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

Knowing how to start a conversation with a stranger is easy for some people. However, if you suffer from social anxiety disorder (SAD), a room full of strangers can be incredibly intimidating. If the stranger that you are looking to start a conversation with is an authority figure, this likely adds to your anxiety.

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

Remember that your goal is just to make an introductory statement. What you say isn't as important as the fact that it gives you each a chance to say something else.

Comment on Something Personal

Often, the person with whom you are trying to start a conversation will have some unique aspect of themselves. Perhaps it is an item of jewelry, an unusual shirt, or maybe even a tattoo; something distinctive that tells a story about the person. Items like this give you a starting point for conversation.

Say something like:

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

Be sure to avoid anything too intimate as a starting point or you're likely to offend the other person. Don't ask if that is her real hair color or if he is a regular at the gym.

After you receive a response, have something else to say that will give you a common platform on which to build a conversation and a relationship. Before you start, think of a follow-up story. This is the key to building a conversation.

Follow up with something somewhat personal that relates to the other person and that tells him or her something interesting about you:

  • "The only place I've ever seen anything like that pendant was once 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?"

All of these statements 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.

Try the Old Standby: "Haven't I Seen You Somewhere Before"

Given the right circumstances, this conversation starter can work. If you say to someone, "You seem really familiar, do I know you from somewhere?" it makes it very easy to gather and give a lot of information and start a conversation.

  • "What high school did you attend?"
  • "I was in the marching band, did you play an instrument?"
  • "Where do you work?"
  • "I've been to that Starbucks."

As you go through the details of the other person's life story, feel free to go off on tangents. Remember, you don't really want to find out if you've met before; you want to get to know more about the other person.

Make a Funny Comment

One of the best ways to start a conversation is to make a funny comment about your surroundings.

  • "Hey, doesn't our instructor look like Harry Potter?"
  • "Is it just me, or is the guy in the front row asleep?"

The goal is not to be mean-spirited or judgmental, so be sure to keep your comments positive. Then, try to invite the other person in on the joke.

  • "Where do you think he keeps his magic wand, in his briefcase?"
  • "Do you think he's going to sleep through the whole class?"

Know that this method of starting a conversation can be risky. Humor is difficult with someone you don't know well. However, if you find someone who shares your sense of humor, chances are that it will be the start of a great friendship. Think of this period as a time of testing the waters, to find people who think the same way that you do. 

Remember that any of these tricks can fail some of the time. If you don't receive a positive response from someone, there are always other people whom you can approach.

If you are persistent, over time it will get easier to speak with strangers. As you become more confident and at ease, you won't need to rely on tricks to start conversations.

Research on Conversations and Social Anxiety

A 2016 study showed that people with social anxiety tend not to contribute equally to conversations, and as a result are less well-liked.

Why You Might Not Contribute Equally in a Conversation

There are two possible reasons why you might not contribute equally in a conversation.

1. Your anxiety makes you too uncomfortable and self-conscious to talk.

2. You are lacking experience in making conversation and social skills.

In most cases, people fall into the first category. It's not that you are lacking in social skills or don't know how to hold up your end of a conversation. In fact, with people you know well (e.g., close friends or family), you might even be a chatterbox. Rather, being self-conscious and anxious is what holds you back from being your true self in a conversation. In that case, it's important to work on your anxiety so that you can have better conversations.

If, on the other hand, you feel that you are actually lacking in social skills simply because you haven't had enough experience being around other people, it might be helpful to pick up some self-help books on how to build your social skills.

As another example, a second 2016 study on eye contact showed that individuals with social anxiety tend to make less eye contact during conversation. If you have trouble making eye contact, try to make it a goal to work on this social skill to improve your conversations and appear friendlier to others (thus inviting further conversations).

A Word From Verywell

If you have severe social anxiety, treatment is important, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication. Without effective treatment, tricks such as these conversation starters or other social skill strategies aren't likely to be effective.

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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