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How to Talk to People Again

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After a year of isolation, there are things you start to forget. You forget how to stand in a crowded commuter train (legs apart, slight bend in the knee) or how to shimmy sheepishly past theatergoers to reach a middle seat (face away, apologize repeatedly).

And, without a constant parade of baby showers and work mixers, you forget how to talk to strangers: The witty banter, the conversational volley, the way you break the ice with “How about this rain, huh?” instead of “So, what do you consider your greatest failure in life?”

But the world is starting to open up again, and that means having to engage in that dreaded four-letter word — chat — with people you don’t know. If the idea makes you nervous, you’re not alone.

“Social anxiety is extremely normal,” said Stefan G. Hofmann, director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University. “As humans, we have a strong need to belong and feel part of a group.”

Still, knowing something is normal doesn’t make it easier. How can you coax yourself out of hermithood and talk to people when your social skills feel blunted by quarantine? Here’s some advice from people whose jobs require them to make friends with strangers every day.

Embrace the awkward bits. (And there will be awkward bits.)

Amanda Zion, a hair stylist in Davidson, N.C., is well-versed in making small talk. But for someone who gets shy around new people, it doesn’t always come naturally. “It’s excruciating,” she said. “I get anxious before every client.”

Her golden rule? When an interaction feels stilted, she acknowledges it out loud. “I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I feel so awkward today,’ ” she said. “I try to break down the barrier with honesty or even a joke — like, ‘Wow, those 37 cups of coffee didn’t help!’”

A one-two punch of self-deprecating humor and direct instruction can work wonders, said Jennifer Hornbeck, an Episcopalian priest in Sonoma County, Calif., who’s had “a lot of practice” mingling at after-church coffee hours in the 20 years since she was ordained. “Make light of it, then give the other person a framework to help you,” she said. “I’ll say: ‘I seem to have forgotten how to have a conversation. Can you tell me about your day?’”

Use the pandemic to connect, but tread carefully.

Whenever Ms. Hornbeck has felt stuck talking to congregants this year, she’s leaned on a fail-safe topic: the pandemic.

“It’s a jumping off point we didn’t have before,” she said. “I like asking, ‘What hobby did you think you’d take up in quarantine but never did?’”

Establishing commonalities is how we connect, said Dr. Hofmann, so a collective experience like the pandemic can provide us with ample discussion points. Still, he said, remember that it’s not always innocuous.

“If the person you’re talking to has lost a job or a loved one, they may not want to discuss it with a stranger,” he said.

It helps to share your own experience first, said Larry Cohen, a therapist in Washington, D.C., who runs social anxiety workshops. “That way, you’re the one being vulnerable and opening the door, and they can walk through it if they want to.”

And if you walk through it to find yourself in a wildly different room, it’s fine to walk back out. When a recent conversation about masks veered into uncomfortable political territory, Ms. Zion was loath to join in. To extricate yourself gracefully from a topic you’d rather not touch, “say something affirming and sincere — ‘Yes, these are really hard times’ — and then move to a different subject,” said Mr. Cohen.

Interject a little positivity.

While commiserating over a shared adversity can be a bonding experience, Mr. Cohen said, “you don’t want the focus with a new person to be overwhelmingly on the negative.”

When a conversation feels like it’s verging on a complaint-fest — cathartic, sure, but kind of a downer — Ms. Zion steers it toward more optimistic territory. “If someone only wants to talk about how bad their vaccine side effects were,” she said, “I’ll ask, ‘But what are you most excited to do now you’re vaccinated?’”

Clementina Richardson, a celebrity eyelash stylist whose clients include Mary J. Blige and Julia Roberts, makes the positive comment personal.

“I always try to offer a compliment,” said Ms. Richardson, the founder of Envious Lashes, an eyelash extension salon in New York. “People haven’t gone anywhere for a year. Some of them are feeling a little self-conscious about their appearance. Noticing something — their hair, their bag — and saying something nice about it helps make them feel more comfortable.”

Don’t overthink it.

Meghan Dhaliwal’s work as a freelance documentary photographer (including for The New York Times) means she has to gain the trust of strangers on each assignment, despite being a self-described introvert. In some cases, the person she’s photographing has undergone a difficult experience, and her role is to capture them intimately without stepping over delicate boundaries.

To lower the pressure of the situation, she tries to put a subject at ease by tuning in to the way they’re feeling, matching her energy level to theirs and paying attention to their body language.

“I’ll start by asking something light that has nothing to do with why I’m photographing them,” she said. “I’ll listen and take my cues from their answer. When you give someone a little space to warm up to you, it’s easier to start chatting and find common ground.”

Mr. Cohen gives his patients a similar exercise, what he calls “curiosity training.” While it can be tempting to construct a conversational safety net by continuously planning out the next thing you’re going to say, it also makes it harder to pay attention to the exchange you’re having.

“The better thing to do, even if it feels like a leap of faith, is to listen with curiosity,” he said. “Step away from the idea of performance, of ‘I need to make this go well,’ and try instead to adopt a stance of mindfulness.”

Allowing yourself to become absorbed in the conversation, Mr. Cohen said, means your brain will start doing the work for you, tossing out questions and opinions you can contribute.

Practice being in control.

While this may not be the time to expose yourself to large crowds, “taking small, safe steps toward socializing again” can alleviate some of the pressure you might feel about re-emerging into the world, said Mr. Cohen. “Make it a goal to interact with one person every day.”

In her job as an account manager, Chicago-based Lindsey Friesen often challenges herself to spend 20 minutes calling clients before allowing herself to do more introspective work. To prepare for a return to networking events, she’s practicing what she calls “a sort of informal exposure therapy”: Running one errand a week that will result in a social interaction.

If she meets someone she knows she’ll see again, she makes a quick note of something they talked about as conversational fodder for next time. And if she needs a moment to collect herself, she falls back on a trick she learned in therapy for a childhood stutter.

“I always keep a water bottle with me, so I have a reason to stop talking,” she said. “When you take a sip of water, it’s a pause that isn’t weird. It gives you a few seconds to gather your thoughts or change the direction of what you were saying. Nobody has to know you’re struggling.”

If all else fails: Netflix.

If, in the course of cutting someone’s hair, Ms. Zion has exhausted all her conversational gambits, she falls back on the one thing she can count on to get people talking: what shows they’ve been binge-watching while stuck at home.

“TV has probably been the biggest sparker of conversation with anyone this year,” she said. “You start with that and you can go anywhere.”

Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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