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The Social Brain team has been brainstorming ideas for new projects recently. One idea that came up was to do some work developing ‘civic chat up lines’. Making connections with people around us is a key ingredient in our wellbeing, so being able to start conversations with strangers is surely a useful skill. Avoiding doing so in a way which makes the recipient of your chat up line think you’re weird or feel their space is being invaded is obviously of some importance. The writer and director Miranda July addressed this subject in the Guardian this weekend, but I’m not going to recommend testing what she suggests as I think grabbing hold of the nearest stranger by the arm might not lead to the kind of meaningful and rewarding social encounter we’d like to promote. So, how do you start a conversation with a stranger?

I’m a Northerner, where, by reputation, everyone chats to strangers all the time, and people generally are much friendlier than in an anonymous city like London. Having spent the last few years living in Manchester, I arrived in London to take up my job at the RSA in September, and in the six weeks or so since I’ve been here, I’ve actually had several encounters which have gone quite a long way to subverting the stereotype of Londoners being standoffish and aloof. Walking back to the office after popping out for coffee one afternoon, I was stopped in the street by a man who noticed my RSA lanyard and asked if I worked there. This led to a brief chat about how beautiful the house is, and what it’s like to work at the RSA. Sure enough, the fact that this conversation had taken place gave me a good, warm feeling of connectedness. At a lunchtime concert a few weekends ago, I got talking to someone in the queue for coffee who had the same bike pannier as me. We continued chatting and discovered we had overlapping research interests and exchanged email addresses so we could share resources. One morning on the bus I overheard two women having an animated chat, and would have assumed they were firm friends until one of them got up to get off the bus and exclaimed how nice it was to meet the other, and the two introduced themselves. I don’t know how their conversation started, but it was obvious that both of them had enjoyed it very much. So, connections between strangers are clearly possible, even in a metropolis like London.

The internet has made communicating with strangers routine for many of us, whether it’s on Twitter, or through commenting on blogs or news stories. Kristin Hugo writes effusively about making connections with strangers through lift share websites, and resources like Couch Surfing. In these cases, the ice is broken by making a specific arrangement over the internet, which then leads to meeting in person. Online communication on its own is just not the same as face to face interaction, and doesn’t reach the same places as making connections in the flesh. Sociologist Theodore Zeldin says that as we live in the technological age, our need for real conversation is ever more pressing. His foundation, The Oxford Muse, organises events in which complete strangers are invited to a public place and then paired up. The pairs select topics from a ‘conversation menu’ and engage in discussion which is designed to take them beyond the superficial, with the exchanges typically lasting two hours.

Depending on your disposition, this might sound like a lot of fun or the most excruciating ghastliness imaginable. Either way, it does sound rather time consuming. But, my recent experience demonstrates that a question or point of common interest are pretty effective as conversation starters, and the effect of talking to strangers is certainly gratifying. Why not give it a go? And do let me know if you’ve got any good chat up lines…

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