How to Talk to Strangers: Why Small Talk Matters

Image of two wooden birds and a tiny person in the middle.

“I’ll give you five dollars for that sausage.”

It’s a perfect mid-summer evening when my mom propositions a man for a sausage at the Mercerwood Shore Club. The two of us are standing next to one of the small barbecues waiting for a grill on which my husband is going to BBQ some very fine salmon.

But we want to eat no-o-o-w.

It’s beautiful out, a blue-sky late-day, the trees casting long shadows over an old-fashioned lake-side lawn filled with wooden picnic tables and colored umbrellas. Toddlers and their parents splash in the swimming section; the older kids hurl themselves off the floating dock. Some of the members sit on their speed boats in the rickety marina, having cocktails and stretching their heads back to catch the sun in the western sky. Eagles fly between trees and make their high-pitch squawk. People point, yell at each other, “Look, there goes another one!” It’s all so picturesque but . . .

3 sausages on a grill

WE’RE STARVING HERE. And right next to us is a man squeezing a spatula on top of a half dozen plump sausages that are spitting out their aromatic juices and filling our nostrils with salt and char. I am visibly licking my lips, but staying silent.

My mom, on the other hand, talks to strangers, so she makes her move.   

“I’ll give you five dollars for that sausage,” she says, facing the man, her hands by her side, her back straight and her lips pursed together. Her eyes twinkle with mischief. The man is a bit stunned but rolls with it, smiles, says no in the friendliest way, “My wife won’t like that,” he laughs.  

And then, because he’s wearing a T-shirt with something Sydney-esque on it, and this is my mom’s birth city, a conversation is struck. We learn he is married to an Aussie. We go meet this Aussie. My mother and this Aussie woman are like birds in a tree, tweeting with conversation and commonalities. My mom has a rare name you only ever hear in Australia, Narelle. This woman’s sister’s name is Narelle. My mom is ecstatic, “Oh that’s too much,” she trills, looking at me and back at her new friends. This woman has also made a Pavlova that sits in the middle of their picnic table, the same way my mother used to make it—a soft bendy merengue covered in whipped cream and canned peaches. “Tatyana, can you believe it?” my mom squeals.

Will talk to anyone. Never a dull moment.

Later on, after we’ve eaten our salmon and realize we forgot dessert, our new Aussie friend comes over with two enormous pieces of Pavlova that we dive into with relish. My mom and I talk about this fun coincidence on the walk back home up the big steep hill with cream in the corner of our lips. My mom is exhilarated. 

“See what happens when you talk to people,” she says pumping her arms up the hill. Yes, I do see, I really do. And for the first time I imagine what it would be like to be someone so open to connecting with people roaming the world the way my mom does. It also freaks me out a bit.

I have not been a talk-to-strangers person

When I walk the neighborhood streets, pop into coffee shops and stores and markets, I don’t chat up the barista or ask the checkout people at QFC how they’re doing. My husband knows the names of the checkers at our local Q. I don’t. I don’t particularly like the Starbucks gal asking me “What are you up to today?” or “What are your weekend plans?” I never say Hello or Good-bye to people getting on and off the elevator, like my mom does. When I ride in the back of taxis/Ubers/etc, it’s not my habit to make small talk, and I prefer it if the driver didn’t.

I’m not in love with this part of me but I had totally accepted it. Until—


It happened after Trump got elected. I was in such a state of shock and sadness and astonishment and [still looking for the right word]—maybe a state of now-what?-ness—I started looking at people walking down the street or sitting in cafes a bit differently. What were they thinking, how were they doing? Was I seeking connection in what felt like a state of trauma? I felt tender inside and out, and noticed I spent an extra second making eye contact with others, and it seemed reciprocal. I was newly thankful for the smallest of gestures. A young woman asking “Is this seat taken?” at Voxx coffee shop made me want to sit down, hold her hand and talk with her until sundown. 

The invitation

A year goes by, I’ve left my full-time job so I don’t have the constant social interaction of work. I am back to my coaching business and writing which means more solitary time. I’ve joined professional groups, taken trainings and workshops, met some amazing people—a lot of whom are like my mom: They talk to strangers.  One of these amazing people shows me what life is like when you walk out into the world and flirt with the universe and its inhabitants. It looks fun. It looks kind and generous and, well, meaningful. Cool shit happens. I want more cool shit to happen in my life too!


I start practicing clumsily and randomly. At a nail salon, where I usually sit in silence answering Yes or No questions: “Do you have husband?” “Yes.” “Do you have children?” “No.” “Do you have pets?” “No.”

At this salon, which I happen to visit with my mother in her town, I make my debut move. The beautician is filing my nails, and an inner voice shoots out and says, “Here’s your chance: GO.”

I bobble and wonder where to start. My start is the most unoriginal jumping off point: 

“Where are you from?” I stammer.

“Vietnam.” She doesn't look up. So what, I ask another question. She eventually looks up.

But that first lame question is what opens the door. I learn what it's like to be a native living in Vietnam—a lot stranger than I'd imagined. Next, I start talking to the beautician next to her, and before I know it, these women are telling me about their love lives and there we are, laughing and connecting and sharing. I am having A BLAST. I feel giddy in this buoyant state of a daily life engagement with other humans just doing another day. I'm not going through the motions, either. I am INTO it. I think it’s the only way to play this talk-to-strangers game. You can’t phone it in. You have to go all in, and that—surprisingly—is where the magic’s at.

I leave the salon with the most ridiculous pink-confetti nails. “I’m calling this Sweet 16,” I wave at my beautician. She nods her head, points at me and laughs. For the rest of the week, every time I look down at my ridiculous little-girl nails I smile, thinking of our conversation.

The content of the conversation isn’t what stays with me as much as the warmth of the connection. Two people who would otherwise never cross paths, together in a moment, sharing their humanness. And this, I realize is the truth: it's not the content, it's the connection.


I tell people about my New Discovery, my New Game. I tell my group of coach friends when they come over for our yearly January brunch.

“I’ve started talking to strangers,” I announce over frittata.

“I HAD NO IDEA,” I say to Stephanie, one of my travel partners and a real talk-to-strangers pro.

I used to be such a snob, someone who cared about having meaningful conversations, someone who prided herself on a dis-taste for small talk. What a wanker, I now think. I was really missing out, I now think.


“Ohmygod I LOVE my new game,” I say to my husband, as we drive to the grocery store. “It’s fun to talk to people!”

“That’s my girl,” my husband answers.

"I can’t wait for the checkers at the Q to ask me what I’m doing this weekend!”

"Are you ready for that?" my husband turns and looks at me. "You're new to this you know."

"Well, you're right." I laugh, "I'll work up to that."



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