Forget what your mom told you – sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers


The next time you’re on a plane (or in a waiting room or standing in line, etc.), try striking up a conversation with the person next to you. It’ll help pass the time and you might hear a great story.

Last spring, I was on a flight back to North Carolina from Dallas. I had just gotten settled in when the flight attendant came over the intercom to announce that the flight would be full. That’s what she said. What I heard was, “Don’t get too comfortable, Karen, because that open middle seat next to you will soon be occupied.” Sure enough, before long a young, very tall man came down the aisle, eyeballing the empty seat next to me, much to my chagrin. Despite the “no, no, please keep walking!” that I was screaming in my mind, he wedged himself in next to me. The beginning of another travel horror story, right? No, not at all.

Little did my new travelling companion realize, there was a price to pay for that seat. I like to chat, and since he was going to be sitting next to me anyway, I decided to make the best of it and strike up a conversation. He was wearing a University of Texas-El Paso T-shirt; my daughter -- whom I had just come from visiting – is also a college student in Texas (Texas Christian University), so that somewhat stretched connection was the ice breaker I needed.

For the duration of the flight, we had a nice talk. As it turns out, the young man was a football player who had just recently been drafted by an NFL team. I previously knew nothing about the NFL Draft, but during our conversation I learned a lot about how it works and what the players experience throughout the process. I found it quite intriguing and it was clearly information I never would have gotten had I not struck up that conversation with a stranger.

The take away from this experience is that there are stories inside each of us waiting to be told, and the person right next to you might have a fascinating one. Or perhaps not, but you’ll never know if you don’t speak with them.

In fact, isn’t that the magic of social media? Making it easy to connect with and learn about other people?

Of course, you don’t need media to be social, and you don’t need to be someone like me, who is outgoing by nature. You just need an ice breaker (which really could be anything, though it’s probably best to avoid something that might sound like a pick-up line) and the willingness to engage. Now I’m not suggesting that you randomly start approaching people and chatting them up, but rather to take advantage of opportunities like my airplane encounter when they arise.

For a corporate internal communicator, a simple conversation with a fellow employee you don’t know – or don’t know well – might yield more than just some mildly interesting tidbits. Something about them personally, their job or what’s going on in their part of the company could trigger ideas for articles, videos, events or broad communications initiatives that would appeal to your entire employee audience. Or you might even discover a star: a natural storyteller who would make a good blogger or other type of content contributor, for example.

But even if you’re not a professional communicator, getting into the practice of striking up conversations with people you don’t know gives you experience that could be beneficial in your job, like contributing in meetings, reaching out to others for assistance, speaking with clients, and so on.

So even though your mom’s advice probably served you well when you were young, we’re big girls and boys now so it’s OK – go ahead and see what you can learn by talking to a stranger.


About Author

Karen Lee

Senior Director Internal Communications, SAS

Karen Lee joined SAS in 1984 as a technical marketing representative. In the past 28 years, Karen has successfully merged her technical savvy with her communications know-how to foster a sense of trust and engagement among SAS’ 13,000 global employees. In her current role as Senior Director of Internal Communications, Karen has embraced social media to find new ways to connect employees with one another and with company leadership. She has done this by challenging SAS executives to communicate with employees via individual blogs and live, virtual “chats.” In 2011, her team spearheaded the effort to create an internal social media network known as the Hub, which has created virtual communities for best practice sharing, idea generation and work/life balance. Within two weeks of its launch, the site had more than 3,000 registrants and continues to grow. Karen modeled her team’s structure around a 24/7 news cycle, covering company events with real-time updates on the global intranet site. Gone are the days of “holding the news” until the next day’s publication. SAS employees hear news as it happens. Even with a wired employee base, however, traditional communication channels are not overlooked. Karen established regular “coffee with the CEO” sessions several years ago in which front-line employees are able to interact with and hear about the direction of the company from its CEO in an informal setting. Before being named Senior Director of Internal Communications, Karen was Director of Communications Support for SAS' Research & Development Division. In this role, she found innovative ways to communicate with a traditionally introverted employee population. Using a variety of communications vehicles, such as podcasts and employee expos, she improved information sharing among customers, management and developers. Before becoming a SAS employee, Karen was a SAS customer, using the software for capacity planning in her job at Official Airline Guides. Karen has a bachelor's degree in computer science from Eastern Illinois University. Originally from Westchester, Ill., Karen currently lives in Holly Springs, N.C. Outside of SAS, she enjoys spending time with her family, enjoying the outdoors biking, running and traveling to find new adventures.


  1. Steve Crescenzo on

    Great post and great advice, Karen. If more employee communicators would get out and TALK to people, their content would improve dramatically.

    BUT . . . who was the player?????!?!?!


  2. Karen - So very true...always a good reminder. Everyone has a unique story, if you're willing to take time to listen. Thanks for story and lesson!

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