As a kid, do you remember your mom or dad telling you never to talk to strangers? It’s funny how that has a way of continuing into our adulthood, even after that wariness is no longer necessary for physical safety.
My dad (and fellow Contact Mapping co-founder) Tom is one of those people who is always talking to everyone around him. And while as a kid this evoked a fair amount of eye-rolling and blushing, it taught me a valuable lesson…
Those strangers...they don’t bite!
As we become adults and go out into the world, we have to deal with strangers all the time. And what we have learned is that many of us, even those of us who build relationships for a living, still have a lot of anxiety when it comes to talking to strangers.
So this week, let’s figure out what that’s all about and equip you to be fast friends with anyone you meet.
THE SCIENCE OF (ADULT) STRANGER DANGER
It's not hard to understand why parents teach their children to avoid strangers as kids. And even as adults, scientists theorize there are evolutionary factors that have hard-wired us to avoid strangers.
Striking up conversations with strangers exposes us to risk of rejection - that they won’t be interested in us as we are in them. And in historical social structures, being accepted within your social group was a critical survival skill. Talking to a stranger involves risk, both physical and social, that are “lizard brains” seek to avoid.
In recent years, phycologists have gone further into examining why people tend to avoid talking to strangers. One of the leaders in this field is Dr. Gillian Sandstrom of The University of Essex in the UK.
Sandstrom and a team of researchers coined “The Liking Gap” to describe the phenomenon that humans are biased toward assuming that their conversation partner, especially a stranger, will find them less interesting than they actually will. Across multiple experiments, they showed that after the conversation with a stranger the average respondent would report liking their conversation partner better than they thought the partner liked them. This fear is a meaningful contributor to our natural fear of talking to strangers.
Interestingly, if you can get over that fear, the payoff is well worth it! In another study by Sandstrom and her colleagues, participants tracked the number of interactions with strangers over a multi-day period. Those who engaged more frequently with strangers reported a greater sense of belonging, and at the individual level participants felt a greater sense of belonging on days when they interacted more with others compared to days when they did not.
TIPS AND TRICKS
If talking to strangers is less scary than we think, AND worth the effort, how should we go about striking up more conversations? I’m so glad you asked! This week we did a webinar on 5 Hacks To Start A Conversation With Anyone, and it was a LOT of fun! You can watch the whole thing here:
If you’re more the reading type, here is a rundown of those five hacks:
Observe, and ask a question or pay a compliment. People are dying to be noticed and acknowledged if we will just pay attention. By learning to observe the thing(s) about others that they most appreciate in themselves, and to affirm them by paying a compliment or engaging them with a question, you will find it easy to open people up in a hurry. Just promise us to do this AUTHENTICALLY!
Tell one on yourself. One of the easiest ways to break the ice at any point in a conversation is to show just a little vulnerability. “So sorry about that phone call,” or any other bit of humility can make for an easy way to start a conversation and allow it to lead somewhere.
Ask for a simple favor. There are all sorts of little questions that we ask people all the time in social settings, that are another easy way to open up a conversation. “Would you mind taking a picture of us real quick?” “Are you using that chair?” Any of these can open a conversation just enough for you to say a friendly hello and take a conversation from there.
Do a little research. In many cases, you may already know who the person you are about to meet is, even if you haven’t ever met in person. Use some good old fashioned social media research to learn about them ahead of time. What are they interested in? What do they spend time doing? This can make it easy for you to navigate the conversation there without having to figure out what makes them tick from scratch.
Become a walking, talking leads group. In just about every coffee shop or public space you walk into, you’ll find a corkboard full of business cards for people in your community. Call them! Find a way for you to add value to what they are doing and win a valuable connection as you do.
Once you get the hang of talking to strangers, it will start to feel like a fun and rewarding game that brings variety and joy into your life. What’s even better, as you do it you will be giving that same gift of joy to the others you chat with.
So get out there and talk to some people! ✌️
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