If there is one thing that most of us can agree on, it’s a general disdain for small talk. And lest we forget (we definitely haven’t), we’re almost 2 years into a pandemic, which has amplified social anxiety for many people. Given that socializing is a skill, this makes sense.
That said, there is hope you won’t feel like you’re reliving your awkward adolescence forever. It just takes a little homework and, frankly, a willingness to tolerate some level of discomfort (and practice!). And since research shows people appreciate deeper conversations over shallow topics, a good icebreaker is one way to get there.
Whether you’re headed to the wedding of a high school friend, a first date, or an awkward work holiday party, these 38 questions (and 4 conversation tips) will make navigating those choppy small talk waters a little easier.
1. “How do you know [insert mutual acquaintance name here]?”
2. “Do you have a favorite restaurant around here? What do you recommend getting?”
3. “Have any travel plans on your bucket list?”
4. “Have you always lived in [insert city here]?”
5. “Did you try the [appetizer, drink, whatever is being served]?”
6. “How did you get into your line of work?”
7. “Have you ever worked remotely?”
8. “What’s the last book you read? Did you like it? Why or why not?”
9. “Did you watch that [insert new Netflix show here]? What did you think?”
10. “I can’t stop listening to this [insert amazing podcast here]. Have you heard of it?”
11. “What’s the best concert you ever went to?”
12. “What is the last book that you really loved?”
13. “Horror movies or rom-coms?”
14. “Popcorn or candy at the movies?”
Hobbies and life
15. “Do you have thoughts on astrology?”
16. “I’m way into [knitting, gaming, insert your hobby here]. How do you spend your time?”
17. “Dog or cat person (or other)?”
18. “What’s your favorite social media platform or website?”
19. “Do you cook? What’s your go-to meal for guests?”
20. “How do you like to spend the holidays?”
21. “What was your favorite class in school?”
22. “What was your first job?”
23. “Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing when you were growing up?”
24. “What’s your most useful phone app?”
25. “How do you like to unwind after a long week?”
26. “What’s your go-to drink in the morning?”
27. “Who was your childhood crush?”
28. “Who would be your ideal dinner guest?”
29. “If you could join a mission to Mars, would you?”
30. “If money didn’t matter, what would your dream job be?”
31. “You’re stranded on a desert island. You can only bring three music albums. Which ones do you choose?”
32. “Do you prefer to call or text?”
33. “How would you describe yourself in 5 words?”
34. “Where would you want to retire, if anything was on the table?”
35. “Would the child version of you think you were cool now?”
36. “What superpower would you pick if you had the choice?”
37. “If you could instantly learn a language, which would you pick?”
38. “Would you rather meet your ancestors or your descendants?”
Before you set off on the aforementioned choppy small talk waters, it doesn’t hurt to do a little prep work. Below are some tips to help implement the small talk topics and questions with finesse.
1. Remember: Time and place matter
Keep both your audience and the situation at hand in mind when starting a conversation with someone new. Always think about who you’re talking with and what questions make the most sense given the context.
Doing a little homework before an event can help ease pre-party anxiety, says Irina Langman, LCSW, a therapist in New York.
For example, while your BFF would love to hear the nitty-gritty about your latest Hinge dating fiasco, your BFF’s boss you happened to be standing next to in line for cocktails at her wedding? Gonna go with a hard pass on that one.
Ensuring subject matters are appropriate for the situation keeps awkwardness at bay. For example, that one day during my sophomore year of high school when I tried to talk to my crush while waiting in the lunch line. No, I will not be elaborating further.
2. When in doubt, keep the focus on the other person
People love talking about themselves, including their interests, passions, work, etc. This is particularly helpful if you tend to be more on the shy side. Follow-up questions are your best tool for keeping the conversation flowing without feeling like all eyes are on you.
That said, if they follow up your follow-up with a follow-up question, don’t give one-word answers. It can come across as disinterested. Think of small talk like a tennis match, says Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, a couples therapist in New York. “The goal is to keep the ball going back and forth.”
3. Show yourself (and others) some compassion
Remember, most of us are going to feel socially anxious at one point or another during our lives. It is impossible to be totally “on” at all times. Sometimes, you might be having a bad day. Whether it’s family drama, work weighing you down, a breakup, or whatever event, it’s OK if you’re not always flawless when it comes to socializing.
So, please, remember to show yourself some compassion if you make a perceived faux pas. This goes for others, too. You never know what someone else is going through and what they may be distracted by. Most things aren’t as personal as they may feel.
4. Have an exit strategy (aka know when to end a convo gracefully)
Like your server at Olive Garden advises, it’s always important to know when to say when. Knowing when a conversation has run its course takes a little emotional intelligence to master. Even some recent research shows that conversations rarely end at the right time for both parties. But if you start feeling antsy, your gut is usually correct.
When a conversation is starting to feel like it’s time to wrap it up, thank the person for their time and say how nice it was to discuss [insert subject you discussed here]. Showing you were an active listener by referencing something for the talk makes the other person feel heard and appreciated.
Relationships of any kind, whether they’re ephemeral in nature or not, take work, and small talk is a way to get there. After all, we all start as strangers.
Don’t forget to just relax and let the conversation happen when the moment’s right. Plus, the more you practice your small talk game, the easier it gets to figure out which questions work and which are duds. So go ahead and chat up your cute barista — you know, in the name of research.