How to Start a Conversation Without Throwing Up
It can happen anywhere...
at the park with the other park moms...
at a networking event full of accountants and stale bagels...
at a bridal shower where you only know the bride...
The fear is real. The fear is deep. Those awkward pauses that you only know how to fill with a nod and a "yep"? Painful.
Here's the thing: you won't become friends with every person with whom you talk small, but you can't become friends without it. Small talk has to come first. It might last five seconds because you both realize how much you hate it and bond over that, but sometimes you have to have a conversation that makes you want to die.
I know. It makes me sad, too. But here are a few ways to start a conversation without throwing up.
1. Don't be impressive.
Nobody wants to feel awkward and uncool in front of anyone, let alone Lululemon Park Mom, but if we try to be capital C cool, we will capital F fail. And we're not being authentically ourselves which won't lead to authentic relationships anyway.
Don't worry. I'm not saying you're not cool. You totally are! But you're at your coolest when you're not trying to be. Being impressive doesn't work around your table, when you're hosting a shower, or in your relationships.
If you want a friendship to be real, don't start it out by being fake.
2. Ask questions without being creepy.
Here are some examples of questions to ask strangers (according to Google):
- "If you could have one superpower, what would it be?"
- "What would you change about how you were raised?"
- "How's your relationship with your father?"
I'm not sure the staff meeting bagel table is the best place to drudge up familial issues with The New Guy. But asking questions is the spaghetti of conversation; no matter the situation, it always works. And if you ask a question that's naturally connected to the context, that's like adding meatballs. Start with where you are and what you're doing, and frame questions from there.
Here's what I mean:
At the Park
- [Random Park Kid is wearing a Bubble Guppies shirt] "Your son likes Bubble Guppies? Mine, too. I don't remember there being so many options when I was a kid though. [quick affirmative reply from Park Mom] Did you have a favorite show growing up?"
- "Do you live around here? I've heard great things about this neighborhood."
- "I've been thinking about getting my daughter into soccer soon. Do your kids play?"
- "I'm so glad it's finally getting warmer! I'd love to go to the beach as a family, but it feels stressful every time. Is your family a beach family? Any travel tips you can pass along?"
At the Networking Breakfast
- "This is my first time at this kind of networking event. Any tips for the newbie?"
- "What's your favorite thing about your line of work?"
- "Have you ever gotten a piece of business advice that changed things for you?"
At the Bridal Shower
- [first confirm they're married by a cursory finger glance] "Do you have a favorite memory from your own bridal shower?"
- "Do you remember the first time you met [the bride]?"
- "Wouldn't it be fun to create a bridal registry whenever we wanted? [giddy affirmative between bites of potato salad] Any splurges you'd put on yours?"
Don't ask it like you're doing youth group ice breakers. Frame your question in where you are and what you're doing to feel more natural. It is possible to genuinely get to know someone without the questions feeling invasive or out of the blue.
3. Really listen.
If your brain is focused on sounding cool, appearing successful, or how much you just want to get out of there, the conversation will stop mid-sentence without realizing why. You need to be able to listen.
We know when someone isn't listening, when they're already formulating what they'll say next, when they just asked a question to answer it themselves.
You can be the one to change that game. Really listen. No matter how trivial the subject, if someone says it, it must be important. Or it means that person is just as uncomfortable with small talk as you are. In that case, take the lead and make them feel comfortable by paying attention and caring about what they care about.
You don't have to care about the topic in order to care about the person.
4. Always end with "it was nice talking to you!"
Even if you felt like a turd the whole time, say it. One, it makes them feel good, and two, it gives you an automatic I'm Nicely Leaving Now move. And three, it might even be true.
5. Don't be afraid to mention Next Time.
If you really liked talking to that mom or that accountant or that friend of the bride, don't be afraid to double down on another conversation.
"It was nice talking to you! Do you play here often? Maybe we'll see each other next time!"
"It was nice talking to you! Do you have a card? Maybe we can reconnect at the next meeting!"
"It was nice talking to you! Maybe I'll see you at the wedding and you can tell me if I should read that book you mentioned!"
Don't be afraid. Worst case, they give you a weird smile and you never speak again. Not everybody has to be friends... even though for a hot minute you feel like Hagrid trying to fit into a tutu.
6. And if Next Time feels like a possibility, say their name.
If you and Park Mom have an easy conversation and you just might see each other that next Tuesday morning, close out with, "And what was your name again?" And then repeat it back to them. I'm the absolute worst at remembering names, so I make it a point to ask several times until I get it no matter how long it takes. I've never met a person who was more offended that I didn't remember than if I didn't ask at all.
Say their name. Maybe you'll remember, but they'll definitely feel seen.
No go forth and Small Talk. You've got this.
This week on the podcast, The Lazy Genius Makes a Friend. Because nobody told us when we were kids that grownups had to make friends, too. Dang it.