When they got married, my mom and dad were polar opposites.
Mom grew up in a large farm family where the children interacted primarily amongst themselves. Eleven siblings meant full-time playmates, but it also meant rarely needing to talk to strangers.
Dad, on the other hand, grew up in a small family and turned out to be remarkably gregarious. As a child, I remember my dad spending long evenings on the phone talking to friends. Being a farmer, his conversation topics centered on the weather, the price of wheat, the weather, the price of diesel, and of course, the weather.
The funny part was it didn’t really matter if Dad knew the people he was talking to or not. He’d have the same conversations with the waitress, the guy at the feed store, or a stranger who drove into the farmyard looking for directions.
In regards to conversational skills, I grew up my mother’s son. Like a great many people who do a lot of public speaking, I’m happier in front of a crowd than talking one on one. I often say that I’m an introvert operating in the office of an extrovert. We’re all wired differently, but this introversion makes it hard to talk to strangers, and talking to strangers is a large part of serving people.
Over the years, I’ve worked on this weakness and have developed a couple of simple tools to help me break the ice and enter into a natural flow of conversation.
Ask obvious questions. There is an unwritten (and wholly incorrect) rule that says if someone does something outlandish, the rest of us have to ignore it. I try to ignore this rule as much as possible. Other people’s outlandish behavior often offers a great door into conversation!
A few years back, I was buying a pair of shoes in the mall. The clerk, in his early 20s, wore the stereotypical scowl of today’s youth. He looked as if he were doing the job in his sleep, eyes nearly closed, mumbling the price of the shoes. From one ear hung a large hoop. From the other, six studs hung in graduating sizes from top to bottom, culminating in a plug the size of a dime. Everything about him said, "Leave me alone." So I ignored that, pointed to the plug in his ear and asked, "Dude, did that hurt?"
"Huh?" he grunted.
"Your plug. Did that hurt when they put it in?"
In a millisecond, he went from sullen young man to enthusiastic conversationalist. His eyes widened, his face brightened, and his manager nearly flipped when the guy blurted out "Not nearly as bad as this did!" while yanking up his shirt to show me a tattoo that covered most of his torso.
What followed was an animated conversation about why he chose the tattoo he did and what it meant to him. I didn’t have to carry the conversation – in fact, he carried it himself until his manager approached him and told him to get back to work. Frankly, I think the guy had other piercings and the manager was afraid that we’d all get an eyeful of those.
What we often assume is antisocial behavior is usually an invitation to a fascinating discussion. I’ve asked about people’s tattoos and piercings for years. It has never failed to generate a positive response. People do things like that to themselves so you will notice, not so you’ll ignore it. The same thing applies to bikers – don’t ask someone about his Harley unless you’ve got the time to listen, because the person will talk your ear off.
Talk to kids and dogs . There are certain things one can say to a dog or child that you can’t say to an adult. Things like "Hey buddy, how are you doing?" or "Are you enjoying that ice cream cone?" or "Is that flea collar working for you?" (Note: I’d reserve that last one for dogs.) The point is not to talk to the child or dog – it’s to talk to the parent or dog walker.
I’ve started many a conversation by talking to the dog or the toddler and then moving on to whoever is holding the leash or pushing the stroller. It seems like such a natural segue that it won’t feel awkward to you or them. Kids and dogs are like piercings and tattoos. Most people like to talk about their own.
Let others be an expert. Some people feel like they’re never listened to. On a regular basis, they feel talked down to by superiors, ignored by co-workers, and irritated by family members. I’ve found that asking people questions – even questions about things they probably know nothing about—brings on some animated discussions.
Recently, we did a video for our church. With REM’s song "It’s The End of the World as We Know It" as background music, the video features us asking people what will happen to the world in the future.
One young man who answers the question is standing behind a restaurant, taking a smoke break from his job clearing tables. With his youthful face and poor grammar, no one will mistake this kid for a theologian, yet that didn’t stop him from answering! With great enthusiasm, he gave us his intricate eschatological perspective, which included an outbreak of "the chicken flu in China," and the world ending somewhere between "50,000 and 2 billion years from now."
My point is not that we can glean a lot of good info from these people, but rather that they like to be listened to, and more often than not, they aren’t. An unlikely question to an unlikely expert opened a 20-minute window of conversation.
Talking to strangers isn’t impossible—it just takes a little forethought and a sincere interest in them. Once you start trying these methods, you’ll come up with a few of your own that work as well or better. The great thing is you can practice continually—at the grocery store, in the park, even every time you go out to eat. Eventually, these practices will become a part of your everyday life, and what once felt like a strain will become second nature.
Your mom was wrong. Talk to strangers. It’s a blast.