For some people, small talk is as easy as breath, but, for others, particularly introverts, it's a type of social interaction that can be horrifying — there are only so many things you can say during a cocktail party about the weather or the local sports team. Most people hate small talk, but it matters — whether in social situations or for office meetings and job interviews.
If making small talk is tough for you, you can either lurk quietly in the corner because you don’t know what to say, or you can master the art and learn how to start a conversation with anyone. Here are some conversation idea starters so you’re not stuck talking about how rainy it’s been lately.
Stick With the Classics
While we’re going to avoid the weather as a topic at all costs, there are still plenty of classic icebreakers you can use to start a conversation and make small talk with just about anyone. They don’t have to be complicated questions looking for someone’s life story. Some ideas to spark a basic conversation at a dinner party or elsewhere:
- “What brings you here today?”
- “How has your day been so far?”
- “What’s your story?”
People love to talk about themselves, even if they’re not terribly comfortable in a social situation — it’s a scientifically proven fact. One reason it makes an easy talking point for a small talk conversation is that it’s a subject everyone is intimately familiar with. No one is out of their depth talking about themselves.
Small Talk in the Office
Small talk is almost inevitable in the office — there’s a reason the water cooler gets such a bad rap when it comes to office gossip. If you’re not talking work, trying to find a topic in common can be tricky, so here are a few conversation starters to keep you talking from clock-in to clock-out.
- “How did you get into (insert industry here)?”
- “Have you always worked in (insert industry here)?”
- “How long have you worked in this industry?”
Again, this takes it back to that scientific fact — people love talking about themselves, even if it’s related to work. Asking an open-ended question like those above is a two-sided coin — you’ll probably be the most comfortable talking about yourself and your experiences. Even if you don’t spark a meaningful conversation, enjoy the silence that comes after — at least you won’t be expected to find a way to continue the conversation.
Use Your Surroundings
You don’t always know who you’ll encounter at a social function, but you can always find common ground topics no matter who the person is — even if it's a stranger. Again, no weather questions here, but take the time to use your surroundings if you have to make small talk. If you’re near a restaurant that you haven’t tried before, work that into your conversation by asking if your conversation companion has eaten there.
A few other questions and topics to try might include:
- “Did you notice the restaurant that just opened? You can replace restaurant with whatever just opened in your area — book store, shoe emporium or museum.
- “Do you know of any good local places to [insert activity here] — eat, read, write or play?”
- “Do you have any recommendations?”
You might find a person who just isn’t interested in sharing their information, especially if they're strangers, but, for the most part, people are happy to share their local knowledge, particularly if it means a new patron for their new restaurant or store. Try an open-ended question to expand the possibilities for your small talk conversation, and be sure to make eye contact so your converstaion partner knows you're genuninely interested in what they have to say.
Think Outside the Box
When it comes down to it, the art of mastering small talk is two parts curiosity and one part bravery — you have to be brave to potentially make a fool of yourself by asking questions of a stranger. Take that curiosity and use it to your advantage — ask questions that you might not normally think to ask a stranger, like:
- “What is your favorite book?”
- “Do you like to cook?” or “What’s your favorite recipe?”
- “What’s your dream job?”
- “What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in your life?”
You might get strangers who think you’re being too forward or are downright offended by the questions you ask, but that’s ok — you’re not going to win all the time.
Small talk can feel awkward and downright painful if you let it. But before you vow to hate small talk — and instead of staying silent and letting potential conversations pass you by — step out of your comfort zone and engage a stranger — you never know what you’ll learn.
Sarah Landrum is an expert career blogger and the founder of Punched Clocks, a career and lifestyle blog helping professionals create a career they love and live a happy, healthy life. For more from Sarah, follow her on social media and subscribe to her newsletter.
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