From time to time in our lives we have chance encounters with acquaintances or are somehow drawn into conversation with strangers.
Even if you have positive feelings towards the other person, these chance encounters can be awkward and uncomfortable. You might find that you don’t really know what to say.
Oddly, everyone except you seems to know exactly what to say and exactly what to do in these situations. It’s as if you were in a play where everyone had been given the script except you.
However, with a few simple mindset shifts you can not only survive these situations, but they might even become the highlight of your day. The quality of your seemingly simple everyday interactions with people has a dramatic impact on your happiness.
If you reflect on your own behavior, you’ll realize that people inevitably tell someone about whoever they ran into. You know how it goes, “I ran into so and so the other day.”
Consequently, I find that it helps to think about these experiences in terms of “what would this person say to someone else about seeing me?” Then it becomes a fun game of crafting a great experience.
Dress Well and Be Clean
Even before you say anything, your physical appearance sends a message to other people.
As long as you look generally healthy, are in a good state of personal hygiene, and are wearing clean clothes that fit well, you could say as little as “hello” to someone and they will report back to others that you “looked good.” Socially we know this doesn’t mean that you looked good in the sense that you were attractive, but that you looked healthy and as if life was going well for you.
If “dressing well” sounds like a hassle, it doesn’t have to be complicated. I have a fairly simple closet of button up shirts, nice jeans, and a couple suits. I could get dressed in the dark and still look presentable for most occasions.
Own Your Life
When we haven’t seen someone for many years or find ourselves engaged in small talk with a strangers, we start to project all kinds of fantasies about how good their lives are, what amazing jobs they have, and the movie star social life that they have.
Next to the fantasy you are creating in your mind about what their life must be like and the stark contrast of it to yours, your job and life might seem ordinary or even embarrassing.
Maybe in your own mind you thought you’d be further along career-wise by now. Or maybe you’re working in an industry or company that you don’t think they would perceive as prestigious. You dread the inevitable moment when you get asked where you are working these days, and when you do talk about your job it almost sounds like a resigned admission of how lame you are.
However, the fact is, most people don’t even really care where you work. They are just asking this question out of reflex because it is part of the social script of small talk and/or “catching up.”
When you talk about what you do, own it. Say it with conviction. People take their cues about how to feel about your life from your own behavior towards it, so your energy is more important than your content.
This is revealed again in the conversations people have about you later. If you act like your life is lame, the report back to others will be that it was kind of awkward and “weird” seeing you.
Even if you have an amazing job and a very high position, people will still mainly report back on the energy you said it with. They will say things like, “It seemed like things were going well for him, he was doing some kind of marketing job or other.”
They Are Just As Nervous As You Are
The truth is that the other person actually is holding onto a secret that you don’t know about.
They are feeling just as awkward and nervous as you are–even if you both generally have positive feelings towards each other. When you realize this, you may find that it actually causes you to relax.
Odds are that their life is probably even more screwed up than you think yours is (especially if you actually think your life is pretty awesome).
If you realized that you were talking with someone who was nervous about trying to impress you, how would you react to them? How could you respond to them in a way that would help them to relax and share positive energy with you? If so, how do you think they would feel about you afterwards?
End the Conversation First
If you run out of things to say, just tell them how great it was seeing/meeting them and leave.
For those of us who don’t spend a lot of time in social mode, we almost feel compelled to prolong an interaction that is going well. You could be out shopping and have an appointment that you need to be at in 10 minutes, but after 30 seconds of conversation you feel a pressure like you have to go to a coffee shop or something to keep spending time with this person.
Just let it go. Not only do they already have plans, but so do you. All you really need to do in these situations is share a few words about what’s going on in life, enjoy that you got to run into this person, and move on.
Leave them wanting more.
If you leave people wanting more, the reports about meeting you will get upgraded from “it was good seeing you” to “it was great seeing you.”
Putting It All Together: An Actual Chance Encounter
I was out shoe shopping today and I heard a voice I thought I recognized. I turned around and two people who had lived in the same senior dorm as me, but that I wasn’t that close to, were standing behind me.
We all looked at each other a bit bewildered for a moment because not only had it been years since we’d seen each other, but we also went to college together on the other side of the country and had somehow managed to run into each other at the same time and place in New York City.
We exchanged the normal pleasantries about where we were living and how we all wound up in NYC. Then came the question, “where do you work?”
As I explained earlier, this can feel like a loaded question. And truth be told I did hesitate for a moment, but only a moment, before I boldly stated what I do.
I work for a company that does marketing for mortgage companies. Mortgage never enjoyed a particularly high reputation, and especially in the post-sub-prime recession fallout of New York City, it’s considered a dirty word by many of the Wall Street folks I run into.
I used to be very sheep-ish about telling people what I did for a living, but now I just boldly declare it and move on. The fact is the company provides a valuable service and I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some of the smartest people I’ve ever met.
After the normal “status update” questions and a few stories about other mutual acquaintances we’d run into lately, the conversation started to peter off into the “it’s so good seeing you” phase.
I used to think that this was just an indirect way of saying “okay, I’m tired of talking to you, now go away.” But cultivating greater awareness in the moment, that didn’t quite seem right. We were all sharing a high degree of mutual positive feeling.
I realized that the one saying it was actually nervous and had run out of things to say. I had also run out of things to say, so I told them I’d be off with my shopping and to have a good time in New York.
In effect, I ended the conversation first and left them (and myself) wanting more.
Conversely, if I had tried to press on and keep the conversation going or even invite them out to someplace on the spot it probably would have turned awkward leaving a very different taste to their experience of having run into me.
I can’t know exactly what they’ll say about me later, but I feel that the conversation will be a generally positive one.