How to talk to strangers in a café

How to talk to strangers in a café

We were both moved to tears by the end of our conversation…

Knowing how to talk to strangers can lead to some amazing conversations. It also enables us to connect with others beyond our own back yard and have richer experiences.

I remember one such encounter that left an indelible memory…

It was surprising to feel so moved during a fleeting conversation, given that I lived in the UK and he lived on a small island off the Canadian Pacific North West.

But we had a shared experience in our lives that enabled such a memorable conversation.

I was working at my laptop in a tiny café on one of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, when Mike* walked in (*name changed). He’d just missed his ferry connection to a neighbouring island and had some time to kill.

We were the only two customers and so he said hi and asked me what I was working on.

At the time I was running one of the biggest UK blogs about nursing care funding for older people, and it turned out we both had painful experiences of caring for frail elderly parents. It gave us the basis for a great conversation, and it’s why when Steve had finished telling me about his father, we were both close to tears.

I asked him if I could write about his experiences on my (previous) blog, as it would be really helpful to many other families.

This whole experience further reinforced for me the value in making new and impromptu connections and having good conversations wherever we go. That’s why I wanted to put together some tips here on how to talk to strangers.

Conversations can be powerful – so learn how to talk to strangers

As humans, we all share similar hopes, fears, joys and difficult times – even if we live on opposite sides of the world and even if we come from completely different cultures.

I will always remember that conversation with Mike, because it moved me, and it reminded me that by acknowledging our shared experience, as humans, we can understand each other, empathise with each other and have compassion for people whom we would ordinarily never meet.

But if you’re sitting in a café somewhere on your own, it’s not always easy to strike up a conversation with someone new – and it might feel daunting – so here are 5 useful tips to get you started…

1. Look up from your phone for a while

OK, it sounds obvious, but notice who’s around you. It’s all too easy to be ‘eyes down’ in our own space.

If you see someone at a nearby table you think would be interesting to talk to, see if you can make eye contact and smile (without being creepy! – and without putting yourself at risk). If they’re close enough, say hi and make a casual observation about something in the café or the town and ask whether this is their usual/favourite café.

I was once chatting with a woman in a cafe who asked me what I had planned for the weekend. I explained that I was house sitting and that the homeowner was due back, so I’d be spending some of the weekend cleaning.

We then had a surprisingly interesting conversation all about cleaning! That led us to talk about fridge magnets… which led us to talk about putting photos of our goals and dreams on the fridge… which led us to talk about our actual goals and dreams. It was wonderful.

When you’re talking with anyone – whether you know them or not – you have the opportunity to make the other person feel good. If there’s someone in the café wearing a particularly nice jacket, why not pay them a compliment and ask them where they got it. They’ll almost always be glad to tell you, and it can spark further conversation.

2. Ask for advice

You could also have a question ready about the locality, for example do they know a good place to buy a new pair of jeans or can they recommend a local hairdresser or barber.

If you’re writing something, for example an article for a blog and the subject of the article suits the moment, why not ask someone next to you for their opinion on something, or for their top tip on x, y or z – so you can include it in the article. It’s a nice way to start a conversation

3. If the café is quiet, start a conversation with the owner or the barista

Ask the barista about the café and how long it’s been in town, and let them know you’ll no doubt be back in again.

If you’re spending a chunk of time in one location, it’s nice to ‘adopt’ a café and go there regularly, so you have more chance to get to know the staff and maybe some of the regular customers.

4. Stay up to date about local news and sports

If there’s a hot topic on the news, ask someone if they’ve heard the latest and can they update you. This can of course work well with global news too.

Alternatively, ask about the local or national team and players in a particular sport – especially if there’s a local player/team in a current world championship, e.g. Wimbledon or the football World Cup. Ask about the latest scores.

Most people are glad to share what they know, and it can give rise to some great conversation.

5. Find a table next to or near another solo laptop user

Ask them something about their tech – e.g. do they like the laptop they’re using and would they recommend it, etc. Or do they know a good alternative for a particular app, etc.

Alternatively, if someone’s reading a book, mention you’re looking for a good book to read and would they recommend the one they’re reading – and then maybe ask what other great books they’ve read recently.

It’s easy to assume that other people are too busy to chat, and some may be of course – but by proactively engaging with people we can have the most fascinating conversations that last a lifetime.

Plus, if you’re in a country where the language is different to your own first language, it’s a great opportunity to practice the local one.

Of course, it’s not just in cafés that you can have great conversations. Read what waiting for a plane one day taught me about life.

Let us know about some of the interesting conversations you’ve had in cafés. Leave a comment below.

Photo: Sign outside Red Brick Cafe, Sidney, British Columbia

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