"Don't talk to strangers!" Parents drum those words into their kids. "Stranger danger" is the first pair of rhyming words that some children learn outside of a Dr. Seuss book.

It can be a dangerous world, of course. Everybody gets that.

But here's the thing. To be a smart, happy adult, young people must gain comfort talking to strangers. Not sketchy people in a dark alley, maybe, but people they meet in college, or in the workplace or in everyday encounters (in the line at Starbucks, say).

Our older son went off to college in Alabama last fall. He picked a campus where he would have no built-in friends. He did the same kind of thing this summer, opting to work at summer camp in upstate New York where he literally knew nobody. Good for him.

Surviving and thriving among strangers is one of the milestones of adult life. People who are unwilling to venture outside their comfort zones and meet new people limit their life options.

This week I ran across a fascinating essay in Entrepreneur magazine by author and journalist Joe Keohane. The title of the piece is, "How To Become a Master at Talking to Strangers."

For those of us not born with the gift of gab, there's a learning curve to spontaneous conversations. Keohane's piece said he discovered there are a host of experts in the world studying the benefits of conversations with people we don't know. He says he sought some of them out after realizing that he had withdrawn from making small talk with strangers.

"I was saving myself a bit of effort," he wrote in Entrepreneur, "but I also noticed my life was becoming less interesting, less surprising, maybe even a little lonely."

Experts agree, Keohane said, that perfecting your "small talk" game is a key part of talking to strangers. While sometimes trivial, small talk is a means to an end, he said.

Reading this, I realized that as an introvert in an extrovert's world (journalism) I have been honing my "talking to strangers" game for decades.

Here is some of what I learned. Call it an introvert's guide to talking to strangers:

* In a sales training course, I was once coached to use the phrase: "I know what you mean." I now find myself saying this sentence multiple times a week. It's a good way to create empathy and move the conversation from small talk to substance.

* Don't automatically lean in. "Leaning in" has become a popular metaphor for good communication in the business world. But "leaning in" with strangers is not the ticket. Even a mild introvert will tell you that invading someone's personal space is a big turnoff. My motto for talking to a stranger: Speak up, but step back.

* Just because people are shy doesn't mean they won't warm up and talk. I recently interviewed three generations of people in a family business together. When I first reached out, members of the family were hesitant to talk. But by the end of the interview they were all in the same room, talking over one another, to tell me their stories.

Lesson: Most people like talking about themselves. I've probably interviewed 10,000 people in my 40-year journalism career, and ultimately only a few were completely closed books.

* If small talk is the door we must open to start a conversation, intentional listening is how we keep the line free of static.

I love the Stephen Covey quote: "The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply."

So true.

* Live outside yourself. Show me a person who won't talk to strangers, and I'll show you someone leading a half-empty life.

Inspirational speaker Charlie T. Jones is famous for saying: "You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read."

If you don't talk to strangers, only half of life's learning is open to you.

Email Mark Kennedy at

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