Starting Conversations: A Refresher

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Moving to a new place and having serious motivation around acclimating as quickly as possible has meant going to a lot of events, from socials over lunch, dinner, and coffee through to lectures and networking dinners.

After years in my last city, rarely did I enter an event where I didn’t encounter at least one person I knew. Here in Lausanne, every event has almost entirely new people.

In the process, I’ve learned anew how terrible it can feel to initiate small talk—and to respond to it as well. This calls for a quick refresher for us all in starting conversations and serving as a worthy conversational partner. (And if you have other tips, share them in the comments!)

How to Start a Conversation

Advice abounds about the art of giving good conversation at cocktail parties, dinner parties, networking functions, openings and events, and beyond. In fact, Emily Post, the doyenne of etiquette, avers that contributing conversation makes for one of the cardinal roles and responsibilities of the guest. (No one wants to invite a dead fish to dinner, unless she plans to cook it.)

Nothing I can tell you on this count won’t have repetition elsewhere, yet a quick refresher helps us all. If you’re headed into an event of any size or type, try one of these conversation starters to help you seamlessly engage with the group—and build relationships and have a better experience in the process:

  • Before you go, find a neutral current-news story that could provide several threads for discussion across the demographics of your fellow attendees. (Yes, politics and religion make for hot news topics today. This does not change the rule on avoiding conversations about either one.)

  • Never start a conversation with “How are you?” No one—especially a stranger—thinks you want the real answer. Someone you do know deserves a more specific question. Instead, ask how the person knows the host or what appealed to him about the event. Ask about the best thing on the program or buffet. If she’s a friend, ask her to bring you up to date on a topic you discussed recently.

  • Avoid asking about what someone does for work, about his or her spouse or partner or kids, or anything else overly personal or possibly sensitive. Instead, say with a genuine smile and a sparkle of real interest, “Tell me about you.” Likely, the response to this question will give you a thread or two you can follow for the rest of your conversation.

Take comfort: Other people at the party feel just as awkward as you do about striking up conversations. Likely, your attempt will give them relief from doing it themselves—and they’ll feel grateful for your foray.

How to Keep a Conversation Going

Considering the universal discomfort of initiating conversation, aim for an engaged response when someone speaks to you.

I’ve worked hard at upping my conversation-initiation game over the years—only to find that more people could put less focus on the conversation starters and more focus on serving as a good conversationalist once the small talk gets started.

Let me share a few tips:

  • A good conversation and a good tennis game have a lively volley. Don’t babble on breathlessly and at length. Don’t only respond to questions. Give your interlocutor space to weigh in with his thoughts on a topic. Ask questions in turn.

  • However, give the conversation some oxygen—too much terseness will kill the volley. When asked a question, drop tidbits and elaborate a bit. In your responses, clue people into your world with the stories you tell, so they know if you have a spouse or partner, kids, or job that they could ask about in a follow-on question. (Provided they have enough good etiquette instruction to know not to ask about these topics outright, of course.) For example, if someone asks you about any recent travel, don’t simply reply that you went to Italy this summer. Give the topic a little more possibility by sharing a funny story about traveling solo, a memorable moment with your husband, or a surprising fact you learned with your kids.

  • Don’t linger too long with any one person—and don’t corner anyone, ever. Even with people you know, keep your conversations short, sweet, and fun. Find them later if you want to talk further; multiple short conversations can have just as much value as a long tête-à-tête (which has a more appropriate setting elsewhere, anyway). If you want a tête-à-tête, get their details if you don’t have them already and schedule a future lunch or coffee.

  • Avoid convoluted excuses for why you need to break away. You can say something as simple as “we’d better mingle!” Of course, before you part, mention how much you enjoyed talking with your interlocutor and prove it by saying how much you loved learning about something they shared or that you want to hear more about their hobby, work, vacation, or whatever.

If you know how to return conversation well, you can parlay even the most clumsy initial serve into a successful volley.

Small Talk Opens Possibilities

As an introvert, I don’t like small talk. However, I recognize its necessity: After all, you can’t get deep without passing the surface.

If you get better at small talk, you’ll have more confidence in it. You’ll feel less frazzled walking into events, even if your introvert self needs serious motivational encouragement to work up the momentum just to attend in the first place.

And as a result, you’ll meet more people—which opens more doors, brings more experiences and relationships into your life, and makes everything richer. I promise.