Is conversation a dying art? I don’t reckon so. Even though one of our societal issues is our reliance on our gadgets for “company” in public places I don’t think it’s actually killing our ability to converse, but rather, removing our confidence to start up a conversation with a stranger face to face, while our eagerness to talk to all and sundry over the internet is actually increasing.
It’s pretty staggering, when you think about it, what we’ll reveal of ourselves emotionally to a total and utter stranger from behind the comfort of a screen. And is that a bad thing? Most people have some sort of emotional stuff that can be difficult to bring up face to face so having this “safe” outlet could be considered a positive. But I digress.
We seem able to connect very easily over the internet, be ourselves, no holds barred, reach out without fear of rejection, plenty to say but, in person – without alcohol – it’s a different story. Not for everyone, of course. Maybe you have this “natural skill” and if you do, high five! But if you secretly wish you could be one of those people that can launch themselves effortlessly into a deep chin-wagging session with randoms in a public place, then I’m writing this blog post for you – ironically from the table of a busy café bar in Birmingham where I sit alone with my empty mug and plates – as it’s something that, quite recently, I’ve noticed I’ve become a bit of a master at.
So, you’ve walked into a café, ordered your soya chai latte, noticed other people are there. Now what?!
1) Make eye contact with others and smile.
Don’t stare, just smile in a friendly way as you walk past and find a seat. Don’t make a big deal about it, and don’t hold your gaze. At this stage, you’re just letting people know you’re friend, not foe, rather than trying to get them to smile back at you.
2) Do your thing the way you would if no-one else was there.
Drink your coffee, check your phone, read your book, or chat with the waiter/waitress (which is easy, it’s part of their job). If you make eye contact with anyone, smile in a friendly, non-attached way, and then carry on doing your thing. You don’t want to be giving off an air of desperation. The idea is to be comfortable, and then radiate that out to others.
3) Identify someone to connect with.
This is the person who has looked over at you more than once, or with whom you’ve exchanged a brief smile. Someone in the room will be pleased to connect with you. It’s not the guy who hasn’t looked up from his laptop, the couple attached at the hip, or the girls who haven’t taken a breath from gabbing since you entered the café. It may be subtle but it’s there so look for it.
4) Test the water with an easy question.
Once people have had the chance to get used to your energy in the room and feel comfortable with it, allow the person you’ve identified to offer advice – people love to feel useful. Without leaving your seat, ask something simple like, “If I was to walk to the station from here, do you know how long it would take?” You’ll be able to gauge from their response whether they wish to connect. Whatever response you get, be friendly and thank them.
5) Ask a braver question.
Once the people in the café have noticed that you’re friendly and not scary, and you’re feeling more confident you can ask something bolder and less superficial. I recently asked, “If I were to write a blog post for you, what would you want it to be about? What’s going on for you right now?” It sparked a discussion about the chap’s business situation and did, in fact, give me some fodder for a blog post.
6) Join in with a conversation.
Not for the beginner or the faint-hearted but a great way to join in with small groups. The trick is to listen to what they’re talking about and, as long as it’s nothing heavy or personal, offer something lighthearted but of value. “You waited for an hour and didn’t even get a table at the Hen & Chickens? You must be starving! Well, the food here’s good.” With this you’re onto a double-winner as you’re sympathising AND offering reassurance.
These are examples that do work if you come at them from a place of confidence and friendship, not of desperation. If it’s daunting to begin with, keep practising the first four steps until it becomes second nature, and then build on it by moving to steps five and six.
A word of warning: Some people are NOT open to random conversation for whatever reason (which is not your problem) and it’s up to you to gauge that by following steps 1-3, and if you get it wrong, don’t take it personally! Just get on with what you’re doing and try again with someone else. And keep smiling.
I’d love to know your best tips for making random connections in public. Please share them below.