A Menu of Options for Making Small Talk.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.

This Wednesday: a menu of options for making small talk.

Small talk can be a big problem. I want to be friendly and polite, but I just can’t think of a thing to say.

Here are some strategies I try when my mind is a blank:

1. Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment: the food, the room, the occasion, the weather (yes, talking about the weather is a cliche, but it works). “How do you know our host?” “What brings you to this event?” But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.

2. Comment on a topic of general interest. A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he can say, “Did you hear that Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post?” or whatever.

3. Ask a question that people can answer as they please. My favorite question is:  “What’s keeping you busy these days?” It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) — preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): “What do you do?”

A variant: “What are you working on these days?” This is an especially useful dodge if you ought to know what the person does for a living, but can’t remember.

4. Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word.

5. If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question. For example, if you ask, “Where are you from?” an interesting follow-up question might be, “What would your life be like if you still lived there?”

6. Ask getting-to-know-you questions. “What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to? What internet sites do you visit regularly?” These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.

7. React to what a person says in the spirit in which that that comment was offered. If he makes a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh. If she offers some surprising information (“Did you know that the Harry Potter series have sold more than 450 million copies?”), react with surprise.

8. Be slightly inappropriate. I can’t use this strategy, myself, because I don’t have the necessary gumption, but my husband is a master. Over and over, I hear him ask a question that seems slightly too prying, or too cheeky, and I feel a wifely annoyance, but then I see that the person to whom he’s talking isn’t offended–if anything, that person seems intrigued and flattered by his interest.

9. Follow someone’s conversational lead. If someone obviously drops in a reference to a subject, pick up on that thread. Confession: I have a streak of perversity that inexplicably makes me want to thwart people in their conversational desires–I’m not sure why. For instance, I remember talking to a guy who was obviously dying to talk about the time that he’d lived in Vietnam, and I just would not cooperate. Why not? I should’ve been thrilled to find a good subject for discussion.

10. Along the same lines, counter-intuitively, don’t try to talk about your favorite topic, because you’ll be tempted to talk too much. This is a strategy that I often fail to follow, but I should follow it. I’ll get preoccupied with a topic and want to talk about it all the time, with everyone I meet, and I have a lot to say. My husband is a martyr to the subject of happiness.

How about you? Have you found any good strategies for making polite chit-chat?

For more tips about polite conversation, check out these tips for knowing if you’re boring someone.

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  • If all else fails, start off a conversation with a compliment! “I love your purse” “Your sweater is an amazing color” etc.

    • akamickey

      And if you ask this of a female from NJ she will likely tell you exactly where she got it and what a bargain it was. We cannot help ourselves it seems! :o)

    • Gabi Coatsworth

      If you ask it of a male in New Jersey, you’ll probably get quite a different answer….

  • Marjorie

    I like how you worded #3: “What’s keeping you busy these days?”
    My husband and I were invited to a “Dazzle” party last year that turned out to be uncomfortably snooty. One woman asked me “How do you fill your days?”. (This was after she expressed shock that we’d recently moved into the neighborhood from a much less chi chi area.) I was a bit taken aback by the question. The way she said it just sounded so weird. When I told her I wrote children’s books she responded with “How interesting. My son is writing a novel.” Well, no, she really wasn’t interested, but I got to hear about her son’s great masterpiece-in-the-works. Anyone who writes for a living (if you can call it that) knows that to mention it means having to hear all about someone else’s book(s). Hint: it’s a manuscript until it’s published. Then it’s a book. 😉
    When we left the party I commented to my husband that exactly a week earlier we’d been at a party in our old neighborhood – our friends’ annual soup competition. The food was set up in the garage, we were all dressed up as pirates (there’s always a theme), and lots of people were very tipsy (they could walk home). And it was a LOT more fun!

  • Suzanne

    Allow introverts to be introverts at a gathering. You can acknowledge that one in the corner by silently raising your glass or winking (as appropriate). Don’t try to dig them out and make them engage. They’ll get around to it on their own where they’re ready. When the *are* ready, don’t open with, “Oh, you finally joined the party!” or, “Cat got your tongue?” ;-b

    • Susie Kleven Shortt

      As an introvert myself; thank you!!! Gatherings, parties, etc. are excruciating but even worse when you have to pretend to be an extrovert.

    • Heidi

      Or if you want to talk to them, some introverts like talking to just one person at a time. So go talk to them in the corner, instead of trying to make them join your group of 10 people.

  • PNW Gal

    I found when I started following basketball I was able to chat with a lot more folks that I came into contact with. I think it is the equivalent of skimming Google headlines. I have a few friends who are what I consider good conversationalist and notice that they ask open ended questions. I am always amazed by people who a good at chatting you up and have yet to really learn their secrets.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah yes, I know nothing about sports so am missing out on this very helpful topic of conversation.

      • johanna knaus

        I have found that most people LOVE to talk about themselves, so asking their name and genuinely listen works every time. A creative conversation starter never seems to be needed. I try not to talk at all but just listen, smile, and ask a few appropriate questions during the conversation. It is not always easy for me to JUST listen, but have found this is the best way to start a lasting friendship.

  • Scarlett

    Thanks for the tips. I will have to practice them today! As a first-time parent, I’m still trying to figure out how to make small talk with the other parents on the playground. Once the usual “How old is your son? He’s so cute! Mine just turned two” conversation, my mind often goes blank and I find myself in an awkward silence. Escape from a conversation is usually easy, since I’ve got twins running in opposite directions, but it would be nice to get to know some more people in the neighborhood.

    A while back, you mentioned the website succeed socially.com on your blog, and I have found it to be a really great resource for information on making conversations and all things social. So thanks for that tip, as well!

    • Runnermama

      Asking other moms kids about preschools, library programs and free stuff to do with kids is always a good opener. You might get some good info and find a friend to go to some of those events at the same time.

    • marienkafer

      Thanks so much for that link. I know I can get a lot of use out of the material he’s put on there!

  • Margit Detweiler

    Thank you Gretchen!

  • Jon Helm

    I bet there would be a large influx of men to this article if it described how to make small talk exclusively with women! haha
    Good article, though!

  • Sandra

    I try to start with a compliment, but I have to mean it; and can be as simple as commenting on the nice color shirt for the men, nice shoes for the women, or generic what a great day outside (or if not, we need the rain, don’t we).

  • LizCat

    I worked as a reporter for many years and often had to profile subjects who hated being interviewed (mostly artists, musicians, etc., whose publicists forced them to talk to me). And I am NOT an extrovert, so chatting doesn’t come naturally. Your suggestion to follow someone else’s conversational lead worked best for me. I now use it all the time at gatherings or when meeting someone new. Sometimes you’ll find yourself stuck with a real bore, but as someone who doesn’t love parties, I find at least it passes the time!

  • Love this! I work as a bank teller and am ALWAYS on the look out for how to make small talk pleasurable for both involved. 🙂 I love the “What’s keeping you busy these days?” I can only talk about the weather for so long! hehehehe

  • Natalie

    I recently bought an Xbox game, Dance Central 3, and the assistant guy asked me if I preferred that series or the Just Dance series. So we chatted about which and why for a minute. I found it unusually pleasant. I think is was successful because a) it arose from what was happening (me buying a game) so it didn’t seem intrusive; b) he could make the assumption that it was something I was interested in (actually I was buying it for my husband, but I play too); and c) he asked me for MY opinion which I think was better than if he’d just come out with his opinion. I tend to avoid conversation with people I don’t know, but he got a brief chat started very successfully.

  • Gabi Coatsworth

    One of my standbys, which doesn’t sound as though I’m prying, but always gets people talking, is “Which place have you ever been to, that you’d like to go back to?” followed up by “And if you could visit any one place you’ve never been, no expense spared, where would you choose?” This makes for some fascinating answers, and then I can chip in with my favorites if the conversation flags.

  • Laurette

    “What are you doing for fun these days?” This usually gets people talking. It doesn’t matter how awful their lives are, they have a perfect out.
    “What does your husband do?” I hated that question so much I stopped going to gatherings so I wouldn’t have to hear it. My ex-husband had a mental health disability and long-term unemployment.
    “What do you do?” Totally awful question if you are unemployed, in bad health, or unable to work.

  • I’d love to hear an example question from your point #8 about being “slightly inappropriate”. I feel like it’s such a fine line to walk, but a great example of a way to engage someone else. What would be a good example of something your husband says?

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m blanking out on a good example…it’s always just something that is a little bit more edgy than I would do.

      • Danika

        I had a colleague who would often ask somewhat personal questions about people’s lives–their families, friends, children, activities, etc., usually several questions on each topic. Though she would often apologize for this intrusiveness, it made people feel as though she was really interested in them and really cared about what was going on in their lives.

        • Elizabeth

          Yes, there is a fine line between genuine interest and interrogation…I dislike being ‘peppered’ with questions but I do enjoy an engaging conversation about the things that matter to me, my family, friends, children, activities, etc.

  • Lily

    The other day I got a desperate text from my 13 yr old who was at a friends house, sitting silently for an hour with her. She wrote to me, saying she felt awkward and didn’t know what to talk about. I will share this with her — maybe you could provide some tips for kids, too…???

  • Jeanne

    All very good tips. Was intrigued by your confession about the guy who wanted to talk about living in Vietnam. Sometimes I feel the same way when I feel manipulated or bullied in a conversation and forced to listen to someone go on and on about their topic often in a way that’s bragging. It’s really no fun to hear someone else brag, and sometimes subtle (or not so subtle) cues indicate that this is about to happen. We all want to tell others about us, and hear about them, but sometimes when someone comes on strong with “I want to tell you about this,” it can become a monologue and not a dialogue, which should be a gracious exchange.

  • mj

    I sat at a table with new-to-me people and the first question asked of me, “Sally,” was, “Who is Sally?” It really put me off, but I’d be curious if other people find that a brazen small talk starter.

    • Hookchick

      Yes, as an introvert that question would make me panic! I also don’t like when people I don’t know ask things like what’s your favorite movie, or book. I usually totally blank, and then I feel like an idiot.

  • Rachael

    I especially like the “What’s keeping you busy these days?”. I’m going to try it out at a party I’m going to next week . I’m feeling I may be a bit out of my league at this party and these tips give me more confidence. Also, I have to say that I notice a short attention span with people in general as everyone seems to be checking their cell phones all the time and they are always distracted (not just if I’m talking to them). What experiences have other people had with this?

  • It might be useful to add that small-talk topics are not the same all over the world and that what is appropriate in country X (e.g., asking about someone’s wife’s health or the like) may sound utterly inappropriate in country Z.

    A small set of samples from my own experience of faux pas:
    —Italy: appropriate topics=politics, food, sport, family
    —Austria: family is not appropriate. appropriate: sport, cultural events
    —Japan: politics is not appropriate. appropriate: food, celebrity-gossip
    —India: family related questions, even very intimate ones (“Why don’t you have children yet? Can’t you?”) are appropriate

  • Heidi

    That is so interesting that you get that urge to thwart people. Could it be that you have a tiny bit of the Rebel in you (as opposed to your usual, which I think I remember was upholder)? This would be a way to rebel that doesn’t have legal or financial consquences.

  • Annie

    I always find I meet the most interesting people wherever I go, whereas others at the same parties or in the same towns do not have that same experience. I’ve realised as I’ve gotten older that this is because I start with the assumption that everyone has a story, that everyone is interesting, and the conversation necessarily flows toward that ultimate human truth. Fostering a general interest in people’s stories is a useful thing.

    The way I usually approach a conversation is by asking a really unobtrusive question: “Are you from here originally?” (No, actually, I grew up in the countryside) with “What was it like to move from the country to the city? (And if that is too big a question, narrow it down, but keep it open ended) “Was it difficult to meet new people?” (or less emotional) “What are some of your favourite things in *this city*” or “Why did you choose *this city*?” (which will link to work, study, family, adventure, pursuit of hobbies/passions, all the interesting stuff, but from a more personal place than simply asking the dreaded ‘what do you do’)

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  • Hope

    If you can find a subject that you are both passionate about then you will be become instantly “friends for life” likeable. You may have to fish a little but once you get to your mutual passion the energy will go sky high. I read this somewhere (can’t recall where now) and I now drop little hints so that I don’t have to fire questions. eg. my passion is football (or soccer) so I will mention I am going to the game on Saturday. When I mentioned this to my daughters deputy head during a meeting we were suddenly “on the same wavelength” and got on like a house on fire (previously we were parent/teacher going through the mundane. It is surprising how easy it is to find that “common interest/common ground” and once you do the relationship becomes easy and exhilerating rather than the chore that initial meetings can turn into. It does not have to be a hobby, it can be any aspect of your life that you have in common – even going to the same place on holiday for example.

  • Daniel Nelson

    Great set of tips for making good small talk!
    In my opinion small talk is a real deal changer on the job and personal life. I am currently researching a bit and others definitely have the same opinion: https://www.smalltalkprofessional.com/blog/7-small-talkers-are-more-sucessful

    So thanks for providing this valuable tips, will definitely put them into action!

  • Jen

    This is so great, Gretchen! I was just at a company conference in London with many people I don’t know and constantly making small talk was a strain. I felt a little disappointed when hearing myself resorting to cliched topics like the weather. I’ll definitely use your tips.

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