Main content

How to chat with someone you don't know and why it can be good for you

Research suggests that having a conversation with people we don't know can be good for us. So why don’t we do it more often?

Dr Gillian Sandstrom, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex, spoke to Woman’s Hour about the benefits of making small talk and gave us some tips on how to do it.

It was passing a woman who ran a hot dog stand in Toronto every day when she was at university that made Dr Gillian Sandstrom think about the topic of talking to someone you don’t know.

“I started a Masters degree in psychology and the university I was at was right in the city. When I walked between the research lab and my supervisor’s office, I would pass this hot dog stand. I don’t know how it happened but I developed this relationship with the lady who worked at the hot dog stand. I don’t know if we ever spoke to each other, I never bought a hot dog, but every time I would walk past her, I would just smile and wave and she’d smile and wave at me. I realised after a while that I felt so much better and it felt wrong when she wasn’t there. So her knowing who I was made me feel like I belonged on campus. It was just really intriguing to think that this tiny, little relationship mattered so much to me. So that’s why I started studying it. Is this just me or is this something that everyone can benefit from?”

Dr Sandstrom’s subsequent research found that talking to strangers can put us in a good mood and helps us feel connected to one another.

So if it can make us feel good, how should you go about it, particularly if you’re someone who perhaps finds the idea fairly nerve-wracking? Dr Sandstrom has six tips for how to get those conversations flowing.

1. First things first - learn how to start a conversation

“There are lots of ways to do this, and I urge you to experiment. First, you can comment on your shared situation, including the old classics: the weather, the traffic. This may seem trite, but you just need a way to connect, before you can move on to other, more interesting topics.”

2. Offer a compliment

“Another option is to start with a compliment. It’s fun to deliver compliments, and fun to receive compliments, especially from a stranger. Compliments seem easier to believe when they come from someone who doesn’t know you.

“Use your observational skills and tap into your curiosity to ask questions, or ask for advice. I’ve asked people why they were wearing airplane earrings, where they were travelling to with their suitcase, what book they were reading… Often I combine observation with humour. I once commented on a young man’s “breakfast of champions” (a packet of biscuits), and I asked two Freemasons wearing matching striped trousers if they had consulted each other on their wardrobe choices that morning.”

3. Ask follow-up questions to keep the conversation flowing smoothly

“Now that the conversation is rolling, some of the same strategies will help you keep it flowing smoothly: Comment on things you have in common, and exercise your observational skills and curiosity. People like it when you ask follow-up questions, because it demonstrates that you are listening deeply, rather than just thinking of what to say next.”

4. Reveal something about yourself to demonstrate trust

“You might consider disclosing something about yourself, which demonstrates trust and encourages reciprocation. I once started a conversation with a lady on the Tube by asking her how her day had been going so far. She gave a non-committal response, and I thought the conversation might be over (not all conversations are successful.) Then she asked me the same question, and I told her that I had had an adventure (being interviewed on BBC Radio 4!) In return, she confided in me that she had just found out she was pregnant! She felt safe telling a stranger on the Tube, who she would never see again. I felt so honoured! Hugs were exchanged.”

5. Be patient

“You will likely surprise people by talking to them, and it may take them a while to adjust to the idea that you’re just being friendly. Keep going, and most of the time you’ll manage to get into a groove.”

Dr Sandstrom acknowledges that given the stories in the news about Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, the topic around talking to people you don’t know can be “fraught”.

“I’ve talked to lots of women who say, ‘Hey, I’d like to have a chat with people, including men, but I don’t want them to think that I’m hitting on them'. Equally, I’ve talked to men who say that ‘I don’t want to talk to women because I worry about making women feel uncomfortable.' So it is definitely fraught.

“What we don’t want to have happen as a result of what’s going on is for people to lose trust in one another because it is really not a nice way to live if we can’t trust in our fellow humans. We have to get to the stage where it’s OK to just have a chat with someone, whoever they are, and not have it mean more than people want to connect and be friendly and make the world a kinder place.”

6. Know how to wrap up a conversation

According to Dr Sandstrom, many people struggle to end conversations without lying or making up trips to the toilet, so she suggests that you wrap it up simply.

“When you’re ready to move on, just tell the other person that it’s time for you to be on your way, and that you’ve enjoyed the chat (which I’m sure you will!)”

Listen to Dr Gillian Sandstrom’s full interview with Emma Barnett via BBC Sounds, where you can also catch up with any of the other episodes of Woman’s Hour you may have missed. Follow us @bbcwomanshour on Instagram or Twitter to join the conversation.