Talking: How does it work?
February 27, 2013 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I've been seeing my boyfriend for about three months, and just about everything is great. We see each other almost every day and sleep at each other's houses so often we practically live together. We have everything in common, and I've never met anyone I click with that much. One thing we have in common that's not so great, though: we're both shy, and sometimes we don't know what to say to each other! How can we overcome this? And, while we're on the subject, what are some good conversation starters? More info below.

This problem comes up most often at meals when we're forced to face each other. Other times - like cuddling on the couch or lying around in bed - we find no end of things to talk about! But when we're at a restaurant, I get nervous all of a sudden, and my mind goes blank. We've actually talked about this - he has the exact same problem. And even though he knows this is a mutual issue, he still sometimes worries that I'm quiet and fidgeting awkwardly because I don't want to be there. I can't really blame him. I have the same worries, and we both know that we like each other a lot and those worries are silly. Sure, we could try to be content to just enjoy each other's company silently, but we don't really want that. I, for one, would like to be able to maintain a conversation with my handsome fella! What can I do? What are some good conversation starting topics for someone you *do* actually know?

Incidentally: we're both in our thirties and fairly experienced in relationships. I think, in both our cases, all our exes did most of the talking. Heh.
posted by Gee, June! to Human Relations (39 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: So, uh, people's mileage vary immensely on what I'm about to suggest, and depending on your own social norms and expectations, this might not work for you. But one thing that has worked embarrassingly well at preventing awkward meal silence for my introverted boyfriend and my introverted self is smartphones. We can talk a lot once we get started on a topic, and our interests overlap quite a lot, but having the conversation starter of "hey did you read this thing" can help.

(I mean, not at meals with other people, because that tends to come off as rude. But if it's just the two of us, then, yeah.)
posted by kagredon at 1:49 PM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

You could agree to short circuit the natural progression of conversation and use a pre-arranged 'topic hopper'. When you fall silent for an uncomfortable amount of time, you can just say, "let's go to the hopper." Or you can just find something or someone in your field of vision and start talking about it. You can afford all manner of non sequiturs and awkward segues since you are both in the same boat.
posted by rocketpup at 1:50 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure the problem is that you "can't think of things to talk about," since you say that when you're cuddling on the couch you talk away just fine. It sounds more like there's some kind of weird reaction you have to "going out to dinner" as if it's supposed to be a much more formal thing, and you're getting performance anxiety.

Have you explored exactly what about going to a restaurant gets you nervous? Is it every restaurant? Only some? What kinds of restaurants? Have you always been like this? Or is it just with him? Or only just recently?...

...I'm not trying to grill you, don't worry. I just think it's telling that you say that you have no trouble talking to him when you're at home chilling out on the couch with him, but that one specific situation is where you and he both clam up. So, maybe examining that situation in detail will better help you figure out how to combat it - for instance, maybe if you figure out that fancier restaurants make you nervous, then you decide to only go to diners together while you're dealing with that anxiety; or maybe you may realize that you've been going to restaurants where the view sucks and maybe you decide to go to restaurants with great views so you have something you can both look at and point things out to each other.

You know? Rather than trying to come up with "conversation starters," maybe get detailed about where your nerves are coming from so you can customize the solution.

Good luck. It sounds like you do know how to talk to each other, it's just this one weird area; you're doing fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:50 PM on February 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: This happens to me sometimes, often when I'm with someone I'm close to and perfectly comfortable with and should have plenty to talk about with. If I really don't feel like I talking, I just say something like, "I feel really comfortable around you. If I seem quiet right now, I just want you to know it's not your fault--I feel like our silences are not awkward and I like that we can just sit together quietly and peacefully like this." The person usually says, "Me too!" and then we're fine. Communication always helps, even if you're just talking about the fact that you're not talking--it cuts the tension at least. If it really is a matter of just having to physically face each other, maybe you can just always be that annoyingly cute couple at restaurants that sits on the same side of the booth together.

So there's a little validation for your feelings. However, since you're asking for conversation starter ideas, you should get this Book of Questions and commit a few to memory (it's small enough you could even put it in a bag or large coat pocket). It's got some good questions that run the gamut from very trivial to deeply thought-provoking.
posted by lovableiago at 1:51 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In some novel (I don't remember what it was!), I read about a couple that met and fell in love and got married very quickly -- like in a month. They didn't know a ton about each other, so at the end of the day, they would each tell the other one memory from their childhood and one thing that happened to them that day.

I thought that was cool, and my husband and I have tried a version of it from time to time. It's fun, and often gives us a lot to discuss.
posted by OrangeDisk at 1:52 PM on February 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

Can you make a joke out of the dinner silence to break the tension? My partner and I once had a fifteen minute silent staring contest over goat cheese and candied walnuts salad.

Nthing talking about childhood. I feel like that topic can go on for a long while. Also, talking about current events/politics. Read the newspaper together before you go out and discuss over dinner?
posted by dysh at 1:54 PM on February 27, 2013

Best answer: This is a tangent to your exact question, but my wife and I sit side by side when we go to a restaurant on a date. You might find it more comfortable and less of an on-stage feeling than facing each other. You're also looking at the same things and can talk about what you see.
posted by mattu at 1:55 PM on February 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

When I have nothing to talk about with my boyfriend (we work together and talk every day, so we run out of exciting things to talk about once in a while), I just make googly flirty eyes at him from across the table, reach for his hand and smile at him. I tell him how handsome he is, and how excited I am to go on vacation with him in May. He does the same with me. There's a LOT of flirty smiling and googly lovey eyes. It makes the other person happy, so that's good enough for us. Maybe you don't need to come up with things to talk about ALL the time?
posted by at 1:55 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I get agitated at restaurants because I'm always afraid we'll get interrupted at the point at which we get a good conversation going and I'm bad at transitions. So we try to keep it light a lot of the time. If we don't have things we feel like talking about we'll usually go to an old standby

- word games of some sort, just boring rhyming games or I Spy
- making up stories about the other people around us at the restaurant, the weirder the better
- sharing a memory of something we've done together
- "What was your favorite part of today/last weekend"
- making plans for tomorrow or an upcoming trip or just talking about where we'd like to go traveling

Also we sit side by side most of the time which makes it easier to just sit and hold hands and look at things together.
posted by jessamyn at 1:57 PM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

This problem comes up most often at meals when we're forced to face each other. Other times - like cuddling on the couch or lying around in bed - we find no end of things to talk about! But when we're at a restaurant, I get nervous all of a sudden, and my mind goes blank.

Is it the whole "gazing into each other's eyes" part of the restaurant experience? Some people get self-conscious maintaining direct eye contact for an extended period of time. You could try sitting on the same side of a table, or caddy-corner rather than directly opposite. Perhaps that would give you a similar feeling to cuddling or laying on the couch--both on the same side, same team, gazing out at the world.
posted by gladly at 1:57 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

yep, I was coming here to suggest sitting side by side... and also the smart phone thing, and its easier side by side. Invent games, like a scavenger hunt using smartphone and having to find certain items, topics, etc...
posted by batikrose at 1:58 PM on February 27, 2013

I know exactly what you mean. We've fallen into the habit of asking each other kind of random questions - about the music that's playing or some recent webthing we saw of some geography/history/Something. And then the smart phones come out and we research and end up off on tangents and are entertained and practically have to remind each other to eat.
posted by ldthomps at 2:07 PM on February 27, 2013

I'd keep some cards with conversation starters in my bag, and haul one out to discuss if there's a lull.

Since you both have this issue, it can be a funny joke between the two of you. Perhaps he can keep a little notebook as well, and you can each share the burden of thinking of topics.

Also, you would not believe how many conversations between Husbunny and I start with: "Did you see that thing on MeFi/Ask Mefi?"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:08 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

When my wife and I run out of conversation topics at dinner, we talk about the most interesting Ask Metafilter threads of the day.
posted by dfan at 2:08 PM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Similar to OrangeDisk, my ex and I used to tell each other the best and worst part of our days every night right before bed. Could be something to have in your pocket.
posted by anotheraccount at 2:15 PM on February 27, 2013

When you're in public you can quietly make up backstories for people you don't know. Like, that woman is here from out of town she must be from....Toledo, Ohio and she has identical twin daughters named...Olive and Vivian. Switch back and forth.
posted by kate blank at 2:18 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would get something like this Table Topics game/conversation starters and bring it with you to dinner! Looks like a lot of fun and totally takes the pressure off coming up with your own stuff to talk about.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:18 PM on February 27, 2013

Sometimes when I go out to lunch with a good friend, even a friend I've known for a really long time, I get sort of tongue-tied at the beginning. When this happens, I usually start talking about the weather and make small talk. After we chat about something inconsequential for a moment or two, we pretty naturally transition into talking about other things. People in general need a minute to ease into a real conversation, and so there's a bit of filler at the beginning of every conversation. The longer you know each other, the shorter that filler can get, but it's still there most of the time. So practice your small talk on each other, and trust that when you start by talking about the weather, you won't just talk about the weather for the entire dinner. Even if you guys get the giggles, "I can't believe you're asking me if I think it'll snow!" that will probably still break the conversational ice, because it will remind you of your Aunt Agatha who always complains about her left elbow when it snows, and then you're off to the conversational races.

Also, my mother used to tell me a story about the Queen Mum in Britain. Before she was the Queen Mum, she was married to Prince Albert, who was the one with the stutter in The King's Speech, and who became King of England right before the Second World War started. At any rate, people made a bit of a stir about them getting married at first because she wasn't a princess and was "just" the daughter of an Earl. And after a long and happy marriage, she apparently once said that she hated going out to dinner with just him, because if they ever sat in silence for a moment or paused to sip their soup, people would start gossiping again about, "He went through all that fuss to marry her, and look! Now they have nothing to talk about!" Anyway, I mention it because you can maybe take comfort in the fact that even kings and queens have your same problem sometimes.
posted by colfax at 2:22 PM on February 27, 2013

I have had two relationships wherein a number of our dinners-out conversations consisted of playing 20 Questions, usually having started on the train ride to the restaurant.
posted by phunniemee at 2:22 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think when you get all nervousy like that, just stare at one another and flirt. Take the pressure off needing to talk in that moment. And then I think you'll relax and be able to start talking.

Using the things in front of you or around you are great for conversation starters. Constructing elaborate backstories for the people around you can work. Sitting side by side can help take the pressure off immensely (and is more intimate and comfy IMHO).
posted by heyjude at 2:35 PM on February 27, 2013

Take a tip from Simon and Garfunkel, make up stories about people in the resturant:

"Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, "Be careful, his bow tie is really a camera"

Also, PLEASE don't think about this much... it will only make it worse...
posted by HuronBob at 2:46 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My parents have been married 40 years and don't really talk at all- they don't feel they need to! So don't sweat it too much. The only problem if it works out is that your kids may be compensatory overtalkers!
posted by bquarters at 2:46 PM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

OrangeDisk - I bet that book was The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg. I just finished reading it!
I guess I'm really old:< because my hubby and I would read the actual paper newspaper at the dinner table and talk about articles that caught our eye.
posted by SyraCarol at 2:56 PM on February 27, 2013

Make up stories about the other people in the restaurant. Start a discussion by text.

Also, learn to be comfortable sitting in silence with people. It's a luxury that is fairly rare.
posted by kjs4 at 3:04 PM on February 27, 2013

One of the many reasons I love my husband is that he has no problem with both of us reading during a meal if it's just the two of us. We do it quite often, including at restaurants. As long as we know that it doesn't necessarily preclude conversation (i.e., it's OK to interrupt each other if we think of something or read something interesting to share), it works just fine, and we don't really give a damn what anyone else thinks.
posted by dlugoczaj at 3:06 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Eavesdrop on the people at the next table! And then make faces at each other when those people say something outrageous. This is what happens whenever I go out to eat with my sister.
posted by mskyle at 3:12 PM on February 27, 2013

My parents have been married 40 years and don't really talk at all- they don't feel they need to! So don't sweat it too much.

This. You don't have to talk to each other all the time. Going to a restaurant with a pre-defined set of conversation topics is way more awkward than sitting there in silence if you ask me.
posted by afx237vi at 3:16 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

"X or y?" is a good one.

Beatles or Elvis?
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Death by drowning or fire?
Plato or Aristotle?

You can make it as light or as deep as you feel in the mood for.
posted by empath at 3:33 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: sometimes we don't know what to say to each other

This is not a problem, actually. A lot of people are so uncomfortable with silence that they have to jibber-jabber about anything to fill the air. Your question indicates that you are not one of these people, so please do not become one of them. Learn to enjoy the silence.

You have also received a few comments suggesting that you sit side-by-side in a booth or at a table if you don't want to maintain eye contact with each other. Guess who else doesn't want to maintain eye contact with you? Me. There are few things more disconcerting in restaurant dining than seeing both pairs of your eyes staring at me every other time I lift my gaze. That gives me the "on-stage" feeling that others are suggesting you avoid with this strategy.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:36 PM on February 27, 2013

We like to do different NYTimes crossword puzzles, then trade when we're stumped. You could do this on paper, we use the smartphone app. It's super fun.
posted by bonheur at 4:20 PM on February 27, 2013

How about making meal time also brainstorming time. Write a movie or novel together, and only work on it when you sit down to eat -- then the silences aren't awkward, because you're both thinking of plot elements or new characters.
posted by spiderskull at 6:02 PM on February 27, 2013

Ooh, the pleasure of sitting and having a meal and not feeling like you have to talk. I say enjoy it, and share looks that express your pleasure with the meal (for instance) and each other's company, and only talk if you feel like it.
posted by davejay at 7:18 PM on February 27, 2013

Personally, I regard the ability to be comfortable in silence as a good marker of a healthy relationship, whether romantic or not.
posted by cmoj at 9:18 PM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Some of my favorite people are people I can sit with quietly. But -

Since you say you are both nervous and worried that the other person doesn't want to be there, maybe you could start by reassuring each other. "I'm glad I'm here with you tonight, thanks for picking this place out."

And you can frankly say "I feel nervous and I don't know why" and see where that takes you. What are you nervous about? If you can find out then perhaps you can resolve it or work around it.
posted by bunderful at 9:19 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a datapoint, my fiancee and I are the same way. In the house, out on walks, sitting at a bar or whatever we can chat away, no problem (we also enjoy comfortable silence). But have us face each other at a dinner table and we both seem to get tongue-tied. We look at each other, smile and say, "So....".

It definitely feels awkward.

As others have suggested, sitting next to each other is what works for us.
posted by kinetic at 3:20 AM on February 28, 2013

I've found in the last couple of years that if I have a date night coming up with my partner, I will try not to talk to him in the few hours beforehand about casual chit-chat stuff. Something awesome happen that day? Save it for the restaurant. Driving past something cool on the way to the restaurant? Save it for the restaurant. It's hard, but it's worked well because it means that I haven't told him all the good stuff beforehand.

I've been with him for over six years and we natter all the time, but you're right - there's something about being at the restaurant that changes conversational change. The more restaurant dates we go on, the more comfortable I am with just sitting there looking at my surroundings.
posted by chronic sublime at 3:46 AM on February 28, 2013

Response by poster: So, we tried the sitting side-by-side thing at dinner last night. Totally worked. Took some of the pressure off and then - surprise! - we were actually able to speak! Lots of other good ideas in here, too. Thanks, guys!
posted by Gee, June! at 9:00 AM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

My aunt and uncle were happily married for 40 years and their favorite story to tell was about how on their first date my uncle said "I don't mind uncomfortable silences because for me they are not uncomfortable."

Everyone's different, just because you aren't talking doesn't mean you're not smiling.
posted by M Edward at 10:02 AM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

My wife and I spend a lot of time playing hangman while waiting for food in restaurants. It's really nice.
posted by taltalim at 2:37 PM on March 1, 2013

« Older Word Freak for Chess?   |   What Are Some Tips on Doing Quality Phone... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.