How to Start a Conversation — In Real Life

Before internet dating began, it could be extremely tough for single people to meet one another. If you didn’t find your partner in school and weren’t meeting eligible singles in your family or friend circles, then you were at the mercy of chance: you just had to hope that you would walk into the right party, bar or line at the DMV.

Online dating has proven to be a great tool for finding that needle in the haystack. According to a study conducted by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, one-third of the Americans who married between 2005 and 2012 met online, and the general attitude toward online dating has changed significantly since that time. In 2005, 44% of internet users agreed that online dating was a good way to meet people; by 2013 that number had jumped to 59%, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

However, anyone who has attended a social event lately has probably noticed a lot of people looking at their phones, rather than each other. It appears that the ease of meeting digitally has made people reluctant to approach the good souls who are in the same room as they are.

Sure online dating is a great supplement to meeting people in real life, but it was never meant to completely replace it. Sometimes you need to put down the smart phone, close the laptop and introduce yourself to a human person IRL (in real life). Some suggestions:

THE SITUATION: You’re standing at the elevator bank of your large office building at lunchtime when you see her—that whip-smart executive with the winning laugh.

IRL CONVERSATION STARTER: Ask for help. “I’ve been going to the same three lunch joints for ages and I need to get out of this rut. Any suggestions? What’s your favorite place to go?”

THE SITUATION: You’re in line at a coffee bar behind a cute hipster with shaggy hair and sleepy brown eyes. But he’s really engrossed in his conversation with this friend.

IRL CONVERSATION STARTER: Eavesdrop. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing you said you just returned from Thailand. Was it expensive to fly there? I’ve always wanted to go.”

THE SITUATION: You’re at the train station or airport, sitting next to an intriguing looking woman with funky eyeglasses and a thick Victorian novel.

IRL CONVERSATION STARTER: Offer help. “I’m going to get a coffee. Can I get you something?”

If these all sound pretty basic, well they are. The goal is to start a conversation in an easy way that lets the other person know that you recognize that they are fundamentally different from, say, an armchair or potted palm. Then it’s the other person’s move—if he or she wants to continue talking, great. If not, no one has to be embarrassed. You can just go back to its not you sara eckelyour phones.

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.


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