How to Talk to a Stranger

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. But many others find it difficult to talk to a stranger. This can be particularly stressful if you have social anxiety disorder (SAD). But even if social small talk is hard for you, it is possible to improve your conversational skills and feel more comfortable talking with strangers. The best way to do this is to practice.

Your initial goal is to make an introductory statement, which does not have to be complex. The point of that first comment is to open the door, and 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 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, even if the relationship only lasts a few minutes.

Offer a follow-up story 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 Deadhead. 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 to come across a certain way, but to keep talking.

Ask If You've Met 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.

Break the Ice With Humor

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.

Keep the Conversation Going

You might participate less in a conversation because your anxiety makes you too uncomfortable and self-conscious or because you don't have experience making conversation. But a 2016 study showed that people with social anxiety tend not to contribute equally to conversations. As a result, they are less well-liked than others.

So it's important to hold up your end of a conversation once you start it. Many people can do this with people they know, but they are self-conscious with strangers. Their anxiety holds them back and prevents them from being their true selves.

Cope With Conversation Challenges

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.

Working on making and keeping eye contact when you are talking to others will help you appear more approachable and friendly. This will make it more likely people will respond to your attempts to start a conversation.

If you 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.

While it's important not to avoid conversations with strangers because they make you feel anxious, your safety also matters. Practice talking to strangers in safe, public environments where the stakes are low. And if you are chatting with someone online, always protect your personal information.

A Word From Verywell

Strategies 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. 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.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."