Easy conversation prompts
February 18, 2009 11:01 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for conversational topics/ questions that are relatively easy to answer, on topics that aren't too personal...help me come up with some!

I'm working with a person who is very shy and has a hard time talking to others. To practice, we're going to start with some very simple questions, ideally not to personal or requiring much of an opinion, since those things are harder for him. I've looked up a lot of standard conversation starters online, but I'd like some of your ideas on cool/interesting questions to ask so that i don't feel like I'm interrogating him. Bonus points on being open ended, so that he can elaborate if he wants. Any questions you were asked that really started a great conversation?
posted by gilsonal to Human Relations (31 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Questions about favorite television shows, movies, books and music are personal enough to jumpstart interesting conversations, but not overly personal enough to create stress.

If even those subjects are too personal, there's always the weather.
posted by amyms at 11:11 PM on February 18, 2009

Who's the most famous person you've met? Nearly everyone has had some sort of brush with celebrity.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:16 PM on February 18, 2009

A really good conversation starter is: what's new?

I have to interact with a lot of people at a lot of functions on a regular basis as part of my job. I can't look like a tool, or a smarmy schmoozy jackass. Conversation is an art.

Today, I was speaking with a bunch of different politicians, and they're tough to talk to, because they don't like to let down their guard. The only question that works in every conversation setting is: What's new?

For example (for talking with new or general acquaintances at a party):

A: Hi there.
B: Hi there. My name is XXX. How are you doing?
A: My name is XXX, and I'm fine. I really like this weather/I hope it's nice on the weekend.
B: Yes, the weather has been good/bad lately.
A: Yes... So, what's new with you?
B: I have discovered that I like to make love to stuffed animals.
A: Oh, that's interesting. What's it like?
B: It's great. I have total control.
A: How long have you been having sex with stuffed animals?
B: Oh, just for the past few weeks, since my wife has started hormone therapy.
A: Oh yeah.
B: Yeah. So, what's new with you?

A then has to provide an anecdote of his/her own. Could be an interesting book, tv show, movie, exercise regime. But it's really important to have something to say. You have to be able to show interest in your conversation partner, and you also have to have some sort of personality.

When talking about yourself, or making remarks about the weather or anything else, keep it normal (until you get to know the other person) and positive (unless the other person knows you well enough to say: cheer up!). Weirdness, negativity and not demonstrating interest in your conversation partner are conversation killers.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:22 PM on February 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

I was at a party of engineer types once who were rather shy and quiet and sitting around with no real conversation going. Then someone came up with the idea of playing Two Truths and a Lie, and we had so much fun discovering unexpected facts about each other, and guessing which were true and which weren't. It easily broke the ice and gave us fodder for further conversation after the game was over.
posted by Dragonness at 11:24 PM on February 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding the TV shows. People inexplicably love to talk about the cartoons/sitcoms they watched as children. (Note that this is somewhat age-specific, especially for the Saturday morning cartoons, so it only works with people in same age cohort.)

It seems to mainly consist of one conversational partner recalling specific episodes, and the others affirming they do recall that episode, then trading roles. So I suppose it's something that could be committed to memory (fake examples): Person A: "Oh yeah, do you remember the time that Scooby Doo and the Gang unmasked the "ghosts" trafficking in human organs?" Person B: "Yeah, that rocked! How about the episode when Wilma and Betty turned tricks to buy crack?" Person A: "Totally, man, now how about when...."

Frankly, it bores the hell out of me, but....
posted by orthogonality at 11:33 PM on February 18, 2009

I love talking about food. Recently I have really gotten into cooking, but before that I would still happily discuss all sorts of strange things I've eaten or things I would like to try a taste of, my favorite meals in the past and where I was at the time. And I find that a lot of people will happily discuss their eating preferences with anyone. So I can say something like "Oh I had the best lunch today, it was [fill in blank]. Did you have a good lunch?" and go from there. Especialy fun to discuss is fruit. Did you know that mangosteens are illegal in the continental US?
posted by Mizu at 11:56 PM on February 18, 2009

It was a great weekend. did you do anything fun? ...or....I hear the weather's going to be great this weekend. Plan on doing anything interesting?
posted by anitanita at 11:57 PM on February 18, 2009

There was a whole This American Life on asking which super power people would rather have: invisibility or flight. You ask them, then you ask them why they picked it. Never fails to start a conversation.
posted by Nattie at 12:47 AM on February 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

What is the meaning of life?
posted by eli_d at 12:59 AM on February 19, 2009

2nding the whole 'How about the weather, eh? Crazy!',

Though if it immediately veers into 'Well, you can thank Global Warming' or 'So much for that Global Warming bullshit!', then you're on you're own.

There just aren't any safe topics any more, are there?
posted by eclectist at 1:21 AM on February 19, 2009

My old standby: "How has your week been?"

It's a manageable amount of time to summarize easily,* people have leeway to reveal things as innocuous or outlandish as they're comfortable with, and everyone's had a week.

*I think some people will freeze up when confronted with something totally open-ended, whereas limited bounds can provide some comfort.
posted by kittyprecious at 5:26 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

This thread has lots of good conversation starters.
posted by PFL at 6:47 AM on February 19, 2009

I knew a guy who used to ask "What's the difference between crunchy and crispy?"

Also, among a certain type of boring suburbanite (like myself), home improvement is a sure win. Topics like "Peel-n-Stick Linoleum: Does It Stick?" can go on for hours.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:54 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Made for ESL conversation classes but there are a TON of topic and iside questions that you could use to initiate conversatino on a topic, and follow up questions for guiding or helping continue when it goes dead. Most are interesting topics without too big of an emotional factor tied to it...
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:56 AM on February 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

A bartender friend of mine used to entertain herself during slow periods by asking her regulars, "Which do you think is smarter, a sheep or a cow?" If the shy person has any sense of humor at all, this kind of thing can work wonders.

Also, I agree with the poster who warned against questions that are too open-ended. I'm a shyish person myself, and those can make me feel a lot of pressure to keep the conversational ball rolling.
posted by scratch at 7:22 AM on February 19, 2009

Shit... I just posted in that other thread by accident. Here it is again!

My dietitian friend asks what people have eaten that day. Breakfast in particular seems to incite a lot of discussion.

I have another friend who asks about people's work/volunteering: "What's the craziest/most random question you ever had?"
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:36 AM on February 19, 2009

I usually have pretty good luck with "What are you reading these days?", but I'm absolutely stealing the two-truths-and-a-lie idea mentioned above.
posted by jquinby at 8:05 AM on February 19, 2009

Sixcolors, that is quite of a list of totally terrible answers to the poster's question.

Asking clean "would you rather" questions always gets things started - flight vs. invisibility is good. Ask for reminisces - favorite food as a kid, favorite trip, anything that gets someone going and gives ample opportunity for follow-up and exchange.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:28 AM on February 19, 2009

Only on AskMe could you request "some very simple questions, ideally not to personal or requiring much of an opinion" and get "tightness/looseness of vaginas and rectums."

I'd recommend an exercise in looking around you and basing questions on what you see. Things like "what do you make of that painting? Are you into art?" or "his kitchen seems pretty well stocked! Are you much of a cook yourself?"
posted by creeky at 8:54 AM on February 19, 2009

Remember, too, that a shy person needs to develop the ability to initiate and maintain conversation, not merely improve his inquiry responses. Help your friend practice asking interesting questions to others.
posted by terranova at 8:59 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

"So, for $10,000 cash, would you pull the wings off of a live butterfly?"
"So, if you could save the lives of eight people you don't know in exchange for ending your own life, would you?"
"So, if you could remain at any prior age, what age would that be?"
"If you had to live the rest of your life with access to only ten foodstuff ingredients, what would those ten be?"

ad infinitum...
posted by bz at 9:40 AM on February 19, 2009

Random questions are good, but only if the responder likes such things. I have a friend who, quite naturally, asks the most random questions before even saying hello. Things like:

Do you like the radio?
Where do you think I got my shoes?
Do you ever think about planes?

It's great, but honestly it feels a bit like a job interview or a challenge. I find it amusing and think that it should be possible to give a fairly good answer to any question, but some people find such things difficult. If someone's shy I would start with a slightly blander and less pointed line of questioning (the weather, movies, weekend, tv, books etc.) If that goes well, you can move on to the more random stuff and then reach your questioning zenith with asking about the tightness/looseness of vaginas and rectums.
posted by ob at 9:41 AM on February 19, 2009

The Book of Questions has a lot of interesting questions.
posted by mirileh at 9:43 AM on February 19, 2009

just adding how I used the questions -

I worked with a group. We drew three questions out of a hat. Everyone chose the question that most interested them, and split up to talk into groups according to the choice of question.

At the beginning I would draw the questions at the end of a meeting, so people could choose and think about the questions at home (alone, not stressed) and talk about them in the next meeting. In time I would do this in the same meeting.
posted by mirileh at 9:54 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whose french fries do you like better - Wendy's or McDonald's?
Who would you rather live next door to: Gilligan or Urkel?
If you could be doing anything else right now besides answering my questions, what would you be doing? (I would probably volunteer my own preference as well, saying "I know I'd love to be in my fuzzy bathrobe at home in front of the TV." This gives the person a chance to either agree with a similar activity, or state his preference for outdoor activity: "On a nice day like this, I'd be at the driving range.")
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:12 AM on February 19, 2009

Mod note: Couple comments removed. Please try to mind the details of the question in your answers.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:12 AM on February 19, 2009

I adapted this one from the Edge.org question center. When there's a lull in a one-on-one conversation, ask, "so, what have you changed your mind about recently?" (Not "have you changed your mind recently?". Assume they have.) It's a really fun question to be asked. And unlike a lot of conversation-starters, you can reuse it on the same person at a later date.

Possibly not appropriate for your purposes, but I thought I'd toss it in and let you decide.
posted by painquale at 10:45 AM on February 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

"If you had $1 million, what would you do with it?"
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 11:02 AM on February 19, 2009

Ask about something cool or quirky related to the job? You could even mention something you really like. (When I was proofreader, and was a lot younger than most of the staff, the conversations about how much you really love the semicolon, etc were really easy to join into, it didn't require growing up in a certain decade or living in a certain neighborhood.)

When you're on the shy side, participating in topics where you're less likely to stick your foot in your mouth (it's somehow easier if you're quiet because you can get more grief for what you do say and have less practice), is beneficial too.
posted by ejaned8 at 3:01 PM on February 19, 2009

Also, I'm thinking of taking a trip? Do you know anything about X area? (or slightly more personal, where do you usually go for a beach vacation etc?)

I'm not so sure about the very obvious "Question Book" ones since they don't come up as often in real life, and outside of a party/bar can feel forced, but they could be helpful in pointing out what are appropriate/inappropriate answers with people you don't know very well (I'm assuming this is a situation where you can talk about that.)
posted by ejaned8 at 3:06 PM on February 19, 2009

Would you rathers? are good questions. Coke or pepsi, hot or cold, etc. They're the makings of livejournal surveys.
posted by lunit at 1:25 PM on February 20, 2009

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