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English Language Institute

How to Talk to Strangers

One common question I get from my students is “How can I practice conversation outside of class?”

My students work hard studying at the English Language Institute, but they sometimes find it difficult to practice outside of class. This is because all too often they are too nervous about their English proficiency. Or they are too afraid that they will bother people. Or they are too intimidated by a fast talking, sharped tongued New Yorker. Or they are too full of excuses!

In reality, they just need to have some strategies on how to politely approach someone and break the ice.

#1 Be a local

Smiling womanGo for a walk in your neighborhood around the same time every day. Say “Hello!” smile and be friendly. Americans don’t find it odd to be friendly to strangers they pass on the street, especially if they have seen you around the neighborhood.

After a few days, you should start to notice people who you repeatedly see. If you are in New York City, perhaps it’s a the woman slinging Italian ices or the man selling coquitos on a certain corner for a few hours each day. Ask what flavor is best, buy one and make small talk as you eat it. Don’t be afraid to make small talk with other customers by commenting on the sweet treat you are enjoying. If they show interest in chatting, encourage them with general follow-up questions. To ask good follow-up questions, you need to listen closely to what people are saying, because if you want someone to speak to you, you must be willing to listen to them.

#2 Go to interesting public places

Talk to a greengrocerAs many of us are studying online these days, because of the COVID pandemic, it’s important to get out of the house and breath fresh air. Find public places where you can meet people who share your interests.

If you love cooking and eating fresh produce, go to a greenmarket. Unlike a grocery store, where workers are just doing a job, workers at a farmers’ market are usually more passionate about their livelihood. They expect to interact more with the public, especially if it’s a niche business that sells something unusual. Ask questions over what you see with the simple phrase “What is this?” Ask about the fruits and vegetables you have never eaten with “How does it taste?” or “Does a yam taste like a sweet potato?” (Sometimes there are even free samples at a farmers market!) Ask for recommendations like “How do you cook Romanesco?” or “What type of cheese do you recommend?” As always, don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going by listening closely asking follow-up questions.

#3 Don’t talk to anyone!

People watching in Central ParkSometimes, you might want to talk with strangers because you are dying to practice the conversation skills you are learning in your classes. But sometimes you might just want to sit and observe. Go somewhere that you can people watch, then simply sit and take notes. Make notes about how people act. Make notes about what people wear. Think of adjectives to describe these people and their clothing. Try to imagine who that person is or what job they have. Then use these notes to create sentences, or paragraphs.

You can even let social media do all the work for you. This is an especially relevant method as we all practice social distancing during the COVID pandemic. There are a number of website and social media accounts that report on their encounters with strangers. Humans of New York is a well know website that you can browse pictures and read. Or New York Nico is an Instagram account that posts videos of Nico’s interactions with the characters found in New York City streets.

Watch the videos in this post to visit New York virtually, but when you can, nothing beats being here and having a chance to speak and listen to real New Yorkers. To learn more about coming to New York to study English, visit the ELI website, contact the ELI or apply here.

Word list:

  • proficiency (n.) – competence or skill in something
  • intimidated (adj.) – to be frightened or in awe of someone or something
  • odd (adj.) - strange
  • small talk (n.) – polite conversation about unimportant things
  • follow-up questions (n.) – questions you ask after someone has spoken that request more information
  • produce (n.) – fruits and vegetables
  • livelihood (n.) – a person’s job, a source of income
  • are dying to (idiom) – to really, really want something, this is figurative so you don’t really die
  • relevant (adj.) – closely connected and appropriate