In my early 20s, I used to complain to friends about how much I hated talking to people at parties, on airplanes, during workshop breaks, at weddings, etc. I begged my socialite besties for party conversation topics and small talk examples – please just give me one dependable conversation starter!
Here’s how I described my inability to mingle at bars, work events, parties, etc:
“These conversations are so boring. I’m so bad at them. I just don’t click with most people. After ‘what’s your name, where are you from, and what you do,’ I’ve got nothing. The people who give one-word answers to those questions are the worst. So boring. And I can’t get away from them. I need a few pocket-conversation-starters to get these people to talk to me without having to do all the work. How do I get them to tell me a story so I’m not standing around bored out of my mind wishing I was at home doing something I actually enjoy?”
Tell me this is what you’re thinking right now: “Yes! This chick totally gets it. I regularly and desperately want to know how to avoid small talk.”
Small Talk Conversation Starters
My friends told me I was an idiot (I am!) for thinking all I needed was a list of party conversation topics or small talk examples to keep in my wallet.
There is no a one-size-fits-all conversation starter, they scolded. However, next came some of the best advice of my life. A woman said, “Try and empathize with people. If someone says they’re from Georgia, make a guess about what growing up there was like and ask if you’re right.”
I got in the habit of practicing this at parties. Maybe it helps that I’m a genuinely curious person. But after the standard name, basic background, and job stuff, I’d say to myself, “Okay, now think about what it would be like to have lived in ________ or work as a _________. Ask a question about that.”
It worked! Sweet relief!
I’m Not a Magical Unicorn
Fellow introverts regularly use the word “magic” to describe how I interact with others. They accuse me of being an introvert impostor. They refuse to believe I actually need lots of alone time and get extremely depressed without it.
“You walk into a party and ten minutes later you have five new best friends. It’s magic.”
“I just watched you talk to twenty strangers. And they clearly loved it. It was some kind of magic.”
“Your ability & willingness to engage people is impressive. It’s almost like you just ask them questions and they… talk? It seems very strange to me, but you seem to have some magic for it.”
While it’s true that I tend to connect very quickly with those I meet, it is definitely not magic. And it definitely is exhausting if I have to do it on demand – at parties, on a bus or plane, at a conference, at a wedding – e.g. usually.
My magic is not magic, and it’s not a big secret. I recommend beginning here:
How to Mingle Anywhere
Once I realized the world isn’t actually full of horribly boring people and miserable small talk, I got generally curious about everyone.
What is it like to be the shoe-shine guy at the airport? What about a father of five? Why does that lady choose to take her breaks over there? Does this attorney like her commute? Why isn’t that guy on his smartphone like everyone else? What’s it like to get asked about your tattoo/hair everywhere you go?
When you find yourself wishing you had a pocketful of small talk conversation starters, reach for any variation of this one: “What is it like to be you?”
Why This Small Talk Conversation Starter Works
Being seen, heard, and understood is a human need that is met less and less by our modern world. We are nudged constantly toward individualism by culture and marketing. Think about yourself, take care of yourself, do things for yourself…
Asking someone “What is it like to be you?” is a gift. It’s a gift that people rarely get and are eager to receive. People aren’t paying attention to each other. When you pay attention to someone, they come alive.
The next time you’re forced to mingle and find yourself dying for a conversation starter, go ahead and ask someone the same boring questions you’ve been asking all your life. But then leverage their answer to discover what it’s like to be that person.
The more you practice this, the more natural it becomes. Soon it may even be a state-of-mind, and people will be asking you for your “magic” secret!
Happy Small-Talking! ♣
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