I’m pretty good at talking to strangers and bad at converting them to friends.

In places where talking to strangers is somewhat expected, waiting rooms included, I’ve had good luck with random conversations. I’ve noticed a few tricks to this. The first is pick your target carefully and the target should be, drumroll, whoever is closest to you and not doing something else.

When I’m in a doctor’s office and signing in, I don’t seek out the attractive person somewhere else. Nor do I bother the woman with the kids (unless I want something specific, not a conversation, like a paper she’s standing in front of. Even still, I try to avoid them). No, the best targets are other people near where I’m doing whatever, and especially if they look bored. Phones and headphones are out unless, again, I have something specific I need. The ideal person to strike up a conversation with in a place like a waiting room is someone waiting bored by the desk while I’m filling out a paper, and it’s even better if I’ve finished a paper too.

Second I ask a direct and specific question, one that doesn’t require much interpretation, about the situation we’re in or what they’re doing.

“How long have you waited?”

“Did you speak to a nurse, or is the receptionist taking these?”

Etc. The objective is no-burden questions that suggest responses from a relatively safe bin.

“A few minutes.”

“Either one is fine.”

There’s a slight appeal to vanity in here, because the responder can take a mildly authoritative response. They know the answer, there’s an obvious reason I’m asking, and nothing lends itself to argument. I’m kinda scary-looking, so with strangers being non-threatening helps. Putting people in a mild position of authority with no responsibilities helps too.

Third is non-verbal communication. An awful lot of people will grunt in reply, and that almost always means no conversation. I drop all attempts. However that won’t hurt later attempts to talk to someone else. It’s hard to think I’m crazy if I ask who to give my form too. I always take such responses at face value, but anything non-verbal or non-answer means I drop the matter. So if someone says, “I don’t know,” I nod, and don’t ask again. If someone says, “I was going to give it to the lady in the blue shirt, but I haven’t seen her in a bit,” I take that as an invitation.

Finally, I pursue with mild personal information and equally mild questions, but both rely on non-threatening specificity. Nothing critical is said without conceding a point. The compliment always follows the but.

“The lady at the front counter said this might take a while, but I was hoping to get out within an hour. I think she’s going to be right.”

“That barber takes a while, but he does really good work.”

“Do you know anyone here?”

At parties or mixers I get a bit more personal, again asking general questions but ones that can be easily dodged.