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