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'Nice day today, isn't it?'

Bus queue
When in a queue, talk about queuing
Polish people in Britain are being told the weather is a good subject with which to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But is it? The Magazine's Tom Geoghegan puts the theory to the test.

Digesting what I'd just said to her, the old woman on the 220 bus to Putney, west London, scrutinises me intently.

If she turns away to look out the window now, that would spell humiliation.

Maybe "It's rather chilly out there," wasn't the right thing to say, and perhaps rubbing my hands together was a touch contrived. The one-second pause that follows feels like 10.

"Yes, it's meant to warm up later," she says at last, with a half-smile. Filled with relief, I respond with something about our forgotten summer and the verbal floodgates are open.

She neatly steers our chat from weather to traffic jams and from there to Ken Livingstone and candy floss, all in the five minutes before she alights.

Speaking to a stranger is a bit of a minefield, but it makes you feel good afterwards, especially in London where spontaneous conversations are pretty unfamiliar territory.

Not so in Devon, where a new welcome pack for Polish migrant workers advises them that a good way to start a conversation is to remark on the weather. And this unscientific survey in the capital suggests the advice is well-judged.

Anonymity

Out of 10 unsuspecting strangers, only one refuses to answer - a glance and a look away warn me off.

Six were positively bright and chatty, one was too immersed in his iPod to hear me, another couldn't understand me and one gave a courteous response but then returned to reading his newspaper.

Unlike a greeting that follows an introduction, a conversation between strangers is shrouded in anonymity and uncertainty. Standing at a bus stop or in a queue, the possibilities are endless. Begin with the weather and who knows where it will lead?

In one hour of approaching strangers, I learnt what the best time of year is to visit Marrakesh (October to March), that the local library is relocating (just down the road), what market traders make of the soon-to-be opened shopping centre nearby (upbeat and bullish) and what everyone thinks about the weather (even the sun has them moaning).

Go to the North of England and Scotland and people are ready to talk to anything that moves or breathes
Ros Taylor
Conversation expert

Older women are more talkative than younger men, who were glued to mobile phones and personal music players. And opportunities to chat abound - even when waiting to cross a road there's time for a quick exchange.

The weather is a good ice-breaker because in the UK it's so unpredictable and it's common to all of us, says Ros Taylor, who works with companies to encourage people to talk to each other. If you're stuck, look around you - if you're in a queue then talk about queues.

"We often imagine that conversations have to be clever and witty and shattering in their perceptiveness but all we want to do is bond and have a chat and make the time pass more quickly."

Chatting in this way makes life more pleasant, she says, and it's more common outside the South East.

"Go to the North of England and Scotland and people are ready to talk to anything that moves or breathes. They always have something in their heads that they say as soon as anyone comes into view."

But electronic communication is eroding our ability to connect personally, she says, and this could be contributing to increased feelings of isolation and even depression.

RULES OF CONVERSATION
Don't open with a complaint, it sets the tone
Avoid politics and religion, they are sensitive subjects
Keep strong opinions to yourself, you don't want to offend
Source: Author Don Gabor

Another factor is that increased mobility means communities are less settled than they used to be, says Don Gabor, author of How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends.

"In a neighbourhood, when you interact on a regular basis it serves as a step-off point for the next conversation, so if you see someone every day, at the chip shop or in the park, and you start a conversation it can grow beyond the weather."

But a conversation with a stranger helps both parties - a smile at a cashier could be the first connection she has enjoyed that day.

Use sights, smells and sounds as verbal cues, he says. But there are simple ground rules - don't complain, avoid politics and religion, and keep strong opinions to yourself.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The other day someone gave me a helium balloon shaped like a panda, and I had to take it across London. If you want people to talk to you, take a panda! I simply couldn't believe how many people (guys, girls, groups, couples, individuals, young, old) stopped to talk to me, to ask the panda's name, to ask if he was dangerous, what he ate... In a city where usually no one speaks to anyone, an anthropomorphic balloon is an instant bond with - apparently - everyone!
Elizabeth Wootten, Oxford

What a nice story. It seems the only thing we hear in the media these days is about how everyone wants to stab us, steal our children or blow us up. Perhaps if we actually chatted some more with strangers we'd realise that when it comes right down to it, most people are the same.
Paul McDonald, Holyhead, Wales

I'm a church minister and regularly break the "never talk about religion" rule by starting conversations with strangers on that very subject. If I am friendly and ask a lot of questions - then I find that 95% of the time people of all nationalities are very keen to chat about what they believe and enter into discussion about the big questions of life. A smile, a bit of humility and a little confidence make chatting with strangers a pleasure - even in the centre of London.
Matt Frost, London

I am always conscious that I never start a conversation with the state of the weather, and I lose interest in a person straight away if they do it to me. We're a nation obsessed by it. If you go on holiday the first thing people ask on your return is "was the weather OK"? When you reply yes, great, they sound disappointed that you didn't get a good soaking every day. I don't think you should get involved with strangers to be honest. Even a smile to someone these days can cause them to latch on to you so they can pour out their troubles.
Lorraine, Stockport

I'm a Londoner first and English second. Being English I believe it is most impolite to speak to strangers and as a Londoner, even if I did most people in London don't speak English. I am polite but curt if someone tries to talk to me, and if a foreigner ask directions I pretend I am not a Londoner. Thankfully this means that I can take my journey to work in peace and not be bothered with meaningless conversation.
Katie True, London

I work in the City of London and find that some of the best conversation I have had with strangers is when the train is delayed or there is a traffic jam that holds the coach up. The different topics that people come up with are amazing, sure beats being ignored on the way to work!
Jeanette, Kent

You can open with a complaint, as long as it puts you on common ground. We were stuck for an hour on the underground. Someone said typical, so much for no jams, and off went the banter. One man had a fresh salmon. He said, "if we're down here much longer, it'll go off" to which someone else said, "if we're down here much longer, it won't have a chance, we're eating it"
Paulie, London

I've had people try to start up conversations, and I stop them dead with "This is British public transport - we don't even make eye contact, let alone speak!" Not everyone wishes to be disturbed by inane chatter from someone we don't know!
Megan, Brighton UK

It is easy to chat about the weather with a stranger. However, I think that it is the fact that we are complaining rather than talking about it that is often the greatest conversation starter of all. It is the endless moaning about the weather that unites us in Britain!
Lisa Crowther, Chichester, West Sussex

One easy way to get into a conversation in a pub is to play the quiz machine. In no time at all, all manner of people will offer you answers (sometimes they'll even be correct) and you can easily start chatting from there. Even better (but more subject to timing) is the weekly pub quiz (which most pubs have). The friendly banter that occurs between teams can quickly turn to conversation.
DS, Croydon, England

I'm a born and bread Northerner and I have never found us Northerners difficult to start a conversation with whether it be on a bus or in a lift but every time I visit our Southern relatives I find them very rude and difficult to approach. To me it's a sure sign of the North South divide in the UK
Andrew, Manchester

Northern and Scottish people are ready to talk to anyone about anything? Not in Edinburgh they aren't. Edinburghers are more cold and retentive than anybody else in the UK.
Willy, Edinburgh

As a young(ish) woman living alone, the main thing I want to know from a stranger in the street is that they're *not* going to turn out to be another psycho with a knife or a sex pest. Might be a sad way to look at the world, but once bitten twice shy and all that. I agree people seem to know much less about their neighbours these days, even compared to when I was a child. Having a cat seems to help break the ice a lot, he doesn't care in the slightest about race or religion as long as he can get a bit of food or attention from someone :)
Fay, Derby

Easy. Get a dog and walk it. Best way to meet strangers for sure.
Jeremy Poynton, Frome


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