what to say

Chad and I hung out earlier today, working on some projects together.  Realizing that we’d completed all we could for one day’s work, we decided to get ice cream.  (Does it seem like I eat ice cream a lot, or is it just me?)

Instead of heading to the usual chain type of place, we visited a local farm which sells a wide variety of ice cream made with milk from their own cows.  I got a cup with one scoop of Banana and one of Death By Chocolate.  Chad couldn’t decide between two varieties, or between a cup or a cone.  So he didn’t.  That is to say, he got a cup and a cone.  I can’t quite remember the names, but I believe one was Maine Black Bear and the other had something to do with Turtles.

While we were there, we made conversation with many people – all of whom we had not previously met.  The girls working the counter.  An elderly couple.  Some little kids with their mom.  Another older gentleman.

Chad and I often remind ourselves that what comes as second nature to us might well seem a great challenge for others.  Other good people who’d really like to be more open with the rest of humanity, but just find it especially difficult to know where to start.  In other words, what would involve no risk at all for Chad and me – may feel to many others like jumping blindfolded from a cliff.  If you are such a person, I’d like to offer a few practical suggestions on what to say in new social situations.

1.  Say “hello.”

This might seem obvious, but it truly surprises me how many people tend to find sudden interest in their key ring or fingernails or some distant object whenever they have to cross paths with other people, instead of just smiling and saying “hello.”  If you’re new to all this positive social risk stuff, getting really good at saying “hello” is a great place to start.

If you need a checklist, here it is:

  • smile
  • make eye contact
  • say “hello”

That’s it!  Putting this into regular practice can change your daily outlook (and maybe some other people’s, as well).

2.  Make a positive comment regarding something you notice about the person.

During our ice cream extravaganza, I did this when I commented to a little girl about her ice cream choice (it was pink and looked like it had confetti in it): “Wow, it looks like you picked the best ice cream.  I should have gotten that.”

It was a small interaction, but she smiled and took her next bite as if she were really something.  Her mom also smiled at the interaction and told me that her daughter “does love pink.”  And her brother, only a year or two older, stepped right up and showed off his watermelon slushy, which I also raved about.

The second older gentleman I mentioned was wearing a shirt with the logo for “Oldies 103.3,” a local radio station.  First, I just smiled and said “hello.”  He smiled warmly and returned the “hello,” as he struggled to get up from the driver’s seat of his car, adding that he promised he hadn’t hit our vehicle with his door.  Sensing the man’s good nature, I followed up with a comment about his shirt:  “Now, you might be up there in years, but I swear, you don’t look a day over 103.2!”

He looked down at his shirt, and followed right in stride with a grin.  “Oh, me?  I’m a young 72, but believe me, I feel 103 some days!”

“I’m with you there!” I laughed.

Other comments might look like these:

“Cool shoes.”

“Nice tattoo.”

“You have a really great speaking voice.  You should be in radio.”

These exchanges aren’t earth shattering.  But they do go beyond nods and typical, predictable exchanges to showing genuine interest in people for the individuals they are.  In addition, they cause people to feel connected – instead of isolated, separate, invisible.

3.  Ask others-centered questions.

So often, when people find themselves in new social situations, they become so nervous and preoccupied with how they are coming across or what they will say next, that they miss the easier option.  What’s more, the other options is not only easy – it’s virtually fail proof.  Asking others-centered questions simply takes noticing (and not much, even at that).

We asked the girls at the serving window, “So, what’s it like working at an ice cream shop during the summer?”  No-brainer, right?  And they were all too happy to tell us: “It’s pretty cool.  It’s slow during the days.  We have time to read in between.  But night time gets crazy, with lines out to the street sometimes.”  Most people appreciate when someone shows even the slightest interest in their life, and are quite willing to engage in a bit of genuine conversation over it.

With the older couple, I asked the woman, “OK, I have to know.  What kind of ice cream did you get?”  She was all smiles: “Coffee.  I always get coffee!”  Her husband was soon by her side and I asked him the same.  “Maple walnut,” he said, adding sagely, “It melts slower on a hot day.”  I found this both informative and amusing.

I followed with one more question: “Now, if you were both on one of those game shows where you had to answer questions about one another without consulting each other, would you have known each others’ favorite ice cream?”

“Oh, yes!” they both agreed confidently.  “We’ve been married for sixty years!” she added.  “We ought to know!”

“Sixty-one,” her husband corrected.

“Sixty,” she reiterated.

“Well, you may have been married sixty years,” he said archly, “but I have been married sixty-one.

It was all in good fun.  They were awfully cute.  (And sixty years!  Kudos!)

Again, these questions don’t have to be deep or intrusive.  If it helps, don’t think of them as so much personal as personalized.  In my examples from today, we were at an ice cream place.  We simply used the obvious environment and asked related questions about work and favorite flavors.

Remember that most people really want to interact with their world and the people in it.  To feel like they belong.  Like you, however, they just may not know how.  I trust that these little tips — and perhaps a nice deep breath – will help you to feel a little more prepared to take some new risks, armed with a few more ideas on what to say.

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