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I saw the lady with the bright red hair most days. I was a few months into maternity leave and we’d cross paths in the park as we did the same circuit round and round with our buggies. It took a couple of weeks before we caught each other’s eye and smiled. Another week before we got to a ‘hello’. Then, one day, we found ourselves in the cafe at the same time.
Carla was the one who broke the ice, saying something along the lines of, ‘So, are you as exhausted as me?’ It turned out we lived a few roads apart and we had lots in common – favourite books, TV shows, even a mutual friend. Our children are six now and more like siblings. I’m still so glad she took a chance and risked talking to a total stranger.
We could just as easily have never spoken – in the age of smartphones, it’s all too easy to lose yourself in the world on your screen rather than talk to someone new. We find it hard trying to keep up with family and friends as it is – why chat to people you don’t know? But there’s something special about talking to a stranger. Whether it’s a chat about the weather or a shared joke in a supermarket queue, finding common ground with a new person can be life-affirming, says communication expert and author Rob Kendall, of conversationexpert.com.
A study from the University of British Columbia shows even small exchanges can give us a greater sense of belonging. People who took the time to have a little bit of interaction with the barista who served them coffee (smiling, making eye contact, having a brief conversation) felt more positive than those who grabbed their drink and headed straight for the door.
And who knows where small talk might lead? ‘It has an amazing ripple effect,’ says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art Of Small Talk (Piatkus, £9.99). Conversation is the catalyst for our relationships and the glue that holds them together. Start a good conversation and you never know whether it’s going to lead to a new friendship or a new job.
A friend of mine, Alice, was on holiday in Washington DC last year, and got talking to a lady in the Starbucks queue. ‘She heard our accents and started talking to my children,’ she explains. ‘It ended with her taking us up on the roof of the building she worked in that had a view of the White House lawns, and she told us fantastic stories of life in DC in the lead up to the election.’
If all this wasn’t enough, taking the time to talk to strangers can actually be good for your health. According to research from the University of Michigan, people who show high levels of social cohesion were less likely than others to have heart attacks.
But while there might be all kinds of benefits, starting a conversation with someone you’ve never met isn’t easy. In 2016, Jonathan Dunn, an NHS worker originally from Colorado, handed out 500 badges at Old Street Underground station in London. The badges said, ‘Tube chat?’ and encouraged strangers to talk to each other on their commute. Some people reacted with horror. ‘Don’t ever ever ever in your life make eye contact let alone talk to a Londoner on the tube. Only a psychopath would do that,’ read one of the more restrained tweets.
A certain amount of reluctance is understandable. If you’re a woman on your own, talking to a stranger may not feel safe. And who has time, when it feels as if we can’t even manage five minutes to talk to our real friends?
Then there’s dreaded small talk. According to a survey by Age UK, a third of us avoid making small talk at all costs, even hiding to make sure we don’t catch anyone’s eye.
It’s time, says Debra Fine, we got over the idea of small talk being painful. ‘Small talk has a bad rap as the lowly stepchild of real conversation,’ she says. But ‘without it, you rarely get to real conversation’.
Great conversationalists aren’t born, they’re made. Rob Kendall might have made a living from teaching others how to have great conversations, but growing up, he was introverted and found conversation difficult. ‘As an 18-year-old, I went to India and volunteered in a hospital, and on the first day, I felt I had nothing to say to anyone there, because I came from a world away,’ he says. ‘All I could do was listen.’
This is the key. Feeling comfortable with strangers isn’t about what you say. If you’re worrying about saying something clever, you’re missing the point. ‘People who excel at small talk are experts at making others feel included and comfortable,’ says Fine.
It’s really about attitude. Do you see strangers as an inconvenience, or as a rich source of potential? As Rob Kendall points out: ‘If you think about all the good friends you have now, they didn’t start out that way, did they?’ When I asked around for stories about random encounters leading to wonderful things, I was inundated. There was the woman who got talking to a stranger on the beach in New Zealand and ended up renting that stranger’s five-bed house for her next holiday. Then there was the woman whose train got cancelled and when her fiancé came to pick her up, she offered a lift to a fellow stranded passenger. That passenger turned out to be a jeweller who was so touched by her kindness, he made her wedding ring for free.
Talking to strangers is the sort of thing that gets easier with practice – don’t expect to land on your new best friend or love of your life the first time you try it. Smile a little more often. Make a bit more eye contact. Ask the woman at the checkout how her day is, and listen to her answer. It adds up to feeling that little bit friendlier about the world. And if you’re feeling adventurous, take a risk and say hello to a complete stranger. As Debra Fine says, ‘Go out on a limb. That’s where all the fruit is.’
Five tips to break the Ice
Starting a conversation actually begins with body language. Even if you’re feeling tongue-tied, ‘a smile can be the most effective way of breaking the ice,’ says Rob Kendall.
1. Travel can lead to plenty of opportunities for talking to strangers, says Rob Kendall. ‘It’s far more awkward the longer you leave it, so a simple hello when you sit down makes it much easier to start a conversation.’
2. Make your questions open-ended. Instead of ‘do you live here?’ ask ‘whereabouts do you live?’ – anything that invites more than a yes/no answer is a good way to encourage conversation, says Rob.
3. Find common ground. You will always have something in common with a stranger – even if it’s just that you’re in the same spot at the same time. Commenting on location (‘what do you think of the wallpaper?’) and occasion (‘how do you know the groom?’) are easy ways to connect, says Debra Fine.
4. Practice with a dog walker in your local park. As the owner of a scruffy Border terrier, I can confirm that nothing breaks the ice like chatting about dogs – even if you don’t have one yourself, dog owners will happily tell you all about their four-legged friends.
5. Social media can actually be a good starting point for meeting new people. Join groups on Facebook that share common interests, or work forums, and join in the odd conversation. I’ve been to some great real-life meet-ups for coffee with people I knew only through social media.