It’s the eternal question: how to start a conversation in a way that’s not creepy (“You have such beautiful lips”), an overshare (“Ugh, this thong is way too tight”), or weird (“Do you like ham?”) How we start a conversation is important because it sets the tone and gives everyone an inkling of what’s to come. It’s like reading the first page of a novel, taking the first bite of a meal, or throwing out the first pitch.
Starting a conversation with friends or family is easy—they’re known entities and you have a shared history of experiences. But starting conversations with acquaintances, colleagues, or strangers can be more awkward than a Tyrannosaurus taking a selfie.
Conversations with people you don’t know well fall into two general camps. In the first, you want to initiate a conversation—you’re trying to network, have a question, or you simply see a heart-melting cutie across a crowded room.
In the second camp, you are forced into conversation so as not to be awkward or antisocial—you’re introduced to the friend of a friend, you’re waiting in line for the Keurig machine at work, or find yourself in the elevator with a neighbor whose name may or may not be Mulva.
Initiating conversation with true strangers is rare—in general, we all heed our parents’ rules about not talking to strangers. And while it’s a social norm, it’s not without exception. In researching this episode, I was fascinated by a paper I found in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, which analyzed how conversations between strangers happen on public transportation. The paper found that although the unspoken rule is not to talk to strangers, we’re allowed to bend the rules if we follow certain conventions.
First, you’re allowed to initiate conversation if your intentions are obvious. For example, say you’re at a train station. You stare up at the schedule board, look at your ticket, then the board again. You look puzzled, and then glance around. The result? The people around you, at least those who aren’t immersed in their phones, probably guess you have a question. This paves the way for you to initiate conversation.
We’re also allowed to break the rules when there is a common disruption. For example, if your flight gets cancelled while you’re waiting at the gate, a squadron of cop cars races down the street as you stand on the sidewalk, or your subway car loses power—there’s no need for “excuse me.” You can just start talking to whoever’s around you (or, more likely, complaining). It’s a nod to the fact that we’re all in this together.
But what if you’re not stuck on the tarmac in a snowstorm? What if you just want to talk to the cutie by the chip bowl at the party? Or you and your friend’s in-town-for-the-weekend cousin are both waiting for your friend to finish her makeup? Try some of these ways.
Tip #1: Take the lead.
In general, most of us are relieved not to have to initiate conversation. Especially for the introverted among us, it’s a burden and a gamble: thinking of a topic, taking a social risk to initiate, worrying about rejection or seeming like a creep—it’s exhausting. Most people would rather grit their teeth through an awkward elevator ride than take a chance. Therefore, when you initiate, the folks who haven’t had their coffee yet might not be game, but the majority will be grateful and relieved you got the ball rolling.
Tip #2: Break the ice with small talk. No, really.
I know, I know. This is controversial. Everyone hates small talk. And a lot of “how to initiate conversation” guides out there say to skip the small talk, to go deeper, to be unique and memorable. But small talk exists for a reason. It’s a way to check each other out—it’s the conversational equivalent of dogs sniffing each other’s butts.
Small talk is hard because there are constraints—by definition, it has to be about light, impersonal topics like the weather, traffic, or complimenting someone’s shoes. But small talk is an opportunity. In a short conversation, like an elevator ride, use it to convey who you are. It leaves an impression on your conversation partner about who you are and how you interact with the world.
It may be small talk, but it leaves an impression on your conversation partner about who you are and how you interact with the world. In a longer conversation, use small talk as a launchpad into something more substantial. Pivot from talking about the weather into related territory, like your trip to the beach last weekend and the seals you saw offshore, getting your flu shot and wondering if it will be effective this year, or how you’re considering hoarding Pumpkin Spice Latte K-cups in anticipation of the end of Starbucks’s PSL season.
Tip #3: Focus on both them and you.
This tip is also controversial—the vast majority of “how to start a conversation” advice instructs you to focus exclusively on the other person. Make it about them, the advice goes: compliment them, ask them questions about themselves. Then ask more. People love to talk about themselves, they’ll be happy to oblige, and will leave thinking you’re fascinating, simply because you were curious about them.
All this is true, but we need to balance out the scales. Conversation is reciprocal.
You don’t want to interrogate them as if they’re tied to a chair under a bare light bulb and leave them with no sense of who you are, but neither do you want to give them a play-by-play of your week in real time—“And then I organized my middle desk drawer.” Instead, a balance of you and them is ideal.
Interestingly, this balance seems to be natural. In the cutest study ever, researchers at the University of Waterloo videotaped snacktime conversation in a class of 25 preschoolers to see what topics they raised when initiating conversation. Essentially, it was the small talk of small fries.
The kids illustrated a universal truth: be interested and curious about the other person, but also offer tidbits about yourself so your conversation partner can have something to work with and ask questions about you. And while you may not want to tell your conversation partner at a cocktail party “I drank my mojito and spit it back in!,” do give them some information about yourself so they can get some traction.
To wrap up, if you struggle with starting conversation, know you’re not alone. . Bemoaning fellow humans’ inability to speak with each other is at least a century old. Heck, I’m guessing cavemen struggled with how to initiate conversation, and they didn’t even have “Did you shop at Amazon” as an option.
Check out my related post: How do you talk to anyone?