Approaching strangers is a miserable chore for most of us. It's loaded with dread and laced with fears of rejection. The few people who do it well have two things going for them: experience from having done it many, many times before, and a game plan of sorts, even if it's an unconscious one. They have learned what's necessary to ensure the best possible reception when they approach someone, and it's something anyone can learn.
That "someone" we're referring to could be any number of people in any number of situations. It might be a woman at a restaurant; it could be a prospective employer; or it may be someone in the service industry, like a maitre d'. In short, this "someone" is anyone that you want to approach and from whom you would appreciate a warm reception.
To help you get that kind of reception, we offer four steps to approach someone.
Relax your body languageAs we have pointed out here at AM many times, body language is a valuable but often underutilized tool in successfully communicating with others. It's crucial to take stock of the kinds of messages we send by way of body language in order to bring them under our control. When approaching someone and seeking that warm reception, make sure that you aren't communicating any of the nervousness or the defensiveness that you might be feeling about possibly getting rejected or otherwise feeling like a fool. Don't steam toward them with your chin dipped, arms at your side, fists clenched -- you'll look blatantly aggressive, causing people to throw up their own guard the moment they see you. Don't cross your arms either, or have your head cocked to the side, chin tipped up -- it's an arrogant look that won't get you very far. Instead, keep your chin straight and level, and reduce the visual impact of your arms and hands as best you can, whether that means using a pocket (have some discretion here) or keeping them locked loosely behind your back. Either way, leave your hands available so you can use them to make a point if necessary.
Establish eye contactThe first indication that you give to someone to let them know your intentions will almost invariably start with the eyes. We don't need to press the point here about the importance of eye contact in all nonverbal communication, but it should be noted that first impressions start at this initial eye contact. From that point forward you have a precious second or two to express, in your body language and the look in your eye, your intentions. So be certain you're ready when their eyes meet yours. Most people who spend a lot of time in social settings, like a maitre d' or, of course, a bartender, become especially good at spotting the look of someone who wants their attention. They can also read your body language in an instant, and likely make the semiconscious decision right then and there about how they intend to receive you.
There are a few more steps you need to know when you want to approach someone new
SmileWithout a doubt, the most essential step to approach someone is to smile. Not a huge, goofy smile, but a calm and friendly one. Approach people bearing a smile and you can disarm just about anyone. Smiling is one element in Dale Carnegie's famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People -- its efficacy in thawing even the sourest of attitudes is widely known, and a person doesn't even need to be genuinely happy to conjure up a functional smile. Granted, your eyes will give you away in a fake smile, but when approaching someone the point is not to present a convincing smile that would make any dentist swoon.
The point is just to smile.
Open with a greetingWhen we approach our friends, or send them e-mails or text messages, it's rare for us to open with a greeting. Over time, familiarity erases that pretense and its absence in those instances isn't that big of a deal. The big deal starts when you carry over that informal behavior to people you don't know well, or to someone you're approaching for the first time. Thus, the last of the four steps to approach someone involves tacking even the most basic of greetings on to the front end of whatever words you intend to open with.
One reason is because it's plain good manners to do so, another is because it's plain awful manners to barge into someone's space and blurt out, "What's the wait time for a table?" or "I'm looking for work." Informality might be creeping into almost every aspect of communication, but that doesn't mean it'll work for you, or that people appreciate it. Open with a friendly greeting, even the most perfunctory "hi" or "good morning" or even "excuse me," because it establishes its own little dialog between you and this person. It creates a playing field with some basic rules of decency and politeness, whereas opening with a demand or a pointed question will at most inspire an equally cold, abrupt response.