When in a Spanish speaking country, you certainly want the skills to deal with daily, practical situations: ordering in a restaurant, asking directions, greeting friends or strangers, introducing others, purchasing, paying a check, checking into a hotel, etc.
But you'll also want to be able to engage in conversations with locals or with a Spanish speaker you happen to meet anywhere. To do this, you must swallow your anxiety about speaking up and find ways to start, sustain, and eventually end a conversation.
Conversing with strangers can feel a little awkward in any language. A blog post that caught my eye: 12 Ways To Make Talking To Strangers Less Awkward has some good tips on braving such a challenge. Of course, these tips also work for talking with strangers in a foreign language.
We've adapted them here for conversations with Spanish speakers. A good antidote to "conversation anxiety" is to practice some useful expressions ahead of time. You can start with the list below.
(1) WHEN INITIATING A CONVERSATION
Act confident and comfortable, this will put the other person at ease too. Be sure that you know how to address a stranger correctly to be appropriately polite. Best to use a neutral greeting such as:
- “Buenos días,” “Buenas tardes,” “Buenas noches” (Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening) or have a couple of polite phrases ready, such as:
- "Perdone ..." (Excuse me …)
- "Por favor ..." (Please [can you tell me] ...)
Formal "Usted" - Importantly, you should use the formal "usted" (the polite form of "you") as a starter with older persons, or in formal situations. If by any chance you’re being addressed with the formal “usted”, then you should use “usted” as well. That means, of course, that you also have to learn to distinguish between the appropriate Spanish verb endings. Listen HERE to a Spanish conversation where students talk about using the familiar "tú."
Spanish "How are you?" - By the way, in Spanish, it's fine to use "How are you?" (¿Cómo estás?/¿Cómo está?) as part of a greeting, even if you don’t know the person very well. Spaniards regard such a question as a token of genuine interest. Just make sure you use the appropriate formal/informal verb endings.
"Asking for directions" - Learn to ask for directions or for information; this may very well lead to a longer exchange. Start with a neutral greeting (see above) and follow up with a question, such as:
- "¿Dónde está.....?" (Where is.... e.g. the elevator?)
- "¿Cuál es la mejor forma de ir ...?" ("Which is the best way to go ...e.g. to Atocha Street?")
- "¿Sabe dónde/cuándo ...?" (Do you know where/when ...?)
The "here and now" - Comment about the here and now. For example when you're at a café, a restaurant, a museum, in a shop, at a market, etc. Talk about what's around you, what you see; you can even mention the weather.
- "¿Un cortado? ¿Qué es eso?" (A "cortado"? What is that?)
- "¡Ese es un edificio realmente precioso!" (That's really a beautiful building!)
- "¡Hoy hace un tiempo genial!" (Great weather today!)
Starting a conversation with someone in a foreign language may feel a little risky, but it's definitely something you can learn to do. Practicing some of these ice-breaker phrases and expressions ahead of time will be helpful. In our next blog post (see Part 2), we'll guide you on how to sustain and how to close a casual conversation with a Spanish speaker.