December 23, 2004 10:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to stop asking, "So what do you do?" What are some more interesting conversation starters? What do they ask or say in your area?
posted by callmejay to Human Relations (80 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
There's a great essay by David Sedaris in his new collection in which he talks about the different ways he starts conversations with cab drivers. He says that one thing he likes to ask people is what their local gun laws are.

I actually think that this question is a good conversation starter in itself, callmejay.

"I'm trying to stop asking people, 'So, what do you do?' when I meet them. What questions would you like to be asked as a conversation starter?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:16 AM on December 23, 2004 [2 favorites]

"What's your major?"
"What's your sign?"

umm... They're all terrible.
posted by stovenator at 10:17 AM on December 23, 2004

How much do you make?
posted by fixedgear at 10:17 AM on December 23, 2004

If I were to say to you that, "I am a stranger traveling from the East, seeking that which is lost"...
posted by icontemplate at 10:22 AM on December 23, 2004

I think it was Sedaris who talks about the "what do you do?" being an American fascination with defining people by their job, whereas in Europe he says people ask what hobbies people do, essentially what they do for fun and enjoyment instead of where they get a paycheck.

The Vice Guide to Everything makes fun of all the bad conversation starters and says to avoid them. Of course, it doesn't offer any solutions, but I try to never talk about weather, pets, jobs, or politics with strangers.
posted by mathowie at 10:25 AM on December 23, 2004

"What are you drinking?"
posted by cmonkey at 10:26 AM on December 23, 2004

Any sentence that's not interrogative. Because the responses back are not forced and open to their liking.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:26 AM on December 23, 2004

Well the standard that I have found people using is: "How 'bout them [insert nickname of local sports team]?"

Usually only works with men in sports bars so YMMV.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 10:28 AM on December 23, 2004

i get "where are you from?" all the time. grrrr.

there's always "how's it going?" and, when you reach the right age, "how are the kids?".

politics can be ok if you listen rather than argue. especially with people from abroad. if they're not american, mentioning bush or iraq is a pretty sure fire starter.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:33 AM on December 23, 2004

I worked with someone who always asked "what's your story?" It seemed to work well at starting conversation, although it was especially good at gauging their confusion tolerance.
posted by Alt F4 at 10:35 AM on December 23, 2004

A conversation is supposed to go: anecdote about you, then anecdote about me, then anecdote about him, then we all get together and come up with a general conclusion that unites all our anecdotes into one big summation about human nature...There's plenty of good shit you can talk about. Is your relationship going badly? Let's hear about it. Did your girlfriend come home early and find you with a whore? By all means, let's have it. Did you fuck a girl in the ass and get so much poo on your dick it looked like an elf shoe when you pulled it out? Yes, dude, let the beans spill. Gossiping is also a great thing. As long as the story actually happened, you can embellish all you want. You can even cut out the middleman and replace the hero of the story with you. Go nuts. Hey, let's talk shit about people. If some really evil things fall in the woods and the person you're talking about never hears what you said, it never made a sound. As Winston Churchill taught us: "What people say about me behind my back is none of my business."
--The Vice Guide to Everything
posted by idontlikewords at 10:41 AM on December 23, 2004 [2 favorites]

I think much depends on the situation. If you're at a party and you meet someone you can ask "So, how do you know so and so (the host)?"

If you're out at a bar, you can ask any number of things from "What's your passion?" to "How's your week treating you?"

I personally find it easiest to strike up conversation with people based on the surroundings, something about the person themselves (a nice watch, shoes, etc.) or something similar. Change it up, be observant, it will do wonders for your social skills.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:04 AM on December 23, 2004

"Tell me how your parents died." Courtesy of Vonnegut.
posted by squidlarkin at 11:09 AM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

I had a friend in college who used to ask, "So, why do you hate your father?" Seemed to work for him, but he was that kind of person.
posted by vraxoin at 11:18 AM on December 23, 2004

The late Patrick O'Brian famously said he did not consider "question-and-answer" to be a civilized form of discourse. In the era he wrote about, questioning was an imposition. These days people seem to expect it. It's the Dale Carnegie thing: you show interest in a person by getting them to talk freely about themselves, and then being a good listener -- therefore, if you aren't asking questions, you must not be interested. I try the anecdote thing, but a lot of people just don't pick up the cues.
posted by coelecanth at 11:18 AM on December 23, 2004

If I were to say to you that, "I am a stranger traveling from the East, seeking that which is lost"...

Then I would reply "Did you try under the sofa cusions?"

I worked with someone who always asked "what's your story?" It seemed to work well at starting conversation, although it was especially good at gauging their confusion tolerance.

I do this too!
posted by weston at 11:25 AM on December 23, 2004

When you are at a party, it's usually pretty easy: "So, how do you know (the person giving the party)?" That's a nice way to start off on a commonality that's not too personal.
posted by lilboo at 11:28 AM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

If I am in a social gathering with strangers, I often times ask how someone I just met, knows the host or how it is they came to this event.
posted by pwb503 at 11:31 AM on December 23, 2004

My girlfriend usually asks something along the lines of "What do you like to do for fun?" She finds that most people either are completely thrown by the question or just don't pay attention, replying instead with what they do for a living since that's the question they expect her to ask.
posted by Acetylene at 11:35 AM on December 23, 2004

I've always felt the the secret to being a "good conversationalist" is indeed to get people to talk about themselves. I find a variant on "What do you do?" of "Where do you work?" to be a good way to start things. Also, as FlamingBore said, be observant. Whatever I do (and now I'll start paying more attention), I seem to have a talent for getting people to tell me a lot about themselves. I've come away from conversations with folks and told their oldest friends things they did not know!
posted by dbmcd at 11:37 AM on December 23, 2004

Here's a good start:

two things @ metafilter
posted by filmgeek at 11:39 AM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

"Legs shaved?"
posted by bondcliff at 11:41 AM on December 23, 2004

Conversation starters I'm okay with. It's after they start talking and my mind wanders. I always come back as they're asking a question, and there's no smooth way to cover up the deer in the headlights expression I get.
posted by FunkyHelix at 11:42 AM on December 23, 2004

Any idea where I should vacation this year?
posted by sled at 11:42 AM on December 23, 2004

"If you could be any animal, what would you be".

People either think it's funny or earnestly try to answer it, which is funny too.
posted by TimeFactor at 11:48 AM on December 23, 2004

"If you had to eat one person in this room, which one would it be and how would you cook them?"
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 11:49 AM on December 23, 2004 [2 favorites]

I kinda like PST's suggestion. I bet you could have some REALLY interesting conversations if you asked the right people that question. But I don't think I'd ask it at my husband's office christmas party. Until I was real drunk. *wink*
posted by raedyn at 11:51 AM on December 23, 2004

Pop culture always works for me. I size someone up, and hit 'em with something like...

I am Vince... Vince Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, Volguus Zildrohar, Lord of the Sebouillia. Are you the Gatekeeper?

In straightface. If they can play along, I win points, cut the ice, and can move on to have a normal banterful conversation. If not, they were going to be boring anyway. Separates the wheat from the chaff, and saves me time and energy in the long run.
posted by drpynchon at 11:55 AM on December 23, 2004

If you're in St. Louis:

"So, wheredya go to high school?"
posted by pieoverdone at 12:01 PM on December 23, 2004

Depending on where you are, you could ask if the other person is a "native." Here in Montana, where I've lived for just over 2 years, I frequently strike up conversations with people by asking if they are "local" to our town.
posted by davidmsc at 12:02 PM on December 23, 2004

I for one appreciate your making this change. I think asking someone that you've just met what they do is demeaning and borderline offensive, and I'm always tempted to turn and walk away (though I rarely do).
posted by rushmc at 12:03 PM on December 23, 2004

bondcliff: Halfway.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:06 PM on December 23, 2004

icontemplate - I would reply "I am a stranger traveling from the West, it is I whom you seek."

then we would descent into giggles, raid the fridge and talk crap for severals hours.
posted by longbaugh at 12:07 PM on December 23, 2004

The best ways of starting conversation are the most dynamic. Usually this involves something unique to the place or situation you're at that very moment. Otherwise you kind of sound like you have a bag of conversation starters saved up for meeting new people.
posted by angry modem at 12:12 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

Ask, "Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly?"
posted by TurkishGolds at 12:12 PM on December 23, 2004

Why is being asked what you do for a living borderline offensive? It's a conversation starter, that's all. I don't get offended by it, I just see it as someone trying to get to know me. I don't worry too much about how others try to define me.

A lot of people are shy and it's hard work to try and talk to a stranger. I think you need to cut people some slack. If a party is full of people who have rules about what they want to talk about and with who, that doesn't sound like a fun event.
posted by Salmonberry at 12:15 PM on December 23, 2004

bondcliff: "Halfway."
posted by o2b at 12:17 PM on December 23, 2004

Dr. Wu wins the Milo Bloom memorial hairy fishnut award.
posted by bondcliff at 12:18 PM on December 23, 2004

I'm on the fence re: asking what someone does for a living. I'll as others that question, but I always cringe when I'm asked. Half the time when I tell someone I'm a lawyer they respond with a stupid lawyer joke. Really not a good idea when you first meet someone. Or, they ask what "kind" of law I practice and when I tell them, their eyes glaze over and I am left to quickly bring them back into a conversation or walk away.

I really dislike being asked "what's your story?" It comes across to me as over-aggressive and hostile, kinda like I owe that person an explanation. I always shy away from people, almost always men, who use that line.

If I'm at a bar, I'll ask someone about something in the environment. For example, a bar I patronize has dozens of different tequilas on shelves above the bar. I may say to someone, have you tried any of these? Which one do you like best?

If I'm at a party or other social event, I ask how they know so & so.
posted by Juicylicious at 12:22 PM on December 23, 2004

This only worked back in college among fellow Art History majors: "So, why do you hate your parents?"
posted by sixdifferentways at 12:36 PM on December 23, 2004 [3 favorites]

I ask: "What are you passionate about?" totally open ended and gives the stranger explicit permission to take the conversation somewhere that they care about, which 98% of the time is fascinating and a great way to dive quickly below surface chit chat.
posted by donovan at 12:38 PM on December 23, 2004 [2 favorites]

I find a great one is (yes, similar to the one above), "So, why do you hate your boss?"

Everyone has, or has had, a boss they've hated. It's a fun icebreaker.

If the situation is hobby- or interest-specific, I'll often go with "So, what brought you here?"
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:51 PM on December 23, 2004

The only problem with the "how do you know the host" question at a party, is if you know the host from the local bondage club or something else having to do with something that the host may not want to be "outed" about. In that situation, "we know some friends in common" is a good fallback.
posted by matildaben at 12:54 PM on December 23, 2004

I don't mind answering "so what do you do?" though I never just barf out a job description. I'll answer with a sport or hobby or something. This almost always leads to a more interesting conversation than a verbal exchange of business cards.

If I'm leading, though, I find that people are a little more at ease if you present just a little about yourself before expecting them to say much:

"Hi, I'm Tubes. I'm [describe relationship to host, or reason for being here] and I know most of these people from work/school/band camp/NASA, but I don't think we've met. (or) I don't know anyone here and thought I'd start with you."
posted by Tubes at 1:05 PM on December 23, 2004

ach, I was ready to add "halfway", too...

I once made a coffee table with a collage of conversation starters under the glass (along with random other visual montages). It was a fun project but rarely the actual source of conversation, although other people told me they used some of the things in there... in retrospect it was kinda like one of those party games, and so kinda fun but also kinda fake/imposed. It had things that tried to combine trivia and creativity and humor a bit, like, "name each of the seven dwarfs and each one's drug of choice", and it also had "would you rather" style questions, like, would you rather be blind or deaf; give up sex/give up books; achieve something greatl & die young, or never finish anything but live into old age - etc. I don't remember most of them, but I still try and ask random questions when I meet new people, just because I hate small talk. I don't really want to have to go through the same boring spiel about my life, and I don't often find other people's stories that well-told either.

Generally when someone asks what I do for a living, I tell them I borrow money (I'm a student), and after a sentence or two of background info I try to move on to some unrelated topic... little details of the environment are often a good one, as they're sort of natural but also particular. They don't feel contrived the way the contrived questions sometimes do (depends a lot on the crowd and how willing they are to 'play') but you're not just going through rote, either.
posted by mdn at 1:08 PM on December 23, 2004

When in Canada do what the locals do: talk about the weather. Really. This cracks me up to no end.

bondcliff: nope. I don't shave from October through March. It's too freakin' cold for shorts, so why bother?
posted by deborah at 1:14 PM on December 23, 2004

"So how did you end up in this misbegotten southern hellhole?"

Tends to amuse the right people and alienate the wrong ones.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 1:46 PM on December 23, 2004

TurkishGolds got it right. For a quirky and fun analysis of the question, listen to this This American Life piece. It's great.
posted by gramcracker at 2:03 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

A guy I used to work with would say in passing "Are you good?" (as opposed to the tired "How are you today?") with such enthusiasm that, if I was good, I immediately felt even better, and if I wasn't, I didn't feel quite so bad about it. Either way, I invariably stopped to chat with him for a minute or two. Maybe it was just because he was so pleasant. Other than working in the same office, we didn't have anything in common.

Maybe not the most interesting conversation starter, but then again it's open-ended, so you never know what you're going to hear in response.
posted by vignettist at 2:10 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

"So what do you do when the sun's down?"
posted by nicwolff at 2:37 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

When I get asked what I do I have to take care that I give my answer loud and clear. Otherwise they hear "auditor" instead of "editor". And if the reaction I get to that is any indication, auditors must be the loneliest people on the planet.

Perhaps you could look around for something external to comment on - hopefully not the weather, but someone else in the room, the food, the music, an interesting pin the person is wearing.
posted by orange swan at 2:55 PM on December 23, 2004

"You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down and you see a tortoise, it's crawling towards you. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping. Why is that?"
posted by juv3nal at 3:15 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

Ask, "Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly?"

Turkishgolds, were you as enamored by that This American Life episode as I was?
posted by The White Hat at 3:20 PM on December 23, 2004

I agree with Tubes, share first and ask later. Just blurting out a question seems a little demanding, let them respond to you instead.
posted by cali at 3:26 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

Speaking of This American Life, there's a great segment by Starlee Kine on the subject of small talk (and how to eliminate it). It's called The Rundown.
posted by sfluke20 at 3:56 PM on December 23, 2004

Ask what they're reading at the moment.
posted by gyc at 4:11 PM on December 23, 2004

The aversion to "What do you do?" came up in Born Rich, the documentary about the jaw-droppingly wealthy kids of America. There was one guy from Europe (don't recall which country) who sneered about how Americans always ask that. He was pretentious, but it stuck with me anyway and I've stopped asking.

My old roommate always used to fill a lull in the conversation with, "What was the best thing that happened to you today?" It lets the person talk about herself, and on a subject that makes her happy. Far better than asking someone why they hate X, which gets them all riled up and negative.

During orientation week at the start of law school, my friend and I got tired of hearing the same "What's your name, where are you from, where'd you go to undergrad, what did you study" conversations over and over and over again. The last event of the week was a BBQ, so when we met new people, we just asked, "what's your favorite condiment?" Either they don't hear you right on the last word, or they're amused by an odd topic of conversation. It leads to decent conversation either way.
posted by jewishbuddha at 4:14 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

I think that all the lawyers here will agree that when one lawyer meets another, the first question is always "where did you go to school?" This serves to as an intro to conversation and also establishes a pecking order. Not that I agree with the pecking order mentality, but then again I went to a Top 20 school.
posted by Juicylicious at 4:27 PM on December 23, 2004

Mine rotates seasonally. Right now I'm asking people if they got their Christmas shopping done yet, or what the coolest thing they got someone else was.
posted by atchafalaya at 4:36 PM on December 23, 2004

I'd be more inclined to ask what area he or she practices in. There "where did you go to school" has always seemed kind of obnoxious to me - but maybe just because I've known a few Yale grads and such who never seem to miss the opportunity to mention it.
But then again I only went to a Top 30 school.
posted by sixdifferentways at 4:45 PM on December 23, 2004

Ask what they're reading at the moment.

That's brilliant, and I'm ashamed I've never thought of it. Instantly weeds out anyone who doesn't read, which is a good thing, because anyone who doesn't read really isn't much worth knowing.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:56 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

"What do I do? Oh, I'm an undercover cop."

"Dudes! Five bucks says I can eat that whole bowl of guacamole in ten seconds. Who's in?!"

"So... you had that naked flying dream again?"

"You seem like such a nice sympathetic person. Would you mind if I blew my nose on your tie?"

"Oh, god. There's my mother. Quick, take off your pants!"

"Do you tango?"

"Hey baby, let's get drunk and go shoot rats at the dump."

But then again, I really don't care where anyone went to school...
posted by naomi at 5:20 PM on December 23, 2004

This is always good- you start with just the first one, and if they're familiar with the "10 Questions", then you can continue on with it.

What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

What turns you off?

What is your favorite curse word?

What sound or noise do you love?

What sound or noise do you hate?

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

What profession would you not like to attempt?

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

-Attributed to Bernard Pivot, "Bouillon de Culture."
posted by exlotuseater at 6:04 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

"So, do you," -Ralph Wiggum

Word on the whole barrage-of-interrogative-back-and-forth-about-where-you-make-your-money thing being tiresome and irritating. And yet listening and responding as if what's been said has registered is so important. Nobody ever breaks open and talks about their passions with a glib one liner invitation they?
posted by ifjuly at 6:47 PM on December 23, 2004 [2 favorites]

Juicylicious: Or, they ask what "kind" of law I practice and when I tell them, their eyes glaze over and I am left to quickly bring them back into a conversation or walk away.

Huh. I'm pretty sure this is what happened when you and I met. Oh well.

juv3nal: No, but somebody would.
posted by bingo at 7:19 PM on December 23, 2004


Oh wait, you mean in real life!

I also ask "what are you reading now?" in the hope that it will be something I might want to read. I might vary that with "What are you listening to these days?"

Back in the day when I was an unattached, outrageous flirt, I would sidle up to the best looking man in the room and ask in my best whiskey voice,"So what is your fatal flaw?"
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:53 PM on December 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

Something situational is most interesting. Juicylicious's example is perfect. I find all the gimmicky ones, well, gimmicky and a turn off. Basically the core concept is that you have 10-15 seconds to prove that you can use your brain and that it's worth using theirs to reply to you. Canned responses are the enemy. Put some effort into it.

And to directly answer your question, in my area (LA) they ask "what have you been in?", "who makes your dress?", "Where do you work out?", or sometimes just "wanna fuck?" This is why I don't make eye contact with people anymore.
posted by tinamonster at 8:05 PM on December 23, 2004 [2 favorites]

Well, I just got back from a wassel party. I read this thread just before we left. I thought about this thread. We are part of a small group of friends that gets together periodically, but the hosts had lots and lots of other people there, a fairly interesting and ecclectic crowd. Anyway, when I ran into someone I didn't know, I introduced myself (Hi, I'm Paul), and told them how I knew the hosts (Betty was student minister at our church). That pretty much opened up the conversation, and the other person usually did likewise. From there, we discussed quick life histories. I found out one of the other guests was also from Buffalo, so we had something to talk about. I guess my advice is, introduce yourself, share something about yourself, give the other person a chance to reciprocate and see where it goes from there.

That wassel was really good.
posted by Doohickie at 8:15 PM on December 23, 2004

Lately I've been using this: "Are you happy?" Usually people will respond, "do you mean now, or in general" and I inquire about their general state of happiness. Get's them talking about their spousal problems, depression, lousy job, and other interesting tidbits.

One person I tried this with is now using my shrink owing to the resulting conversation.
posted by Wet Spot at 8:20 PM on December 23, 2004

I like these. One question, though: what's wrong, really, with "what do you do?" It's a little trite, but most of us are fortunate or unfortunate enough to really spend a great deal of time at work. Like it or not, it is certainly a common experience for most. For me, it's not a question of "what socioeconomic bracket are you in?" but rather "what does your job say about you?" It's a natural entry into "do you like it?" or "that sounds pretty cool", or "how did you get into that?"

Maybe it's just me, though. Not to mention, the question "What do you do?" is not explicitly tied to work, though admittedly that's how it's usually interpreted.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 8:56 PM on December 23, 2004

If I had someone ask me, 'What's your story,' I might be a little insulted. After all, if it's a story, it's because it's not true, and why do think I'm a liar? I'd probably be far more startled than insulted, but I think it's a weird way to ask about someone's life.
posted by stoneegg21 at 10:10 PM on December 23, 2004

You could buy a box of these "Table Topics" cards, which contains 138 topics to launch conversations, and comes in a teen version.
posted by Lynsey at 12:09 AM on December 24, 2004

I like to ask couples "How did you meet?". It gets them talking about something they find (usually) exciting to retell. It also tells you a lot about their lives as they tell it - where they work, where they live(d), whether they have a sense of humor....
posted by ValveAnnex at 12:23 AM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

I know someone who always walks up to the most bored-looking person in the room and says, "So how much would it cost me to walk home with one of your kidneys?"
posted by honeydew at 1:43 AM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

If I had someone ask me, 'What's your story,' I might be a little insulted. After all, if it's a story, it's because it's not true...

There are no true stories?
posted by fixedgear at 6:00 AM on December 24, 2004

"What are you reading?" usually works for me to get a conversation started.

I really don't care 'what you do' so much as what it is that makes you 'who you are'.

To me, what you're reading and what you have read is a foundation [for the more interesting people I know] for who you are.

As has been typed many, many times: YMMV
posted by kamylyon at 8:00 AM on December 24, 2004

I throw in another request for gimmickless conversation starters. Take a little trouble and come up with something original. Most women don't respond well to gimmicky "lines." Why should the rest of us have to pretend to be nice and respond to boring, gimmicky conversation starters?

pieoverdone: The exact same question in Louisville. I met my wife in Montreal and told her it was always asked by Louisville residents. She didn't believe me until we met someone at a conference in Seattle. I said I was from Louisville and was immediately asked "So, where did you go to school."
posted by ?! at 10:30 AM on December 24, 2004

OK, so my dumb question is now this: what happens if two people are BOTH using the same active-listening and get-the-other-person-to-blahblah-incessantly-first technique? Wouldn't it backfire/cancel it out?

People will try the conversation-starter on me, and I will answer/re-ask, and then they will answer, then pry and pry to get me to talk about myself. I don't like talking incessantly about myself (and, well, especially not to strangers). Once I feel comfortable offering the information (in a later part of the conversation), I'll do so . . but I don't like to be questioned about it.
posted by oldtimey at 1:05 PM on December 24, 2004

Did I forget to post the time machine comment to this thread, or did someone go back and fix it?
posted by Caviar at 10:59 PM on December 24, 2004

oldtimey, a couple of times i've actually been called out for my active-listening, ask-a-lot-of-questions, keep-the-focus-away-from-me tactic (a very cool guy who i eventually befriended, the night we met, actually said straight up to me at one point in the intro chatter "are you one of those sneakily shy people who asks a lot of questions to keep your own secrets all to yourself?" with a sort of haha-but-i-really-mean-it smile). mm, it left me speechless and confused as to what to do next. :)
posted by ifjuly at 11:37 PM on December 29, 2004 [2 favorites]

« Older Where can I find free dialup in Switzerland?   |   What's the cheapest way to get an SSL certificate? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.