Talking with Strangers

Dear Wombat and Dingbat: 
Like you, I often “perform” (teach) in public, but unlike you, I’d really prefer just to be home alone. I like being with people when I’m teaching, but when I need to be in large groups socially, people expect me to be the same talkative, outgoing person I am when I’m teaching—but that’s a performance, not real life. In real life, I find it difficult to talk to people in social settings. So my question for you is, how do I overcome my social anxiety and learn how to just be comfortable talking to strangers?


Dear Homebody,

Let’s start with the fact that not everyone is cut out to be a raging extravert.

I am.

Yes. As I was saying, thank doG not everyone is like the Dingbat. It would be exhausting. You’re an introvert. That’s cool, and you shouldn’t really expect to turn into something else. But even introverts need to talk to strangers sometimes. So you need strategies. For instance, you might decide that talking to strangers will never be your cup of tea…

Why is The Human so fond of tea? I think it smells funny. Guess it’s just not my cup of tea. HAHAHAHA!

…but you could think in terms of talking with them as giving them a gift, rather than something you do for yourself. Rather than figuring out what to say and wondering if you are making a good impression, you could instead focus on trying to learn more about them and giving them a chance to talk about whatever they find inspiring. Which might turn out to be more enjoyable for you.

What if all they want to talk about is, like, their diet, and how great it is to live on lettuce and radishes, and they are super boring?

It’s a genuine risk. Remember the part about regarding the conversation as giving a gift. It’s OK to do things just to be nice. Like when you let me have the last part of your pig ear.

I think of that more as personal safety.

Whatever. Anyway. Another strategy would be to try to connect things you enjoy to the process of talking with strangers. You could try to change how you feel about something you don’t like by pairing it with something you do like.

Like, if you go to a party you could talk for a minute to someone you don’t know, and then leave and get a snack. You could even practice saying: “Excuse me a moment. I think I hear a sausage calling me.”

But remember that the thing you don’t like so much needs to come first, followed by the thing you do like. This is called building a conditioned emotional response (CER).

Why not eat the snacks first? They might run out.

If every time you ate a snack you followed it with doing something you didn’t like, eventually you might stop liking the snacks.


But it’s possible to build something you like into the hard thing of talking with strangers, even if there are not snacks.

No snacks? What sort of a stupid party is this?

I bet there are things you like to talk about—passions that are so interesting to you that you would enjoy talking about them with pretty much anyone.

The Human is an introvert, but she is always happy to talk about us. Or anything about dogs. Or, I guess, politics, which is not so naturally fascinating a subject.

Maybe you, say, really love hiking. So if someone asks where you live you can talk about hiking trails in your area. Or you can ask what the person did last weekend, so that you can have a chance to tell them about the great hike you took. Or if they ask what you do for a living, you can say that you feel most alive when you are hiking. Or whatever.

Either they will be interested, or they will go off and get a snack. Either way, everyone wins.

Yes, everyone wins. Either you give them the gift of listening, and feel good about being kind, or you decide what would make the conversation fun for you, and see if you can talk about that. Hopefully, one way or another you start to feel a little more comfortable.

I bet you enjoyed this little chat with us, and we are strangers!

Some of us are stranger than others.

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3 thoughts on “Talking with Strangers

  1. Thank you for the link. We enjoyed the talk. At least The Human and I did. It is possible that Someone got distracted part way through and had to go bark at something. I will explain to him–again–the importance of listening rather than speaking.

    We got both broccoli and asparagus bits today, so pretty good on the snacks. But I will bring up the possibility of more.

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