Social Skills, Travel

Conversating with Strangers

A while back I talked about how major religious figures are travelers and homed in on four of the ways that the act of traveling changes the mind. I launched a personal project to work on these qualities in myself, starting with “social bravery” or talking easily with strangers. Last time I posted on the topic, I was only half done. Where am I now? Well…

Social Bravery II

The first part of my social bravery project was to strike up conversations with three new people. They can’t be introduced to me, they can’t have a pre-existing motive to befriend me, and they can’t be paid to wait on me. Anyone else is fair game.

Photo Credit: Happiness & Co. by Xavier Luque

That part went great, but just striking up a conversation and then parting ways was not fulfilling. It is a nice low-pressure way to get over hangups, and I recommend it to anyone who feels social anxiety, but for me this short “meet and greet” felt incomplete. So, I took it further.

My plan for Part II was to talk to three more strangers, but this time make plans for further contact with each one. It could be FBFing them (feel free, I’ll talk), emailing them, going to a party together…. anything, as long as the initial conversation finished with a mutual intention to continue relating.

This is more daunting than just talking to strangers. It takes more than courage – it means being interesting enough that someone will actually want more. Many people aren’t confident about this. I worried I’d seem creepy or they’d imagine an ulterior motive. What if it just came across as me hitting on them?

So I had to know how to make good conversation.

Three Snippets for Good Making-of-the-Words

I’ve learned to keep three snippets in my pocket: a “have you heard,” a “did you know,” and an “I think.”

  • A “have you heard…” story is typically about a current event. It’s a great opener because it invites discussion. It draws on presumably shared ground, bringing up something they possibly have heard. If so, shut up as soon as possible and let them talk about it. Otherwise, fill them in. Bad ones are too obvious (“Have you heard about hurricane Katrina?”). My most recent is “Have you heard that Pompeii is collapsing?”
  • A “did you know?” is better for further into the conversation. It lets you showcase your area of knowledge or put the focus on something that interests you. It’s something they likely don’t know. What you choose says a little about your personality, so it’s also more intimate. If done too early it’s just pushy. A recent: “Did you know people are teaching robots how to deceive?”
  • An “I think…” is pure opinion. You have to accept that others could disagree, and welcome and enjoy the discussion that follows, or you’re an ass. So keep that in mind when choosing your “I think.” If you firmly believe that soybean candles are the best candles and only a stupid idiot would use beeswax, then leave candle talk aside and choose something noncontroversial like politics. My recent favorite: “I think that books will be completely obsolete in twelve years.” (Duke it out in the comments, folks!)
Photo Credit: Punk Love by malloreigh

“Have you heard that denim jackets are back?” “Did you know I’m wearing blue tights?” “I think I have one in my mouth.” The three snippets always work.

The three snippets are better than stock questions like “What do you do?” or “Are you from around here?” Those are the questions you ask to pass time with someone you don’t really want to talk to. By sharing things of interest you show that you really do want to get to know them and hear their opinion. By having ideas to present, rather than just questions to ask, you show that the burden is not all on them. You bring something to the conversation.

Remember, if you’re reading this you’re already interesting. Not because Rogue Priest is some kind of magnet for interesting people (though I’d love that) but because you have thousands of days of life and many years of education behind you. Before you go into a social occasion, draw your three snippets from somewhere in your immense body of experience and keep them in your back pocket. Offer them to new acquaintances like cigarettes in a noir film.

The Results

So how did Part II go? As it turns out I got my three and then some. It worked – but precisely because it worked, I can’t list the results here. When a person becomes a friend it somehow feels odd to dissect them namelessly like Guy with Book at Vietnamese Restaurant. So I won’t, and I’ll leave you to do the experiment and meet your own amazing people. I’m also making a list of the amazing people who have inspired me to write this kind of blog so that I can provide links to their writing in the near future.

ALSO coming up: My next post, this Saturday, will redefine this blog. I’m getting back to my original purpose: launching my Great Adventure, living the heroic path, and changing the world. I’ve made huge strides forward in planning my lifestyle change and this blog will be the chronicle – so be ready!

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.


8 thoughts on “Conversating with Strangers

  1. With all respect, a Oide, I don’t think paper books aren’t going anywhere in so short a time as twelve years. They might sell less, they might be considered collector’s items, but “completely obsolete” seems a little harsh. I own both an eReader (three actually, on my phone), and more books than I can conveniently shelve. There are even some titles I own in both paper and digital versions. I believe eBooks will become greatly more applicable in the next few years, but paper books obsolete? I’m not convinced.

    And social anxiety to me has less to do with being uninteresting, and more with being unconnected. While I have many interesting ideas, theories, and stories tucked away, I also generally feel I have very little in common with the world around me. And, too, I’m the curmudgeonly sort that doesn’t invest a lot in finding what I do have in common.

    I also feel a little creeped out when random people start talking to me. Perhaps this has to do with growing up in urban environments. People recognizing me (that I’d never met) the one time I lived in a small town was a large part of why I’ll never do that again. Had you sat down beside me on the bus and started up a conversation, it would have taken some perserverence on your part before you got anything more than “you’re talking to me, so I’ll be polite and talk back until you go away.”

    On the other hand, your starter topics are much more interesting than anything else I’ve heard. Questions like “how are you” tend to get a “fine,” because, really, the person doesn’t actually want to know how I am, they merely have a social obligation to talk.

    I am noticing a trend in myself that I tend to go out of my way to avoid social interaction. I’ve started with relearning how to make eye contact. This is surprisingly difficult, but immensely important. If you don’t make eye contact, people don’t feel compelled to talk to you, or indeed, even acknowledge your presence.

  2. Thanks for the comment Colleen!

    The reason we feel weirded out when strangers talk to us has to do with civil inattention. Basically it’s a social contract where instead of challenging every new person we meet like primates who see outsiders on their territory, we just ignore each other. Civil inattention is used in both rural and urban areas – though you’re definitely right, we lean on it more in a city because there are far more people we don’t know. Most people take civil inattention for granted and we can get pretty deep into our imaginary solitude. Anyone who breaks that solitude is likely to irritate us.

    Navigating this takes a little mindfulness. There are times when someone is deep into their civil inattention – like when they’re sitting on the bus, as in your example. Someone who is looking at the same painting as you in an art gallery may be more open to social contact, and the three guys talking and laughing next to you at a bar will be way more open to it.

    So the trick is to read body language and consider context. Choosing people who are engaged in their surroundings and look open to contact will be easier (and less annoying) than people who are zoned out or immediately look away when you glance in their direction. In other words don’t knock on the door if you know no one will answer.

    That’s assuming you want to to build social bravery however – if you have no desire to make more friends, or are already good at doing so, then there’s really no reason to practice talking to strangers.

  3. Welcome aboard Clair! There are many acres of it left, but most recently a retaining wall collapsed and covered part of it with a mudslide. Site mismanagement (lack of government funding or protection) are mainly to blame. It’s caused quite a backlash at the Italian government!

  4. This all brings to mind the importance of conversation and speaking well, even among strangers, in heroic societies. Rhetoric, or the art of speaking well, was considered *the* quintessential subject of study in the Greco-Roman world, and literature such as the Iliad and the Havamal depict the greeting of strangers and attending to their needs for food, comfort, and fine conversation, even before asking their business.

    Below are some meditations on conversation and friendship from Brendan Myers’ discussion of heroic-age customs in The Other Side of Virtue.

    On storytelling:

    “Feasting and storytelling in the hall of a great chief was the central cultural activity in most Heroic societies, and indeed the very birthplace of Virtue. … Virtue is borne of storytelling because of the nature of storytelling itself. Storytelling is one of the ways we both discover, and also create, who we are.” (p. 32)

    “Furthermore, a story is not just a group of words and fine phrases. It is a social event, an occasion when someone is speaking and someone else is listening, and both of them together are thinking. Storytelling is an event which brings people together, for to share a story is also to share many more things necessary for the storytelling event to happen. The people involved must also share a conception of what a story is, as well as a language in which to tell it. As part of their language they must share a stock inventory of metaphors and symbols, although this does not prevent the use of symbols in new ways, or the creation of new symbols. Already this presupposes that for two or more people to share a story, they must have some ideas in common; they must have an understanding of each other. They must be able to trust that when one speaks the other understands. This opens the possibility that they may be able to share more things with each other: material goods and services, for instance, or help in collaborative projects, or emotional support, or even love.” (p. 33)

    On friendship:

    “A personal identity, in a heroic society, is a social identity. Each person understood what he owed others, and what others owed him, in terms of his role in society. And the most intimate and important of his social roles is that of the friend.” (p. 42)

    • Funny, this reminds me of your post about fame and heroism recently. Being able to speak well is the basis of building a social network, working connections and putting “spin” on something. It sounds like the heroic societies valued social networking/PR as one of the virtues – probably precisely because they felt fame was a standard of success. In other words a person with a good message or product who can’t communicate it doesn’t actually have a very good message or product. They’re not actually good at what they do, almost regardless of their field – because communication is vital to every profession.

      Could this be the reason fame and excellence went hand in hand in the heroic age?

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