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Back to School: Talk to Your Professor!

Back to School: Talk to Your Professor!

Talk to Your Professor!

    For university students around the US it’s time to go back to school, or go for the first time for freshmen. European and other students might have a while before the next school year starts up, but this advice is for them, too.

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    Talk to your professors!

    In one of my earliest posts here at Lifehack, I explained how to talk to a professor – today, I want to talk about why you should talk with your professors.

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    You know that word “collegiality”? “Colleague”? What about “college”? OK, just testing with that last one. Anyway, they’re all words that describe a sense of community, a sense of people working together towards a common goal. That’s what college is about – working together, both with other students and professors, towards the goal of increasing both your own knowledge and the world’s total store of knowledge.

    It’s in that spirit that I’m telling you, talk to your professors. Approach them after class, visit them during their office hours, drop them an email – just open a channel of communication.

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    I hear you asking, “What’s in it for me?” Well, if the higher calling of collegiality doesn’t quite move you, maybe some of these reasons will:

    1. Professors know lots of people in your chosen discipline. A lot of professors are well-connected with people at other universities, as well as in government and in the private sector. They can often give you a leg up on summer internships, post-college jobs, and events where you can network.
    2. Professors have lots of students and you’re just one name among many. I teach about 150 students a semester, and I’m lucky – I have friends at other schools who teach 800-1000 or more students every semester. Making personal contact outside of class can help your professors get to know you as more than just a name and student ID number – and though it might not be entirely fair, that can help you in terms of grading, feedback on assignments, and the inside track on research projects.
    3. Professors write letters of recommendation. Whether you’re applying for a scholarship, heading to graduate school, or trying to get your dream job, having a reference letter from a professor who knows you well can be a huge benefit – especially if someone on the scholarship committee, graduate admissions board, or hiring committee knows who they are.
    4. Professors know the literature in your field. If you’re looking to delve further into some aspect of your major, put together a research paper, or just differentiate yourself from your fellow classmates, a professor can be a great help in directing you to books, articles, films, even artwork you might want to check out.
    5. Professors are frequently asked to recommend students for special honors. I get a number of notices of scholarships, leadership awards, and other honors every year, asking me to recommend students of mine who qualify. If I don’t know you, I don’t recommend you.
    6. Professors know the various career paths in your field. No small number of students approach graduation every year with no idea of what they should, could, or want to do next. Most students pick majors they’re interested in, with no clear sense of what they could actually do with their degree. Whether it’s grad school, a non-profit job, or even freelancing, a professor can help you understand the potential of your degree.
    7. Professors are interesting people. At the risk of tooting my own horn, can I just say that we professors aren’t entirely without certain conversational abilities? We’ve often led exciting, even adventurous lives, and just as often have amassed a thorough knowledge not just of our chosen disciplines but of many areas of knowledge. If you’re in school out of a love of learning, your professor can be quite an encouragement!
    8. Professors can help straighten out administrative snafus. I put this last because often, we professors are just as baffled by the various Catch-22s and Kafka-esque procedures that make up college administrations as you are. But once in a while, we do know a thing or two about how to get things done on campus – it’s always worth a shot.

    Most of all, you should talk to your professors because it’s what we’re there for. There’s a reason college isn’t just a stack of books and a reading list – the idea isn’t to memorize a bunch of other people’s ideas but to work with the people around you to develop your own.

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    You don’t need to have anything lofty to say or ask to approach your professors. Just dropping by their office during office hours and saying “Hi, I’m in your history [or whatever] class and I just wanted to introduce myself” can be a fine way to get the ball rolling. I owe my entire major, anthropology, to just that – a couple of conversations with the anthropology professor at my community college. By peeking “behind the scenes” a little, as it were, I saw a richer, deeper field than my introductory classes might have suggested, which led me to do some independent reading, which led me to major in anthropology. That same professor wrote a letter of reference for my transfer to a UC school, and then again for my graduate school applications.

    So, with the semester just begun or about to begin, that’s your first assignment, from Professor Lifehack: pick at least one of your professors and introduce yourself. You might well be surprised at the reception you get. Remember, most of us chose this job because we like interacting with students – you’ll be doing your prof a favor as much as yourself!

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    Last Updated on January 15, 2019

    How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

    How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

    Many of us feel awkward talking to strangers. I’m a very outgoing person, even though I sometimes feel uncomfortable walking up to someone and asking a question or starting a conversation. I consider myself pretty high up on the extrovert meter. So what is it that makes us pause and become worried or anxious about talking to people we don’t know?

    In this article, we will discuss why we feel this way as well as some tips on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

    Step right up, don’t be shy!

    Why We Feel Awkward Talking to Strangers

    The next time you feel uncomfortable talking to a stranger, tell yourself that’s completely normal. There are numerous reasons why it’s actually natural to feel awkward talking to strangers:

    Our Stress Levels Rise Around Strangers

    Numerous studies have show that our levels of cortisol go up when we are around strangers.[1] Cortisol is the hormone inside of us which produces stress responses.[2]
    So there you go, right off the bat you can see part of your standard response to strangers is due to a chemical reaction!

    A very interesting by product of increased cortisol is that it makes us less empathetic. More than likely this can be traced to our evolution. The increase in the cortisol and the corresponding decrease in empathy makes us want to stay away from strangers. We are biologically wired to feel concern around strangers.

    Evolution Taught Us to Be Wary

    Evolution has also taught us to be wary of strangers in general. Humans as a whole have spent a large chunk of their history banded together in small protective groups. We did this in order to help protect each other and maximize resources.

    When you think about it in this context, outsiders to our small groups or strangers are considered potential threats. Fear of strangers is common across almost all human cultures.

    Culturally Conditioned

    We can also thank our society for helping us feel uncomfortable and sometimes afraid of strangers. The term “stranger danger” is something most of us can relate to either growing up or raising kids. Or both.

    I remember hearing this from my parents, mostly about not getting in someone’s car I didn’t know. And as the father of 2 teenage girls, you can be sure I’ve talked to them about this very concept more times that they want to hear.

    The thought that strangers can be dangerous is built into us as it is. Toss in the amplification of the media on strangers doing things such as kidnapping kids and it takes it to an even higher level.

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    Now that we’ve reviewed some of the reasons why we are nervous, let’s look at why you should talk to strangers more.

    Benefits of Getting over the Awkwardness

    Let’s take a quick look at some of the advantages of how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward. These are some high level benefits of talking to strangers.

    1. Broadens Your Network

    After you talk to someone, you didn’t know previously they become someone you know at least a little bit. This alone helps broaden your network of people you know. This is helpful in many ways whether it is work related or socially related.

    2. Improves Your Communication Skills

    I am a huge proponent of the value of solid communication skills and have written about it often. The more you talk to people, especially people you don’t know, the better your communication skills become.

    Interacting with a wider variety of people will bring the added benefit of improving your communication skills.

    3. Continually Learning

    So many of us don’t actively seek to learn new things. This is one of the primary keys to staying engaged in life and our own personal self fulfillment.

    Almost every time I speak to someone I didn’t know previously, I’ve learned something new. When we speak to strangers, it pushes us out of our comfort zones and we tend to learn new things.

    4. Increases Self Confidence

    Every time we learn to do something we were previously anxious about, we feel better about ourselves.

    Forcing ourselves to talk to strangers will lead to increased self confidence. As we get more and more comfortable doing something that previously made us feel awkward, our self confidence will go up and up.

    So, how to talk to strangers to reap these benefits?

    How to Talk to Strangers

    Here are some tips to on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

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    1. Say Hello

    Putting “say hello” first may seem a bit obvious but let’s take a deeper look. Much of the social awkwardness when speaking to strangers is simply breaking the ice. The first words that will engage someone.

    Most people will respond when someone says hello or hi to them. And those that don’t, you probably don’t want to talk to anyway.

    Practice being the person that opens the door to a conversation. Say hello.

    2. Ask About Them

    Something that I have noticed over the years is that people love to talk about themselves. Even fairly private people tend to open up when asked about events in their lives.

    You can ask leading questions that get people to talk about themselves and recent events. Things like recent movies watched or the summer vacation are great to get someone talking.

    As a father, I also know that people love to talk about their kids. Asking about kids is a fairly easy topic to bring up and in general, most people will expound upon all the great things their kids do or are involved with.

    3. Just Do It

    One of the biggest reasons we don’t do things we want to or know we should is because we overthink it. Quit thinking about it so much and just do it.

    When you give yourself the time to analyze every little angle about a situation, you also give plenty of time to talk yourself out of it. You’ll wind up thinking what if this happens or what if that happens.

    Try to force yourself to jump right in without thinking about it too much. Whenever I have done this, I always feel great about it afterwards, no matter how it turned out.

    4. Don’t Take It Personal

    One of the greatest lessons in life I ever learned was don’t take anything personally. We all go through life with our own sets of experiences and see things through our own lens. The way people react to different situations has almost nothing to do with us. It has to do with previous experiences and the way people feel about things other than us.

    When someone’s reaction isn’t what you’d hoped or expected, chances are it has nothing to do with you. Remember that and keep it in context.

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    5. Get a Chuckle If Possible

    I used the word chuckle purposely because it makes me laugh. In my opinion, it’s one of those funny words. We all like to laugh because it makes us feel good. And when someone makes us laugh, we typically remember those people in a positive light.

    One of the best ways to make a conversation easy and free flowing is to get some laughter going. It doesn’t mean you have to be the master joke teller or anything. See if you can work in a way to make the person you are talking to get a smile or some laughter in. In fact, laughing at yourself maybe a nice try.

    6. Detach

    A great feeling is when you don’t mind which way something turns out, that you will be fine no matter what happens. Kind of like when I watch my two favorite football teams play against each other. I don’t really care who wins, I just want a fun game.

    Treat talking to strangers the same way. You don’t really care how the conversation goes because you are detaching from the outcome. Make it a fun time with yourself and if the conversation goes well, awesome! If not then no big deal, move on.

    7. Share Your Stories

    Well, all like to feel connected to other people. And many times we wind up hanging out with people that we have things in common with. No surprise here.

    To help with how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward, tell stories that have commonalities with the person you are talking to. Kids are an easy one. I have a daughter who was a competitive cheerleader and now plays club volleyball. I have instant connection and stories with strangers I speak with who have kids that play sports. It’s easy to relate to.

    So when you are speaking to a stranger and you have a story or mutual connection point, bring it up.

    8. Give a Compliment

    Almost everyone likes hearing a compliment, whether they admit to it or not. As a general rule, we don’t give out enough compliments. It’s amazing how one small remark someone tosses your way about how good you look can literally make your entire day.

    When you are speaking with someone you don’t know, see if you can work a compliment in. Nothing creepy here. Not a good idea to tell someone you just met that they are the prettiest or handsomest person you ever met. However, if you can share how you like their tattoo or shoes or something like that, it will help put the conversation into an easy going, smiling place.

    9. Relax Your Body Language

    If you go into a situation all worried and nervous, it shows on your body. Your shoulders are tensed up, there’s a look of consternation on your face, things like that.

    When you engage a stranger in conversation, make it a point to relax your body language. Take a deep breath before you engage the person, let your body relax, and put a smile on your face. This will help relax you and it has the added benefit of putting the other person more at ease.

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    If they see that you are relaxed, it helps them relax. Plus having open, engaging body language is very conducive to inviting someone to open up into a conversation with you.

    10. Practice, Practice, Practice

    Like everything else in life, talking to strangers gets easier with practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

    Make it a point to talk to several strangers each week and it will definitely help you relax as you do it more and more.

    After a while, it will become something you don’t even think about, you just do it. And that takes all of the awkwardness out of being in these type situations.

    The Bottom Line

    As we have seen, it is perfectly natural to feel awkward talking to strangers. We are biologically built that way and we have our own society constantly warning us how dangerous it is. It’s no wonder we feel awkward talking to strangers!

    There are numerous benefits to learning to be more comfortable talking to strangers. See if you can employ some of the techniques mentioned to learn how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

    Once you start practicing speaking with strangers more often and utilizing some of the tips, you will become more comfortable doing so. This in turn will lead to a learned new skill and increased self confidence.

    Remember, everyone you know was a stranger at one time. Now get out there and make some new friends.

    More Resources About Strengthening Communication Skills

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Reference

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