And... uh... what's your name again?
October 22, 2009 3:49 AM   Subscribe

What kinds of generic questions are good to use in social situations (groups, parties, etc) when there are awkward silences?

I don't exactly have stellar social skills -- I mean, they're not hideous or anything, but I do way better at one-on-one interactions with close friends than anything else. Yet life seems to keep throwing me in situations in which I must talk socially with people, and I feel like I could improve my skills in this area.

One thing I have noticed that I do badly happens when there are awkward silences. I become uncomfortable and babble. Very often I will leap in with some funny / self-deprecating story, which often works, but fails if you do it too much - and I don't like feeling like I'm talking about myself too much. Or I will "mock" insult other people (targeted to people who I know won't be bothered), but again, this only really works in small doses, and only if such people are around.

The advice often given on MetaFilter in this situation is to ask questions to other people and get them talking, but this is where I fail miserably. What questions?!? Very often these are people I sort of know, or it's in group situations, so "how many siblings do you have again?" type things are awkward and strange (or I already know the answer). I know nothing about fashion, so questions like "where did you buy that necklace/scarf/etc" die a painful death once they answer, because I don't know how to respond. I recently moved to Australia from the US so I don't understand most of the major sports, nor do I have a favourite team, so general sports-related questions don't work either. (I'm trying to cultivate an interest in at least one of them but this will take a while).

When I ask people in real life for advice most people say to ask about whatever I am truly interested in -- but the problem is that most of the time I am interested in things that aren't conducive to general social chit-chat: I'm an enormous geek so I will be thinking things like "I wonder how you could capture the social dynamics of this scenario with an agent-based system" or whatever. Unless you're in a very specialised crowd, these sorts of thoughts are not the kind of thing that leads to good questions (and I don't have as much problem when I'm with that sort of crowd).

I was hoping people could give me examples of generic questions that I could memorise and have to hand when in these situations. Non-intrusive, friendly, useful in a variety of contexts, and just aimed to be conversational filler and polite chit-chat. I know this may seem like a silly request, but pretend I am an alien from outer space and need everything spelled out in detail. Bonus points if you can kind of sketch out how to deal with the sort of answers these questions often get.

And just to clarify: I'm not asking for questions that work with people you have just met. I'm asking for questions appropriate for people you kinda-sorta know, and are friendly-ish with, but are not close friends nor probably will never be; e.g. at work-related social situations, or talking to a friend of a friend at the bar while the friend goes off to get drinks.
posted by forza to Human Relations (21 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
Previously. See also this comment (the "FORD" technique).
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:58 AM on October 22, 2009

Response by poster: Those are very useful, Jaitcoh, thanks. But I should clarify that, precisely the opposite to the person in that first link, I'm looking for questions (or techniques or topics) that are superficial and just keep the conversation rolling along on a nice shallow level. Situations that are basically social grooming, nothing more, in which neither of us has the energy or inclination to really learn anything too deep about the person.

I suppose another way to ask my question is "how do I get better at social grooming?" but I was trying to narrow it down to be more specific.
posted by forza at 4:06 AM on October 22, 2009

It's hard to keep a conversation rolling on a shallow level when it's predicated on the idea that neither of you want to be having the conversation. Conversations on a shallow level don't roll--they have to be brief because everyone is so bored.

So I think that when you say 'neither of us has the energy or inclination', you'd actually be better served by putting a little energy into it, otherwise the conversation sits there like a deflating balloon.

I liked the FORD technique Jaltcoh linked to.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:14 AM on October 22, 2009

You may not like talking about yourself, but passing general comment on your day so far, or your surroundings, is usually a good jumping off point for conversation. Think in simple terms about about your morning, your afternoon, yesterday or the day before, the things you did and whether you enjoyed it or not, then proceed. You needn't explain in detail or get into describing your obscure interests, just making an open ended comment will initiate interest from your companion - What a great morning I had, we've started a new project at work. What a stressful week, my workload seems to have doubled over the last month...etc. Don't waffle, just put it out there and wait for a response, and be prepared to talk about yourself a little in the course of the conversation.
posted by fire&wings at 4:17 AM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: Along the lines of what fire&wings said-- I tend to think of conversations like fires, in that there generally needs to be some material there to keep things going, and when you run out of content, things die. But content can be hard to generate on the fly, so in this case, if you don't want to mine your personal life or their personal life for material, then you may have to bring something in from outside.

It's a little extra work, but I always try to have, like, 4-5 general conversational subjects handy, from a variety of areas-- nice neutral generative topics, like How Narcissistic Celebrities Are Today, or How Crowded It's Getting On These Local Roads. That way, instead of trying to badger your partner to come up with new content (which is really what's happening when you ask questions out of the blue), you're providing a little interim material, AND suggesting a direction where they might contribute, as well.

To avoid random non sequiturs, just find an immediate detail or observation and use it as a lead-in to the broader topic, like, "God, it took me forever to get here today. I really think these local roads are MORE crowded since they put in that bypass that was supposed to help so much. What's your commute been like lately?"

If you've picked your topic right (somewhat open to debate, but not too contentious), then with luck the other guy will respond with some additional material ("Well, actually, I've noticed that Rt. 1 is a bit better. Although I saw an accident there the other day that...") , and together you can eke out a few more minutes of small-talk.
posted by Bardolph at 4:48 AM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

If introduced by a mutual friend, you've got that in common so you can use him or her as a conversation starter:

"So how do you know Mutual Friend?"

or, "Mutual Friend said that you were a golfer | banker | basket weaver, is that right?"

or, "Mutual Friend said that you've just gotten married | gotten a new job | had a baby - congratulations!"

or, "Mutual Friend said that he'd just been to a gig on Friday, did you go?"

you get the idea. After that, take whatever scraps they throw you and roll with it - if they didn't go to the gigs because they're not into gigs, you could either commiserate or say how much you like going and who you've seen recently, etc.
posted by ukdanae at 4:50 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Non-controversial current events are good for this. Examples:

"Have you heard that Starbucks is now pitching instant coffee? What do you think about that?"
"Have you noticed traffic has improved since the XYZ road was built?"
"Isn't it nice that the weather's changed? Do you think it will last?"
"Are you looking forward to NextBigHoliday? What are your plans?"

Regardless of the other person's answer, your follow-up formula can be:
1. Agree, or say they make a good point.
2. Ask another related question, based on their response to the first question.

For example, if they have not heard about Starbuck's plan, you can tell them more information. If they like instant coffee, you can agree (that it's tasty, or convenient, or a good marketing move). If they hate instant coffee, you can agree (that it's vile, or not in keeping with Starbuck's marketing). Then follow up with, have they tried it? Or, how do they feel it compares with Sanka? Or, do they prefer big-chain coffee shops or local ones?

For another example, if they do like the weather, you can agree (it's wonderful). Or, if they hate the weather, you can agree (it's terrible, or they make a good point in that it is terribly hot/cold/wet/dry). Then follow up with a question about how they will spend time enjoying the weather (do they love skiing/hiking/splashing in puddles/laying on the beach?), or what they will do to keep inside until the weather improves (do they like curling up with a book on stormy days/do they bowl while it's so terribly cold outside/do they enjoy ice cream in this terribly hot weather?).
posted by Houstonian at 4:58 AM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Current film (even if you haven't seen it... has anyone/have you seen X Film? I'm wondering if it's any good?... if they haven't, ask what they've seen lately that they liked). Books, if your crowd rolls that way (I want to get out of my SciFi (or whatever) rut; what should I read? blah blah)... Food. Hey, you don't happen to know of a good X-ethnic restaurant, do you?; if they don't, ask about places they like for whatever reason, because you are looking for new places to try out. Or where to buy specialty foods/ingredients. Advice (tailored for people you know a bit); to the guy who is a sound system technology buff... oh, hey, I'm thinking of getting some speakers, but don't want to spend more than X - any recommendations? _Everyone_ loves giving advice (see? I'm doing it right now, for no good reason at all!), so it will pay to keep your ears open when people you work or interact with talk about their areas of interest. Pets. Do you have any? Do they? Hours of entertainment. Actually, it doesn't even matter if you do or not; if they do, they'll talk about 'em. Kids? Same deal. Local Crime. Nobody can't not talk about it.
posted by taz at 4:58 AM on October 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Forget about questions-- personally, I like statements. It's so much easier to get somebody talking when you ask open ended questions. Instead of "How many siblings do you have," say, "Tell me about your family!"

Instead of "I heard you like golf, is that true", say "Tell me about your last golf game." Chances are, as somebody is yammering on about themselves, you will find more material to work off of.

Remember, nonverbal communication can be as high as 80% of what we "say". Be aware of your own body language and internal state as the conversation flows along.

Best of luck!
posted by wandergeek at 5:13 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd like to second the FORD technique, it's really clever. I'd throw in questions about their current job, since you work together and it's a safe topic that can be enlightening. Also, I'd say it's far less intimate than self-deprecation or teasing other people in the room. Honestly, in these conversations a lull often means its time to refresh your drink and talk to someone else/go to the bathroom/get back to work on that project.
posted by fermezporte at 5:35 AM on October 22, 2009

Picking up Taz's idea of asking for advice: since you're recently moved, milk that for all it's worth. Try "I'm new around here and have been trying to find a good (cafe/Thai restaurant/hardware shop) - do you know of one?". I've found it works for at least the first year.

If you're lucky, you'll get friendly chat and useful information all at once. Also opens up another line of conversation if they go down the "where are you from/ how long have you lived here / how does it compare" line - which you can then turn back on them by asking if they've always lived here etc, and off you go.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:36 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few I find useful, generic and easily re-usable:

"So what are you planning to do over summer/fall/winter/spring?" (another variant is "Are you planning to pick up any hobbies over summer/fall/winter/spring?")
"What do you at your job?" (Easy spin off - "ooh, widget maker, I didn't realize that there was a specialty for widgets - what do you do on a daily basis?")
"Whom do you do know around [here]?"
"Is anyone planning to see [name of non obscure movie]?" (doesnt have to be big - "let the right one in" would work as at someone would recognize - move forward to talking about twilight, vampires in the modern media, etc) Also, "I'm so excited for 2012 - the effects look great! Are you planning to see it?"
"Did you see the new museum/show/theatre/building/store they built around [nearby location]?"
"So, I've just moved here and I noticed [X]. What's up with [X]?"
"So, I've just moved here and I really miss [Y]. I found [Z] but am looking for a closer substitute, any suggestions?" (can be food, make-up, kitchen implement, clothing, type of store, type of entertainment)
Share a problem (not whine, but share) - "you know, I'm having the hardest time picking a local favourite sports team/finding the best detergent/washing my hands without them drying out/finding a good sunscreen/waking up on time/falling asleep on time/picking a good beer/remembering to buy things on sale/ clipping my cats nails - would you by any chance know anything about that?" - people usually try to help and this spins off an easy conversation.

Remember, it's the other persons responsibility to play "ball" too - so they should want to cooperate and ask reciprocal questions or respond to your queries.
posted by olya at 6:08 AM on October 22, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: When an improv scene is dying I was taught to "see a tree". Remark on some banal detail in the surroundings, ideally with an emotional point of view. It tends to revitalize the scene. I think it can do the same in a conversation. Examples?

a) That tree has no leaves on just one branch. I wish humans could confine their colds and flu to single extremities.
b) This sandwich is particularly good. I think it's the mustard!
c) Did you guys notice how smiley that waitress was? She wins a gold in the friendly Olympics.
d) That is a big truck. I can't imagine driving anything bigger than a Honda Civic.
e) I took this bus last week and the bus driver did kind of a stand-up routine as he announced the stops. I was sitting right behind him and I felt immense social pressure to laugh at his jokes.

Those kind of random observations give others good conversational openings for small talk, and the fact that each includes a friendly dose of your opinion provides a toehold for a friendly agreement or debate to begin. It makes for some pretty Seinfeldy conversations, and lots of people are into that.

An aside: I don't know what an agent-based system is, but I suspect I would find you kind of charming if you threw that into a normal conversation for a few minutes. I have a dentist friend who will occasionally FREAK OUT about the underbites (or whatever) of people walking by on the street- his acquaintances find it hilarious. People usually like small doses of other people's geekery, so don't be shy about trying those conversational gambits out, too- I suspect you might hit some gold in a very "thine own self" kind of way.
posted by twistofrhyme at 6:57 AM on October 22, 2009 [19 favorites]

"I recently moved to Australia from the US so I don't understand most of the major sports. . . . I'm trying to cultivate an interest in at least one of them." Which one do you think I should choose? Why?
posted by Xalf at 7:19 AM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: Anything new is fair game for conversation -- new boss/co-worker, new cat, new car, new overpass, new prime minister, new movie, new bartender, new drink, new tenant, new bank, you being new to the area, slang or other cultural artifacts that are new to you, anything at all. (Well, not so much sexy new sexmove or new herpes zoster, a sense of TMI is a good thing.)

When you ask questions, make them open-ended whenever applicable, and follow up. If you dont know fashion but do think a scarf is lovely, your follow-up doesn't have to be "Where did you get it?" It can be, "I never have been good at accessorizing. Do you have any tips?" or "I love the way the red in your scarf brings out the red in your eyes," or any number of other tangents.

Take a cue from improv. The "Yes, and ..." method will take you a long way in casual conversations, and can be a way to bring in some humor.
posted by notashroom at 7:29 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

"So how 'bout those [insert local in-season sports team here]?" Or the weather. Or current events.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:20 AM on October 22, 2009

I like to skim the news, a gossip blog and maybe an industry-related magazine the day of the party/happy hour. That way you'll have several topics fresh in your mind that will interest others. One of the things you read is bound to be relevant and come in handy. You may even be able to help someone by giving them new information.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 8:27 AM on October 22, 2009

Honestly man, it's very easy to tell when someone is starting a conversation just to have something said. Normally the person starts of by putting a phrase or word that is meant to disarm the target, such as honestly.

seriously thoug... if you want to have superficial conversations you're going to get exactly what you ask for. Unless both parties are genuinely interested in the content then someone is faking it. That doesn't mean you need to specialize in color theory or speed read people magazine, but it does mean that if you're talking to someone who does then you need to treat them as an authority.

Approach the conversation in the same way you'd talk to a physicist who just solved the third body problem, which basically means listen. if you don't understand what they're saying or why it's important to them ask.
posted by RawrGulMuffins at 10:50 AM on October 22, 2009

1. read the news
2. talk about it
posted by WeekendJen at 1:38 PM on October 22, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, these are great. I marked some best answers but all of them have been useful -- including the ones pointing out that it won't work unless I actually care and don't want a superficial conversation. Problem is, sometimes that is all you want, and circumstances foist conversations on you (especially if you're an introvert) -- so even if it won't work great, having these tools in my toolkit will make it work a lot better.

If anyone has other suggestions, keep 'em coming, but I just wanted to thank people for contributing the ones up there so far.
posted by forza at 2:32 PM on October 22, 2009

One nice thing to do is to set up the conversation for the newcomer. For example, you are talking with Bob about weather. He says that he loves the hot temperatures, and goes swimming a lot when it's hot. Sue joins the conversation.

You: "Sue, this is Bob. We were just talking about swimming to keep cool in this hot weather. Don't you do a bit of swimming yourself, Sue?"

This also works if you don't know the other person.
You: "Hi; I don't believe we've met."
Sue: "I'm Sue."
You: "Nice to meet you. This is Bob. We were just talking about swimming to keep cool in this hot weather. Do you enjoy swimming?"
Sue: (Either picks up on the swimming thread -- yes she likes it, or no she likes something else -- or the hot weather thread -- gosh it's too hot, or isn't it lovely.)

Folding the newcomer into the currently-discussed topic keeps you from having to start up a new one, and puts the others at ease because they don't have to think of something to say thus avoiding that awkward silence.
posted by Houstonian at 4:38 AM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

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