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Let's Talk: 3 Strategies Used in Initial Interactions

The initiating stages of any relationship are characterized by information seeking and sending by both individuals. In this stage, people are seeking demographic, attraction, compatibility, and similarity information. Individuals will seek information from their potential romantic partners in the form of question asking, self-disclosure with the intent of gaining reciprocal disclosure, and relaxing the target by creating a comfortable environment for the sharing of information (Berger & Kellermann, 1983).

The first few minutes of an initial interaction are generally filled with questions (Berger & Kellermann, 1983). Specifically, researchers have noted that the first 4-5 minutes of an initial conversation tend to be filled with 10-22 questions (e.g., Berger & Kellermann, 1983; Douglas, 1994). Individuals use this time to get to know each other and to determine if they want to pursue a relationship. Researchers have even noted that this decision can be made in the first minute of a conversation (Afifi & Lucas). While question asking is a very efficient way to seek information from others, some may feel that it is a bit intrusive and aggressive, sometimes making individuals ultimately feel uncomfortable, which could lower the possibilities of relationship development.

Another interaction strategy described by Berger & Kellerman (1983) is self-disclosure, which has been described by many as the primary means by which individuals become acquainted (Dindia & Timmermann, 2003). While self-disclosure is less efficient at seeking information (since it relies heavily on whether the other reciprocates), it seems to help people feel less like they are being interrogated and more like they are involved in an actual conversation. As explained by social penetration (Taylor & Altman, 1987) and communication privacy management (Petronio, 2002) theories, self-disclosure plays a vital role in the initiation and development of close relationships. SPT explains that initial interactions tend to focus on disclosing more superficial information (i.e. hometown, job title, basic hobbies, etc.), and that during these conversations, individuals evaluate the costs and rewards associated with disclosing information about themselves. “The greater the ratio of rewards to costs, the more rapid the penetration process” (Altman & Taylor, 1973, p. 42). Thus, self-disclosure is very important in initial interactions.

A third interaction strategy involves relaxing the other person by creating a comfortable environment where people want to share information (Berger & Kellermann). Individuals may use eye contact, head nods, smiling, or forward body leans to make people feel more comfortable. Like self-disclosure, however, this strategy is not always effective. Individuals may not pick up on these nonverbal cues, feel pressured by the sender of these messages, or not be impacted by this type of communication.

Overall, question-asking seems to be the most efficient form of information-seeking in initial interactions, but self-disclosure and relaxation tactics are also quite useful. Information gathering is likely most successful when a combination of these three strategies is used.

So the next time you're talking to someone new, don't be shy, ask him/her some direct questions to determine if you want to take this relationship to the next step.

  • Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Berger, C. R., & Kellerman, K. (1983). To ask or not to ask? Is that a question? In R. N. Bostrom (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 7 (pp. 342-368). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Dindia, K., & Timmermann, L. (2003). Skills for dating, courtship, and romance. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson, Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Douglas, W. (1994). The acquaintanceship process: An examination of uncertainty, information seeking, and social attraction during initial conversation. Communication Research, 21, 154-167.
  • Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Taylor, D. A., & Altman, I. (1987). Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social penetration processes. In M. E. Rolloff & G. R. Miller (Eds.), Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research (pp. 257-277). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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