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[ESL/EFL] Talking to Strangers
Fifth in a series of English language lessons from Jennifer Lebedev
Jennifer Lebedev (jenesl)     Print Article 
  Published 2008-07-16 04:35 (KST)   

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Situation No. 1

There are times when we must get the attention of a person we don't know. If it's a man, use SIR. For example:

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"Sir. Excuse me. You dropped your wallet."

We use SIR for men of all ages. If you're speaking to a young boy, it will sound strange to address him as sir. YOUNG MAN could be appropriate, but it's mostly used by those who are much older and in a position of authority. For example, an elderly woman might turn to a teenager and say:

"Young man, could you help me cross the street?"

If you need to get the attention of a woman, you can use MA'AM:

"Excuse me, ma'am. You forgot one of your grocery bags."

We use MISS for very young women. For instance:

"Do you work here, miss? Could you tell me where the shoe department is?"

Note that very often when we want to get a stranger's attention, we omit any form of address and call out:

"Excuse me!"

Situation No. 2

Many of us wear a wristwatch or have a cell phone with a clock; however, there are times when we still might need to ask a stranger to tell us the time of day. Perhaps you forgot to put on your watch, or your cell phone battery died. No problem. Just use any of these questions:

- "Excuse me. What time is it?"

- "Pardon me, but could you tell me what time it is?"

- "Do you have the time?"

Situation No. 3

No one likes to wait in line, but we all have to do it. At the airport, in a store, or in front of a ticket booth there are many places where people line up.

If you're not sure if you're in the right line, ask:

"Is this the line for economy class?"

If you're not sure where the line ends, you could ask:

"Are you last in line?" or

"Is this where the line begins?"

If you need to step away for a moment and don't want to lose your spot, ask the person in front of you or behind you for help:

"Could you please hold my place in line? I'll be back in two minutes."

Now as we all know, it's possible that someone will try to cut in line. That means the person wants to jump ahead of others and not wait his or her turn. You might decide to let it go and avoid a conflict. But if you feel strongly about following the rules, you can say:

"Excuse me, sir, but the line begins over there." or

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but there were other people waiting before you."

Situation No. 4

In public seating areas, you really should spread out. That means don't sit beside another person unless there's little choice. Americans especially like to have a lot of personal space, and we feel uncomfortable in close proximity to strangers. Even so, we know that sometimes it's unavoidable. For example, in a crowded cafeteria, you might have to share a table with strangers. Don't panic. Just ask for permission to join them:

- "Excuse me. Is this seat taken?"

- "I'm sorry, but is this seat free? May I sit here?"

- "Would you mind if I sat here? There don't seem to be any other seats free."

Situation No. 5

Another situation in which we have to speak to a stranger is when we're lost. If this happens to you, try one of these approaches:

- "Excuse me, ma'am. Could you tell me where the post office is?"

- "Sir? Could you point me in the right direction? I'm trying to get to Washington Avenue."

- "Excuse me. I'm a bit lost. Could you help me? I'm looking for the nearest subway station."

Situation No. 6

Sometimes a face can look very familiar. If you'd like to ask someone if you've met before, you can, but you need to do so politely:

"I'm sorry, but have we met? You look very familiar." or

"Excuse me. Do I know you? Your face is very familiar to me."

Just remember that many people are very cautious when they're approached by strangers. It's a matter of safety. It could also be a matter of skepticism, meaning doubt. Some single people use these questions in bars or nightclubs as an excuse to get acquainted with a person he or she finds attractive. If you're approached by someone who thinks he or she knows you and the person is mistaken or you don't want to continue a conversation, you can say:

"No, I'm sorry. I think you have me confused with another person."

- [ESL/ EFL Podcast] Talking to Strangers 

©2008 OhmyNews
Jennifer Lebedev is a teacher of English as a second and foreign language with 12 years experience. She has additional experience in teacher training and administration of an IEP and is a published author. Find more of her online English instruction on YouTube under the name "JenniferESL".
Other articles by reporter Jennifer Lebedev

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