Forest Gnome Needs Small Talk Skillzz
November 20, 2010 9:41 PM   Subscribe

Conversation starters/small talk suggestions for a forest gnome turned big city Barista?

I just moved from living in a forest. Literally. In a tent, for a better portion of 2 years. I'm not used to small talk that's not forestry, logging or camping related. Prior to living in the forest I lived in Germany and New England. Small talk wasn't big in either of those places.

I now work as a Barista at a cozy cafe in Chicago. It's an independent cafe and we have a bar near the register & espresso machine. Folks like to sit at the bar and read, chat, write etc etc.

How do I better engage with folks at the bar/customers who have a little extra time to chat, but probably not more than 5 min? My fallback is "how's your week/day?" I enjoy people and enjoy learning about them, I just don't have good starting points. I checked past entries, but I need more tips on shorter conversation bits for a cafe setting.
posted by Etta Hollis to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If they are reading a book, ask them about it.
posted by AMSBoethius at 9:46 PM on November 20, 2010

If you're new enough to the city, ask people about places to check out. Or compliment something about them (nice hat/hairstyle/earrings/bag/mustache).
posted by shinyshiny at 10:03 PM on November 20, 2010

> If they are reading a book, ask them about it.

Really? I hate it when people do this to me. If they are reading a book, leave them alone.
posted by msittig at 10:28 PM on November 20, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: My favorite small-talk phrase -- learned on Metafilter -- is "what's keeping you busy these days?" It offers a thread for conversation, unlike asking how someone's day/week is, which we're so accustomed to hearing as social convention and not a genuine question.
posted by missmary6 at 10:54 PM on November 20, 2010 [19 favorites]

If they are reading a book, ask them about it.

If they are reading a book, leave them alone.

There's actually a happy medium here, I think. It's probably not a great idea to interrupt someone who is clearly very involved in their reading to ask about what they're reading. But if you're already chatting with someone and you notice that they're holding a book, feel free to ask them about it. Like so:

you: "How's your day going?"
customer: "Oh, fine thanks. How about you?"
you: "Great. Hey, is that the new Jonathan Franzen? What do you think of it so far?"
customer: "blah blah blah fishcakes!" (obviously i am paraphrasing, unless you work in a surrealist cafe or this person really hates Franzen, ha ha sorry i've been drinking)

et cetera.

Basically, if the book does not already have a nose in it, it's fair game for a conversation topic.
posted by palomar at 1:09 AM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jokes - the standby of taxi drivers and barmen the world over. Get a book, or find a good site, and learn one or two fresh ones every day.
posted by Ahab at 3:21 AM on November 21, 2010

I've heard that it can be easier to have a conversation if you say something about yourself rather than just asking questions. It doesn't have to be deeply personal: "I just can't get used to this weather!" or "I like your sweater; I used to have one just like it" or whatever. It takes the pressure off the other person because they don't *have* to respond -- but they probably will.
posted by monkeymonkey at 6:02 AM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

"How 'bout them Bears?"

I admit to not having been there for a while, but in my memory, Chicago is the most top-to-bottom sports-crazy town in America. If someone doesn't want to talk about the Bears, Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks or White Sox, then they just don't want to talk. Figure out what team is in season, check out the story on their most recent game in the paper each morning so you have one or two talking points, and there you go.

"Boy, the Bulls really blew it last night, huh? Boozer only had three -- what a bum."

If they take the bait, then you just nod and follow along. (Note: You have to be good at nodding and following along. This is a skill that can be learned, but this margin is too narrow to contain it.)
posted by Etrigan at 6:50 AM on November 21, 2010

I kind of think you should let your customers initiate the chitchat, if they want to. They might not be interested in it, and might find it annoying that the barista won't leave them be.
posted by amro at 7:29 AM on November 21, 2010

My boyfriend is a barista whose gregariousness and ability to talk to anyone blows my small-talk hating mind. I have seen this dude have full-on conversations with very shady strangers in bus stations. People recognize him from work all over the city and write him Craigslist Missed Connections after falling in love with him across the espresso bar.

Things I overhear him talk about:

-Latte art; just explaining to people what the drawing in their foam is supposed to be, or that the @ symbol he drew is modeled after Helvetica, or how he was trying to draw something new and it didn't really turn out but he's sure it's going to be delicious anyway.

-Music, music, music, music. The employees pick the music in his shop and if anyone asks him what's playing it always turns into a 15 minute geek out session that ends with them swapping USB sticks full of MP3s.

-"How are things going over at "your place of employment)?"

-Asking people where they got their scarf/glasses/whatever as a compliment
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:43 AM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding following sports -- start supporting a team, if you don't already. Listen to the way other people start conversations with you, or continue them (at the places you go back to regularly). That way you find out the way things are done by different people in Chicago, and what kind of questions can be asked, and how.

Something that will work great on some people will utterly fail on others: this is part of the game. You need to look out for body language and clues (how full are their responses, whether they ask you questions back) to find out whether the person with the book wants to talk about it, or whether they don't. Or whether, as amro says, they're not interested at that moment in chatting with their barista.

When you practice you'll probably get a good impression just from their first responses or the way they sit down of whether they want to chat or not. I've had many conversations with strangers that started awkwardly but then turned into more interesting things. I ask lots of questions.

Speak about what people are ordering? ("I *love* this sandwich" // "I've never tried this, is it good?") And you don't have to climb Everest in one day; a friendly hello today can be the beginning of next week's conversation.
posted by squishles at 7:56 AM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

If anything big has just happened in the world in some area -- sports, world events, entertainment -- ask them if they've heard about it and what they think. As for the definition of "Big" -- if they might have realistically heard about it on the evening news, say -- so the opening of the new HARRY POTTER film would be fair game, because that shit is EVERYWHERE, but a smaller art gallery opening you yourself just heard about, maybe not (because it's possible that that gallery just caters to a very small audience).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on November 21, 2010

Best answer: If you've been living in a tent for two years, is it safe to assume you're a bit out of touch with pop culture, global goings-on, politics, the financial meltdown, who won the Super Bowl/World Cup/World Series, etc., etc.? You can use that to your advantage by asking someone to explain the latest in [topic] to you. If I found out you've been living in the forest for two years, I'd be totally fascinated, and a) would want to know all about it, and b) would want to fill you in on everything you've missed.

Plus, there's the whole new in town thing. Ask about local bands, artists, record stores, authors, etc. "Hey, Customer! I noticed you're looking at the Reader's music listings. Anybody good playing this weekend? I'm new in town and don't really know the music scene yet."
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:36 AM on November 21, 2010

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