How to start conversations with other students
One of the most daunting aspects about studying abroad is meeting new people on your own. First of all, don’t worry if you’re a shy, quiet person naturally. Your university and the student union will appreciate this, as every year they deal with hundreds and thousands of new students who don’t know each other; they will organise some fun activities to help everyone meet eachother. So remember: you’re not the first to do this!
Inevitably things will be a little awkward in those first few days or weeks, but soon you’ll be an expert at starting conversations with strangers, and your confidence will skyrocket! To help you, here are a few pointers to help you approach strangers and initiate conversations, including further talking points you can move on to. Remember them, and keep them in your back pocket when you're stuck:
International and domestic students alike will rely on three questions in their first week or two at university:
‘Where are you from?’
‘What are you studying?’
‘Where are you living now (your accommodation)?’
These will save you from awkward silences and get you exchanging information. Don’t worry if you find yourself asking these same three questions over and over again for those first few weeks – everyone does it! Everyone soon accepts this, and sitting in silence will be a lot more uncomfortable – at least it shows that you’re making an effort.
From there: Find out more about each other’s accommodations (what they like/don’t like about it), why they wanted to study that particular course and what they want to do, more about their home countries/regions etc.
In your first few weeks on a new campus, don’t be surprised if you get lost – after all, it is your first time going to these rooms, lecture halls etc and campuses are often much larger to what you have known. You’ll become familiar with them soon enough, but make the most of being new on campus and ask now while it isn’t embarrassing. You don’t want to be a third year student asking first year students for directions, do you? You’ll find that non-first year students will be very accommodating to helping you find where you’re going as they’ll remember what it was like to be new on campus too.
From there: If they know the department you’re looking for, they may be studying the same subject, so you can talk about that. If it’s more of a social space, you can ask whether the food is tasty/reasonably priced and how busy it gets (and when).
While some may find it odd to receive a compliment from a complete stranger for no apparent reason, it is still rather nice and gives that person a self-esteem boost if they’re having a bad day. Everyone likes to see the effort they’ve put into their appearance or their taste be acknowledged; most enjoy talking about it, so ask questions to find out more.
From there: You can ask enquire further about the thing you’ve complimented them on. For example, if you complement another girl’s make-up or clothing, you can ask where they bought it from, whether it’s available in other colours, what it would look good with or for etc.
This is one for those studying in the UK – the Brits absolutely love to talk about the weather, even when it is terrible. Its part of the nation’s culture to talk about how miserable the rain is or how it’s too hot, to a point that even the British acknowledge how repetitive it is when they bring up the topic themselves (note, the British have a great sense of humour where they poke fun out of each other and themselves, even if it can be a little dry). It’s a very good go-to topic when greeting someone because it’s obvious and affects everyone – everyone is caught up in a moment of solidarity and can complain about the same thing.
From there: You can talk about the weather in your country, and where you come from. If you’ve been caught out by the weather, you might want to ask where you can buy more suitable clothing from (a rain coat, or winter boots). If it’s particularly nice and warm, ask whether they have plans to make the most of the glorious weather.
While they say you shouldn’t eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, try and get a feel for what students talk about (what is appropriate conversation, how do they greet each other etc.). Social norms likely vary from what you are used to at home, and it can be useful to take some tips from how others move from one topic to another, naturally. Also, someone might be in need with something you can help them with, at which point you can step in and be their hero. This may also help you improve your language skills, so avoid wearing headphones all the time as you move around.
This is a good tip for starting conversations on public transport. A lot of people use travel time to watch TV, movies or YouTube clips on their phone, laptop or tablet device, or listen to music. Meanwhile reading is still a common activity on public transport, whether on a tablet or e-reader, or a traditional book. Without appearing too nosey, ask someone if what they are watching/reading/listening to is good or not – you could say that you were thinking of watching/reading/listening to the same thing but weren’t sure.
From there: You can ask about similar programmes, movies or books you’ve enjoyed, or want to see; then you can move on to kinds of genres you both enjoy/dislike.
Get to know those on your course, as you'll likely be in the same classes sooner or later (and you may even have to work with them). This is a good way to blow off steam if you have a wretched professor who’s making your life hell. There’s always one, and we all have those bad days after all. Your course might be the only thing which you have in common with someone (at least on the surface), so take advantage of what you have. Just be careful not to sound too much like a gossip as this can be an unsatisfactory trait.
From there: Talk about the course itself, your opinions of other professors etc.
If you can acknowledge some small weakness on your part and poke fun at it, it will bring other’s guards down. Laughing off your own weaknesses or accidents is an admirable and endearing quality, and others will feel more comfortable and in control of the interaction. If someone is nice, their first instinct will be to make you feel better by talking about their own instance of doing the same as you – before you know it, you’ll be exchanging stories. One possible scenario is if you are lost on campus; the other person may talk about their own past experience when they were lost too.
Ideas and attitudes towards politics, race and sexuality can be controversial or touchy to say the least. This is especially so if you are studying in another country, as it may be less generally-accepted to talk openly about certain topics than you are used to. For the first few weeks/months in a new country, take care to observe the social norms before you dive into conversations you shouldn’t be making.
If a stranger approached you and asked about your personal details, you would quite rightly become defensive. You can’t tell what their motivations are, even if they really are honest or innocent. Personal information may include a specific address, age (less so among students), sexual orientation and even their name – you really need to judge each situation individually (for example, in a bar or a nightclub, asking someone’s name is quite normal).
If someone is approached at night or in a dimly-lit, deserted area, conversation may not be the first thing that comes to their mind – they’re more likely to think you’re going to mug or attack them if they feel uncomfortable or isolated from public view. Depending on where you are studying, there may be a higher proportion of muggings or thefts so people will naturally feel more wary. Just be aware of this and don’t take it personally if they seem reluctant to interact with you.
Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.