Performative Standing Around

How talking to oneself sparks spontaneous interactions.

This is the sixth and final entry in a series about why some people are more approachable than others.

When I’m alone in public, my face betrays little to the strangers around me.

But I noticed that certain people, when they’re alone, are highly expressive. They make faces when the tram is delayed. They mockingly mime a trouble-maker at the customer service desk. They laugh, exclaim, mutter, and curse to themselves after something major happens. Done tastefully, this expressiveness does wonders to spark spontaneous interactions in public settings.

I The seasons of the face

The following two anecdotes demonstrate interactions that were triggered by an unhidden facial expression – in the first case, tears, and in the second, a defeated grimace:

1. My girlfriend was walking home one evening and crying. Not because her life plan didn’t include ending up with a guy who branded himself as a penguin on the internet, but rather because she’d reached a poignant moment in her audiobook.

Her route took her past a group of burly young men smoking shisha outside a café. They called out to her, asked if she was alright, and generously offered to pulverize whoever was at fault. She pointed towards England and handed them a picture of J. K. Rowling.

2. There’s a certain facial expression, a sort of confused frown, that – when exhibited in front of a city map – reveals a recognition that you were defeated. Defeated not by sickness or super-villain but by simple geography. This was my predicament.

Seeing my distress, an un-rushed and sympathetic local approached to volunteer directions, thrusting upon me the choice between loss of self-esteem or continued loss of bearings. We ended up talking about his town for about a quarter hour, a conversation ultimately attributable to the extraversion-inciting effects of a needy facial expression.

Tin-Tin faces his greatest trial yet when his phone battery unexpectedly dies along with Google Maps.

II Movements overseen

Just as a telling facial expression can summon raw extraversion from the ether, so too can an overall social performance.

Last winter I met with some friends at a rooftop bar in Budapest. To stave off the winter cold, the venue had built a series of thermal igloos, with the one I spent the evening in pictured above.

All three tables were occupied. From left to right: A gang of guys (Team Todd), a gaggle of girls (Team Tanya), and — just in case Hollywood ever adapts this article for the screen — your preposterously attractive narrator.

At some point in the evening I became aware of an unattended elbow poking around in the rough vicinity of my face. I traced the elbow back to Todd, who was attempting a group selfie, his arms outstretched at intrusive angles, his face revealing the strain of a perfectionist being pummeled into humility.

Perhaps out of innocent helpfulness but perhaps too as an excuse for a conversational in, Tanya, raising her voice by increasing its already prominent nasal quality, offered to take a picture of the boys.

The job done, she asked, “So what brings you all to Budapest?”, speaking now in what can only be described as the voice of ten-thousand noses, all with sinus infections. A buzzy, ringing kind of flirting ensued, to continue until Tanya’s friends grew impatient at being ignored and reeled her back in. All this because Todd had almost theatrically strained to take a photo.

III Words muttered to no-one in particular

Until now, each and every technique documented in this series on how to be approachable has been completely non-verbal. This is intentionally so, because deliberately talking to people is quite different from merely making oneself approachable. Deliberately starting a conversation is face-threatening: If your attempt doesn’t go as planned, you can’t pretend it was never your goal to start a conversation – you must stand behind your intentions and accept the social consequences. Meaning you’d better have a tolerance for rejection.

But what happens if you utter something to no-one in particular or to the room in general – all without the slightest expectation of a response? Here, you cannot be said to have actively attempted to start any conversation, and thus you cannot be judged as having assumed the same social risk. Such behavior is still within the realm of making oneself approachable.

Let’s look at some examples.

Whereas people who talk to you on airplanes are often regarded as exciting or even romantic, people who talk to you on subway rides are regarded as about on par with the patrons of a dive bar in the Star Wars universe. Yet, in spite of a strong assumption that interlocutors on locomotives are loco, we cast away this bias should anything out of the ordinary occur on the journey.

Typical subway rider, commuting to the office with takeout coffee.

During a morning commute, my train stopped unexpectedly in that no man’s land between stations. (I felt a debauched sort of pride thinking to myself “the train has literally stopped in its tracks.”)

The intercom switched on in our carriage. “FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFSSSSSS—20 minut—FFFFFFFFF,” it fizzed. A woman sitting near me reacted to the news by rolling her eyes and huffing, “For fuck’s sake,” and a gentleman opposite her threw his hands angrily into the air. Noticing the soliloquist opposite him, he addressed her, “This is ridiculous!” She responded with fresh complaints of her own, and these they traded until they’d built a foundation of rapport on this age-old institution.

The next example is even more prosaic: Exercising alone in a part of a gym where the air-conditioning unit seemed to have been swapped for a desiccation device, a man shoveled heat away from his face. At some point he erupted, “GOD it’s SOOOO HOT”. His comment, even though aimed at no-one, invited reciprocation by other over-heated gym-goers. In expressing his exasperation aloud, this man brought a roomful of (sticky) strangers together, however briefly.

Honestly, I perceived the pair of people who spoke to themselves in public above as slightly weird. But certainly not “reeling off Jewish conspiracy theories to a banana peel” weird – which was my rough benchmark for people who talk to themselves.

All in all, the expressive people I profiled had an edge in the “being approachable” game, showing that a few stray words go a long way in encouraging impromptu interactions.