How to Become a Master at Talking to Strangers
Entrepreneurs must become experts at connecting with anyone-and with a few simple strategies, you can. Here's what happened when I tried them myself
By | Joe Keohane | www.entrepreneur.com
That’s not to say I hadn’t talked to strangers before that, because I had. I’m the son and brother of highly social small-business owners, and I’m a journalist, so talking to strangers has been both a way of life and a livelihood for me. And yet, a few years ago I noticed I wasn’t doing it much anymore — if at all. Between balancing a demanding job and a really demanding small child, I was often tired, distracted, and overscheduled. The prospect of striking up conversations with random strangers in coffee shops, or bars, or on the bus started to feel daunting. Eventually, I just stopped doing it.
This was a coping strategy, of course. I was overwhelmed, so something had to go. And talking to strangers can, as it turns out, be taxing. Psychologists have found that just making small talk with a stranger can be cognitively demanding, tiring, and even stressful. That makes sense. You don’t know the person, you don’t know where the conversation is going, so you must pay closer attention than you would if you were talking to someone you know well. But psychologists have found that talking to a stranger actually boosts your mental performance — for that same reason: It’s a workout. I was saving myself a bit of effort, but I also noticed that my life was becoming less interesting, less surprising, maybe even a little lonely.
After my epiphany, I got to wondering: Why don’t we talk to strangers more, what happens when we do, and how can we get better at it? It turns out, many researchers are asking the same questions. I started flying around the world to meet them: psychologists, evolutionary scientists, historians, urban planners, entrepreneurs, sociologists, and — you guessed it — a ton of fascinating strangers I met along the way. They all taught me that talking to strangers can not only be fun but also enhance our sense of well-being, make us smarter, expand our social and professional networks, and even help us overcome some of our most intractable social problems. (I detail this all in my new book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.)