How To Meet New People Without Being Super Awkward

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Photo by Josef Jerabek 

We need connection.

Humans are uniquely social creatures. While animals thrive best in community, humans are far more sophisticated than other mammals. Children as young as two and a half years old, for example, are more relationally capable than full grown chimpanzees and orangutans.

One reason we’re so social is our bodies have neurons that allow us to imitate others’ facial expressions and empathize with what others are feeling. When we observe someone else feeling, say, joy or shame, for instance, our brains then mimic the exact same responses that the other person’s brains is experiencing. In other words, we are hard wired to tackle life together.

But…just because humans are built for connection doesn’t mean connecting is always easy…especially as an adult.

We may want to meet people, but don’t know how.

Connectedness, of course, doesn’t happen overnight. It begin with meeting people, with the moment we exchange eye contact and a smile or the minute we fall into unexpectedly pleasant conversation with a stranger.

Even though relationships are a critical part of our lives–impacting our families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and communities–social skills are one of the only major life skills that people are often expected to pick up by trial and error rather than training.
The good news is, there are best practices for meeting people, just like there are best practices for delivering a speech. While these practices aren’t fool proof, and aren’t obviously guaranteed to work every time, they really do increase the likelihood of making a good first impression and developing a friendship.

You can start small.

Whether it’s striking up conversation with the bank teller or navigating a crowded room at an office party, social scenarios can be legitimately intimidating. But if you learn to make a positive first impression, to offer polite small talk, and to repeatedly interact with the same people, you’re almost guaranteed to wind up with some new friends.

First impressions are everything.

When you know you’ll be interacting in public spaces where you’re likely to encounter new people, try to release stress and adopt a positive and peaceful mindset. To help yourself become deliberate about reaching out to others, rather than shrinking away, consider making a point to say good morning to everyone you pass. Smile. Open doors. Give compliments (but only sincere ones!) to strangers and acquaintances.

As you go through your daily life rituals, going to the same banks, gas stations, grocery stories, gyms, and so forth increases your chance of making connections rises by default. This is due to something researchers call the mere-exposure effect. Basically, the mere-exposure effect says that people begin to develop a preference for things that are familiar to them.

In other words, people will start to feel connected to you just because they’ve seen you and been around you many times.

As you develop more familiarity, small invitations to friendship become more appropriate. First steps might be subtle and include hand shakes, high fives, a side hug, or a kind hand on the shoulder or arm.

The key to these first interactions is to present yourself as warm and open. Show you are friendly and welcoming by facing the person you’re talking to, keeping an open posture, and uncross your arms. Try your best to give them your full attention and smile often.

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, recently told Wired magazine exactly what people are wondering when they meet each other: “We’re judging how warm and trustworthy the person is, and that’s trying to answer the question, ‘What are this person’s intentions toward me?’ And we’re also asking ourselves, ‘How strong and competent is this person?’ That’s really about whether or not they’re capable of enacting their intentions.”

To communicate that you are a safe and trustworthy individual, make eye contact, try not to fidget, and prevent yourself from speaking too quickly or too loudly out of nervousness.

Brush up on the small talk.

Among all our interactions, small talk can be one of the most dreaded social activities. That’s probably because it’s associated with being pressured or forced to talk to strangers. The good news is, adopting a few best practices can help you become more comfortable and fine tune your conversation skills to build on your positive first impression.

  1. Talk about what’s going on and what you have in common. If the pub has a nice atmosphere, mention it. Has it been chilly and raining for days? Commiserate in your misery. But then move on to learning about them and talking about the things you love and are passionate about.
  2. Ask simple, non-intrusive questions. Where did they grow up? What do they do for a living? Do they have siblings? These are great jumping off points that allow people to share about themselves as much or as little as they want to. Try not to sound too obvious or forced, as if you’re a radio host interviewing a celebrity who asks, “Name your 3 favorite hobbies.”
  3. Use what they share as a springboard. Even if they offer something simple, for example that they have two siblings, it can prompt other interesting and still non-intrusive questions. Do you get to see them often? Which family member is more like you? If they mention they’ve just returned from a trip to Florida, ask about their vacation style.
  4. Try to gauge their interest as you go. If they don’t laugh at a joke or don’t respond to something you’ve said, don’t repeat it over and over. If they just say “uh-huh” after you talk about a hobby or some scenario in your office, take that as a sign that this topic isn’t something you both enjoy talking about. Insisting the conversation center on you or repeating yourself in order to force a response comes off as selfish and controlling.
  5. Be authentic. Don’t force a smile, fake a laugh, or let your voice give compliments in that super-high pitched tone you go to when you’re nervous! Just be yourself. You don’t have to overtalk either. People who overdo it can be perceived as fake or like they’re trying too hard. You’ll be most successful when you just take in what people are saying, and show signs of enjoyment.
  6. Respect the pace. Don’t meet someone, day one, and start sharing about family skeletons, grudges, or political, social, or religious issues that irritate you.You shouldn’t be talking about the details of your divorce or mental health issues by meeting number two, for instance. While all of those things may be fair game to discuss in time, as the relationship deepens, it’s important to respect the pace of the friendship and gradually disclose more about personal issues. Spend some time on the surface, and then try to go deeper a little bit at a time.

Position Yourself for Success

While you cannot control other people’s reactions or how quickly they lean into relationship with you, there are certain things you can do that will put you in better social standing. For example, you can determine to always join friends going out after work, even if you’re only able to stay a half hour. Just being there makes you part of the crew and increases feelings of bondedness. Or you could opt to take public transportation sometimes, if you have that option, to increase your opportunities to interact with others.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

If you spend most of your time alone and only occasionally go out, challenge yourself to open up your schedule and put your time and energy where your goals are. Resolve to join a gym, begin attending a church, or start regularly walking around the neighborhood. Due to the proximity principle, first popularized by Theodore Newcomb, people are much more likely to end up in relationship with people who live and interact near them.*

Whatever you do, keep trying

There is enormous potential for building new relationships, even if you only consider it a numbers game. There are nearly 7.5 billion people in the world. That means even if friendship doesn’t pan out with the first several people you approach, there are literally billions more people for you to discover and get to know in time. If you adopt these best practices, and repeat them enough times, they will begin to become habits. Eventually, your lifestyle will become more friend-friendly and you’ll be well equipped to grow a satisfying social life.

*Newcomb, T.M. (1960). Varieties of interpersonal attraction. In D. Cartwright & A. Zander (Eds.), “Group dynamics: Research and theory” (2nd ed., pp. 104-119).

There are 5 comments

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  1. Preston Tolles

    I’ve always felt like I can make conversation pretty easy, but I don’t know whether people are really engaged or if they are just being polite. I’d like to read more about reading people’s body language or something because I’m always *a little* worried I’m oblivious and they just want to run away screaming. 🙂

  2. Erin Muncy

    I actually do not feel comfortable talking to strangers basically ever so this helps. The trick will be trying to remember this stuff when I’m panicking in the moment…sighhhhh.

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