Talking to strangers

Last week I found myself in a situation where I basically did not know anyone. I was on the other side of the world, at the Human Resources International Conference in Dunedin, New Zealand, and since I’m soon publishing a book about making intercultural connections and friends, I thought I’d analyse my experience!

That first walk into a room full of strangers
When I arrived at the conference, it was interesting to walk into the business school, knowing that this time I probably wasn’t going to meet anyone I knew. When walking in, people were scattered about the place, drinking coffee and chatting in small groups. So, I got something to drink myself and then recognized I had a choice – either take my drink to an empty table (which was tempting especially since I was still jetlagged), or just join somebody and start talking. So I did exactly that, and just randomly started chatting with a few people.

The positive experience of talking to strangers
Of course, it helps a lot that you are all there for the conference, so you can be reasonably sure they also want to talk to you (or will be polite enough to do so for at least a little bit), but research shows talking to strangers is a much more positive experience than many people think. An interesting study in Chicago and London [1] found that train commuters who talked to strangers had a more positive experience than those who did not. Many commuters – especially introverts – fear such talks are uncomfortable because they think the other would be uninterested in talking, but, in reality, the experience is usually positive. The added benefit is that it opens up for the possibility of a friendship developing, which can be helpful if you newly arrived in a place.

Choosing who to sit next to
We then went to a big auditorium for the first keynote speech, and I thought it was interesting to observe how I automatically left an open seat between me and my neighbours, and the person who came next did the same. So, there I was, sitting by myself without having much opportunity to talk to either of my neighbours because of the empty seat in between. I was reminded of a similar situation when I was 21 years old and on an exchange in France. I was then really determined to get to know French students so when I entered a quite empty auditorium there for my first class, I sat right next to two French girls, without leaving a seat open. They were very surprised but it did the trick, I introduced myself, we got to know each other and worked together for that course. Looking back, I think it was quite courageous that I did this, but it also worked really well. Back in New Zealand I decided to challenge myself to talk to my neighbour anyway, despite her being a seat away. That worked and I even moved over.

The motivation to make connections
All in all, I could recognize several factors that I will also discuss in my upcoming book that influence who you meet. In this case, we were there for a conference which meant that everyone was open to connect with each other and this made it rather easy to ‘talk to strangers’. Conferences are great places to make new connections. The conference took place in New Zealand, and I got the impression that the kiwi’s are very friendly and open to talking to you. This is maybe similar to the U.S., whereas in Denmark and the Netherlands that is viewed more with suspicion. And then there were my own choices to actively reach out to people and start talking. The motivation to make new connections is obviously an important driver of making new intercultural connections and friends.

In my upcoming book (especially Chapter 2) I’m diving deeper into this whole process of social network formation [2], which is influenced by many different factors and not just the ones you easily think about, like your motivation or the country context (‘How to make friends with Danes’). Keep an eye on this blog for a future post about this topic!

[1] Schroeder, J., Lyons, D., & Epley, N. (2022). Hello, stranger? Pleasant conversations are preceded by concerns about starting one. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(5), 1141–1153.
[2] The book chapter, entitled How do expats make new friends abroad? will be freely available (Open Access) from the 5th of February, when my book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble will appear.

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