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How to Use Reciprocity to Start Meaningful Conversations with Strangers

Sílvia Bastos
Sep 11, 2017 · 9 min read

When I was in high school, I was never one of the popular kids. I was always the odd one out in large groups, and I would never, ever be the one to start a conversation.

When I got to university, this didn’t change much. I tried to be cool and stand out by saying clever things. But my conversations were typically empty, and would eventually die with an awkward silence.

It wasn’t until I moved abroad and started traveling that things started shifting.

As I was on the move, on my own, and no longer seeing my old friends everyday, I had to choose between a) talking to strangers or b) feeling lonely all the time. Eventually, I chose to talk to strangers.

Talking to strangers meant that every conversation was a new one, and I found myself wanting to skip the small talk — to shortcut to a meaningful, quality human connection.

This is how I began exploring the principle of reciprocity as a conversation tactic, and I have since been fascinated by its potential.

How not to start a conversation (or, why words can be awkward and meaningless when out of context)

It goes almost without saying: the Internet has an answer to all your questions.

Let’s say you want be more outgoing, to strike up interesting interactions at social events, or even improve existing relationships — but you’re not sure how to start the conversation. You feel embarrassed before you start, and return to your corner.

So you find yourself at home, looking at your computer screen, Google’s home page staring back at you. You type how to talk to strangers or how to start a conversation. Not that difficult of a request, right?

Search results for conversation-starters include thousands of questions and tips — but not all of them are helpful. From the classic “how’s your day going?” to the slightly more unusual “what’s your biggest dream?”, and even the adventurous “if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do today?” — the options are endless.

Some of them are boring; some of them way too awkward (I have come across “how often do you shower?” as a suggestion for a conversation starter on a random website). But in the end it doesn’t matter — they will most likely not work, as I’ll bet you can attest for yourself.

These conversation starters don’t work because they’re disconnected from the interaction. They’re impersonal words and questions, devoid of context. And don’t get me wrong: words can be extremely powerful, but sometimes you need something more.

When you start talking to someone — a stranger, an acquaintance, or even a friend — what you say is only part of the impression you will cause. There is a lot more to it than your verbal speech. There’s your state of mind, your openness, your curiosity, and your attitude.

Now, you may ask: “That’s so many things to take into account, how can I possibly pay attention to all of them at once?” Well, you don’t have to. Here’s how to make it happen naturally.

Reciprocity: the one and most important thing to know about interactions

Going back to the topic of my solo travels, there is something I have to confess: at first, it was hard. Really hard. I felt lonely and sad, and secretly envied all the happy couples around me.

But being in that situation was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had to push myself and talk to people in order to relieve my loneliness and sadness. And through doing this, I started observing my own behaviors and getting to know more about myself and about people around me.

“When we hear the other person’s feelings and needs, we recognize our common humanity.” — Marshall Rosenberg

While I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I went to a workshop about Nonviolent Communication. What I learned there took me one step further in understanding the nature of human interactions. The thing I kept on forgetting became clearer than ever: social interactions are all about giving and receiving.

The more people I talked to, the more I noticed how much we humans need to be listened to and appreciated. And it works the other way around, too! As I was listening to other people and holding space for them, I recognized how good it felt not just to be listened to, but also to be the listener.

The more attention and empathy I gave, the more attention and empathy I got back. My interactions started becoming more meaningful and more personal every day.

This is how I started re-learning that the purpose of human interactions is reciprocity. That’s when my social life started dramatically improving.

The principal of reciprocity is concept referenced in every introductory psychology course or marketing book. It’s principle #1 of the 6 Principles of Influence, as studied by well-known psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence.

Cialdini’s theories about the factors that lead to persuasion — reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus — have been applied to nearly every social concept, from sales and marketing to parenting and web design.

But what about in everyday conversation?

How to apply the principle of reciprocity as a conversation technique

Reciprocity is a simple concept, but how do we actually apply it when talking to our prospective employer, or when meeting a stranger in a bar?

Here’s two approaches to use:

When I travel, I draw almost every day. Instead of drawing in my journal, I started drawing on small pieces of paper and giving them out to people.

Some of the drawings I made and and exchanged them with people when I was traveling.

“Would you like to exchange a drawing for a cigarette?” (I am no longer smoking, but I used to, so let’s use this one as an example.)

Instead of giving me a cigarette and parting with me, people would react with curiosity about my drawing. “Oh wow, this is amazing! What is it?” or, “I would have given you a cigarette anyway, but I love this drawing. Take another one for the road!” were some of the answers I got. And then a conversation would start, and it was always an interesting conversation, because the ice was broken and we had made a connection.

Since then, I’ve gotten even more creative:

“Would you like to exchange compliments?” This is a risky one, but a total winner if you use it with the right people. A perfect way to boost the moods and make the days of all involved.

“Would you like to exchange a ride for a story?”

“Would you like to exchange five minutes of your time for a poem?”

“Would you like to exchange a cookie for a hug?”

Reciprocity doesn’t have to be crazy creative all the time; it can also be subtle and simple. It’s all about seizing the opportunities around you. See someone you want to talk to? Go and do something nice for them. Offer them a drink and ask if they can tell you a story in exchange. And when they do, actually listen to the story, without interrupting. Smile, pay attention, and remember to be the person you would like to meet.

It can be hard to approach a conversation with confidence. If handing out doodles to strangers sounds a little extreme — or perhaps you’re more introverted — then start by focusing on body language and indirect communication as a conversation tactic.

My favorite approach is to use intentional body language so that I can hack my brain and achieve whatever state of mind I want to be in — especially when I’m feeling shy and I want to be more outgoing.

The importance of body language can’t be overestimated:

“Even if you understand the body language signals other people are sending, you might not realize what your own body is communicating. When your body language is cold and standoffish, people are unlikely to approach you, even if you want them to.”

Daniel Wendler, founder of Improve Your Social Skills

When I give or receive something good, I focus on the benefit that this brings me, then I make a conscious effort to smile or to express my gratitude. I intentionally boost that positive feeling by changing my body language. Whenever I’m in a social context where I don’t know anyone, I pretend that I feel like I fit in. I make myself believe that I belong there, and that I feel as comfortable as can be. I stand up straighter, look people in the eyes, and tell myself that I’m the coolest person around.

If this still sounds hard to you, don’t worry. If you’re still feeling shy, just take one step at a time.

More than a conversation starter: How exchanging has changed my life, and how it can change yours

Exchanging doesn’t stop at first interactions: it can be applied to all relationships, old and new, close and distant, with anyone you have ever met and will ever meet in your life.

Once I started using it with strangers, I began to apply it to my closest relationships. I started paying attention to the amount of good things that people do for me, and I started giving back. And every relationship I have — family, friends, romances, coworkers— has improved. I feel more connected to people than ever before.

During this process, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about others. I’m more grateful and appreciative of people around me, but I’m also better at identifying which relationships are not healthy for me anymore. If I keep on giving and I only get negative things in return — or nothing at all — then I start feeling there is an unbalance. I now see that many of the relationships I had before were draining my energy, and gaining this insight has allowed me to either change them or get away from them, which has been beneficial for everyone involved.

I also exchange skills with my friends all the time. A photo shoot for a logo, a dinner for a massage — you get a valuable service, practice your skills, and strengthen your friendship.

If you want to take it a step further, applying the approach of reciprocity to shopping and other everyday transactions can be beneficial — and cost-effective! As I saw the benefits of this practice, I started exploring it further and I found countless websites where you can swap everything from services (Swapz) to books (Read It Swap It), clothes (Swishing) and skills (Swapaskill).

Why the technique of reciprocity works in conversations

It works because:

1) It’s different and original and people like that.
2) People love getting things and being appreciated.
3) People also love giving and feeling useful, especially after they have been given something useful themselves.

Reciprocity is much more than just a way to start conversation. It focuses on the the whole interaction, not just the words you use. It’s about being open, being authentic and taking initiative.

It works because when you approach a personal interaction as a reciprocal exchange, you’re adding value to the other person’s day, but you’re also getting something in return.

To me, the best thing about this approach is that it encourages my creativity, while reminding me to be humble and showing me how to learn and grow with each interaction. By focusing on reciprocity, we intentionally put a value on our time, our relationships, and our life.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Sílvia Bastos

Written by

Journaling my way to happiness. I’ll show you how here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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