It’s not uncommon for me to convert strangers into becoming friends.
Whether it’s the cute girl in the neighborhood Facebook group that ultimately referred me to my favorite client who would later offer me the opportunity to become Employee #7 or the legendary beard that became internet famous and wanted my Reddit marketing skills, my love for talking to people tends to prompt unexpectedly positive outcomes.
Yesterday, I arrived at the flagship store for Tom’s Shoes which also happens to be a nifty little internet cafe with colorful foot traffic. As I was getting my things out of my bag, I could hear the guy behind me having an uncomfortable conversation. I observed that he had turned from his computer setup down the bar from me and saw her juggling a yoga mat along with the coffee she’d just purchased. It was clear that this was a chance encounter.
While I could tell from comments like “I see you’re still riding the bike” and questions like “still teaching classes at the studio?” that they had a history, but it was the topical nature of the conversation and meek tone of their voices that shed light on the dynamic between them. I had a hunch that they once dated and had randomly just run into one another.
As soon as she was out of earshot I turned and asked, “your ex?”
He smiled and asked, “was it that obvious?” We laughed and started chatting. Turns out that they had dated for two years and just recently broken up. She lives across town so it was as unexpected as it was mutually awkward. Citing my preceptive abilities, he asked if I was a writer and it started a conversation. As it turns out, his name is also Brian and he also rides a red Ducati. We exchanged numbers and are planning a moto jaunt soon.
I tell you this story to tell you what I’ve learned about talking to strangers.
Offer the conversation. Do not allow yourself to set expectations for the conversation or its outcomes as this will only lead to stress. You are offering the conversation like you would offer someone a cup of coffee, they might say ‘yes’ or they might say ‘no’ and either is fine. Just focus your energy on presenting an open door, but don’t try to pull people in.
Make behavioral observations. Never comment on something out of the person’s control as you’ll never know how they feel about it (i.e. facial features and body posture) Instead, comment on things that people curate for themselves (i.e. outfit and accessories) as these elements indicate something they are proud to display to the world around them.
Comment on shared experiences. Yesterday, I shared how I met two sisters at brunch. While I could hear their entire conversation, jumping in would label me as an eavesdropper even though I wasn’t listening intentionally. When the guy approached to ask her what she was eating, I jumped to turn just as they did. We had both experienced the interruption together and a comment on that shared experience started the conversation.
Follow their lead. You can tell if they accepted your offer by the information given in their response. If you say “This [coffee] line is crazy” and they respond with “Yep” or a nod then they don’t want to talk. If they counter with “It’s usually not this busy” then they’re opening themselves to you saying something like “it’s my first time, do you come here often?” When Brian responded with “was it that obvious?” he was telling me there was a story and the more we chatted, the more personal information he shared. He was open to conversation.
Know when to bow out. I’ve been known to talk a wee bit too much and the onslaught of awkward scenarios led to my obsession with finding a better way. While not too many bad things can come from talking too much, knowing when to bow out will improve your results. Besides, you have better leverage when you leave them wanting more.
This is Empathy. Digital Empathy leverages the same rules with different methods.
If you want to make friends of strangers the digital cafes across the web through things like enthusiastic reader emails email, Facebook group contributions, and odd holiday tweets that mention the head of a billion dollar company… Ghost Influence is the party to attend.
When was the last time something pleasantly unexpected came from talking to a stranger?