talking to strangers

"Too nuanced to fit into a tweet"

I’ve seen a lot of people say that Twitter is bad for conversation because things worth saying are too nuanced to fit into a tweet.

That misses something about Twitter. Twitter is mostly about conversations. And it’s possible to have very good conversations on Twitter. Some of which can’t happen easily elsewhere. Twitter is particularly good for talking to strangers.

You can say a lot in one tweet. You can say even more in multiple tweets — especially if you’re having a conversation with other people.

The number of characters in a tweet is limited. The number of tweets in a conversation is not limited.

A tweet doesn’t need to say everything. It just needs to be part of the conversation. And there are tweets that support nuance and tweets that make nuance harder.

There are a lot of skills that go into quality Twitter conversations. I’m planning to write about some of them, hopefully in the near future.

But for now — the first step towards good Twitter conversations is realizing that they are possible.

How to talk to strangers in social situations

It’s ok and socially expected to initiate conversations with strangers at certain kinds of gatherings. If a lot of people who don’t know each other are at the same gathering, and there is a social element to the gathering, it’s considered normal to initiate conversations with strangers.

Some examples of this type of environment:

  • Parties
  • Conferences
  • Freshman orientation
  • Kiddush after services at a synagogue

A script that usually works well for initiating conversation with a stranger:

  • You: Hi, I’m [Your name].
  • They will usually reply: I’m [their name].
  • Then the next thing you do is ask them a question that is slightly, but not very, personal based on the context
  • Then they usually answer and ask you the same question
  • This tends to result in you discovering something of mutual interest and having a conversation

Some examples of contextually appropriate questions:

  • If you’re at a party someone is throwing: “How do you know [host’s name]” usually works
  • (Even if they don’t actually know the host, this still usually works because they can answer something like “Actually, I came here with my friend.”)
  • If you’re at a conference: “What brings you here?” usually works. (And will usually get to an area of mutual interest quickly, since being at the same conference with someone implies that you care about some of the same things).
  • This is a better question than “What do you do?” because asking about someone’s job as an initial question is often interpreted as you asking them “Are you high status enough that I should bother talking to you?”. “What brings you here?” is more neutral
  • If you’re at a kiddush at a synagogue: “Are you a member here?” usually works, so long as you’re not asking it in an accusatory tone. 
  • If there’s a bat or bat mitzvah, “Are you relatives of the bar/bat mitzvah?” usually works (even if you’re not and they’re not. The question works no matter what the answer is
  • At freshman orientation or similar: “Where are you from?” usually works well as an initial question.

If you’re not sure whether you’ve met before, you can still introduce yourself. This is a script that works:

  • “I’m not sure if we’ve met before - I’m kind of bad with faces. I’m [Your name]”.
  • Then, if they don’t know you, you can use the usual script.
  • And if they do know you, then they’ll usually explain the context you know them in.
  • And then you can talk about that.

tl;dr It’s ok (and can be fun) to initiate conversations with strangers at parties and conferences and suchlike. Scroll up for some scripts.

Anyone else want to weigh in? What are some initial questions that work in other contexts?

Headphones can mean leave me alone

When people are in public places like a library, street, coffee shop,or subway, they often wear headphones as a way to create some private space.

People who wear headphones or earbuds in public usually do not want to be approached by strangers. If you know them well, it might be ok to ask, but it’s probably better to err on the side of leaving them alone.

The flip side: if you wear headphones, most people will assume that you don’t want to be approached. If you’re wearing headphones for sensory reasons but you want to interact with people, you will likely have to initiate it yourself. It also might help to let your friends know that you welcome interaction even when you are wearing headphones.


Talking to people on the subway


I read some stuff online about people being really creeped out when people talk to them on the subway. I’ve had some really awesome conversations on the subway. I talk to people on the subway a lot so it occurred to me that maybe I’m…

iguanafish said

I know this is a really small facet of the whole idea but as far as books go, maybe if they’re carrying a closed book. If I have my book open on the subway, it means the same thing as earbuds–do NOT talk to me.

Additionally a lot of people really really hate even feeling like someone MIGHT be reading over their shoulder, even if it’s not anything particularly private, and saying “hey, I love that book” to someone who is actively reading can feel like that.

Talking to people on the subway

I read some stuff online about people being really creeped out when people talk to them on the subway. I’ve had some really awesome conversations on the subway. I talk to people on the subway a lot so it occurred to me that maybe I’m creeping people out. Do you have any tips on figuring out when subway conversations are or aren’t okay?
realsocialskills said:
I’m not entirely sure - I don’t really know how to initiate that kind of conversation. I know what it’s like on the receiving end, though. I’ve had some really good conversations initiated by strangers on the subway. I think I know a bit about it, but not enough to tell you how, since it’s a skill I don’t have.
Here’s what I think I know:
Do not hit on people in the subway. (Some people might be ok with that, but most people are going to find it threatening. Don’t do it.)
And don’t half hit on them. And don’t do it if there’s a reasonable chance that they will think you’re hitting on them. (Eg: even if you mean it innocently, complimenting a woman on a pin she’s wearing on her chest is probably a poor way to start a conversation, especially if you are a man.)
If someone has earbuds in, leave them alone. People often put in earbuds specifically to send the message that they do not want to interact. 
If someone is having a conversation about something deeply personal, leave them alone. (Eg: If someone is having an emotional conversation with a friend about the death of a relative, it is not a good time to try to join in and talk about death.)
Pay attention to who else is in the car. If it’s a full car, talking to a stranger is more likely to be ok than if there are only a couple of people there. If the car is empty, approaching strangers is going to seem like a threat, especially after dark.
Don’t touch them. And be careful about physical distance. If you walk up to someone and stand way too close, hover over them, or sit next to them uninvited on a mostly-empty car, it’s going to seem threatening even if you mean it innocently.
If you intitiate a conversation, make it clear that it’s an offer, not a demand. For instance: “You’re reading that book too? It’s one of my favorites”. Or: “I overheard you two talking about Sesame Street - is it ok if I talk about Sesame Street too?”

If they seem uncomfortable, back off.

That’s what I think I know. Do any of y'all know more about how to have conversations with strangers on the subway?

How to Talk to Anyone (for at least a few minutes)



So there’s this post going around tumblr  that says,

you know those people that can literally carry on a conversation with anyone are amazing like wow how do you do that

And while I know this is one of these tumblr rhetorical questions, I bet a lot of people would like to know the answer.

I travel a lot and spend a lot of my time talking to people at hostels, people I’ve never met before and might not ever meet again. I find that people are generally at their best when they’re talking about something that they love. The trick is to find out what they love and get them to start talking about it.

Look at small talk as the time to cast about for something to actually talk about. Most people drop hints, either consciously or unconsciously, about what they *actually* want to talk about. You should listen carefully so that you can take advantage of an opportunity.

For example: Imagine you say to someone, “Gosh, this weather is just out of control. I didn’t know it even could snow this much!” And the person responds, “I know! I can’t wait for the spring to come so that my flowers will grow.” You can answer, “Oh, do you garden?” If the person really does garden, s/he will probably like to talk about it.

Or maybe the person responds to the same prompt, “It’s awful! I had to dig the car out for hours before I could run out for an ingredient I needed.” You can reply, “Oh, do you like to cook?” Even if they don’t like to cook, the story about why they had to run out for an ingredient might be interesting. The point is, you get away from talking about the weather and get on to talking about ANYTHING else.

Even if they don’t give you that specific of an opening, you can still use a similar principle. If you say, “It’s so cold out! I can’t believe it!” And the person says, “I know! I can’t wait for spring.” You can respond, “Do you have plans to do anything special once the weather warms up?”

I know these examples are really cheesy, but I’m just trying to get across the idea that it’s often easy (or at least, easier) to get people talking as long as you ask them about things that they like. So if you’re stuck in a situation where you have to socialize with people you don’t know well, that’s one way to do it. The drawbacks are that you might end up in a conversation that doesn’t excite you all that much, but as I said, people are often at their best when they talk about what they love, so you might enjoy the conversation even if it’s not about something that *you* love. And it’s likely that later on the person will remember you as someone who was nice and easy to talk to.

Hope that helps!

bittergrapes said:

Just to add some more. About getting people to talk about something they love - they will feel a strong bond with you if you can connect their interest to yours in a way that allows both of you to talk about your interests and learn from each other.

For example, if you’re really interested in, say, model trains, and someone is interested in gardening, something you could say is, “You know, that reminds me a bit of my hobby, model trains, because it’s so fun and interesting to put the track together, just like planting a garden.” Then they can go on discussing their garden, and tell you about their favorite plants and so on, and you can both share in a conversation that has good, if different, meaning to both of you.

Being a good conversationalist comes from an idea of flow, an easy exchange where the stories or information transmitted by both parties is enjoyable to give and receive. In order to do that, it’s very helpful to learn a bit about many different topics - which you can do by listening to what other people say and how they say it. People usually love being asked questions about themselves and their interests, and they’ll share a great deal of information with you if you sit quietly and ask meaningful questions. Not only does this make this particular person feel easy and comfortable around you, but you can store that information away for later use in other conversations.

And the funny thing is - being a good conversationalist actually means listening more than talking. Focus your attention on the person in front of you - treat their interests as something fascinating to you, something you’d like to learn more about. Pretend you’re a student and they are the teacher of their area of expertise, and you’d be surprised how much someone will tell you freely. Sometimes the best way to hold a conversation is to listen, catalog the information, and then ask appropriate questions or demonstrate you were listening by bringing up something they said later in the conversation.

Accidental awkward eye contact

There some situations in which eye contact is considered inappropriate.

In neurotypical body language, initiating eye contact with someone means that you want to interact with them. It’s often the first stage of a conversation, or of flirtation.

This can lead to awkward situations for those of us who don’t make eye contact naturally and don’t have it in mind much. 

For instance, on the subway it is not considered appropriate to make eye contact with strangers. On the subway, people are supposed to leave each other alone.

People who make eye contact naturally kind of know where not to look, and don’t have to think about it much. For people who don’t use eye contact as a natural part of their communication, avoiding inappropriate eye contact can actually be difficult, since they don’t automatically pay attention to where not to look. 

If you look in the direction that would be for eye contact if you did that sort of thing, people will interpret it as an attempt to initiate eye contact with them. And they will often look back and smile weakly, because it is considered rude to ignore eye contact. But since they don’t want to talk to you, and it’s in a situation in which people expect not to talk to each other, it’s invasive.

For that reason, if you have this problem, it might help to intentionally figure out some other place to look in order to avoid inappropriate eye contact. (Eg, your bag, your phone, the floor, the ads).