How do I break the ice?
July 1, 2011 4:05 PM   Subscribe

I need tips and resources on the pure art of starting conversations.

I'm a geeky, male college student. I live off campus and I don't have a job, so it's hard to get to know people. I don't have nearly as many friends as I'd like.

Though my social skills are overall questionable, I'm pretty good at small talk. I have a good sense of humor, I'm genuinely curious about other people's interests and activities, and I know a little about a lot of stuff. But, er, I have no idea how to walk up to someone and start a conversation.

Few of the people who write about social skills and human relations seem to deal with this stuff. When they do, they always say that the beginning of a conversation is the least important part: just pick some silly thing!

But a lot of the time I blank out and can't think of anything at all. There's nothing notable about the situation to bring up. You can always go with the non sequitur: "So, what's your favorite Ska band?" But that's awkward. Epecially with girls: if you start chatting up a girl with some tortured stock line, you have to spend the rest of the conversation proving you're not a creep—if you don't get shot down right away.

There have been other questions about this sort of thing, but most of them are about the beginning of the conversation proper—"so, what do you do?"—and not the very first lines; and most of the answers are just stock lines or general tips about good conversation topics. I want someone to explain to me, in patronizing detail, how to handle the first five seconds of a conversation. How to observe the situation to find something worth commenting on, how to choose the right moment, and all that.

There are some books about small talk that cover the "first contact" question, but I don't know which of them are any good and which are just cheesy self-help advice.

Thoughts? Thanks in advance. You're all awesome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I think a good approach is, when striking a conversation with a girl, own it as what it is. A friendly, genuine compliment or question (what are you reading? Do you like this class?) is hardly going to be interpreted as creepy. If she's unavailable or uninterested, it's up to her to let you know. It just never sits well with me when a man approaches a woman, and is obviously interested but pretends he's anything but.
posted by namesarehard at 4:12 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Smart smoking cigarettes so you can ask people for a light.
posted by oreofuchi at 4:15 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Find a common subject - preferably within the room, the building or the town you are in - you can both discuss. You want to strike up a conversation, not launch into an obscure monologue like you see a pick up artist in a movie do. Aim for shared experiences, and those will be within the room or within the vicinity of where you are standing, or the route you took to where you are standing.

I want someone to explain to me, in patronizing detail, how to handle the first five seconds of a conversation

There is little to be gained from this.
posted by fire&wings at 4:25 PM on July 1, 2011

Heh, someone just sent me this: Funny, but the truth is, the guy at the table next to me at a cafe asked what I was working on, and it was fine. I have a boyfriend, but he was a nice guy and it did not make me recoil in horror. I think all of the complaints about this sort of question come down to, ultimately, disinterest on the woman's part. If she were interested, she'd think it was fine. And the only way to find out if she's interested is to say hello.
posted by namesarehard at 4:26 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're going about this the hard way. It looks like you want to start a conversation with a total stranger. My advice is to improve your social skills by starting conversations in environments where it is more expected, such as within a student organization. Join a couple that you are interested in. At that point, starting the conversation will be as easy as "Hi, I'm anonymous." If it's harder than that, you're looking in the wrong place. For now, anyway.
posted by grouse at 4:29 PM on July 1, 2011 [11 favorites]

I think it tends to be easier to strike up a conversation if there's something common going on. Going to a bar on quizzo night is great for this! If you're feeling bold, you can ask to join folks on a team! If they're not serious quizzers they'll probably be down for gaining another brain! If you're not so bold, you can talk to people at the bar between rounds. Something like "How are you guys doing? I just bombed that round! Pro-wrestler themed? Man, I did not get those! You did? Good for you. Did you watch a lot of wrestling growing up?" Adjust for luckiness in getting Batman questions because you're a comic nerd or really dying to know the answer to that Asian vegetable question. It's great because you have two different ins, the game itself, or any of the topics mentioned in the quiz. Bands or classic movie nights at bars are good for this too. You can comment on the event itself or stuff related to it, like a song you hope they play or how the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man scared the bejeesus out of you as a kid. It's just so much easier to talk to people at this kind of thing than at a regular bar on a regular night.
posted by troublewithwolves at 4:44 PM on July 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Sometimes, I ask people "What do you do?" and the I correct myself and say, "I mean... not what do you do for money. You can answer that if you like. But more like, what do you like to do?"

If I recited it like it was a script, I'd probably sound pretty boring. But off the cuff and casual, it sounds kind of exciting, maybe. I'm correcting myself, I'm groping for words, so I'm not intimidating, but I'm comfortable, and I'm asking about them. And I'm NOT asking about their job, unless they want to talk about it - I'm asking about shit that people don't often ask about.

What do you like?
posted by entropone at 5:01 PM on July 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

My most fun attempts at starting conversations with strangers happen when I just include them, conspirator like, in the internal monologue I've already got going in my head.

I've been waiting in line for fifteen minutes and I'm starving and oh god those danishes look like alien heads and now I kind of want one.

To stranger: "Maybe I've been in line too long, but do you think those danishes look like alien heads?"

The result is either amusing banter ("Tasty sugary alien brains ...") or a cool acknowledgment ("Not really."). If the latter, I go back to thinking in my head and we probably wouldn't have gotten on anyway. Once the ice has been broken with a little harmless banter, normal conversation topics flow easier.

(Sometimes this can backfire with people who want to have witty banter but aren't quite able to play ball, and then they end up glomming on to you and reading you the awkward poetry they wrote while on the job as a taxi driver and you have to figure out how to get away. Use the power wisely.)
posted by griselda at 5:05 PM on July 1, 2011 [11 favorites]

It's not that easy to just walk up to people and start a conversation. People don't like it, because they never know if you're going to turn out to be nuts.

The best thing to do is to go to places where people expect to be chatted up:

- a crowded pub night on campus
- some sort of club activity

What are your interests? Try joining an Ultimate Frisbee club, or a hiking club. If you're into anime and steampunk, try one of those. Join a community or neighbourhood group. Volunteer with a non-profit.

Once you're in an environment where conversation is expected, try starting off with that most boring of tropes, the weather.

- Awesome weather! or Cold isn't it? or Hot isn't it?
- Chat a bit about the weather, and then say, "By the way, my name is XXX. What's yours?"
- How did you hear about this event?

The challenging part will actually be making friends. It might be difficult to say at the first meeting, "By the way, let's go to a movie!"

That's why joining a structured group like a club or non-profit may be better. There are going to be regular activities with the same people. You'll have the advantage of developing a social life while still getting to take the time to get to know people.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:50 PM on July 1, 2011

Read a newspaper every day, and you'll never lack for conversational fodder, facts, opinions, shopping and weather information. You'll be a walking current events resource for everyone you meet, and you can start any conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime with "I saw in today's paper that _______." You can probably join 10 conversations a day that are trying to quote a 2 minute digest of a lead local story from morning TV, and you'll have 10x the facts, names, location, time and backstory (who, what, when, where, & why of classic print journalism) to contribute than other people who mainly get their news from TV, radio and most Internet sources.

Read 2 or 3 books (1 fiction, 1 non-fiction and one other from either) off the NYT Best Sellers list per month, and in a couple months, you can give the impression that you're well read for a couple hours. Add some quality magazine content, and spend some time listening to Sunday morning news/interview shows, and you'll be a popular cultural maven of the first water.

But mostly, just practice starting conversations with people. Introduce yourself regularly to strangers (if not formally, at least on a first name/handle basis: "Hi, I'm Tony, but most people call me Truck." Drop a fact or two as an opener "Whew, the paper said today was 80% chance of rain, but there's not a cloud in the sky. 3 weeks now, since the last time we had any rain, according to the Daily Mirror." People that want to chat or be friendly will pickup on conversational opportunities. Don't force it, but do make efforts to get people talking, by being unafraid to be the first one to say something.
posted by paulsc at 5:52 PM on July 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I should add that I learned to do this because both my parents are masters of the art of snappy conversation. It's how they met, chattering to each other on an airplane. They can strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime - which I found really annoying as a kid because they'd always get delayed talking to someone. Here's what I picked up:

- start with a neutral to positive observation. Compliment something, relate an unusual thought, look for common ground. If you go negative, you never know what the person's relationship might be to that thing and you might really stick your foot in it. If you can't genuinely smile while saying whatever it is, it might not be the best thing to lead with.
- give an opening for a personal interaction. Make it easy for them by asking them to respond to a question.
- don't follow the script. Everybody's got an impersonal script for the weather or the weekend or gas prices or bland "safe" conversation. Blah, blah, zzzzz. Get yourself off that track. Start making notes to yourself about odd goings-on so you have better material to share, and to get your brain in the habit of seeing things.
- keep asking for the person's input. Follow their lead easily when they hint at a new topic.
- laugh easily and naturally. It's relaxing for them and you.
- let people go if they aren't feeling the conversation vibe. Walk away cheerful. Don't take it personally. There could be a bajillion reasons why they aren't interested in chatting right then. Also, sometimes people need a minute or two to realize they want a conversation, so they might approach you later with a better response. If you sulk or cling, they won't want to come back.

That's about all I got. Half of it is just approaching people assuming they will like a little diversion or a compliment. Most of the time, they do. Good luck.
posted by griselda at 5:56 PM on July 1, 2011 [28 favorites]

Okay, I have this shit down. The key is to ask, ask, ask people about what they do and what interests them. I've gotten the most reserved people to open up to me like I'm Charlie Rose. Here's an example, with potential show stoppers:

- Hey what do you do?
- I work at a golf store, I'm the blah blah blah.
- Oh you golf? Where do you golf around here.
- Oh I actually don't golf.


- Wow, and you work at a golf store how did that happen?
- Long boring story

Here's where you got to keep asking people questions and about themselves. It gets boring unless you're talking to an astronaut who also is a professional actor. This okay and the art of conversation.

Also it helps to compliment people. If someone asks you something about what you do that shows they've been listening, "Hey that is a smart question!" Reward them.

Okay I got this down because I work with clients and I found that if I get clients to like me, they're less likely to get angry and call me on Saturday at 9PM. It is hard work, and I'm not a natural extrovert. Study people like Charlie Rose (seriously), and see how they ask really nuanced questions and weave something out of a subject they might know very little.
posted by geoff. at 6:45 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first five seconds?

1 Smile.
2 Say hello and look at her face rather than her tits while doing it.
3 Find something in common with her to establish a basis for friendship - you're in the same place at the same time for a start.
4 Complement her on the specific thing about her appearance she adopts to mark herself out. If you can't see what it is, you're not looking hard enough.
5 Ask her what she's interested in when she's not wherever you are now.
6 Be completely interested in learning about such thing and arrange a time and place for her to show you all about it (the non pressure non date date). It's perhaps at this point she'll point out she's actually waiting for her boyfriend, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Do not interrupt, do not talk about yourself and always empathise with whatever emotion she's expressing rather than offering a practical solution to whatever she's going on about, unless she specifically asks for such a situation. Let her talk at length about her latest phone call with her mother. Buy her a drink and a muffin. Stop thinking about yourself and think about her.
posted by joannemullen at 6:55 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the rule goes something like this: "If you're both tuned in to the same thing, both really paying attention to the same thing at the same time, you get a free pass to strike up a totally-out-of-the-blue conversation about that one thing you're both tuned in to."

People keep mentioning classmates because college classes are great for this: you sit there together, three hours a week, attending to exactly the same thing. So under The Rule, it's fair game to lean over to a total stranger in the same class as you and say "So what about that godawful tie the professor was wearing last week?" or whatever. Whereas leaning over to a stranger in your class and saying "What's your greatest ambition in life?" or "Nice shoes" or whatever is ... well, not impossible or forbidden exactly, but an advanced conversational gambit — even really slick conversationalists sometimes strike out with that sort of thing, and it's definitely not for beginners.

Or, okay, let's say you're sitting in the park watching the ducks and you notice someone else is watching the ducks too, and one of the ducks does something funny. You get a free pass to make one (1) snarky comment about the ducks without any risk of sounding like a creep. You're sitting in a bar watching football, and the guy on the next bench is watching the same screen, and some big play happens. There's your opportunity, comment on the play. You're walking out of a panel discussion at SuperFanNerdCon and someone else from the same panel ends up walking down the hall next to you. Go ahead and ask, "So, whatdja think?" I mean, I don't know what you're into, but if you don't like nerd shit, beer, football or ducks then maybe there's no hope for you.

Other environments are trickier. If you're sitting next to someone cute or cool-looking or whatever on the bus, you're probably not both tuned in to the same thing, so striking up a totally out-of-the-blue conversation is... well, again, not impossible or forbidden, but tricky and error prone and not guaranteed to leave you looking like a reasonably smooth human being. On the other hand, if you're on the bus and something noteworthy happens, something that grabs both of your attention such that you are tuned in to the same thing at the same time, you get that conversational free pass. Or if you notice you're both looking with disdain at the same stupid ad or whatever... okay, there's your free pass. You get the idea.

This is why people are telling you to join groups. What they mean is, "Go find shit to pay attention to at the same time as other people are paying attention to it, because then you get a free pass to comment on it and strike up a conversation." So go! Join groups! Experience the joys of synchronous joint attention! And take it from there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:17 PM on July 1, 2011 [92 favorites]

N.B. even if you don't like nerd shit, beer, football or ducks, there is definitely still hope for you. I am just easily tempted by cheap snark.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:43 PM on July 1, 2011

nebulawindphone can see the Matrix.
posted by abcde at 8:36 PM on July 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

But seriously, that's brilliant. All of these answers are great, but a lot of them don't focus on the main question of coming up with the first sentence or two. That's always kind of baffled me too, but I think you may have something close to a Grand Unified Theory here, nebulawindphone. I'm definitely keeping The Rule in mind from now on.
posted by abcde at 9:16 PM on July 1, 2011

With totally random strangers (in line, behind the counter, when trapped at a table at some event), I have very good luck with compliments. With women, if they're wearing jewelry, especially any kind of "statement" jewelry, it's almost certainly something they like and would like being complimented on. Try, "I was just admiring your earrings, they're so striking!" or something like, "Your coat is such a bright blue; it's really nice for winter, when everyone else is in black and gray."

I suppose this could be a tiny bit creepy coming from a man (I'm a woman), but whenever a guy has taken the time to notice my earrings or bracelet or bright-blue coat, I've been flattered and a little charmed, since female fashion isn't something men comment on very often. Makes it seem like they notice things and maybe think interesting things about things they notice. Really, every guy I've met who felt free to comment on how a bright-blue coat brightened up the winter landscape or how cheerful purple shoes were or something like that has been an interesting person -- notice how none of these comments focus on how a particular item is "hot" or "sexy" or "flattering" or "highlights your eyes." It stays pretty well in safe-and-friendly territory if it's about the item, not the person. You can always mention later on that her sweater really brings out the green in her eyes or whatever. And honestly, most guys who have opened conversation like this hasn't been hitting on me, just friendly, and it was always clear to me they were just being friendly.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:36 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think for my stranger-to-acquaintance experience at the bus stop there were a few important points:

1) Seeing the same people every day -- This builds up visual familiarity, so you get somewhat accustomed to the person even if you don't really know them. A class environment is good for this, as well as clubs and groups.
2) Some shared experience -- Being stuck waiting for the bus when it is 20 minutes late and other buses keep coming by means we're all feeling probably similar things. Tests in classes, other things of that sort can be the same sort of thing.
3) Being able to share some small comments in a noncommittal way for a few days -- We didn't go from strangers to happy chatting all at once, there were at least a couple days of just small comments and acknowledgements.

So, example in my bus experience, one of us would say something like "Man, why does it seem like 3 of the 56C will come by when ours hasn't shown up once yet?" and the other person would respond "Yeah it's ridiculous!" After a few occasions of this, someone segued into "I see you here every day, where do you work around here?" and then things progressed into proper chatting.

Really I think you have to wait until you can think of something notable to talk about. It doesn't even have to be really all that notable--there is always something to say about the weather, or if you're in a class you should be able to find something to say about the class (If only "Why are you taking this class?")
posted by that girl at 11:40 PM on July 1, 2011

Maybe ask: "What was the last conversation you had?"
posted by Clotilde at 5:23 AM on July 2, 2011

One blustery January morning in New England, I happened to be wearing pink shoes with flowers on the toes. Some guy I'd never met said, "those are the most optimistic shoes I've ever seen on a day like today."

That's one of the best start-ups I've been party to, and as long as I had them, those were my "optimistic shoes" and I'd think kindly of that guy and that conversation when I wore them.
posted by mmmcmmm at 8:25 AM on July 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

Thanks, abcde. For what it's worth, though, The Rule isn't really mine. There's a lot of work in psychology and philosophy on joint attention (a.k.a. paying attention to the same shit at the same time, and then noticing that you're paying attention to the same shit at the same time), and I've just sort of appropriated it as a useful concept to play with.

If you find it useful too, you might get a kick out of Herb Clark's On Language, which is a really excellent guide to how conversation works, and which depends really heavily on joint attention as an explanatory device. It's a bit pedantic — he's writing for academic psychologists and philosophers — but it's absolutely noob-friendly, doesn't assume any technical background, and it's highly readable. The guy really knows how to write.

The original granddaddy of the idea, AFAIK, is the philosopher David Lewis in his book Convention. That one's more technical and less noob-friendly, though Lewis was also a really good writer, and if you don't mind learning a bit of game theory it's a fun brain-stretcher in the same vein as Douglas Hofstadter at his best — lots of recursion and self-reference!

posted by nebulawindphone at 12:44 PM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

The PUA guys have a lot of interesting ideas in this area.

Yes, a lot of them are creepy, entitled and pushy. Some of them give advice that is frankly rapey. However, some of them have done some excellent work in analysing social interactions and, approached critically, there are some useful ideas to be pulled out of there - using tweezers if necessary.

For example, a classic PUA opener is "I only have a couple of minutes, I have to get back to my friends, but can you give me your opinion on something?"

This incorporates three elements:
  1. The time constraint. If you're opening a conversation with someone, as KokuRyu said above, they will have an initial fear that you might be weird or unpleasant. By explicitly limiting the time you're going to spend with them, you reduce their anxiety. It also gives you an exit if you don't find the conversation developing well. If it does go well, you can always make another excuse for extending it or go away to return later.
  2. Mentioning your friends. Sadly, being somewhere social on your own is seen as a suspicious sign by some people. If you show that other people find your company bearable, then you're immediately seen as less likely to be creepy. Of course, if you don't have friends to get back to, then don't pretend you do.
  3. Asking for an opinion. Most people love to give their opinion and if you set up an interesting question then that can lead to a good conversation out of nothing.
Caveat - a lot of this stuff is becoming well-known and you may be called on it if you use it word-for-word. The principles are valid, though, and you can adapt them to your particular situation.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:06 PM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

oreofuchi wrote: Smart smoking cigarettes so you can ask people for a light

The problem with that is that it's always easy to get said light. What's more difficult is getting a conversation to ensue.

Personally, the best way to break the ice is to have had a nice alcoholic beverage. Not so much alcohol that I'm drunk, mind you, just enough to get me to loosen up. That's how "Is this seat taken?" turns into me knowing about this guy being a high school football coach in Texas whose brother has a timeshare in Puerto Plata and on and on.

I'm not much of the sharing type, so I keep my answers..not cryptic..but not particularly elaborate and return to asking questions about my conversational interlocutor. Unless we're talking about some subject like what we each think about the stock market or whatever, in which case I share some more, but am still careful to ask for the other person's thoughts or opinions.

Quite honestly, at least for friendly conversation, you just talk about anything. I say this as someone who even 5 years ago talked to almost nobody in more than two word sentences and refused to meet people. The biggest thing for me was understanding that me feeling awkward was something that was 99% in my own head. Other people aren't going to care or remember if you say something stupid. Once I realized that, and got a little practice with the smalltalk, silly conversational openers weren't so much of a problem.
posted by wierdo at 5:18 PM on July 2, 2011

Some things you can keep in your pocket for moments when you don't notice anything interesting to comment on:

How's your day been going so far?
How was your weekend?
Any big summer/holiday plans?

Of course as others have mentioned, asking a totally random stranger these things might be considered odd.
posted by abirdinthehand at 5:28 PM on July 2, 2011

Maybe the last of those three would be considered odd. The others, if you have any reason at all to be interacting with a person are perfectly normal.
posted by wierdo at 5:37 PM on July 2, 2011

The best way to break the ice is an impersonal interrogative comment. (scroll down to Opening Lines)

This is ostensibly a 'guide to flirting' but is totally non-creepy, unlike the pua stuff. Most of it applies also to social small talk — stuff such as vocal signals, turn taking, reciprocal disclosure etc.
posted by Tom-B at 11:19 PM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

« Older Honeymoon in Vermont   |   I thought I understood file sharing Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.