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Three Scientifically Proven Steps For Talking With Strangers

Behavioral scientists have found that strangers are more open to small talk than you might think.

Three Scientifically Proven Steps For Talking With Strangers
[Photo: Flickr user Zaytsev Artem]

Want to be better at small talk? Of course you do—or you will the next time you find yourself at a dinner party, business meeting, or networking event. You can practice the "art" of small talk, or you can turn to behavioral science to give you a leg up. Here's what the latter has to say about what makes for seamless, natural conversation.

Why You Should Talk To More Strangers . . .

Will small talk make you happier? This is one of the questions that the University of Chicago’s Nick Epley answered in a series of fascinating experiments. He found that while people believe they'll be happier if they keep to themselves and don't interact with strangers, they're mostly wrong.

What the data show is that people report higher levels of happiness after connecting with others—even strangers—through a few minutes of small talk, than if they had stayed to themselves. Remarkably, this finding is equally consistent among introverts and extroverts alike.

It seems that many of us still have a profound misunderstanding of the psychological effects of social interaction. We mistakenly place a premium on solitary activities (aimlessly checking our phones, reading, or even getting some work done), pushing the idea of chatting with strangers far down on our mental lists of what we consider to be pleasant.

But human beings are inherently social, and denying that makes us less happy than we otherwise might be. On a more practical level, it also makes us worse at small talk—which is a skill you need to sharpen.

. . . And Why They'll Let You

One reason we avoid small talk, Epley found, is the fear of rejection. We believe that others won't want to participate in the conversations we strike up. As a result, our brains associate high levels of risk in approaching someone.

For example, in one study, participants predicted that fewer than 47% of fellow commuters would be willing to converse with them. Yet no one in the experiment who made the attempt was rebuffed.

So why did participants vastly underestimate strangers' willingness to chat? The reason is because of a phenomenon behavioral scientists call "pluralistic ignorance." This is when someone secretly rejects an idea or behavior but mistakenly assumes that others accept it, and therefore feels pressured to go along with it. It's why people commonly believe that others are less interested in talking than they are.

But like most social interactions, small talk rarely just happens—it's the byproduct of certain concrete behaviors. Here are three steps to take to strike up a casual conversation and carry it through.

1. Start With A Smile

It can often be intimidating when you first approach someone. But one science-backed method for putting both you and the other person at ease isn't surprising or difficult: smile. One study found that when you smile, it naturally puts you in a more optimistic, energetic, and upbeat emotional state. The research also identified that these positive emotions linger after you've finished smiling.

What’s more, when you smile at someone, they'll smile back. Why? The brain has "mirror neurons," which tend to prompt reciprocal responses between people—or they do in the case of smiling, anyway. This small nonverbal cue will inject positive emotions into the first seconds of your interaction and make them more receptive to you, even before you utter a word.

2. Start Looking For Similarities

Starting a conversation is often the most daunting part of small talk. But it doesn't have to be. Simply begin right off the bat by looking for similarities between you and calling attention to them—you don't need to grasp for other topics.

Many studies have found that rapport and rates of compliance increase when people realize they have something in common. More than that, identifying points of similarity can also make your interaction feel more authentic.

You don't need to reinvent the wheel here. If you're at a dinner party, for instance, just ask the familiar, "How do you know [the host]?" Or if you're at a networking event, you could introduce yourself and say, "This is my first time here. Have you been here before?"

3. The "Insight-And-Question" Method

So you've started up a conversation—great. Now how do you keep it going? There's a straightforward yet effective formula: "insight-and-question." Offer a statement or observation that applies to the situation, then follow it up with a question. It may sound really basic, but you can actually continue repeating it throughout the interaction without your small talk becoming strained or forced.

Sharing your ideas will guide you in contributing to the conversation. It's a give-and-take. If you throw in your own contributions, you can steer the dialogue in a direction you can actually participate in. This will also keep you engaged; enjoyable small talk always involves both sharing and listening.

Once you share an insight, pose a question to the other person. But there's an important caveat here. As I conducted research for my upcoming book, I discovered that certain questions affect the brain in ways that significantly improve the likelihood of a positive encounter with another person.

For instance, Harvard University researchers, using fMRI scans, have discovered that questions that prompt people to state their opinions increased neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.

In other words, strictly factual questions aren't as valuable. Don't ask, "What time did you get here?" or "How was the traffic?" Questions that ask people to share information about themselves can cause a change in the brain that naturally enhances their mood. In fact, the researchers found that participants were even willing to forego money in order to disclose information about themselves.

Science has confirmed that people are very open to small talk—most of us are just leery of initiating it. But with these simple tricks, you can tap into the powerful, yet often hidden, parts of our psychology that make us want to open up to one another. So find the nearest stranger, and start with a smile.

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