5 Ways to Talk to Strangers

CC BY 2.0. Derek Midgely

As they say, a stranger is just a friend you haven't met.

A close friend once said to me, “There is nothing more interesting in the world than talking to strangers.” This made a big impression on me. Until then, I was the kind of person who avoided excessive conversation with strangers, especially if we were traveling together in cramped quarters and I couldn’t get away; I opted instead for polite smiles and silence. But ever since my friend’s comment, I’ve viewed strangers in a new light. It has made me more curious about who they are and how we find ourselves in the same place.

That’s why I was intrigued to come across an article on how to make friends with strangers, written by Patrick Symmes for Outside magazine. He makes the following useful suggestions:

#1: Don’t wait. The awkwardness will only get worse as time goes by, so it’s best to break the ice while “you still have the obvious excuse of newness.” If a person doesn’t want to talk, they’ll make it clear right away.

#2: Have a song ready. This might make your North American eyes pop, but the rest of the world loves singing! As Symmes writes, “Saying ‘I can’t sing’ is like saying ‘I can’t eat.’” Learn a song by heart and keep it in your back pocket for unexpected musical encounters. On a similar note, I often travel with a violin, which is a great conversation starter. It has led to experiences such as the time I was invited on stage on a ferry between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to play a few tunes with the resident band.

#3: Share food. Food is a universal language. It gives you something to share, to talk about, to use your hands. Pass it around and accept others’ offers.

#4: Be interesting – but don’t be a know-it-all. Make it a priority to learn something about the places you’re visiting, whether it’s food, language, culture, history, or geography. If you have something intelligent to say and share, people will gravitate more to you.

#5: Know when to say yes and when to say no. When unexpected invitations come your way, say yes to them. You never know what will transpire. I have wonderful childhood memories of my parents picking up foreign hitchhikers and inviting them to stay overnight to experience Canadian life from the inside.

On the other hand, it’s important to know when to say no. If a conversation is not productive, or if you have to travel with this person for an extended period of time, it’s wise to extricate yourself from the discussion sooner rather than later. “Try the old rules: Bite your tongue on religion, politics, and hygiene.”