3 Tips to Starting a Conversation (and Defusing Awkwardness)

It’s the eternal question: how to start a conversation in a way that’s not creepy (“You have such beautiful lips”), an overshare (“Ugh, this thong is way too tight”), or weird (“Do you like ham?”) This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen walks us through how to start a conversation without remarking that your conversation partner looks just like your former cellmate.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #220
image of a person starting up a conversation with a stranger

How we start a conversation is important because it sets the tone and gives everyone an inkling of what’s to come. It’s like reading the first page of a novel, taking the first bite of a meal, or throwing out the first pitch. 

Starting a conversation with friends or family is easy—they’re known entities and you have a shared history of experiences. But starting conversations with acquaintances, colleagues, or strangers can be more awkward than a Tyrannosaurus taking a selfie.

Conversations with people you don’t know well fall into two general camps. In the first, you want to initiate a conversation—you’re trying to network, have a question, or you simply see a heart-melting cutie across a crowded room.

In the second camp, you are forced into conversation so as not to be awkward or antisocial—you’re introduced to the friend of a friend, you’re waiting in line for the Keurig machine at work, or find yourself in the elevator with a neighbor whose name may or may not be Mulva.

If you live in a city, you know how strange public interactions can get—you sit thigh-to-thigh with a stranger on subway while ignoring each other’s existence, but despite being so physically close you can smell their deodorant (definitely Old Spice) there remains a wide gulf of social distance. 

Initiating conversation with true strangers is rare—in general, we all heed our parents’ rules about not talking to strangers. And while it’s a social norm, it’s not without exception. In researching this episode, I was fascinated by a paper I found in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, which analyzed how conversations between strangers happen on public transportation. The paper found that although the unspoken rule is not to talk to strangers, we’re allowed to bend the rules if we follow certain conventions. 

First, you’re allowed to initiate conversation if your intentions are obvious. For example, say you’re at a train station. You stare up at the schedule board, look at your ticket, then the board again. You look puzzled, and then glance around. The result? The people around you, at least those who aren’t immersed in their phones, probably guess you have a question. This paves the way for you to initiate conversation.

According to the paper, you’ll probably do this in three ways: you’ll use what’s called a summons, like “excuse me,” an explanation, such as “The board says Track 3, but my ticket says track 7,” and a request, such as, “Do you know which train goes to Penn Station?” All these things—the summons, the explanation, and the request—smooth over your breach of the unwritten (or, shall we say, unspoken) rule of not talking to strangers to make it clear you’re not creepy or a scam artist.

We’re also allowed to break the rules when there is a common disruption. For example, if your flight gets cancelled while you’re waiting at the gate, a squadron of cop cars races down the street as you stand on the sidewalk, or your subway car loses power—there’s no need for “excuse me.” You can just start talking to whoever’s around you (or, more likely, complaining). It’s a nod to the fact that we’re all in this together.

But what if you’re not stuck on the tarmac in a snowstorm? What if you just want to talk to the cutie by the chip bowl at the party? Or you and your friend’s in-town-for-the-weekend cousin are both waiting for your friend to finish her makeup? This week, here are three ways to whip up a conversation from scratch.

Tip #1: Take the lead.

In general, most of us are relieved not to have to initiate conversation. Especially for the introverted among us, it’s a burden and a gamble: thinking of a topic, taking a social risk to initiate, worrying about rejection or seeming like a creep—it’s exhausting. Most people would rather grit their teeth through an awkward elevator ride than take a chance. Therefore, when you initiate, the folks who haven’t had their coffee yet might not be game, but the majority will be grateful and relieved you got the ball rolling.


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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