by Marc Anderson

How to Rock a Conversation with Strangers and Boost Your ESL Skills

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Think about your day.  How many opportunities did you have to talk to a “stranger”? 

Often times we as adults are reluctant to talk to people we don’t know. We may look down to avoid contact. We may pretend we don’t see people. We may even distance ourselves from them.

Talking to “strangers” may seem doubly hard if you are an ESL speaker. You might be self-conscious. You might struggle with finding what you want to be the correct word. You might be at a loss of what to say. You might feel your English language skills are inadequate. You might think you have failed.

How to Talk to People You Don’t Know

This article shows you how to effectively engage in conversation with people you don’t know. It’s an important skill and one that you can develop every single day. Remember, Good things [can] happen when you meet strangers. – Yo-Yo Ma

A company called Soul Pancake set out to show just that.  They assembled an outside ball pit and invited strangers to take a seat and make a friend.  Their aim was to show others how to make friends with strangers by doing something eye opening:

I know what you are thinking. You might suggest that the people who got into the ball pit were more outgoing or confident to begin with. You might add that the balls had suggestions to start conversations so you did not have to think of these openers yourselves. Well, you’re right on both accounts. But the interesting thing about this video is that these behaviors of those individuals who chose to engage with “strangers” can be modeled by you, so you can be more effective in speaking with others, too.  Have you ever felt like Fyodor Dostoevsky who said We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken? Well, what are you waiting for? Now is the time to talk to people you don’t know. Use your English skills and see how they improve.

Suggestions of What to Say and Do

Many people responded to the video. I thought you might want to hear some of their suggestions of how they begin casual conversations with strangers. These ideas were mentioned several times:

  • Smile and say hello
  • Ask a question
  • Share a joke
  • Compliment them
  • Treat them like your friend
  • Find something in common like “it’s cold today”
  • Try to find a shared interest

What are Some General Principles about Starting Conversations?

Most people feel that it is relatively simple to begin a conversation with someone. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. The most important thing is to say something in a friendly, self-assured way. If you do this, and the other person is open to speaking to you, then it should work out okay. If the other person is not open to speaking to you, if he/she isn’t confident or “good” at conversing themselves, or there is not that much in common to talk about, then the interaction may not even get off the ground or it may be cut short.

What Role Does Comfort Level Play?Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.- Shirley MacLaine 

Often, people feel uncomfortable about starting a conversation. Perhaps they are shy or insecure. They might think there is nothing interesting to say or that that the other person might feel bothered. They might feel anxious about talking to someone they don’t know or overly self-conscious about their language skills. If you feel that anyone of these factors seems to impact your ability to talk, then it is important to work on your confidence level.

One suggestion is to talk to people as if you already knew them. This means you needn’t be overly formal and restrained. You will see that you have a warmer, more confident attitude and the other person will feel easily accepted. Try speaking more casual English.

What are Some Popular Conversation Starter Lines to Say?

“How are you doing?”

The most widely used example is when you ask someone how they are doing.  Sometimes the conversation ends with a reply of “fine” or “good”.  Or you will make a statement and the reply with be, “Yeah”. To get the conversation going, you could ask a more specific follow up question, ask about something else, or make a new statement.

In general, as you get better at thinking on the spur of the moment, it can free you up to ask whatever type of conversation starter you want. Even if the other person doesn’t answer in an expected way, you know you can salvage the conversation with an alternate line.

Introducing YourselfI was hesitant to go around and shake hands, just go up and stick my hand out to strangers. Then I learned to stick my hand out.- Jim Edgar

You can always begin a conversation by introducing yourself.  You could say:

Hello, my name is _____.  Nice to meet you.

Hi, I’m _____ from _____ (name of company or organization).

Introductions help to break the ice. The other person may feel more comfortable talking.  But, you don’t always have to begin with an introduction. If you start talking about something else first, you can always say, “I’m _____, by the way” or “My name is ____. What’s yours?”

translator introducing arabian businessman

Asking about a Similar Situation

This mainly applies to new people, but you could also use it to start a conversation with someone you’ve chatted to briefly a few times before, but you haven’t asked this information of them yet. Examples:

How long have you been with the company?

How long have you lived in _____ (a city or country)?

How do you know ____ at the party?

What brought you to the _____ (movies, restaurant, sporting event, etc.) tonight?

Commenting on the Present Situation

There sure are lots of customers today.

Today’s class was interesting.

This party is great.

Wow! It’s really hot weather today.

Asking a Question about the Present Situation

Can you tell me the name of the song that’s playing?

Do you know when the _____ closes?

I’m running a little late. What did I miss from the _____ (lecture/meeting/class)?

Excuse me, please. Do you know where _____ is? (a location, a store, etc.)

Asking a Question about Themselves

So, what are you taking in school?

Are you on any other committees?

I noticed you in my ____ class. How long have you been taking _____?

What is your position in the company?

Yes, I have _____ children. Do you have any?  How old are they?

Do you like any other sports?

You seem to know how to pick out flowers. Have you been gardening long?

Making a Statement about or Complimenting the Other Person

You can make an observation about the other person to start the conversation or to keep it going.

You look (or sound) like you are in a good mood today.

I like your tie/hat. Where did you get it?

You seem to be enjoying the music.

That’s funny. You look just like my _____.

Asking a Question or Making a Statement about an Interesting Topic

Sometimes it helps to have a statement ready when you ask a question. For example if you ask about a movie and what the person thinks of it, and they don’t say much in reply… then you can follow with a related statement. You might say, “I’m thinking of watching ____. The trailer seemed interesting…”  Other suggestions:

What do you think of _____ ? (an actor, television show, etc.) I think ____ is _____. I like how he/she …

I heard you went to the concert last night. How was it? I wish I could have gone. I really like their music…

Did you see the article in the magazine about _____? I read an interesting article about that just today. It was saying…

Making a Statement about Yourself

Sometimes you need to know the other person before you say this. But depending on what you are talking about, it may be appropriate to say:

Yes! I’m so happy now that I finished my term paper…

Yes, I’m flying back from visiting my family from the holidays. It was…

Do you know that I’ve always wanted to go to ____.  In fact, my best friend just…        

What you need to know written on a white board 

Asking the Other Person for Help or a Favor

Do you have a pen?

Could you save that chair for me? I’ll be right back.

Do you have change for a _____?

Should we exchange emails so we can send each other class notes/business ideas?

Could you please pass me that _____?

Body Language

Be a good listener. Show a sincere interest in what the other person is talking about. Use good eye contact. Smile. Use facial expressions to convey an understanding of what they are saying (nod when the person is talking, etc.) Engage by asking follow-up questions or by adding and extending the conversation. Be positive. The key to appearing friendly and approachable is to project openness. Lean forward like you are interested. Stand up straight or sit up straight. If you are in a good mood and open to meeting people, you will have open body language.

Try Humor

If humor comes naturally to you, then use it. Do not be offensive with jokes about various cultures, religions, or politics. If they are sharing humor, smile or laugh at their jokes, even if you do not find the jokes particularly funny.

Cute 4 months old baby making a funny surprised face

Don’t Brag and Other Things to Avoid

It’s never a good idea to brag. It’s not appropriate to boast about your accomplishments, the type of car you drive, or how much money you make.  Likewise, it is not appropriate to ask about such things either in the manner that you are seeking only to find out more about their status. Never ask about too personal information or they may feel uncomfortable when speaking to you.

If you sense that they feel uncomfortable talking to you, give them some space. Speak slowly and smile. If you feel they don’t want to engage in conversation, let it go. At least 95% of the time when a person reacts negatively to you it has absolutely nothing to do with you personally. Most likely they’re having a bad day or you caught them at the wrong moment.

In the other cases, think about the situation. Did you come across as pushy?  Was your personal appearance up to par?  Is there anything else you think you can improve?  If so, try that next time.

Knowing When to End the Conversation

Conversations should not go on forever. A suggestion to end the conversation that has been going on for a while might be to say, “Well, it sure was nice meeting you. Maybe I’ll see you again (possibly exchange phone numbers or email addresses, etc.”)

Friendships take time. Choose to do the things that make you the happiest and you undoubtedly will meet others who enjoy the same things. Similarly spend time with others who you have a good conversation with. These relationships have the potential to develop into stronger friendships. And your English skills will get noticeably better.

Be patient.

Talk to Stranger Blog 

I stumbled upon this blog in researching ideas for this article. A 28-year-old investment banker who claims he is “average-looking” who lived alone thought people didn’t like him much. Then he had a thought one day that changed his life. He exchanged his negative perception that “people didn’t like him much” with “maybe I just need to get to know them better”.  With that, he started a blog about 4 years ago and now is the author of a book Talk to Strangers. This led to meeting people all over the world, going to talk shows and interviews, and eventually his future wife. It is a journey that he took to reconnect to one stranger at a time. So I read his blogs. Then I read his book. He claims that most people want to be better conversationalists. In turn, they begin to feel good about themselves, they feel stronger and more confident. He believes good conversationalists reach their goals and higher levels of success. They feel more comfortable in any situation. Their English speaking and listening skills improve.

In Summary – Talk to Stranger

In summary, this is what he (People Person – what he calls himself) suggests:

  1. Use small talk
  2. Be proactive and start conversations with others
  3. Show enthusiasm and interest
  4. Try ice breakers of phrases, sentences, and one liners with strangers that could be funny, applied to the given situation, or share something in common
  5. Be positive and bring forth that energy
  6. Be sincere and truthful
  7. Show respect
  8. Try these sure topics: weather, compliments, news (positive), common interests

Benefits of Talking to Strangers/Being a Good Conversationalist

  • Builds listening skills
  • Builds rapport
  • Creates atmosphere of participation
  • Develops social skills
  • Stimulates language
  • Integrates and connects to others and to life
  • Develops sense of curiosity
  • Increases your confidence in speaking English
  • Helps renew and apply your language learning (ESL skills)

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Please write to me and let me know if any of these tips have helped you develop your conversational skills. Have you made any friends this way? What has this done for your ESL skills?

To be truthful, researching and writing this article about talking to strangers has made me more aware of the value of this experience. I look at people differently. I want to always be a “people person” and get to know people better.

Well, I’m off to my exercise class. Who knows who I might meet?

Cheerful  people showered with confetti on a club party.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.