After years of evolution as social beings, one would expect us Humans to be proficient in conversing by now. But maybe it is the very reason that conversation is so crucial for our social setting that there is high anxiety associated with it. It is because we’re so dependent on interactions that we tread so carefully, always afraid of being judged. This is the most commonly cited reason for not approaching someone, or not being able to keep a conversation going.
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So what can be done about it? It’s a matter of trial and error. Every person you meet will be so strikingly different form the other that it is almost impossible to go in with a manual. One can, however, keep a few tips in mind that work like a compass. These will point you in the right direction when you feel that a conversation is taking a plunge into its death.
Although many may not be very good at making conversation, almost everybody is attuned to pick up non-verbal cues. These could be your tone of voice, your body language and the general vibe around you. So you may not be hiding your disinterest as well as you think. When you walk up to someone, be sure of your own intentions. Why is it that you want to talk to them? Do you have an ulterior motive or are you genuinely interested and open? When you’re interested, conversation will flow naturally and you will find yourself actually having a good time. Without this genuine interest, however, every other trick that you try will seem forced, and will make the situation more awkward – and we have enough of that already, don’t we?
“What do I talk about?” How often have we grappled with this question long enough to have actually missed the window of opportunity? Instead of obsessing over this question, simply observe. People have a lot to offer as conversation starters. Observe their mannerisms or appearances and look for something you’d find interesting, unusual, or puzzling even.
This, like any other approach, can be tricky to handle. You wouldn’t, for instance, want to point out someone’s scar as it can be a sensitive topic for many. There can be many other impersonal and safe observations to make. A person could be evidently ambidextrous, they could be using an antique watch or a bag, or they could simply be reading an interesting book. You will slowly begin to realise that knowing what to talk about may not be so difficult after all.
Eye contact is a gateway into conversation. Before approaching someone, if you can hold their gaze, you will have gotten yourself an invitation. Awkwardness will also be cut at its roots when a person responds to your eye contact. This is a sure way of knowing that someone is just as interested in talking to you as you are to them. Keep in mind that eye contact without a smile can be seen as threatening, and well, just creepy. Everyone responds to an amicable and confident personality, and your smile and the ability to look in their eyes are tools you should put into good use. Consider it a way of laying the ground work.
Keep your introductions minimal. State your name and what you do, or who you are. Under a spell of nervousness, many tend to offer unnecessary or irrelevant information about themselves. A conversation is smooth only if the people involved are constantly interacting. Wait for their response at all times. This way, you will avoid making the conversation all about yourself – the easiest gimmick to boredom.
Everyone likes to talk about themselves, and they “would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them,” as Sylvia Plath likes to put it. So give them the chance and ask them about themselves. This will come more easily if, like mentioned before, you are genuinely interested. There’s a lot of distaste for small talk out there but in most situations, nothing works better as an initiator.
You could always begin by asking what the person does, or where they’re from. From their answers, you will be able to gauge their personality – are they opening up? Are they interested at all? You will then be able to decide if you can delve into personal or more interesting subjects, because although small talk gets you started, it eventually brings you to a dead-end. More importantly, to be able to steer a conversation in any direction, it is essential to listen – only listen and not judge. Listen to be respectful, if not for anything else.
Questions are not the only way to start or keep a conversation going. A light joke – the safest kind being one at your own expense – is a powerful ice breaker. Something as simple as “I noticed that you’re handling this quite well; I’m clumsy as a fool,” will get the conversation started.
A behavioural trait that we have picked up as social beings is our need to share misery – we tend to naturally bond over it. Everyone enjoys letting some steam off with little complaints, so starting a conversation with how bad the traffic is or how warm the beer is, is a great way to get talking.
Starting a conversation with ease takes time and practice as conversing is a skill that requires tact. Keep yourself open to embarrassing blunders but don’t let the possibility intimidate you. Once you initiate and find common ground, it is sure to flow smoother than water.