Here’s what’s happening. You’re out and about, perhaps at the local, and you meet – we’ll take this from the point of view of the girls and call him Joe. You met Joe for the first time last week. He’s great. He’ll make a really good friend, maybe a lover. From the centre of his group of friends, he spots you, calls your name, and, open armed, beckons you over. Now you’re making a dozen more new friends – and potentially lovers. This is what you did.
Before you met
There are those who walk into the room and disappear – or look as if they’d like to. Or they dive for a plateful of nibbles, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. There are those whose first, fidgety glances are for people they know; they duck beneath others’ eyes, as if actually fearful of some nameless assault threatened by those eyes. This wasn’t you.
When you entered the room – the club, the bar, the party – you were already standing tall, moving calmly, maintaining an open, welcoming posture. Then you paused. You took a long look around. You got a sense of the space and the people there. No doubt you saw one or two friends and acquaintances and warmly greeted them. You began to mingle.
Whether with close friends, casual acquaintances or in the company of no-one you knew, one thing you did as you scanned the room, and continued to do so at intervals, was to see who you would like to approach and talk with. You’ll have had your own ideas about this, but it’s probably also the case that you were looking for confidence, friendliness, openness, people with a sense of life, dynamism and purpose about them. Why bother with anything less? People, in other words, who looked like you.
As to how you worked the room and got to those people… We do this in all manner of ways. Friends introduce us to their friends – and we can always ask for introductions. We ‘find ourselves’ standing close to another person – and have something to say about the party, the day, the latest news, something they’re wearing. We listen in to their conversations and ‘couldn’t help but overhear…’ We look approachable and so people do approach us – at which point our whole, smiling body welcomes them. At no one point do we think: ‘But this isn’t the person I wanted to talk to.’ Far better to give it time and follow the social chain.
How to talk to strangers
People often worry unduly when it comes to exchanging a few initial words with someone they don’t know, when really the trick to meeting and greeting is to be quite prosaic, even banal, to make more of an effort to listen than to speak, to reflect the other person and match his mood. No-one expects dazzling insights, wit and verbal play when they’re first talking with a new person, if ever at all, and to attempt a neo-Oscar Wilde act will more often than not be off-putting.
Aim for subjects where you stand the best chances of seeming familiar and, therefore, of encouraging New Person to feel you already have much in common. Keep it simple. Is it busy tonight in the bar or not? How does s/he know the host? Has anything eventful happened today in town? What’s the weather like? How far has s/he travelled to be here? The topics you choose to initiate conversation really don’t matter all that much, so long as they are fairly impersonal. What matters is how you and s/he sound, how you and s/he behave and the precise words s/he uses to describe these comfortable banalities – the latter of which give you the clues you need to take things further.
In the mood
Now we’ve said that you’re initial demeanour is calm: you’re lord or lady of all you survey and unharried by anything or anyone. Well, in the instant you get started with New Person, it’s time to move towards his or her mood. Is s/he excited, cheerful, worried, flustered, spaced, replete, charged up? Soak it in a bit. Feed it back – the words saying, ‘This has been one long day,’ rather than, ‘You look knackered’ – as you smile.
Here’s how you smile
There are different types of smile – the manic smile, the nervous smile, the smug smile, the lying smile, where the eyes don’t, and so on. You’re going to use two types: at first, the gentle, universally benevolent smile; and then the smile that, in the first seconds of conversation, flows unreservedly from your eyes and your lips and across your whole face – this while eye-contact is fully, though without staring, maintained.
At this point, your smile, your eyes and your open posture tell New Person what s/he’s long suspected: that s/he is the most important person in the universe. Indeed: you-niverse. You don’t push into NP’s personal space. In all likelihood, that will make NP back off. Rather, you draw NP towards you. At last, s/he’s found someone who really understands and values him or her – so wants to talk.
And if you listen closely, you should find all those little questions to further conversation you need.
What you don’t say
The ‘rules’ about what not to say stem largely from plain, old-fashioned good manners. You don’t try to top what New Person is saying. You don’t interrupt, even if you’re bursting to do so. You never criticise, tease or express any irony directed at, rather than with, New Person. You don’t contradict NP’s lexis of choice: if it’s a ‘serviette’ s/he wipes the lips with, you don’t quip about people from communist Russia; nor do you admire the scent of NP’s eau de lavatory.
There are, though, further subtleties to the rules of interaction which might not be immediately obvious. Let’s return to interruptions – and let’s imagine you really have found a burning interest you share, only NP doesn’t know that yet. It is almost unbearably tempting to say: ‘Me too!’ We might quite naturally think this will help develop the bond that’s growing between us. That’s until we think of the times we’ve been sharing an interest or experience and someone else has said to us: ‘Me too!’ It’s a fair bet, our reaction to that was: ‘Yeah, but this is my story; don’t knock the wind out of my sails when I’m enjoying telling it…’ This was even as that swelling breeze dropped a rate of knots.
Let New Person speak. Hang onto every word. Enthuse and enjoy what s/he’s saying. Use questions to show you’re listening and to get NP to say more – as opposed to questions that intentionally reveal your prior knowledge of the subject.
It’s when New Person’s story really has run its course, when s/he’s feeling great about being drained of all those words and that eminently valued experience, that you can cautiously and sensitively chip in with some of your own thoughts – again, categorically not trying to best NP. You can even admit you were stringing NP along – just a little – because it was so great hearing the story.
If this all seems counter-intuitive, think of the inexperienced amateur actor on the town hall stage, the one who feels he must keep moving constantly – so the audience knows he’s there.
‘What do you do?’
It’s a cliché introductory question, but for all that could be seen as expressive of natural and kindly meant curiosity about another person. So why shouldn’t you ask it?
Because New Person might do a low-status job or be unemployed. Because s/he might have a particularly powerful and influential job, or a job which basically adds up to riches, which might be found similarly embarrassing – plus which, you don’t want to look as if you’re gold digging. Because, if told the job, what are you going to say? ‘Securitized debt restructuring, huh? That sounds interesting.’ More subtly, because a lot of people, believe it or not, go out to get away from their everyday life and work. They feel there’s more to them than that – and it’s in their leisure time they want to explore it.
Should you find your questions resisted, recognise that resistance and change the subject.
Of course, ‘What do you do?’ isn’t only a question about work, but that’s the way it’s likely to be interpreted. Building on this thought, one thing you can do is to ask questions which allow a response that’s about work, but also allow for hobbies, interests and, generally, ways of using time. Try making it seasonal: ‘What are you doing with yourself this summer/spring/winter?’ And should the bond market now rear its head, you may or may not choose to follow.
Who, what, why, when… You
You can expect New Person to probe for the details of your life – and that’s your chance to glow as a fabulous human being.
What this doesn’t mean is that you give your postcode and annual earnings a hike and lose your sense of the line between reality and fantasy. If you aren’t on the A, B or C lists yet, well, you’ll just have to remember those details of your real life which are valuable – to you.
This is about turning your life into a story – only, in this story, the main character, you, is the luckiest person in the world. The bad doesn’t register. The details of life glow – and you describe them in a way which fires your listener’s imagination and gives something to which s/he can respond, rather than merely nod and flounder for more to say.
An example: ‘Where do you live?’ Respond to this with a one word answer and that’s that: conversation over. Flesh it out a bit, give the rough guide digest, tell the New Person something about the place, maybe say how long you’ve lived there, whether you’re settled, itching to relocate or on the move, and you offer your listener the clues needed for when it’s his or her turn to keep the plates spinning, the conversational juggling balls up in the air.
The same goes if you are asked what your work is, even if the job is one that’s probably known of by all. If, say, you’re a teacher, you don’t rely upon the fact that New Person probably went to school. Turn the noun into a verb – you teach – then flesh it out with a one paragraph résumé to give your listener enough of a picture of the good you do. And no matter what your work, you never, ever use the word ‘just’. Diminishing or failing to see the significance of your days is not attractive.
We go together
Time now to remember there are other people present – and to use this to your advantage. After all, you can’t cling to one person you’ve only just met – the evening’s young – and you could both do with fresh, social input to move things along a bit.
There is a potential Scylla and Charybdis to navigate here. How do you adjust and divide your attention? How do you maintain the bond you’ve just started to establish while including others, both friends and more new people? Where does your open body point? Whose eyes do you linger on most – or should the division be equal?
Rather than try at this point to think about each tiny move you make, since if you do that you’ll probably fall over and certainly come across as unnatural, it’s much better to relax, lose any anxiety and therefore allow your body to follow your generous thoughts. An unrelaxed body will tend not to follow and naturally express your thoughts.
Actively bring other people in. Don’t put up with their presence with reluctance. Want them to be there and feel joy in having them there. And to show them you have very much forged a bond with New Person, use the word ‘we’.
Old buddies do it. Lovers do it. Couples talk of ‘we’ and ‘us’ all the time. By doing so, they express a lot of history and shared experience – and actually further cement the bond. At the usual pace of things, it might take weeks and months before that ‘we’ springs naturally to our lips. You’re going to quicken the pace a touch and use it early. ‘We were just saying…’ ‘Does that apply to us, do you think?’ Little by little, New Person is brought to believe you really are old friends.
Start a rumour
You’re going now to tell your friends what you think of New Person. This is so that, in about ten minutes, New Person finds out what you’ve been saying.
Try to avoid pure generalities – ‘he’s great’, ‘she’s really cool’ and the like. Think back instead to what New Person actually said about his or her life. In particular, think about the ways s/he seemed to value himself or herself. In other words, so far as you were able to tell, what to him or her were the most important and attractive qualities. Done that? Now don’t mince your words: tell at least one mutual friend that’s why you really like New Person.
It’s obvious, isn’t it? Bland, generalised compliments add up to a shrug and a ‘so what?’ on our part – or we might just assume they want to get in our knickers. But if someone really sees us as we most value ourselves, and that someone values that in us… That’s when they get on that phone list.
Write it down!
By the evening’s end, you might have met a lot of new people. You’ll probably be seeing them again. You’ll want to pick up the conversation next time with some of the details of their lives you’ve gleaned tonight. Remember: they are the whole of their worlds and every tiny detail of their lives matters a great deal to them. Indeed, it’s often the case that the more seemingly trivial details matter most – especially if you’d like to hear them say: ‘I can’t believe you remembered that!’
Some people are blessed with faultless memories. Others of us find it useful to keep a diary.
It takes a few minutes per person to jot down, next to their names, the little details of their lives.
And you did that. That’s why, meeting Joe now, you’ve got your opening lines.