I’ll admit, nobody has ever accused me of being a sparkling conversationalist.
For whatever reason, I’m much more comfortable with a pen in my hand than I am with looking people right in the face and actually saying things.
That’s especially true when it comes to small talk. Some of us are far more comfortable talking about ancient history or astrophysics than we are discussing the weather or the local sports team.
But there’s no denying that small talk has a purpose.
It might seem like a waste of time, but as communication coach Carol Fleming points out, small talk serves an important purpose in communicating friendliness to people you don’t know very well.
Still, if you’re not a regular small talker, it can be difficult to know what to say, especially to a stranger.
That’s why these phrases can help.
1) It would be nice to be in Hawaii right now
The weather is such a common small talk topic that it’s almost become a cliché.
There’s a reason for that.
One of the secrets to making effective small talk is to find neutral things to talk about. After all, the whole purpose of small talk is to show the people how friendly you are. The last thing you want to do is get into an argument.
Psychologist and social anxiety expert Arlin Cuncic recommends talking about the weather because it is a neutral topic.
While we may all have opinions on the weather, it’s very rare that we are so strongly opinionated about it that we are willing to fight over it.
On the other hand, just saying something like, “how about this weather we’re having?” isn’t the best way to talk about weather, because it doesn’t leave the person you’re talking to anywhere to go.
Phrases like, “it would be nice to be in Hawaii right now” allow you to talk about the bad weather you’re having at home, but they also create an opening for people to share their experiences.
Maybe they’ve been to Hawaii. Maybe they never have, but have always wanted to go.
This is a useful phrase because it can open up a conversation about the weather, but can also open up a conversation about travel, which is another great and fairly neutral topic for small talk.
2) Did you see the game last night?
Okay, this one doesn’t work on everyone. Lots of people have no interest in sports.
Also, if you’re going to talk about sports, you need to know at least a little bit about the subject if you don’t want to end up looking foolish.
However, if you are a sports fan and you’re talking to another sports fan, you automatically have something in common.
I was never a big sports fan as a kid. But back when I used to run my own business and had to regularly meet with potential clients, I found that sports was a great topic to break down barriers and find common ground.
So I started watching professional soccer, and ended up becoming a fan.
As you can tell from the thousands of different TV shows and entire channels devoted to sports, there’s always something to say about sports. Everybody has an opinion, so this can be a great way to find things to talk about.
3) Are you from here?
This conversational topic works so well because everybody is from somewhere.
Suppose you ask a person where they are from, and it turns out they moved to where you currently are from somewhere else, or they are just visiting. In that case, you automatically have a whole conversation ahead of you about where they are originally from and what prompted them to move or visit.
You can also ask them about the best and worst things about where they used to live, and what they like or don’t like about the place you are currently in.
If, on the other hand, they were born and raised where you are currently talking, that can also open up new conversational topics.
If you are from somewhere else, you can talk about that. And if you are from the same town, you may have mutual acquaintances or shared experiences of that town that can help you connect.
4) What’s the best thing about your job?
Asking people what they do for a living is almost as common as talking about the weather. Again, it’s a fairly neutral topic that most people are unlikely to get argumentative about.
But just asking someone what they do will only get you so far.
To take the conversation a little bit deeper, ask open-ended questions like this one.
Sometimes, the key to getting a person to open up in a conversation is to tap into their passions. Even if they aren’t in a career they love, chances are good there is at least something that they like about their job.
Not only does this keep the conversation flowing, but it also keeps it focused on positive things.
5) If you didn’t do that for a living, what would you do?
This makes a great follow-up question to finding out what people like about their current job.
Like all the best small talk phrases, this one is open-ended. You can spark a whole conversation by asking someone something like this.
It gives you an insight into the passions of the person you’re talking to, which is a great way to find common ground.
6) My dog/cat would love this
Pet owners automatically have something in common.
Find a way to bring your pet into the conversation, and if the person you’re talking to also has a pet, you have immediately found some shared ground.
Maybe it’s the food you’re eating. Maybe it’s the carpet you’re standing on. Whatever it is, find a way to mention that you have a pet, and find out if the other person does.
7) How did you guys meet?
This phrase can work if the person you’re talking to is there with a partner. It can also work if you are at a social event hosted by someone you both know.
There’s usually a story to how people meet. And even if there isn’t much of a story, talking about it gives you an opportunity to share your own story.
If you’ve both been invited to an event by the same person, you automatically have something in common. Focusing on that can open up new topics to talk about.
8) What’s a book/film/TV show you hated that everyone else loved?
It’s handy to have a few stock phrases in reserve for when the conversation lags.
This is a good one because while people can be quite passionate about the art they enjoy and don’t enjoy, it is still usually an inoffensive topic you can talk about with anyone.
Asking people to tell you about a time when they were out of step with popular opinion can give you deeper insight into who they are as a person.
If you agree with their opinion, you have a shared experience to bond over. If you disagree, it can spark a great conversation so long as you keep it polite and respectful.
Either way, it’s a topic that keeps the small talk flowing.
9) If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Really, you can bring this up anywhere. However, it’s a good topic to use at an event where they are serving food, since it will seem more natural to talk about food then.
Food is one thing all humans have in common. Asking someone about their favorite food can often spark memories of travels or of family dinners that make great conversational topics.
10) What a coincidence
This phrase is excellent for connecting with other people.
Finding things in common is what small talk is all about, and this phrase allows you to focus on the experiences the two of you share.
Whenever somebody tells you something about themselves, look for parallels between their experience and yours. Try to find some common ground, and the conversation will flow much better.
11) Tell me more
This may be the most useful phrase in any small talk situation.
Author and lecturer Matt Abrahams points out that this is a phrase commonly used by people who are good at small talk, because it allows the person you’re talking with to go deeper into whatever they have been saying.
Ultimately, most people’s favorite topic is themselves. These three words encourage people to talk about themselves and can lead to a deeper and more interesting conversation.
Mastering the art of small talk
Making small talk can be scary, especially for people who suffer from social anxiety.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Using these phrases can help you quickly build a rapport with anyone and keep the conversation going, avoiding the dreaded awkward silence.