By: Christine Lai
The days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. The period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends). – Alex Williams
Making new friends and striking up conversations with strangers are difficult. We’ve all been there and we’ve all struggled to different extents to make sure we’re not putting a foot in our mouth, sounding obnoxious, or incompetent. Unfortunately for those of us who do not enjoy or are not good at meeting new people, this situation presents itself often – in awkward silences in the elevator, waiting alone for your friend to arrive at a bar or restaurant, in after work happy hour with new colleagues.
Equipped with this dilemma, I interviewed Sarah* – a marketing professional, born and raised in the heart of New York City. She is an expert at meeting new people. People pay her to make friends in the most dynamic and diverse city in the world. When visiting Washington D.C. from New York City, she made instantaneous friends with a waiter at a Mexican restaurant that turned into three rounds of free margaritas for all. Here is her take on making new friends on the fly and six tips to successfully strike a conversation.
*name has been changed
What are the benefits of making new friends with strangers?
I wouldn’t call it benefits of making new friends. It’s about putting yourself out there and perhaps making a new friend. There are no commitments or obligations. There is really no harm just talking to someone.
There are many pluses and very few negatives of striking up a conversation with a stranger.
- You have a good time. You don’t strike up a conversation with just anyone. You pick people you get a good vibe from – people you find likeable. If you’re sitting there doing nothing on the subway or waiting for your friends to arrive at a restaurant, there is no harm or time wasted by talking to someone next to you.
- You learn something new. I was on the airplane on my way to Puerto Rico for vacation. I began talking to the girl sitting next to me and she happens to be a local. She gave me great tips on where to go, what to eat – tidbits only locals would know – and it made a big difference on the trip. She even gave me her cell phone number in case we got lost in the wrong part of town!
- You make a new acquaintance or friend. During dinner a couple of years ago, I asked the waitress at the restaurant, “Have you been to Korea? I loved it when I was there!” We started chatting and found out that we had a lot in common. I wouldn’t say we’ve become best friends, but we talk once in a while and she even invited me to her place for home-cooked Korean food!
You mention negatives. What are the downsides of striking up random conversations?
There are only really two downsides and neither of them serious: (1) talking to someone creepy, and (2) having a boring conversation.
Meeting someone creepy is pretty difficult, given you have done your best to avoid them your whole life. Just open your eyes and look around. You can quickly spot them on the subway or at a restaurant. Don’t talk to them. End of story.
Having a boring conversation with someone is not the end of the world. You may encounter a very long-winded sob story or a rant that doesn’t seem to end. It’s not fun, but you can always exit the conversation. Tell them you have an appointment or need to meet a friend, and leave quickly and gracefully.
What are some common mistakes that people make when trying to make new friends?
Don’t talk about touchy topics – politics and religion. You can get into that later if you become good friends, but that can be a disastrous opening line. “Are you a Republican?” Please don’t go there.
Not taking hints is another mistake. When someone is engrossed in a book, has her earphones on, or is talking on the phone – do not interrupt. They are occupied and do not want to talk to you. Do you want to talk to someone when you’re reading something interesting, unwinding from a long day with music, or talking to you friend?
What are your secrets to making new friends?
There aren’t any secrets, but there are some general rules of thumb.
- Talk about what you know. If you don’t know anything about sports, don’t strike up a conversation about sports. You’ll appear fake, desperate, or both. If you can’t tell if the bag that someone is holding came from Canal Street in Chinatown or a nice store from Italy, don’t ask if it’s real or if it’s from Canal Street.
- Find common ground. It might be something the other person is wearing or a book they are reading. If you can’t find something to comment on and you’re standing awkwardly in the elevator together, talk about the weather. Really. You won’t get in trouble because you can both agree that it’s sunny that day.
- Don’t focus on yourself. Remember that is a conversation not a monologue. People want to be heard, so make sure you let the other person talk more or at least have a back and forth.
- Be attentive. Be attentive to the other person’s body language. Do they seem like they want to avoid the topic? Do they look like they would rather not talk? Do they want to talk more?
- Practice. It’s great that you’re reading this blog article, but it won’t do any good if you’re just sitting there. Get up and start talking to people. If you mess up – that’s okay. There are 6 billion people in this world.
- Be genuine. Being genuine tops it all. Don’t say you like classical music when you don’t. Do not force yourself or obligate yourself to talk, when you are having a bad day and just don’t want to. Talk to people because you’re genuinely interested in learning more about them. Otherwise, people can sense that you are not being you.
You never know where life takes you. Keep an open mind because you don’t know what doors people can open for you. If you end up not liking the person you struck a conversation with, you probably won’t see them again either if you don’t make an effort. It’s a win-win situation.
So if you are in the mood for talking next time, check if there’s anyone who seem like they don’t mind talking. Strike up a conversation with the person who holds the door for you or someone standing at the bus stop.
Here are other interesting, funny, and helpful articles in making friends in other situations.
- New York Times: The Challenge of Making Friends as an Adult (article)
- Dale Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People (book)
- How to Make Friends and Get a Social Life (blog)