The Secret of Striking up a Conversation with a Stranger
A little while ago, when I was single, I did an experiment. I wanted to know how many people would choose to speak to me on a regular day in London; in effect, how easy it was (or wasn’t) to meet new people. I decided I wouldn’t initiate a conversation with anyone; I would only speak if spoken to. I’d be polite, but that was it.
It was a pleasant sunny day in early summer. I waited at the bus stop, got the bus and went for a walk around town...nobody spoke so far. I went to the shops, bought some lunch, sat on a bench and ate it. Nothing. The novelty was beginning to wear off now and I started to feel a little paranoid. Why did nobody even thank me when I paid them? Or want to join me on the bench in a busy park? Did I smell? No. Well then, what?
I decided to go to a tourist spot, a museum. Maybe somebody would aim to sell me something or ask directions. My phone beeped; my heart leapt. Was it a call? No, just a text; technically, didn’t count. Darn.
In the evening, I took myself off to the theatre with a ticket I bought online. A social event. Surely someone would say something, even if they were only trying to get to their seat! I handed over my booking reference, the box office attendant barely looked at me never mind spoke, as she handed over my ticket. I took my seat (in the middle of a row) and watched the show. The interval came, I picked up my drink, which I had pre-ordered using the required form and stood there watching everyone else having a jolly good chat. By this point I was feeling positively invisible. After the show, I used my Oyster card to get my bus and went home. By this point I’d practically resorted to talking to myself! A whole day, in the presence of hundreds, if not thousands of people and not a word. I began to wonder what it must be like for people who live alone in my city and aren’t naturally chatty.
Yes; without doubt, it can seem difficult to strike up a conversation. So what’s wrong with us that means people don’t want to speak to us? Was there something wrong with me? Well, interestingly, the following week I decided to repeat my experiment. I wore the same clothes, the weather was similar and it was the same day of the week. There was however, one key difference; I had decided to smile. I would smile and, when appropriate, make a point of making eye contact with the people around me.
Not even one minute out of the door and I’d had two ‘Good Mornings’ and one ‘Excuse me’. This carried on; the bus driver said ‘Alright’, a chap offered me a seat on the (not particularly busy) bus and I could barely bat the shop assistants off. From conversations on shared benches all the way through to chats about the show I’d booked and even an exchange of business cards, the day was filled with conversation - and I hadn’t started them.
What’s it all about then? I looked the same sort of person - or did I? You see, I had thought that it was something about me that meant people didn’t want to speak to me. As though people were judging me. In a way, of course, that is true; it would seem they were weighing up whether I was a nice person or not, and I guess we all associate a smile with someone pleasant and open. But I think there is more to it than that. Rather than me being rejected as someone people didn’t want to speak to, I wonder whether actually it was, by and large, their fear of rejection that stopped them speaking. After all, someone open and nice is far more likely to respond. So often we have a sentence running through our heads that we'd like to say to someone, but won’t say it out loud in case we look ‘stupid’ and the other person doesn’t react positively (or at all). So, perhaps the judgement isn’t about them deciding they don’t like you; it's trying to decide whether you will like them.
Where does this lead us? You don’t need to be the most gregarious person or even the most outgoing to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Nope - the secret, it would seem, is simply in a smile.