How to Start a Conversation With a Stranger

Starting Conversations When You Have Social Anxiety

Woman interested in starting a conversation with a stranger.
Strangers can be excellent potential conversation partners. Getty / Franek Strzeszewsk

Some people can strike up a conversation with anyone–even complete strangers. If you have social anxiety disorder (SAD), the thought of talking to a person you don't know can be intimidating (particularly when they are an authority figure).

The best advice for starting a conversation is actually quite simple—focus on the other person or say something light-hearted.

Your initial goal is to make an introductory statement, which does not have to be complex. The point of saying that first something is to give you the chance to say something else once the person responds.

Comment on Something Personal

You'll find that everyone you meet has something unique about them—an item of jewelry, an unusual shirt, or even a tattoo. These tell a story about a person. When you notice and compliment them, it can give you a starting point for conversation.

For example, you could initiate a conversation with a person by saying:

  • "Wow, that is a beautiful pendant, what kind of stone is that?"
  • "Nice shirt! You're a Grateful Dead fan?"
  • "Is that a tattoo of Yoda on your shoulder?"

Avoid commenting on intimate aspects of a person's appearance—such as asking, "Is that your real hair color?" or "Wow, you must work out a lot!"

After you receive a response, make sure you have something else to say that will give you a common platform on which to build a conversation and, ultimately, a relationship with the person you've just met.

The key to building a conversation is making sure that you also have a follow-up story to share—something that reveals a bit of personal information about you.

For example, when the person responds to your initial question, you could follow up with something like:

  • "I saw a pendant like that at a bazaar in India."
  • "My father was a real "Dead Head." He took me to see them when I was a kid."
  • "I love tattoos. I've been thinking of getting one but I'm not sure what to get. How did you decide on Yoda?"

These statements will help connect you to the person and keep the conversation moving. Remember, the goal is not to say the perfect thing or come across a certain way, but to open the door for more conversation.

"Haven't I Seen You Somewhere Before?"

This classic conversation starter can work in the right circumstances. If you say to someone, "You seem really familiar, do I know you from somewhere?" it makes it easier to gather and give information and keep a conversation going.

For example, if you ask someone where they went to high school and it turns out you went to the same school, you could follow up by offering a fact like, "I was in the marching band, did you play an instrument?"

If you ask someone where they work and realize that you have seen them there, it gives you the opportunity to make a connection, "I love that Starbucks!"

As the other person is giving information about themselves to you, it's OK to go off on interesting tangents. Remember: the goal is not to find out if you've met before, it's to get to know the other person.

Make a Funny Comment

Another great way to start a conversation with the people around you is to simply comment on your shared surroundings. A little humor works great here.

For example, if you are sitting in a lecture hall and notice that your professor looks familiar, you could say to the person next to you, "Doesn't he look a bit like Harry Potter?"

Keep your commentary positive—never mean-spirited or judgmental. You want the other person to feel comfortable getting "in" on the joke with you. You could follow up on your previous comment about your professor with something like, "I wonder where Hedwig is?"

Humor is difficult with someone you don't know well, which means using this method to start a conversation can be risky. However, if you do find someone who shares your sense of humor, it can be the start of a great friendship.

If you don't receive a positive response from one person, the method might work with someone else. The more you practice, the easier it will be to talk to a person you don't know. With time, you'll become more confident and won't need to rely on tricks to get a conversation started and keep it going.

Research on Conversations and Social Anxiety

A 2016 study showed that people with social anxiety tend not to contribute equally to conversations. As a result, they were less well-liked than others.

You might participate less in a conversation because:

  • Your anxiety makes you too uncomfortable and self-conscious
  • You don't have experience making conversation
  • You are lacking key social skills

Many people have the skills and experience to hold up their end of a conversation and can even be a "chatterbox" with people they know, but they are self-conscious with strangers. Their anxiety holds them back and prevents them from being their true selves.

Lacking certain social skills can inhibit your ability to engage others in conversation, especially if it makes you seem unfriendly. For example, research shows that people with social anxiety tend to make less eye contact during conversation.

If you have eye contact anxiety, working on making and keeping eye contact when you are talking to others will help you appear more approachable, thus making it more likely people will respond to your attempts to start a conversation.

If you do feel that you don't have the social skills and experience needed to be a good conversationalist, self-help books and working with a therapist can help you develop them.

A Word From Verywell

If you have social anxiety, you might find that treatment with cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication helps you feel more at ease in social settings. Tips and tricks for starting a conversation and being more comfortable around others will work best if you are able to work on and manage your underlying anxiety. With time, practice, and the right treatment, you can gain confidence and improve your conversation skills.

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  1. Mein C, Fay N, Page AC. Deficits in joint action explain why socially anxious individuals are less well liked. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2016;50:147-151. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.07.001

  2. Howell AN, Zibulsky DA, Srivastav A, Weeks JW. Relations among social anxiety, eye contact avoidance, state anxiety, and perception of interaction performance during a live conversation. Cogn Behav Ther. 2016;45(2):111–22. doi:10.1080/16506073.2015.1111932