impression count.
How to Talk to Strangers Online
Striking up conversations with people online is surprisingly similar to talking to strangers. But you have one significant advantage: you can take a lot more time to think before responding!
This edge helps you overcome the apparent downsides to chatting online, like the lack of body language cues or facial expressions.
Whether you’re talking to a prospective date on Tinder, trying to meet friends on a friendship app, or sliding into someone’s DMs on social media, here are the unspoken “rules” for keeping online chats interesting and not awkward:
- Keep initial messages on the short side
- Begin with introductory questions (here are 57 conversation starters to use in-person or online)
- Compliment or ask them about something interesting you saw on their profile
- Send only 1-2 messages at a time (avoid sending 3+ more messages in a row)
- Be patient while waiting for responses – some people are busy or not checking their phone
- Use emojis to add emotion to your text (check out these 45 Emojis You Should Know and Their Hidden Meanings)
- Ask the other person questions about themselves (here are 201 Juicy Questions to Get to Know Someone Better)
Key Takeaways: The Secrets to Successfully Talking to Strangers
The truth is that most people (over half of the American population) are incredibly lonely. Even a short chat with someone in the line at the grocery store could brighten their day, or a random connection at a coffee shop could become a lifelong friendship.
The secrets to successful conversations with strangers include:
- Approach in a non-threatening way: Maintain a few seconds of relaxed eye contact, exchange a warm smile, and keep your hands visible to help people feel more comfortable in your presence. Open body language
- Interpret if they want to talk to you or not: Notice the cues strangers give you about whether or not they wish to speak. Is their torso facing towards you or away? Are they engaging in eye contact or avoiding it? Do they look busy, or are they open to a discussion?
- Use triangulation and search for common ground: When you don’t know what to talk about with strangers, look for things in your immediate environment that can serve as initial topics of conversation. Whether it’s the drink menu at the bar, the host of an event, or an intriguing detail about the location, pointing out something nearby can help both of you feel like they’re in a shared experience.
- Expressing genuine interest in another person: People love to talk about themselves. If you focus on asking questions about people (rather than focusing on yourself), you may be able to make more connections with strangers. After all, it’s a lot easier to be interested than trying to seem attractive.
- Point out similarities: As you ask people questions about themselves, take mental notes of things you may have in common. This can make them feel more like friends than strangers. Dig deeper into conversations by focusing on similarities between you.
- Create a positive first impression: Focus on topics you know will leave people feeling good after your conversation. They may not remember the exact said words, but they will remember the overall vibe of your interaction.
Talking to strangers doesn’t have to be intimidating or awkward. It can be one of the most rewarding parts of your day. Sociologists describe “fleeting intimacy” as a brief experience with strangers that makes you feel like a part of the human community and allows for a level of self-disclosure even if you may not ever encounter that person again.
If you want to learn more about becoming a more natural conversationalist, learn the 3 steps to a fantastic conversation, so you never feel awkward with strangers again.