We teach kids not to talk to strangers. This is smart. But it’s not smart because it keeps them from getting kidnapped. It’s smart because it saves them from talking to super-boring people.
I’ve talked to enough strangers to know that the real threat is not a potential kidnapping, but a potentially life-sucking conversation. That is the real Stranger Danger.
But as adults we have to talk to strangers. I don’t know why. It just comes with the territory. So we might as well get better at it.
The Goal of Talking To Strangers
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
—Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Work Week
The first question I’d like to tackle is: How do we measure the success of a conversation with a stranger?
Simple. We had a good conversation if we found a genuine common interest.
Hopefully that interest is not kidnapping other strangers, but even if it is, that common interest is the key to turning an uncomfortable conversation into a memorable one.
Common interest is the heartbeat of good conversation. Without one, a conversation is on life support. Our #1 priority in a conversation with a stranger is to find a common interest.
But finding a common interest is easier said than done. This is a stranger, by the way. So how do we move our conversations off of life support and find a steady heartbeat?
The Battleship Strategy
A conversation with a stranger is like a game of Battleship. In Battleship, you discover the location of your enemy’s war ships by blindly shooting missiles in their general direction. When you hit a ship, your enemy is required to tell you whether or not your missile strike was successful. While this is a terribly inaccurate model for naval warfare, it is an excellent metaphor for conversation.
In a conversation, you’re shooting blind. You cannot expect every question to strike a common interest. You have to keep guessing. In Battleship, this is the fun part. In conversation, this is the worst part.
Unless you’re prepared.
How do you prepare? Memorize your missile codes.
Prepare good questions to uncover a common interest as fast as possible. It might be a little awkward to have an opening strategy to a conversation, but the odds of striking conversation-gold go up drastically.
Let me share some of my “conversational missile codes.”
Start by asking about a person’s hometown. Don’t just ask where they’re from. Ask them about their favorite places. Ask them why their hometown is special. Ask them why they left. Ask them why they stayed. People like to talk about their hometown. Ask them enough questions to prime the pump and get them sharing.
If you’re lucky, you might have something in common and not have to ask any more questions.
But if the conversation is just spinning its wheels, move on to the next topic and fire the next metaphorical missile.
Everyone has a family. Most people even like theirs.
If you are unmarried, ask if they are close with family. Ask if they have siblings. Ask about favorite holidays. Let them share what makes their family unique. The goal is to find something in common. Maybe your parents have the same job. Or maybe you are also an only child. Pounce on any opportunity to say, “Me too!”
If you are married, ask them about relationships. If they are single, drop it. If not, ask married-people questions.
If you have yet to strike one of their Battleships, don’t get discouraged. Just move on to the next topic.
Jobs are tricky. Most people don’t like theirs.
If you don’t like your job, find another way to approach this topic. Ask about college. Talk about dream jobs. Talk about terrible bosses. Talk about commutes. Ask about anything from your own experience that might uncover a common thread.
Realistically, this topic is hard to navigate. If your professions differ by too much, it can be impossible to find a common interest. And even if you do find a common interest, do you really want to talk about work? Hopefully you do. Hopefully your life is awesome and work does more than just pay the bills. But for most people it doesn’t. Don’t feel weird moving on to the next topic if you’re still batting zero.
Not everyone has a hobby, but everyone has ways to un-wind.
So ask how they un-wind. Ask what they do on the weekends. Ask where they go on vacation. Ask what they’ll do for the next holiday. Ask if they still play sports. Ask if they read stuff. Ask if they build stuff. Ask if they create stuff. Ask if they collect stuff. Ask if they train for stuff.
Talking about recreation is somewhat the opposite of talking about work. We expect to talk about work (but don’t want to). We don’t expect to talk about hobbies (but want to). The trick is to be persistent. Take your time on this topic. This is where you are most likely to find a common interest.
Resist the urge, though, to jump straight to this topic. Too many people start a conversation asking what a person does for fun. This doesn’t give the conversation time to breathe. Work your way up to it. It’s a goldmine of a topic, but pay your conversational dues first.
E5: Ideas About The World
If you haven’t found anything in common with this person by now, fear not. You can salvage the last few minutes of awkwardness by talking about each others’ worldview (our mental framework that makes sense of the complexity of the world).
So ask what they think about the political climate. Ask if they go to church. Ask if they are worried about the next generation. Ask if they think the world is becoming a better place. Ask about their relationship to learning. Ask about their thoughts on money. Ask them about their definition of success.
We all see the world differently. But there are ways in which you see it the same. Find that.
Questions To Avoid
Highly open-ended questions
Any question that could double as an essay prompt is off-limits.
Don’t ask what she is “passionate about.”
Don’t ask where he sees himself in five years.
Don’t ask why she chose her profession.
Don’t pull the “tell me about yourself” card.
These questions catch people off-guard. What is intended to be a thoughtful question is actually an uncomfortable question. It puts the person on the spot. Conversations move too quickly to contemplate a meaningful answer. Instead, do your conversation partner a favor and keep the questions simple and easy.
This is a conversation, not an interview. Asking “Why do you say that?” is about as deep as it should get.
There are mass shootings monthly. Cancer kills indiscriminately. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Just because something is sad doesn’t mean it’s worth talking about, especially with a stranger. Avoid heavy topics.
Questions About Netflix
Our grandparents can’t stop talking about the weather. We can’t stop talking about television. Because of its ubiquity, Netflix is a near-universal conversation topic, especially among twentysomethings. But talking about Netflix is like talking about weather; it accomplishes nothing. Steer clear.
It’s OK To Give Up
At a certain point you will need to make a judgment call about whether or not this person even wants to talk to you. Some people suck. Don’t take it personally. (Unless they really suck. Then, take it personally and seek vengeance.)
If you need to end a conversation, take charge of the conversation and steer it toward an end. The best way to disengage from a conversation is to engage.
It’s OK To Take Charge
We’ve all had terrible experiences with Conversation Dictators. They either can’t stop talking about themselves or can’t stop asking interview questions. Either way, you don’t want to be that person.
And trust me, you’re not. You read this blog, so you’re clearly one of the better human beings on the planet.
So don’t be afraid of grabbing the wheel in a conversation. Taking control actually puts others at ease. They don’t have to think as much. By taking control of an uncomfortable conversation, you overcome the awkwardness for them. You make it OK to be open.
Don’t think of yourself as a Conversation Dictator, but a Conversation Archaeologist. By taking control, your methodical approach will help uncover the fossil of common interest.
It’s OK To Be Quirky
Just like lightly taking control of a conversation can put others at ease, being a little bit weird can also help them feel comfortable around you. Asking goofy questions allows others to open-up in fun ways. Being a little quirky can break the tension of awkward social situations.
There’s no conversation rule that says you’re not allowed to be yourself. As long as you’re not being weird for the sake of being weird, quirkiness can go a long way in small talk.
Talking to strangers doesn’t have to be terrible. Avoid the terror by preparing a few thoughtful questions intended to find a common interest. Because once you find that common interest, you’re golden.
What was the best conversation you’ve ever had with a stranger? What was the worst? Did finding a common interest make the difference? Share your thoughts in the comments!