You’re walking into an elevator when someone tells you to hold the door. Almost severing an arm, you manage to keep the door open only in time to notice the person to get in was your lab partner from freshman year. You have a few choices here: you can either flash a weird smile and ask what floor they are going to while riding up in silence or have a painless 10-second small talk convo.
These simple ways to avoid uneasy small talk situations will make your life 10 times easier.
1. Don’t ask questions that will lead to one word answers
Everybody falls into the dead end of the typical “how are you” convo starter. After asking the three words, you may be followed with a response of “great” and nothing. That’ll leave you blankly staring, waiting for them to say more. You should probably ask a question or make conversation in order to not be rude— or simply to break the awkward air. It’s not just a saying, but a smile really does go a long way. So, with your confidence and friendly face intact, ask something about their plans for the day or where they’re going. This way they have to answer with more than one word and it makes you seem genuinely interested, too.
2. Practice your small talk on people that have to be nice to you
At most service establishments the customer is always right. Why not practice your small talk with a waiter, barista or bartender? These people are essentially paid to be nice to you so why not be nice to them too? You have nothing to lose. In fact, most people in the service industry find it refreshing to talk with someone that is polite and charismatic. Ask them something about them: How long they have worked there, their favorite drink/food item on the menu, where else to go around there… you get the idea. You may even get free stuff out of these pleasant encounters.
3. Get a little personal
Tinder and Bumble swipes seem easy on a screen, but then comes the actual meet up. What do you say to someone that you’ve been hearing so much about virtually? Obviously starting with basic questions is a must, but what happens 20 minutes into the convo when you both have shared enough about your hometown and love of pizza? Things get awkward… and fast. Instead of picking up a fake emergency phone call from your best friend, why not get little deep? Go into their passions and hobbies, family stories and all about their childhood. Getting to know people and their interests on a personal level goes a long way.
4. Pick up on someone’s interests and be real about it
If you notice a friend of a friend that you met once is walking down the street, holding a tennis racket and sporting Lululemon leggings, you may feel obligated to say hi… especially since last weekend you both got drunk at a frat party. Here, you can ask something about their athletic endeavors. “Be real. Don’t start saying you’re interested in ish just to be seen some type of way. Also if all else fails just smile and talk about dogs (a good pupper/doggo story can make any situation seem better),” said American University senior Marissa Howell. People enjoy when you pick up on something they love.
5. Use people’s names
If only life was like The Devil Wears Prada and you could have Anne Hathaway whispering every person’s name in your ear at a party— but it’s not. “I think it’s important to remember names, because people pay more attention to you when you use their name,” said AU senior Ben Colao. No need to panic though. Just simply ask again in the kindest way, such as “I’m so sorry but please remind me of your name?” Make a joke about how you’re bad with names. Usually, people will not be insulted and remind you happily. Moral of the story: Addressing someone correctly and confidently works in your favor. You’ll end up way more embarrassed pausing and trying to retrieve their name from your memory bank or blatantly calling someone by the wrong name.
6. React appropriately to a situation
Say your neighbor makes an awful, corny joke when you’re both getting your mail from the lobby. As much as you hate knock knock jokes, go along with it. This person clearly wants to talk to you in a creative way, so make a returning effort. It doesn’t kill you to respond with a clever knock knock joke. It may seem silly to respond with but most likely this person will love you forever for responding in the way they wanted. Beyond that, don’t act like you couldn’t care less by scrolling through your phone. “Eye contact goes a long way in this situation. Not like a creepy, unflinching stare into their eyes sort of thing, but I think some level of eye contact is important. It shows you’re interested in what they’re saying, and that you’re engaged in the conversation,” said AU senior Will Mascaro.
7. Read the person
If you can tell that the girl from your psych class seems like a timid, sweet girl, you probably shouldn’t start your small talk off with a story about how you were blackout drunk on Friday and Saturday and lost your phone. Instead, try to relate to the person by asking what she did this weekend and when she replies with about the new brunch spot she hit after a movie with her boyfriend, ask something specific about the movie. This could break her out of her shell. “Your first impression of someone should dictate the direction of your conversation. If you recognize that someone seems to be socially conservative it’s best to leave bathroom talk or sex talk out of the conversation,” said AU grad Chelsea Ruffini.
8. The classic compliment then move on technique
Let’s face it. We all like compliments, but it can be weird and awkward when it becomes nonstop. A nice trick for when you genuinely want to give a compliment but don’t want to overwhelm the person is to move on with the convo after. Give a compliment about a piece of clothing, relate it to brunch if it seems fitting and then move on to good brunch places. Not only does the person feel excited from the compliment, but it doesn’t put you in a weird compliment cycle or make anyone feel uncomfortable.
9. Let the other person respond
Small talk comes natural to many, believe it or not. Sometimes a bit too natural. Instead of blabbing about your recent trip to Europe and your love of French food, maybe ask them something about their past vacations. More importantly, let the person speak even if you are dying to keep talking. “Instead of trying too hard to be interesting be interested. Everyone’s favorite topic is themselves, so just ask them questions about their life and then give them your full attention when they’re answering,” said AU senior Kelly Magarity. The most important thing to remember is that a conversation is between two people, not a monologue.
10. Do not feed into people’s negativity
Some people are natural downers and have nothing positive to say. “One time I gave someone the ‘how ya doin’ in a hallway. He then launched into a whole story about how his day sucked,” said AU graduate Benjamin Hills. If something like this happens, try to get that person to look on the bright side. They may complain to you about how they have lots of work to do before the weekend and feel like they are getting the flu, respond with, “Just imagine when all your work is done you can rest in your bed watching Netflix all weekend.” This may give those negative nancies a burst of hope and will probably make you feel better for trying to make someone’s day.
11. Talk about an exciting plan
When it’s Friday morning and the Starbucks line feels packed with people you know, ask a few about their weekend plans. Start the small talk with what they have planned or even make it about you and what foods and drinks you’ll be sipping on. This will not only make you seem fun, but it will also give your acquaintance a time to reflect on their plans while connecting with you. “I love telling people about my future endeavors. I’m moving to L.A. this fall so I can begin the next chapter of my life, is my go to small talk line,” said AU grad Mike Lowenthal.
12. When all else fails, talk about food
You’d be surprised how easily people will talk when it comes to food. If your small talk is traveling to awkward-city, mention the delicious turkey and mozzarella wraps from the campus food hub. Rarely will you encounter someone that hates food and won’t strike up a convo with this simple trick. This food conversation starter also doubles as a great way to flirt. “Especially living in D.C., we are surrounded by so many different types of restaurants. Talking about food will always get the conversation started in the right direction again,” said AU junior Fletcher Cobbsek.
13. The classic what are you binge watching right now question
We all are guilty of not doing our class readings while staying up hours past bed time watching Sex and the City. What a great way to strike up an appropriate convo with that boy in your media studies class. I mean, the professor did just rant about Netflix. Season seven of Shameless and the new Game of Thrones just came back, and chances are he’s binging one of those after class, too. If you’re specific with your question they will probably either go on about their love of the show you inquired about or will be eager to check it out later. There is a zero chance of awkwardness here unless this person lives under a rock— or without wifi.
14. Comment on something obvious
It’s pouring rain outside and you and a rando are waiting for the best time to run to class. This gives an easy slide into the weather convo. It sounds stereotypical and may be a boring, but most likely they will go along with it. Even if this is short-lived small talk, you still tried to be polite. A for effort with this weather commentary. “Stating the obvious is a safe bet for conversation; its like running the ball on first down. By stating the obvious, one is unlikely to fail in an interaction, as objective facts are unlikely to evoke a poor response or be overly off putting,” said AU grad Connor Hirsch.
15. Ask a random question
You get into an Uber Pool and of course the other passenger is a boy you drunkenly hooked up with freshman year—don’t fret. Say the hellos and what’s ups, but then maybe ask a question about where he is headed. Grown up you was able to move on from weird decision made at tequila Tuesday freshman year and now you can act like a well bred and spoken young adult. As for the boy in the Uber, he will probably be delighted you made the situation easy and lighthearted… you may even see a text from him later in the day.
16. Allow them to steer the conversation
What better way to make it not awkward then letting the other person do the work? Midday yoga at the university gym is a great stress relief… especially when you don’t know anyone in the class. Maybe you are new to yoga or maybe you’re just in the mood to talk, but asking people where else they practice or their favorite type of yoga gives them the chance to do the bulk of the talking while making it seem like you’re actually interested in their yoga practice.
17. Reference pop culture
So much happens on the Internet in one day that you and a stranger could talk for hours about celebrities on Instagram, funny tweets and priceless memes. However, this comes with risk. Some people do not keep up with viral videos or Rob and Chyna drama, so make sure to read the person. If the girl sitting next to you has a quote sticker from The Office on her laptop ask about her favorite characters or The Office Instagram account. Most likely this person will love that you noticed their pop culture preference.
18. Go for an overly positive question
Sitting awkwardly in the corner at a party your friend dragged you to is no fun. Try talking to anyone you see. Ask the most smiley person in the room about their day and life. It’s a simple question that will get the person spilling their happiness and may provoke you to feel gracious for the awesome things you have. “I think laughing is the easiest way to make small talk less awkward. It’s useless to complain during a small talk convo because it’s likely that the other person can’t relate. They’ll relate more to a little laughter,” said AU senior Claire Holmberg.
19. Surprise people—but not in a scary way
After getting to know someone’s basic info during a small talk session outside of your apartment, spice up the convo with a personal anecdote. “You will never believe what happened to me” makes a great convo starter that always draws interest. This question works great on a person who gets a bit shy. It will surely surprise your acquaintance and get them interested in what the excitement going on in your life.
20. Make them part of your phone scrolling habits
Awkward situations make our hands reach for our phones. So, if you get to class early and the only other person in the room happens to be the dude who sat next to you all semester but never said a word, use this trick. Find something funny on your phone, such as a silly meme on Instagram or Twitter. Show him one of the thousands of Pepe or Spongebob memes to strike up a convo. This convo starter is a great way to look on your phone without coming off as rude or uninterested.
21. Talk about stress and studying
Something we can all relate to in college is the stress of finals week. It would not be weird or out of the norm to strike up convo in your study group asking about their studying habits and coping with stress. Everyone who has attended college could give you a decent answer to at least one of these questions. Not only does this start a conversation, but it also improves your grades with these new tips— what an awesome double whammy.
Making the Most of a Conversation
Ever heard of the six degrees of separation rule? In theory everyone in the world is separated by at most six people. You never know if that random homeless guy you pass on the street knows the barber who cut your sister’s ex-boyfriend’s hair. It’s a small world after all.
My point is that you never know who might be able lend you a hand or in turn who you might be able to help (always remember: it’s a two-way street). I am a naturally outgoing person. Therefore I have no problem walking up to a random person, shaking their hand and sparking up a conversation about anything. Let’s be honest, not everyone is good at it. Networking is an art form.
I work for my university’s Annual Fundraising, getting support (and by support I mean money) from alumni. The other day I sat next to this girl I don’t normally talk to. Usually when I get to my shift I’m tired and I barely want to talk to alumni let alone any co-workers. Regardless I struck up a seemingly meaningless conversation which led to my newfound friend informing me of a magazine writing and editing class she was taking. Come to find out, her professor is a contributing writer for Harper’s Bazaar and she used to work for Marie Claire. Um hello?! Can someone say Alexis’ dream job?! I couldn’t write fast enough as I took her information down and I e-mailed her first thing the next morning. Result? Unfortunately her class was full but she eagerly set up a meeting with me this Wednesday afternoon to discuss the “magazine world.”
Who knows? This meeting (just in time for a few internship deadlines) could open the right door for me. You should never use people only for what they have to offer you; that’s just bad manners. However, you should always make the most of every chance meeting you have with someone. Whether it’s offering your own connections to aide them, learning something new, gaining connections that can you in the future, or even finding the love of your life. If it’s a professional setting, learn how to best sell yourself to those you meet. And in case if you’ve damaged those networking relationships, this could be vital for you.
Your dog’s veterinarian could be dating the daughter of the personal assistant to the CEO of a Forbes Fortune 500 company, and how would you ever know if you didn’t open your mouth and start a conversation about something other than fleas and ticks? Practice makes perfect.
*Article updated July 14, 2017 to include “Making the Most of a Conversation.”