Week #7 – How to start conversations with strangers

I used to be the last person in the world to strike up conversations with strangers. If they started first, I would enthusiastically participate, but I would never start.

I wanted to fix that. If over many years I have been able to develop the ability to walk up to the hottest guy on the dance floor and ask them to dance (which actually usually doesn’t require talking), then I’m sure I should be able to do this. About three months ago was the first time in my life (that I can remember) I started conversation (outside of a dance floor, networking event or party) with a total stranger. It was a cashier at the local grocery store. It was Friday evening and I said something like “Any plans for the weekend?” and it worked, we had a short conversation! I was so happy, I think I skipped on my way home (thank god, that grocery store is really close to where I live!)

On this trip I’m constantly trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and try to start conversations with strangers. I have learned a phrase that has worked for me without fail so far. It is:

“Is anybody sitting here?” 

There are of course variations (and probably grammatically more correct!): “Is this chair free?” “Do you mind sharing the table?” On airplane/train/bus: “Excuse me, I have the window seat.” (Remember, I used this phrase on my way from SF to Frankfurt with great success.)

Even though the seat is obviously empty and there is nobody sitting there I still force myself (now, it comes easier and easier) to ask.

Here is the event that caused me to write about this.

Wednesday night there was no salsa in town so I decided to check out a very popular bar in Riga where I hadn’t been to. I was alone so I thought I would go there, get a drink at a bar and read a book on my kindle.

I got there, scanned the room for layout. There was a bar on the left, high tables on the right, lots of sofas all around the perimeter of the room, and a small stage at the back of the room. There were two people sitting at one end of the bar table, a girl and a guy, and two more guys sitting in the middle of the bar table. The only free chair was next to those two guys. I decided to go for the chair at at the bar. I purposefully asked the guy sitting next to the empty chair:

“Is anybody sitting here?”

He replied:

“No, it has been saved exactly for you!” 

Soon after I got settled in, he started a conversation with me as he saw that I paid with a card without a chip (that’s really rare in Latvia). Turns out the guy was a barmen at that bar and friends with the guy who was working at the bar that evening. So I ended up talking with them the whole evening even though initially I had planned staying at the bar for just an hour.

The night was fun and we talked about whole bunch of things. Inevitably it turned to work, that I’m a software engineer. They were not the techie types, but pretty much anybody in their youth in Latvia has dealt with computer hardware. One guy told a story how he literally drilled holes into his laptop so that it has better ventilation. Worked for him, but apparently not for his mom who complains to him that the laptop often overheats and turns off.

For the first time (as far as I can remember) I truly felt comfortable being alone and chatting with new people. Isn’t it usually so uncomfortable arriving at a party and not knowing anybody (at least for introverted people) and then being forced to do small talk, or eating alone, or on the first day of school or work? That was me. That feeling of being completely comfortable with coming alone to a bar and having made new friends marked an internal victory. Now, I can see that with lots of practice and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, some day I could potentially become the kind of person who is the life of the party.

It is just one simple sentence:

“Is this seat available?”

Try it!

September 9, 2013 @ home in Latvia

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