The art of starting a conversation with a stranger

When you meet a person for the first time, and the conversation is spinning, what topics or questions can come in handy?

It is sometimes difficult to find something interesting to say beyond the usual banalities and tired topics.

Drinks and weather

The next time you find yourself in this awkward situation, try this proven technique: “I’m going to help myself, you want something?”. It never fails.

The path to the bar — or the fridge — will undoubtedly allow you to engage in more interesting dialogue. You will be able to relax a little by giving the drink to your interlocutor without resuming the conversation. That’s the art of driving someone away by winning their good graces.

And if you fall in love — if, in other words, you don’t want to find other conversation partners, then you will be able to improvise and find something more interesting than a shy discussion on the rain and the beautiful time you’re having.

Warning: One of the good things about the weather is the fact that it is sometimes bad. And, shared hate and mutual disgust may constitute excellent relational bases as well.

Social Distinctions

The first stage of a conversation that’s frequently used — consciously or not — to assess the speaker’s and your own ranks. Human nature is made that way, and you will agree with that as long as you remember the basics of anthropology studied at college.

When we engage in conversation with a stranger, our first instinct is to evaluate the potential of the encounter:

  • Possibility of a relationships’ development
  • Professional advancement
  • Social advancement, etc.

Fears and desires are clearly shown in our grammar, our diction, our vocabulary, and our speech, as Paul Fussell explains in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983).

In his book, Fussell sweeps away the naive hopes of Alexis de Tocqueville, who thought that American political organization “would erase a large part of the social distinctions based on verbal language and style.”

Fussell explains that “Since this country is democratical, the class distinctions have developed with more rigor than elsewhere. Being far from merging into one large central mass free of any social distinction, language has acquired class markers even more flagrant than expected. In language, there are no such confusions as there are in society, and ordinary people are fully aware of this fact. When asked by sociologists, experts indicate that they rely primarily on oral expression to assess the social class of a person we don’t know well”.

If we take this socio-historical crossroad, it is to imitate the twists and turns of a captivating speaker in a provocative tangent. Still, we need to tell you that the faster you will become aware of this aspect of light conversations, the faster you will accept it. Remember that certain conversations rarely succeed when they involve two different social classes. Although, it can be fun, when you rub shoulders with members of the petty bourgeoisie, to stay at the lookout for euphemisms, foreign references, and other attempts at refinement — distinctive signs of what Fussell called “the quest for grandeur and refinement of the middle class.”

Elementary mistakes

Now, let’s draw the reciprocal of our tangent. As we like to say, or rather as the Modern Encyclopedia says, the conversation “is not a race towards a goal, it’s a regular attack on a point. It’s a random walk in a spacious field.” For one, having a small talk is as easy as ordering an assignment from For others, it is a real challenge that requires diligent preparation.

You should know that “What do you do for a living?” is not a good start. We all ask this question, and that’s why it’s no longer considered rude or vulgar, but it is a bit razor-sharp and tends to ruin the mood.

In many countries, this question “What do you do?” is a kind of ignorance. That’s one of the red threads in Stephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of Declining Art is intrinsic monotony.

In the middle of his book, Miller studies a remark by Charles Dickens, “the pleasures of conversation are scarce, mainly because it’s ‘the love of commerce’ that makes Americans interested. Above all, interested in themselves”. He also quotes Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville’s traveling companion: “In America, men are only interested in one thing: their business.”

Toward the end of his book, he points out that in conversation, American advice often comes from career recommendations from “How to Make Friends” of Dale Carnegie: “For Carnegie, a conversation is just a main tool. The title of the book is misleading. Its subject is not friendship”.

If you want to make friends, or at least gather enough information to refine your appreciation of human comedy, preferably choose a question like “What do you like in life?” — something kind, open, and happy.

Did you know that it is enough to think of tomorrow to clear up your ideas? Asking the person in front of you about what they have planned for next fall invites them to talk about their passions, travel plans, hopes, and dreams.

Listening Skills

Then, the collective improvisation continues. It is up to you to transform your conversation into the essay with good questions. You are happy to reveal a part of your personality — the angle of your curiosity, the inclination of your mind — to get your interlocutor to embark on their own self-portrait.

Remember: among many boring individuals, there is an interesting person who is waiting — far too patiently — to be exposed. To explore this hidden facet, you will sometimes have to probe your conversational partner (within the limits of tact) or even examine them.

But to do that, it is necessary to greatly develop your listening skills and to listen actively and sincerely.

Cultivating “eloquent silence,” in 1842, this rare talent was described by a certain Orlando Sabertash, an author of one of the countless guides entitled The Art of Conversation. “The man capable of listening to the saddest speeches with calm and care — who treats their interlocutor by giving them the feeling that their words have weight. This man, who is content to display a smile of approval, to place a question at the right time, or to express a doubt (that can dissipate easily) — is an authentic genius, the rarest entity in modern society.”he right time, or to express a doubt (that ‘it is certain to be able to dissipate easily)- is an authentic genius, unlike in truth; the rarest entity in modern society.”