Making Friends With Strangers

For work, often I’ve found myself going to a conference, party or local user group event where I don’t know anyone there and my goal by the end of the event is to know everyone.  The whole process has definitely forced me to think about how we connect with one another.

Ultimately,  when you’re going to make friends with a stranger (aka someone you don’t know), you must have something that you can connect over.    You have to have something that’s going to be the springboard for the longer conversation and hopefully a relationship.

From what I’ve seen those things you connect over can be broken out into 3 types. (I’m sure there are others.  This is just what I could come up with)…

  • A Present Object
  • Shared Interest
  • Shared Present Circumstance

A Present Object

About 8-10 months ago,  I got an Amazon Kindle, which has quickly become one of my favorite things.  I take it everywhere.  I’ll be reading it on the subway on the way to work.  I’ll take it to the coffee shop to read the newspaper on Saturday and Sunday morning.

Early on, the device was more out of the ordinary, so that just about every time I’d take it out some random person would come up to me and start chatting about it.   Ultimately, we’d end up talking about something else but the Kindle was the launching pad.  From the Kindle, you find out what kind books she’s interested in and you’re now making an even deeper connection.

I remember also when Apple computers were less common.  I’d be on my Apple laptop in the airport and I’d see someone else with an Apple laptop.  We’d look up and give each other the customary head nod out of respect.   We were both a member of the Apple family.  From their, it’d be easy to jump into a conversation about experiences with Apple.

It work’s the same with other things.  I’m a big fan of the t-shirt company Threadless.  Whenever I see someone who’s wearing one of their shirts, it’s an instant conversation starter.  How can you not start chatting about the t-shirt “Everyone Poops“?

You just have to find that thing in front of you that you can connect over.

Shared Interest

As I mentioned earlier, I go to a lot of tech conferences and developer oriented user groups, which makes meeting just about anyone that much easier.   When you walk into the room,  you instantly know that you have something in common with everyone in the room.  You can ask someone “So, how long have you been a developer?” or “So, what kind of tech startup are you at?”

Another example, recently a friend of mine invited us to her birthday party.  She invited a number of friends from church but also a number of her friends from work.   These two groups of friends didn’t really know each other.   When I met one of the friends that I didn’t know, my natural question was, “So how do you know her?”  This springs into a conversation.  The shared interest is that of the host, who’s throwing the birthday party.

The shared interest that has brought you together is a way that you can spring into a conversation.

Shared Present Circumstance

Once, I was on the subway on my way home from work.  For whatever reason (I think something happened to a train in front of us), we weren’t moving.    We sat there for what felt like forever.

A row or two in front of me.  I used this shared experience we were having, being stuck on a train that was going no where, to relate and connect.   It probably started with me saying something like “Wow, doesn’t this suck,” referring to the being stuck on the train.   Before you knew it, we were having a conversation.

Ever have a conversation that shifted into awkward and you were fishing for something to connect over?  What shared present circumstance is tried and true that you always reach for?  It’s the weather.  “Wow, the  weather has been great lately” or “Wow, doesn’t this weather suck.”

I have fond memories of the day that I stood in line to get the first generation iPhone.  We were there for three or four hours before we were able to actually get into the store.   By that time, I felt like I was family with my line mates.  We had bonded over the circumstance of waiting in line.  We started talking about our interest in Apple and what kind of tech jobs we had.   I’m actually still friends with some of the folks that I met in that line.

The key is identifying something that you’re both experiencing right now.

Social Object Theory…

My ideas around making friends with strangers really isn’t anything new.  It’s just a way of looking at Social Object Theory.  According to the theory, people don’t connect with people person to person.  They connect with people person to object to person.  That object you’re connecting over can be the things like… present objects (things), shared interests, or present circumstances…  Yep.

So… hopefully this is helpful.  I’m talking about this kind of stuff with Daniel Odio from PointAbout for Digital Capital Week in June 2010 in DC.

What do you think?  Agree? Disagree? I could have EASILY written a ton more examples.  Do you have some?  Are there categories that I’m missing?

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