Conversation Topics: Approaching the Right Person
With over 8 million residents and only 12,000 taxis, visitors to New York City quickly learn that all 8 million people (plus countless commuters and tourists) don't fit into 12,000 taxis at rush hour (each taxi would have to be double the size of a Boeing 747, which would make turning corners a problem). Likewise, visitors learn that the quantity of people buzzing about doesn't necessarily improve your odds of striking up a conversation to chat away a lazy Friday afternoon. And yet, just as some people always seem to be able to get a taxi at rush hour in the rain, some people meet and strike up conversations walking down the street, standing at a corner, or even while riding the subway.

Let's start by talking about taxis. You can improve your odds of getting a taxi by following three simple rules. First, position yourself where a taxi driver can see you and get to you easily. Although they might do an illegal u-turn across four lanes of oncoming traffic to pick you up at 3 AM, taxi drivers are going for the easy pickings at rush hour. Second, concentrate only on taxis looking for fares. How do you know if a taxi is 'available?' On top of every taxi is a small sign (called the "taxi light") that has the taxi's medallion number on it. That sign has three settings. When the taxi is available, the medallion number is brightly illuminated. When the driver is off duty (going home, going to lunch, etc.), the main light is off but two dim side lights illuminate the words "off duty." And when the taxi is already carrying a passenger, all of the lights are off. So if the taxi light isn't on, don't bother flailing your arms, shouting, whistling, or jumping out into traffic. You'll just look like a tourist. The last rule is to look friendly. After all, if you were driving and had a choice, wouldn't you want to pick up a friendly person over someone who wasn't?

A friend of mine taught me a few years back that meeting people often follows the same three rules as hailing a taxi. First, get out where the traffic is so that others can see you. Find a place where people mingle and there is a steady flow of newcomers. In restaurants, avoid tables and opt for eating at the bar. Whether on the bus or sunning in the park, sit or (preferably stand) near other people. Avoid putting a large empty space between you and others as, all things being equal, few people will want to cross all the way over to talk to you.

Secondly, look for 'taxi lights.' You see, people can also be thought of as being in one of three moods: occupied, disinterested, or available, and their body language is usually a good indicator of which of the three they are in. How do you read the body language? You probably already know the signs, but here's a pop quiz just to make sure. Which of these people are more approachable and more likely to have a conversation with you? (A) someone racing down the street on an errand; (B) someone talking face to face with their friends in a deep and animated conversation; (C) someone sitting alone reading a book; or (D) someone standing with a group of people but looking around the room?

The answer is certainly not (A). They probably don't even know you exist unless you're standing between them and where they are going, and then you're just one more obstacle that they have to navigate around (or over). Answer (B) is tempting because they are already talking, but I'd watch them for a few minutes to see it they look like they want to be interrupted. The fact that they are 'face to face' isn't a good sign; they may be some of the many people who go out to spend time together or to catch up with their friends and not to meet others. Answer (C), the person reading a book, is also tempting because the person is by themselves; but then, that may be the way they want to stay. My vote is for (D). Looking around is a universal sign of curiosity, and that is what you want if you want to strike up a conversation. But even someone looking around is not necessarily interested in talking. Many people in this multimedia age are use to doing several things at once. They may simply be 'window shopping' with their eyes while their minds are engaged in the conversation within their group. So, like the taxi, look for someone whose 'taxi light' says, "I'm available."

Once you've found someone who looks like they want to talk, take it to the next step, which is eye contact and a smile (save the whistling and tossing yourself in their way for hailing a taxi). These are the two ways you have to signal to the other person that you've noticed them and that you are pleased to have seen them without making them feel uncomfortable.

Finally, keep in mind that sending body language is as important as reading it. Make sure you are sending out the message that you are available and interested in talking. The taxi driver who forgets to turn on his taxi light goes home without very many fares.

So just remember these three simple rules: position yourself in an easily accessible location, look for the taxi light, and look friendly. They'll help you meet more people as well as help you get a taxi in the rain at rush hour.

Updated September 30, 2003 - go to our home or life advice page