Talking to strangers is among the most uncomfortable activities for an introvert, especially if you add social anxiety to the equation. Can a socially anxious introvert learn how to talk to strangers and find common ground with random people?
The problem is that most communication tips don’t work when you suffer from this mental disorder. They say ‘be open and relaxed, smile, watch your posture and body language, and look the other person in the eye’.
While all this sounds great, socially anxious people just can’t help themselves. No matter how hard you try, you always end up feeling uneasy, acting weird, and saying the wrong things in a social setting.
It has to do with the fact that fears and thought patterns associated with social anxiety are deeply rooted in your psyche and result in automatic responses you can’t influence.
Living with social anxiety is something I know from first-hand experience. Even though I’ve beaten most of my social fears, there are still situations that make me feel uncomfortable without a reason. And meeting new people is one of those.
After years of dealing with social anxiety, I’ve come up with a set of tricks that help me interact with random people. It all depends on the situation where you have to talk to a stranger.
Sometimes you meet people at a friendly party and are expected to have small talk with them (oh, no!). Then there are folks who love chatting with random people in public places such as airports. There are also situations when you need to have a formal conversation with a stranger to solve an issue or find some information.
All these scenarios require a different approach.
How to Talk to Strangers: 5 Strategies That Will Work for a Socially Anxious Introvert
1. Prepare possible questions and answers in advance
This is one of the most helpful strategies for interacting with strangers, regardless of the conversation topic. It is especially useful for formal communication.
For example, say that you need to ask a client manager about switching to a different Internet package. In this case, it’s wise to prepare your questions in advance to make sure you will get all the necessary information. It’s also a good idea to write down the answers when the conversation takes place.
Not asking everything you need to know and forgetting/misunderstanding the information you received are among the most common problems of socially anxious people. It happens because your anxiety makes you focus on your uncomfortable experiences at the moment of talking to a stranger. Thus, you end up skipping the actual content of the conversation.
You can use the same trick for informal communication too. If you are going to a party and know that you will meet new people, you can think about possible questions they may ask you and prepare your answers.
At first glance, this may sound like a stupid thing to do, but this strategy works wonders for those who suffer from social phobia. Socially anxious introverts thrive in controlled environments and are not good at handling spontaneous situations.
Thus, getting prepared for an upcoming social event is actually a great idea. Think up a few good answers to the most common questions. You can even prepare a short story about yourself, your work, or your recent trip. When a related topic pops up, use it.
You will see that it’s much easier to talk about something you’ve already thought over in advance than lay yourself out to tame your anxiety and give an impromptu speech in front of strangers.
2. When someone’s question makes you feel uncomfortable, ask them instead
Introverts don’t like sharing the details of their personal lives when they talk to someone they are not close to. The problem is that many people don’t think it’s wrong to ask personal questions even when they are having a conversation with a stranger.
Now, many years’ experience of being a socially anxious introvert makes you a master of avoiding difficult questions and giving half-answers. As for me, I’m an extremely private person and that’s why I’ve learned to disclose as little information about myself as possible.
For example, when asked a personal question, I often say something like ‘It’s a long story’ or ‘It’s difficult to explain’. At the same time, I’ve noticed that this strategy doesn’t work on everyone. When interacting with a particularly nosy person, it brings about quite the opposite result. Such answers seem to ignite their curiosity even more.
To avoid a situation like that, it’s wiser to ask a stranger a related question instead. For example, the guy you just met at your friend’s birthday party asks you about your family background, which makes you feel uneasy. You can use my answer option paired with an appropriate question:
‘It’s a long story. What about you? Do you have any siblings?’
When you immediately ask the other person a question, you move the focus of the conversation onto them. And believe me, most people love talking about themselves, so most likely than not, they will forget about their question addressed to you.
3. Let them talk about themselves
We said that letting strangers talk about themselves is a great way to take the focus away from yourself. Most introverts are very good listeners, and you can use this powerful communication skill of yours when interacting with random people.
After all, we all thrive on the feeling of being heard and understood. The difficult part for a socially awkward introvert is to find the courage to ask questions. It feels more comfortable to just sit still and listen, but not all people are willing to talk about their lives when their interlocutor doesn’t look interested.
For this reason, try to actively listen to the other person, nod, and ask appropriate questions. Don’t forget about maintaining eye contact (yes, I know, it’s much more difficult than it sounds). In essence, try to be present in the conversation.
Hey, don’t torture yourself – just do the best you can, even if it feels not enough. After all, not everyone becomes an excellent communicator, and it’s perfectly fine!
If you manage to show that you are interested, you will come across as a kind and friendly person no matter how much you say.
4. Turn small talk into an interesting conversation (it’s easier than it seems!)
Small talk is certainly one of the most exhausting and dull tasks to handle in social situations. But it’s possible to turn it into a more meaningful conversation if you ask the right questions.
Most introverts love discussing deep topics about life. The problem is that for a socially awkward introvert, it feels weird to ask a stranger personal questions. After all, we hate to bother other people and intrude into their lives.
So how to talk to strangers about meaningful things? It turns out that there is a solution.
If you feel uncomfortable getting more personal with someone you just met, you can turn to a general topic that concerns everyone. For example, the current world situation, movies, music, or travel. Topics like these allow you to express your opinion without the awkwardness of getting too personal with a stranger.
Such topics also reveal more about people than it may seem. They give you the opportunity to get to know the person you just met and find out if you have anything in common. Who knows, you may discover a lot of similarities in the process!
5. Set boundaries or avoid communication
Finally, no one can force you to talk to a stranger if you don’t want to. If the person standing next to you in line happens to be super friendly or a taxi driver is trying to start a conversation with you, you can always set clear boundaries. Just say that you are not in a mood to talk or have a terrible headache.
I understand that it’s a tough task for a socially anxious introvert to openly reject the conversation with another person, especially a stranger. In this case, you can use a trick.
If it’s possible, you can pretend that someone is calling you on the phone so that you have an excuse to go somewhere else to wait. If you have to stay where you are (such as the checkout line, hair salon, or taxi), you can use your smartphone to read an eBook or an article.
In case if someone has already started a conversation with you, pretend to be busy and say something like,
‘Sorry, I have to study some documents.’ or ‘Excuse me, I have some reading to do.’
The point is to be polite. If you apologize and give the other person a quick friendly smile, they will probably understand that you just don’t want to talk, but they won’t be offended.
That’s why so many introverts prefer to always wear their headphones in public. It’s a sure-fire signal that tells other people that they are not available for chitchat.
Even though I have overcome most of my social anxiety issues, I still can’t say with all certainty that I know how to talk to strangers and build rapport with other people. However, I have learned that there are certain strategies that work even for socially anxious introverts like me.
To sum up, if a conversation with a stranger is inevitable, the trick is to make them talk more about themselves rather than focus on you. After all, an introvert feels much more comfortable playing the role of a listener.
At some point in dealing with my social anxiety, I realized that I was fine with talking to strangers when the conversation didn’t revolve around me.
Just imagine, I once happened to give advice to a hairdresser who was in a mood to talk about her personal problems! And I’m sure that I came across as a friendly and empathetic person.
So that’s the main secret to talking with strangers. If you are a socially anxious introvert too, put your listening skills to good use. All it takes is to find the courage to ask questions. It feels difficult in the beginning, but it will get easier with practice. I promise!
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