It’s not easy here (see this post about my last trip), and the challenge has made me think about what I have to do to connect in a city–this city. New York is different for me, not only because I speak the language there, but also because I know the unwritten social rules of the city–how to read the “body idiom” and do what Irving Goffman called the “face work.” But one doesn’t have to be a sociologist to see that Parisians have a different social playbook than Americans–and I don’t have a copy! Therefore, I keep reminding myself of the basics of face-to-face connection–skills we don’t exercise in front of our computers.
For your opening line, find common ground. Compliment (“I love your coat”), question (“How old is your dog?” is particularly effective if you both have dogs), or share the moment (“Can you believe it’s still this cold?” “Isn’t that a magnificent building?”)
Say something about yourself. Connection is the sum of shared disclosures. Don’t overshare, though, especially in Paris!
Pay attention to your own body language. Are you sitting with your arms crossed, your body turned slightly away from the other person? If so, do you really want to be there?
Be polite but real. If you are enjoying the conversation, say so–not in a gratuitously flattering way, only if you really feel it.
Respect the cultural idiom. Even if I smile engagingly and make the kind of eye contact that works in New York, I have to accept that that strategy almost never works in Paris. And when I find out what does–other than having a very cute dog that despite myth is not really French at all–I’ll let you know.
Stay in touch. If someone gives you their card or number, use it or lose it! Certainly, if you walk away thinking, “What an [interesting/nice/bizarre] person. I’d like to do that again,” then by all means follow up with a text, an email, or a call when you get home.
To be sure, these are basic social graces–and they don’t always result in rich conversations. But depending how old you are and how much time you spend on line, you might need practice. It’s kind of like reading books. After spending a day absorbing a sentence here, a paragraph there, many of us have found that it’s not so easy anymore to settle down with one book. But those of us who love books keep trying–we don’t want to lose our book-reading chops. And so it should be with our face-to-face social skills. Some early studies suggest that the so-called Google brain might be less able to read faces and feel empathy. All the more reason to keep trying.