December 20th, 2011
Here are two big secrets to striking up conversations with strangers.
The first is having a genuine reason to talk to them. After all, if you haven’t got a reason to stop and talk to somebody then its going to make the whole exchange rather awkward! This applies to any social environment you find yourself in, such as a bar, a library or even the street, as demonstrated in this video.
The second secret is being aware of how emotionally expressive you are when you speak. People are very good at picking up the emotional context of your words over their logical meaning. For example, you can greet somebody in a cheerful way with the seemingly negative phrase: “you look tired” -and they will respond positively based on the emotional energy in your delivery, rather than the actual content of your sentence.
A few days before Christmas 2011, I decided to try a fun experiment on the streets of Central London to find out how powerful these two simple elements are in relation to your ability to influence. The goal was simply to see how easily I could hand chocolates to passers-by on the street.
To make things interesting, I changed one small element in my approach each time:
“Take a chocolate”
First up, I provided absolutely no reason why I was handing out the chocolate. As I approached them I added no positive emotion behind my words, simply stating: “take a chocolate”. Sounding like a Soviet pision guard, I was unsurprised when almost everybody refused to comply with my festive wishes. From their perspective, I had no logical reason to be handing out chocolate to them in the first place (despite the telltale Santa hat!).
“Its Christmas…take a chocolate”
The second time round, I provided a reason why I was handing out the chocolate, by adding: “It’s Christmas!” to my opening line.
This idea comes from the work of social psychologists Langer, Chanowitz, and Blank, who found that they could easily cut the line of a busy Xerox machine when they added a reason for doing so. Even if the reason was senseless to the people in the queue: “May I cut ahead? It’s Thursday!”
Giving a reason for your behaviour makes people more compliant to your requests. However, with little emotional energy thrown in the mix, my approach still came across a little menacing, albeit much more successful than before: this time people took chocolates!
“Its chocolate…take a Christmas!?”
On the third attempt, I added some warms emotions to my request to take a chocolate. In other words, I walked up to each person with an upbeat vibe and a smile on my face. This ensured that the words coming out my mouth sounded more cheerful than in my previous attempts.
The result was significant: this time everybody took a chocolate, and more importantly, they were happy to do so!
Spurred on by my success, I wondered what would happen if I delivered my opening line in the wrong order! Hence, I changed my the phrase to: “It’s chocolate…take a Christmas!”. Pure gobbledegook! And you know what? It made no difference, people were still influenced to take a chocolate… and (probably) didn’t think I was mad!
Having a genuine reason to talk to people is important as it has a significant effect on how receptive they will be to you. However, your emotional expression makes an even bigger difference to how warmly you will be received in conversation; and ultimately, how influential you will be.