In some situations, it isn’t too difficult to exchange words with strangers or semi-strangers. When the context is clear, we know where we stand.
We know that at a wedding or party or reception, there is a general expectation that we will engage with the people at our table or in our group, and daunting as ‘small talk’ can be, we can learn how to become better at it.
At a networking event, the purpose of the meeting is to talk to people and exchange details, and again, we can learn strategies to help us do this successfully.
In other circumstances, there is mutual understanding that it’s OK not to talk, that no conversation is needed, and on the whole the social radar which tells us this is pretty accurate.
We know when a smile and a nod is all that is required. We can settle in to a comfortable silence with, say, a travelling companion, or a colleague working in the same space, or the person sitting very close to us in the theatre or at the concert or in the park.
The awkward situations
It’s the in-between situations which can be challenging — those occasions when you feel that silence is a little awkward and little inappropriate, but you don’t know how to break it, and you don’t want to feel silly by doing so.
First of all, trust your instinct. Unless you are one of those people who find it hard to tolerate any silence, your sense that some communication would be good is likely to be right. Far from being silly, you are showing a high degree of social awareness, a most valuable skill.
So go on, take the initiative. It’s the friendly, communicative thing to do, and nothing bad can happen as a result.
The worst thing would be if the other person rebuffed your sociable overture. If this happens, it could be for a number of reasons, none of which is anything to do with you. The person may be shy, or want to be alone with their thoughts, or not know how to respond. They are entitled to their feelings and their frame of mind. All you have done is offer a few words of fellowship. Nothing wrong with that.
What do you say? Well, yes, you can comment on the weather, always a safe opener. And as a topic, it has the advantage of enabling the other person to respond easily. But sometimes it can shut down conversation, and make it difficult to pick it up again. When you have both agreed that it’s too hot or too cold and won’t it be good when this rain finally stops, you’re left with a silence which is a bit friendlier but which could become awkward again.
It might be better to remark on something in your immediate environment:
- ‘I’ve been looking at that painting on the wall. I can’t figure out which sea-side resort it is.’
- ‘Aren’t these seats more comfortable than the benches that used to be here?’
- ‘I wasn’t expecting such a good turn-out.’
This kind of comment isn’t a direct question, which might make somebody feel that they have been put on the spot, but it encourages a response and enables the other person to engage with you.
Compliments are another way of building a little bridge. We should make more of them. Say something nice to the person who is also waiting to pick up their kid, or the person you see every day in the local cafe, or the person next to you at the start of the meeting or event.
- ‘I love your shoes.’
- ‘I’ve been thinking what a great colour that is on you.’
- ‘Your dog is lovely.’
Will the person feel embarrassed? Possibly. Will they feel pleased? Certainly.
Try asking a question, one which is undemanding and can’t be easily answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You could, for example, pick up on an item the person is carrying, or ask something about the surroundings.
- ‘You look as if you’ve been travelling/are going on/are just back from holiday?’
- ‘Are there any good eating places round here?’
- ‘Anything interesting in your magazine?’
Tell a tiny anecdote or share something about yourself. Nothing important or complicated, just a few words which say a little bit about you and relate to the circumstances:
- ‘When I was here last week…’
- ‘You know, I’m regretting this sandwich choice because…’
- ‘I always hate it when…’
- ‘I enjoy this kind of weather because…’
The thing about these ‘do-we-or-don’t we talk’ scenarios is that their tentative and ephemeral nature can lead to unexpectedly enjoyable and significant exchanges.
There is something liberating about talking to someone who has no knowledge of you, no shared history, no preconceptions. That is probably why life stories are swapped between strangers sitting on a park bench, or someone you vaguely recognise from Pilates pours out their heart about their divorce, or you discover that you and the person next to you in the queue or at the school meeting both care for elderly parents.
With even the briefest of exchanges, you gain the meaningful experience of communicating with a fellow human being. Moving beyond a courteous greeting or acknowledgment lifts the encounter and gives it a touch of warmth.
What you say doesn’t really matter, it’s how you feel and how you make someone else feel that counts. Your actual words may be unimportant and insignificant, but this might be the only conversation your companion has all day. They may be tiny drops in the ocean of loneliness, but they make a difference.
It’s worth risking a modicum of embarrassment in the cause of connecting with each other. As the song says, let’s stick together.