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5 Lessons From a Child About Small Talk With Strangers

Chatting with strangers won't be as bad as you probably think.

Key points

  • People tend to be afraid of not enjoying the conversation, being disliked, and lacking social skills.
  • Not pre-scripting and planning can help you enjoy conversations for what they are and not get caught up in how they go.
  • Focusing on the times that small talk goes well can also help us break the ice more often.

“Hi, I’m Ella! Look at my teeth! They’re grown-up teeth. I have a baby sister, and her name is Zoe. We come to this playground sometimes when we’re visiting my grandma in Florida. It’s my favorite playground.”

Source: Fabian Centeno/Unsplash
Source: Fabian Centeno/Unsplash

So goes my 5-year-old daughter’s typical small talk with strangers.

And I admire it. There’s no self-consciousness to it. She’s not worried about saying the right thing. She likes to say hi to people and tell them some things that pop into her head, some things that are important to her.

To be honest, she’s my teacher when it comes to small talk with strangers. As a recovering socially anxious overthinker, here are a few reminders I get from my daughter every time we run into a stranger:

1. Don’t overthink it.

When I think of networking, I picture a conference room packed to the gills with important-looking strangers. I’m generally standing somewhere on the periphery. Not to be a name-dropper, but I once hid behind a grandfather clock at Tim Gunn’s apartment because there were important people there, and, yikes, people are scary!

But not Ella. She doesn’t overthink her opening line. She just says something and sees what happens. Sometimes she says more things if the first thing gets a mixed response.

Research on talking with strangers (I’m super glad this is something that people study) shows that our fears are most often overblown. People are scared of either party not enjoying the conversation, disliking the other person, being disliked, and either party lacking conversational skills. However, it turns out that the reality of chit chat with strangers isn’t as bad as we fear. When we jump in there and give it a shot, a successful encounter can serve as a powerful incentive to try talking to strangers again and again.

I’ve found this to be true in my own life. When I challenge myself to talk to strangers, I’m motivated to keep trying it when it goes well, and I’m not too discouraged when it goes poorly. In short, it’s awesome when it works and doesn’t matter as much as I thought it would when one of us crashes and burns.

2. Don’t pre-script it.

As an outside observer, it doesn’t seem like Ella is too concerned with how the conversation is going to go. She appears to be in the moment and OK with brief, sometimes unreciprocated interactions.

When I’m nestled behind a piece of furniture instead of mingling, I’m usually thinking (overthinking) about the outcome of the conversation. “And then she’ll laugh at me." "He's going to be annoyed I'm interrupting him." "They'll think I'm a dumb loser."

Again, learn a lesson from Ella. Be OK with just saying a thing. Don’t worry about how it’s going to land or what’s going to happen later.

Easier said than done, right?

3. Be curious about the other person.

One of my favorite things about how children interact with strangers is that they’re not jaded. Oftentimes, they’re genuinely curious about the other person. It’s kind of like they’re objective scientists, gathering data on how people react to them.

The more curious you are about the other person, the less brain space you’ll have to worry about yourself, how the conversation is going, or how you think the conversation will turn out. So, get curious about the other person, focus on them intently, ask open-ended questions, and be intrigued with how they react, however they react.

4. Use specifics.

Ella’s not afraid to give specific details about her life. Each time she does this, she sets up another opportunity for herself and the stranger to have something in common.

My instinct is to be closed off and vague when talking to strangers: “Nice day we’re having” or “How old’s your kid?” But the more specific we get, the more likely we are to strike gold and find something in common to talk about.

5. Focus on All the Times Things Go Well

Ella is unbothered when people ignore her or don’t really listen or even make a beeline to the other side of the playground because they don’t seem to be in a talking-with-strangers mood. No matter what, Ella keeps it moving and keeps on talking to strangers.

I hope this never changes. I hope she’s able to focus on the times it goes swimmingly, the times she meets her “new best friend” after playing with them for three minutes.

Some major high-school bullying left me with the opposite focus. I tend to imagine the worst. I picture people making fun of me or disliking me, but Ella inspires me to shift that focus and just say a thing and see what happens.

She smiles. She says hi. She asks people what their name is. And, usually, she proudly points to her two front teeth, immune to her latest stranger’s reaction.

I challenge you to be more like Ella.


Sandstrom, G. M., & Boothby, E. J. (2021). Why do people avoid talking to strangers? A mini meta-analysis of predicted fears and actual experiences talking to a stranger. Self and Identity, 20(1), 47–71.

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