No matter how confident and bright you may be, most of us transform at the mercy of strangers. Walk into a room of people where you know no one and where there is limited guacamole (I believe there should always be ample guacamole). What’s the first thing you should do? Introduce yourself and keep the conversation flowing.
Kind of gets the palms sweating doesn’t it? It’s times like these when we refer to the old standbys, such as, “What do you do?” The problem is some people aren’t “doing” anything when it comes to work. They may have been laid off, in between projects or they may not want to talk to you, a stranger, about their occupation.
This could be a whole article on what not to say (for example, asking newlyweds, “When are the kids coming?”). Instead, let’s learn some conversation starters to keep things flowing. We can all stand to avoid those awkward pauses that arise when you have overstepped.
- I’m ___. This is a simple one, but one we often forget. Introduce yourself, tell the person why you are there or you could even admit you don’t know anyone. Ask if they know someone there. If they do, you could ask if they have been to a party where they knew no one. It is collaborative, free-flowing and it lends a bit of vulnerability to close the gap.
- Have you tried the ___? Is there a drink or food item the person is holding or standing next to? Try to see if they can recommend something for you to try. Never be disparaging as you don’t know in advance who has made the items (watch the movie Love Actually to see how calling the food “dodgy” can be a conversation killer). Tell them what you like and ask if they are an adventurous eater. It is a lesson in curiosity rather than pushiness.
- I like your ___. The trick for this is that it is authentic and not a body part you’re complimenting. You can find out a lot about a person based on what they say next. Is their purse second hand? Do they love a particular designer? Is their watch a hand-me-down from their grandfather? Keep asking questions. It always works more in the beginning to be interested rather than interesting. Also, this one comes with a caveat. Don’t gush as many people don’t do well with compliments. It is better to keep it as an entryway rather than the whole focus of the conversation.
- What do you mean by that? Once the conversation is flowing, ask someone to elaborate to show you are listening. In today’s day and age, that is a magical tool not enough people use. People love talking about themselves. This is and always will be true.
- I just finished watching ___ and need some new Netflix recommendations. Do you have any shows you recently finished? With today’s binge-watching landscape, people love talking about their new favourite show. If they don’t watch Netflix, you can joke about how they fill their time or ask them about their favourite podcasts.
- Can I ask you a weird question? This one takes a little more confidence, but it allows you to get out of the small talk bubble. You can then ask them something like, if you could only eat one food, what would it be and why? You can be light-hearted and admit that you aren’t great at small talk. Some people will love you for it. Others may think you’re weird, but it’s a sign they may not be your people.
The thing with these conversation starters is none of them will work for everyone. Some people are introverted or having a bad day or are not in the mood to talk to a stranger. Approaching people has to leave room for rejection. Knowing that, in most cases, they aren’t rejecting you, but the conversation.
Be open-minded and open-hearted and you will find in any room, in any country, there will be a smile willing to meet yours.