Social conversation is not as difficult as is made out to be. Remember all your present friends were strangers before you met them and that there is always a first encounter for every relationship. So if you are terrified of being tongue-tied, here are a few tips on how to talk to someone you have just met or been introduced to.
Adopt a friendly attitude.
The best way to start a conversation with someone you have just met is to appear relaxed and friendly. Use a natural smile to reach out to the other person and you are most likely to get one in return. Don’t force a smile though, just let it be genuine and casual.
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Make eye contact.
This is perhaps the most important non-verbal means of connecting to someone. You use it in restaurants to call the waiter/waitress at your table or to show a person that you understand what he/she says. Similarly upon meeting someone for the first time, look directly into his/her eyes before beginning to speak. This will indicate your interest in the person before you and hold his or her attention. On the other hand if you keep shifting your gaze or darting glances at others, the person will construe it as a sign of embarrassment or even distraction.
Begin with a social salutation.
Saying “hi” or “hello” is the usual way to begin a social conversation. You could accompany it by holding out your hand for a handshake and mentioning your name. And the law of reciprocity means that most likely your friendly gesture will be returned. In a social setting, you could also explore more creative ways of salutation like an “Aloha” or a “Bon jour”. But remember not to use a particular expression solely on the basis of a person’s appearance. Also if you are shaking hands, make sure your palm is cool and dry and the handshake does not go on more than two to three seconds or you could come off as rather overwhelming.
Start with your surroundings.
Talking about the people around you or the place you are at is one of the easiest ways to break the ice with someone new. If you both have been introduced at a party, perhaps you could ask the person how he/she knows your host. Or if you are stuck in an elevator, begin by mentioning what you were doing in the building and then go on to ask your companion the purpose of his/her visit. Talking about your surroundings lets you know each other in a safe and impersonal way
Talk about neutral topics.
At a first meeting, it is better to start a conversation with safe and neutral topics like the weather and sports. Comment on how hot/cold/rainy/comfortable it has been and how much longer it is likely to last. Or if you have met the person at your office building, talk about something related to the workplace or people you work with. Around this time you will begin to get a clearer picture of how interested is the person in carrying on a conversation with you. If he/she shies away from making eye contact and responds only in monosyllables perhaps the person is distracted or this is not the right time for small talk in which case you need to change strategy or take a time out. On the other hand, if your social overtures are being met with a warm response, you could plunge in deeper into the conversation and explore other topics too.
Ask open-ended questions.
One reason why a listener may appear to be quiet is perhaps he/she is genuinely shy and wary of social situations. In order to make this person feel more comfortable, you can continue with a friendly demeanor but refrain from pressing him/her too hard for a response. Also asking open-ended questions rather than those that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ may be more successful in getting a person to open up. For instance instead of enquiring if your companion has been on a vacation this year, try asking about the most enjoyable thing he/she did on their last vacation. Also let the person take his/her own time while talking to you. Rushing him/her for an answer, filling in the gaps of his/her conversation with your own words or hurrying from one topic to another can make your companion more nervous than ever and lead him/her to clam up.
Explore other topics.
However if you find yourself reaching a comfort level with your companion, you could ask him/her to tell you more about their own selves – their families, favorite pastimes and even aspirations for the future. Hobbies and favorite movies/bands/actors are usually fun ways of getting to know each other and who knows you may even chance upon a mutual love for Italian wines or bête noir films of the black and white era. However be alert to any hints of discomfort in your listener, for instance while talking about families or childhood which may indicate parent’s divorce or an unhappy upbringing. Also steer clear of highly personal matters like past relationships or controversial issues like religious and political affiliations. Above all, refrain from making sexual innuendos or improper comments, no matter how friendly your companion may appear to be.
Whether to take it further.
Most people carry on small talk since they are willing to appear friendly and social. Don’t assume that any sign of friendliness on your companion’s part is a foolproof evidence of his/her romantic interest in you. At the same time, if you are certain of his/her intentions on the basis of something they may have said or a couple of gestures they may have exhibited, you are most welcome to take your encounter further. But if you don’t want to set yourself up for disappointment or heartbreak, it is better to go through another two to three meetings before considering if you two are suited for each other.