A funny / sweet thing happened to me recently. I was at InterNosCon, a gaming convention in Italy, and meeting lots of new people. I love meeting lots of new people! A man I’d never met before came up to me and said “You are Meguey Baker, right?” Yes, yes I am. “And is it true you are a sex ed teacher?” Yes, right again! “I have a question…”
Ok, let’s sit down.
This man, Revan Adler1, had just had the opportunity to talk with some lovely women, but had missed the chance, for several reasons. Primary among those was being on his way somewhere else, not wanting to intrude on the women, and also not knowing how to approach someone he was interested in meeting but didn’t have context to meet, as in, they were not at a gathering together with a socially easy way to say hello and introduce himself and have a casual conversation. These were women he had interacted with extremely briefly, as they were headed to another event nearby. Could I give him some pointers? Did I have any ideas how to help him?
Yes, and I’m so glad you asked!
The answer is three words. Grace, dignity, and competence. Also a little confidence and courage, but we’ll get to that later.
Grace, which is also closely linked to Timing.
When you want to approach someone you don’t know, make sure both of you can leave the situation gracefully. Don’t corner someone, or block them from leaving the situation. Be aware of your surroundings, and make sure the person you are approaching has a way to leave the physical space gracefully. This is why people so rarely speak in elevators – no one can leave gracefully until the elevator stops and the doors open. It’s much wiser to just not try to start a conversation in such an ungracious place – pretty much anything said there is going to be awkward at best.
This means verbally as well as physically. If you are a stranger I want to talk to, I’ll smile and say “Hello.” If you smile or say hi back, I’ll follow up with some comment or question that is open-ended, does not put you in any sort of verbal corner, and allows you to leave the situation with grace. Like “How are you finding the convention?” or “Isn’t it great, seeing so many happy people playing games?” or ” What game did you just play?” or whatever. This allows the person I wish to speak to a chance to respond at their own level of enthusiasm. It might be an immediate “I love it; let me tell you all about the game I just played….” and now we’re talking. It might be “It’s great – I have to go get some food, though, or I won’t make it through my next game” and they are out of there with grace.
Timing, Grace’s secret twin.
In any interaction between people, timing matters. Good timing eases a situation, poor timing makes it more awkward. Pick your timing well. If you see someone looking at a map, or looking like they are trying to find a thing or a place or even a person, you can offer to help. “Can I help you find something?” is a great opener in this situation, because sometimes people really do want help! If they say “No thanks, I ‘ve got it,” smile, nod, and move on gracefully. If you see someone looking at a map, clearly trying to figure something out, and you say “Lovely day today, isn’t it?” your timing is off – they have to stop what they are working on, consider the statement, and answer before they can get on with figuring out where they are. This may mean you get no answer at all, only an odd look. Move on.
Also, if someone is eating, or talking to someone else, or otherwise clearly not available to talk or listen to you, wait for another time. That might mean you never get to talk to that cute guy on the bus who always has his earbuds in, or the cool-looking woman at the park who’s reading a book. Oh well. Move on. They are sending clear signals that they are not interested in interacting with other people right now, and if you approach them, your timing is off and you are not being graceful.
If you are approaching someone with dignity, you will most likely avoid saying things that are rude, offensive, or just badly misrepresent you. If you want to be considered a person capable of carrying on an interesting conversation, avoid starting it with something that makes you sound less than you are. “Hello” is good. “Hey baby, I see you sitting here looking lonely so I came over to offer a little…hospitality.” is questionable, unless those are your lines in a late 70s B-movie and you are on-set.
Likewise, treat them as someone capable of carrying on an interesting conversation. Respect their personal dignity. If you are interested in them, ask them about themselves – “What’s your favorite game?” “Wow, how did you make the wings on that cosplay?!” “What did you think of that panel?” Even things like “Hey, where did you get that food?” or “Excuse me, do you have a map/schedule I could look at? ” are ok. This way you are starting with a gracious and well-timed open-ended question, that will very possibly lead to an answer, that will tell you more about that person, and then you are talking!
Of course, if I do need something from you, I better be very clear what it is, and it better have nothing to do with you, but more like “Excuse me, do you know where the [food/bathroom/event/game] is?” It’s open-ended, with good grace and timing, and if you can’t or don’t want to answer, then I can ask someone else. And even more importantly, the fact that you answered such a question, thereby being a gracious human being, does not entitle me to more of your time and attention. “Oh my god, I need you!” is not a good way to start a conversation with someone you’ve never met.
Just as you owe the random people on the street nothing at all, the random person you want to talk to owes you nothing at all. Respect that you don’t know ANYTHING about someone you’ve just met. They could be really tired, or really focused on something else, or still thinking about that last roll and how it could have gone differently. If I say “hello” to you, and you’re preoccupied and don’t respond, I’ll move on. I don’t need anything from you, you don’t need anything from me, we’re both able to continue on with grace and dignity. Acting like you have somehow been deeply affronted by someone not smiling back, or that any random person owes you any sort of interaction just makes you look undignified.
First, assume the competence of the other person. Assume they know what they are doing and that they are in control of themselves, fully able to make any and all decisions about anything that concerns them2. As are you. If you are at a gaming convention, assume they are there for the same reasons you are, with the same or very similar background and interests. This is a big bonus! You are more likely to have better timing, grace, and dignity, because you have a pretty good chance of having something to ask about or share, given the shared purpose in being at the convention or the table. If you approach someone and they do not respond in kind, move on! They are in control of themselves and do not owe you anything at all.
Which leads to confidence. Confidence is attractive. It draws us to other people, and it draws people to us. If you approach a person with a story in your head about how they won’t want to talk to you anyway, it may come across as desperation and bravado, which is an unappealing combination that leads to stomach aches. Being comfortable with yourself physically is attractive, but it’s also something a lot of people struggle with. So, consider where your strengths are. Are you a really great listener? Do you have a good eye for detail in a costume, or game mechanics, or know a lot about a certain game, or just have a solid grasp of the schedule of the convention and what’s happening where? Do you make the most amazing pancakes known to humankind? Excellent! Tuck that in the back of your mind, as a place of confidence. You don’t need to demonstrate this, but you do need to know it’s there. There are times when the thing I feel confident about is vastly different than the setting I am in. I can do a middle eastern dance move called the Turkish Drop. It looks impressive (because it is), it takes skill, and grace and timing and dignity. I also can make a great berry pie, run a mean game of Apocalypse World, and repair a car door with fiberglass and bondo and paint. Having all this in the back of my head, really on a subconscious level, lets me feel confident in lots of other situations – like navigating Heath Row airport and learning Italian and talking to people I don’t know.
Lastly, courage. All it takes to say “Hello” is 10 seconds, and 8 of those are working up the courage to say it and checking your timing, dignity and grace. After you say hello, take turns talking, for as long as the conversation lasts. If you say hello to someone and they don’t respond, move on. All you’ve spent is 10 seconds. At this rate you can say hello to a heck of a lot of people, and some of those hellos will lead to great conversations and friendships.
Back to the story at the beginning. The following day I ran into Revan, who gave me a big smile and said “It worked! I had a really nice conversation with one of the women I saw yesterday. Thanks a bunch!” So there you go; some basics for how to start a conversation. Enjoy!
- Yes, that’s his real name. Yes, he knows I used it, and his story. Good luck, Revan! ↩
- Obviously, if someone is impaired due to drugs or alcohol, or just really tired, don’t take advantage of their reduced decision-making abilities. That just makes you an opportunistic creep, and could get you all kinds of grief. ↩