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Just striking up a conversation with a stranger is daunting. In part because all that initial, seemingly meaningless chatter about sports or celebrities or the weather can feel disingenuous. But even close acquaintances usually warm up a bit before getting down to the soulful stuff. “Small talk is the appetizer for any deeper relationship,” says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills — and Leave a Positive Impression! (Hyperion, 2005). And it doesn’t have to be a chore. Approached thoughtfully, small talk can be fun and energizing. Here are a few ways to break the ice.

  1. Hang around the food table at a partycounsels Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of Civilized Conversation (Broadway Books, 2005). You’ll meet everyone who eats (which is almost everyone), and the cuisine will serve as fodder for conversation.
  2. Chat about something you really enjoy and invite others to do the same. If someone asks a rhetorical question like “How are you?” offer up some specifics and a follow-up question in your reply. For example: “I’m doing great! I collect rare books, and this week I found an early edition of a Dickens novel. I’d been hunting for that book for eight years. Do you keep any collections?” This approach gets both parties to engage their genuine passions.
  3. Don’t be afraid of sincere flattery. Take note of something you truly appreciate about a person and then follow up with a question: “What a lovely coat. Is it vintage?”
  4. Use open-ended questions. These give the person answering some latitude in how he or she responds, says Fine. Some useful queries:
    • “What keeps you busy outside of work [or school or taking care of the kids]?” This usually leads directly to energizing, engaging subjects.
    • Discuss the situation you currently share: “How do you know the host?”
    • If you’re stumped for a question, listen to what people ask you and then ask them the same thing in return, advises Shepherd. “The person is probably asking the question because it is on his mind and he wants to talk about it himself.”

This originally appeared as “The Art of Conversation” in the November 2019 issue of Experience Life.

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