15 Conversation Starters That Don't Suck

People dismiss small talk as superficial and boring. People are wrong. Small talk is an essential part of the social contract. It allows us to engage and identify common ground with safe, low-risk topics -- it's an on-ramp.
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Imagine almost any situation where two or more people are gathered--a wedding reception, a job interview, two off-duty cops hanging out in a Jacuzzi.

What do these situations have in common? Almost all of them involve people trying to talk with each other. But in these very moments where a conversation would enhance an encounter, we often fall short. We can't think of a thing to say.

Or worse, we do a passable job at talking. We stagger through our romantic, professional, and social worlds with the goal merely of not crashing, never considering that we might soar. We go home sweaty and puffy, and eat a birthday cake in the shower.

We at What to Talk About [Chronicle Books, $14.95] headquarters set out to change this. With our conversational solutions, you'll become the spider, and your fellow conversationalists mere pawns in a chess game that somehow spiders are playing. Below, a few tips from our book:

Small Talk

People dismiss small talk as superficial and boring. People are wrong. Small talk is an essential part of the social contract. It allows us to engage and identify common ground with safe, low-risk topics -- it's an on-ramp.

One way to make that on-ramp more engaging? Ask open-ended questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than give bland, one-word answers:

Instead of these...

  • "How was your day?"
  • "Where are you from?"
  • "What do you do?"
  • "What's your name?"
  • "How was your weekend?"
  • "How are you?"
  • "What's up?"

Try these...

  • "Tell me three unlikely things you did today."
  • "What's the strangest thing about where you grew up?"
  • "What does your name mean?" (If they say, "I don't know," reply, "What would you like it to mean?")
  • "What are you looking forward to this week?"
  • "Who do you think is the luckiest person in this room?"
  • "What does this house remind you of?"
  • "If you could teleport by blinking your eyes, where would you go right now?"

Dinner parties

Congratulations! Someone invited you over for a meal, either mistakenly or on purpose. But don't celebrate just yet. Careers, marriages, and even science can hinge on what's said between or during bites. The following activities will guide your conversation into the fecund realm of imaginative exploration.

  • Movie pitch
  • Improvise a movie pitch, starting with a made-up title. To generate a title, open up a book to a random page and read the first two words on the page--that's your title. Youcan generate the main character by asking one person for their uncle's name and another person for their pet's name, and then combining--such as, "Stephen Red Rocket." Take it from there.
  • Start a Band
  • Go around a circle, and use the name of two or more objects you see in the order you see them to make the best indie band name: e.g., Clock Head, Juicer Man, Dog's Butthole Computer. The group then votes on a winner. Bonus points if you can hum a tune or describe your band's first music video to go viral.
  • Dubbing Game
  • Extra large party? Pick a couple across the room, out of earshot, and dub their conversation.
  • Information Quest
  • Ask a group of people what the annual production of automobiles was in the United States last year. No one will know, so insist that they guess. Ten million? Alex, what do you think? Eight million? Tanya, you say thirty million? Any other guesses? Pause dramatically before you reveal the answer, and then say, "Actually, I have no idea." Then discuss how you might construct an answer based on only the things you do know. No Googling.


When chitchat between strangers suffers, it's often from a lack of familiarity. Within families, however, the opposite is true: We know far, far too much about these people. Our intimacy prevents us from finding a comfortable distance.

  • One strategy? Fictionalize your family. Look, these people are insane. But you can still learn to tolerate--even enjoy--talking with them without so much as an hour of therapy. You just need a good plot. The trick is to see them not as relatives but as characters in a book or movie. When you imagine your family as the cast of a screwball comedy or a trippy David Lynch movie, their antics stop being irritating and start becoming fascinating.
  • Identify the genre. Romance? Drama? Dark Scandinavian thriller? Figure out what section of the book or video store carries your family saga, and you're that much closer to finding out what to say to these people.
  • Who plays what part, and what's their motivation? Once you determine what drives your dad to feed bacon grease to the hamster, his erratic behavior will start to make a certain twisted narrative sense.
  • Remind yourself that these people are not real and are not related to you. Talk to them as if they are fictional characters come to life. Ask about their earliest memories. Inquire about the hardest parts of their day. You've got some of fiction's most original, vivid characters sitting at your own dinner table. Now's your chance to ask them anything you'd ever want to know.

Type it up, sell it. With a good agent and foreign rights, you should earn enough to acquire a new family.

No more talk

Like too many bowls of ice cream, too much of a good conversation can ruin the initial delight and cause you to vomit ice cream. Having mastered the art of starting the chat, you must now learn to stop once the time has come. Spoken with confidence, these words will get you out of any exchange: It's been so nice talking with you. Then fake-faint until the other person walks away.

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