how about that DOMA, huh?
June 26, 2013 3:49 PM   Subscribe

I went to a dinner party the other night and was totally miserable. I literally had nothing to say the whole night. I'm going to another one this weekend and I need something to talk about.

I'm not certain of everyone's politics so I don't want to talk about DOMA or the filibuster. I'm a programmer and like the more geeky side of things so something fun there would work.

I looked at this ask: How does applied kinesiology work, and is it ALWAYS a scam? and then went and found out how it works so I can do that if we are standing in line at the restaurant.

If it helps, there will be a couple of doctors there. I'm always reticent to ask about doctor stuff because I feel like they get that all the time. But maybe there is something I could ask them that would be interesting.

So, have you seen anything in the news lately or learned something new that would be fun to talk about around the table?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Was nobody talking? Unless the problem was awkward silences then there already were interesting things to talk about, you just had trouble figuring out how to discuss them. You won't be able to pick every, or even most, or possibly any, of the topics (depending on what the people there are like), so you might do better by focusing your efforts on how to engage in other people's conversations. What were they talking about that you felt like you couldn't participate?
posted by brainmouse at 3:52 PM on June 26, 2013

One thing I've found helpful in more formal social events like this is to not be afraid of sticking to small talk as a way to gradually delve deeper into conversation with people. If you're not already a storyteller or big talker, then you probably won't be, and that's fine: it's your general trait. But, not everyone has to be gregarious, so it's fine to keep it on the shallow side until a real opportunity at discussion opens up.
posted by planetesimal at 3:57 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Summer's here, it's time to ask people about favorite beaches, favorite clamshacks, best beach cocktails, best waves, and...I have found that almost everyone has a great story if you ask them how they learned to swim.
posted by kinetic at 4:05 PM on June 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ask questions about the following, anytime you feel like talking but don't know what to say:

Their hopes and aspirations.

People enjoy talking about themselves. You really don't need to talk about anything topical at all.
posted by empath at 4:09 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

People LOVE to answer questions about themselves and their opinions, but the tricky part is that you have to think of questions that don't seem intrusive. "How did you meet {the host}?" or even "I'm trying to remember when the first time was that you and I met --- was it that time that {host} had the summer solstice party in 2010?"

Depending on the group, asking people about their pets or children can really get a conversation rolling. Whenever I ask someone about their pet/child, I always respond to whatever species/age they say the pet/child is with, "oh wow, those are/that age is the best!" Then ask if they have pictures and shame them if they don't.

I know it seems really low brow, but the last time I was with a group of snooty folks who were one-upping each other like mad, that was the only topic that leveled the playing field. And I got to see some adorable pictures of long haired jack russell terriers OMG!

People are so weird about work questions. Some people will be all, don't ask me where I work, that's not how I define myself, but fuck 'em. I usually phrase it, "What kind of work do you do?" so that means they can answer as vaguely as possible. Then just keep asking follow up questions. Oh, a physicist? Oh, can you explain why light is both ray and particle?

The other thing -- and this is very timely because we're getting close to the all star break -- is to say something really unsupportable about a sport. My trick for YEARS was to say to someone who loved baseball: "They talk about strategy in baseball! Strategy! Pfft! Listen, if you're batting .500, you're an UNBELIEVABLE hitter, and you're only making contact with the ball HALF the time! Don't tell me about strategy until you can hit the ball!" That will set off a baseball lover for a minimum of 30 minutes. Guaranteed.

You can also ask little questions like, "What's a walk off win?" or "What's fielder's choice?" or "How do you know the difference between the top and the bottom of the inning?" Keep slipping in stuff like, "... and every inning takes a minimum of an hour to play, right?" and that will keep them on their toes.

You can also ask which sport has the longest season. Personally, as far as I can tell, the hockey season begins before the last playoffs have ended, so it overlaps every year, but I could be wrong. After all, basketball ended only, what, 20 minutes ago?
posted by janey47 at 4:12 PM on June 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

Travel. "So, you been anywhere exciting lately?" "So, do you have any fun trips planned?" etc.

In general, just ask a lot of questions. Lots and lots of questions. As empath notes above, people love talking about themselves, given an engaged and willing audience.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 4:13 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh oh oh, and on the applied kinesiology question, I once had my ears candled and that WAS a total scam and if you want I'll tell you all the details and you can pretend it happened to you. It might raise some eyebrows, though, because the reason I did it was because my psychic nutritionist strongly urged it (of course, the ear candler happened to be his ex-wife, starting in a new field, and he wanted to help her make it).
posted by janey47 at 4:16 PM on June 26, 2013

"So, how about that weather?"

No, seriously. Talk about the weather. Bonus points if one (or more) turn out to be weather nerds, and a 30 minute discussion of tornado formations and/or hurricane history develops.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:16 PM on June 26, 2013

You need the Dinner Party Download podcast! The podcast that helps you win your next dinner party. Every week they give you an icebreaker joke, info about something in the news, info about a historical event, etiquette tips, etc. Check it out!
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:21 PM on June 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

Yeah, during the summer, ask people where they're going on vacation, and if YOU are going on vacation or even THINKING about going on vacation, ask people for advice about where to go/stay/what to do. People love talking about vacation.

And seconding Dinner Party Download!
posted by Countess Sandwich at 4:23 PM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may find Act One of this episode of This American Life to be of use to you (6 min, audio):
The story of one girl's mission to bring people together everywhere by eliminating small talk forever. This American Life producer Starlee Kine has been going around lecturing audiences on the subject. She encourages them to switch to a new system she's invented, called The Rundown.
posted by macadamiaranch at 4:47 PM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Start with simple, broad questions and follow the path.

Did you grow up in the city?
- Yeah, but I went to school in Illinois
Really, did you like it there?
- It was fine, but I wouldn't have gone there if they didn't have the program I wanted
Yeah, what did you study?
- Applied awesomeness, but I minored in simplicity.
No kidding, I was just reading a book about applied awesomeness by Dr. Awesome McAwesome. Have you heard about it?

Etc etc.
posted by bunderful at 5:38 PM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are in America just say "what are you doing for the 4th". Then people will usually bring up something like "going to the shore", then you can ask about that, or "nothing, staying home to take care of dog", then you talk about the dog.

I wouldn't research "issues" further than just reading the paper/twitter/generic news. It's unlikely the topic you bring up will 'stick'. You have to be flexible and go with what other people bring up. Whether it's the weather, hating clams, North West (Kimye's baby), or whatever.

Just keep ears and eyes open and make small responses to whatever comes up. "I hate clams too!" or "what about those fireworks eh, are they having them again this year?" And so on.
posted by bquarters at 6:03 PM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

as for current events the edward snowden situation sure is fascinating. everyone has an opinion on that sort of thing and hopefully it wouldn't get heated.
posted by wildflower at 6:56 PM on June 26, 2013

For the record, I would think you either an idiot or a jerk if you asked scoffing questions about a sport I cared about. I'd totally explain the infield fly rule to you without judgement, though. Sort of dumb factual questions about sport wouldn't bother me.

For the love of god, if there's a mathematician or a physicist there, don't tell them how you're bad at math or how math/physics is so hard. I think that goes back to the "ask them questions about themselves" thing. There is no response to "math is hard" just like there's no response to "baseball is boring".
posted by hoyland at 7:56 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're looking for a script, sort-of. Or a rules-based system, which maybe appeals to your CS/programming background? Some people have suggested kinds of questions, even specific questions you can keep in your quiver.

I think this is going at the problem the wrong way. You need to get on that Dale Carnegie tip: to be interestingto other people, you need to be interested in them.

I'm a physicist. When I sit next to someone on a plane and they find out that's my job, I immediately get the Tell Me About Black Holes question. I hate the Tell Me About Black Holes question, because it makes the conversation transactional, scripted: I have done my part in asking you a question, now you must play your part in responding with your canned answer. I don't do anything remotely connected to black holes, but I have to have that canned answer ready -- because someone has told these people that they should ask a physicist about black holes.

So! So far I haven't offered much constructive advice, just told you what not to do. But it really does lie in being interested in people. Ask a question: what do you do? I'm a physicist. Really? How did you get into that field?/What do you study?/What's an actual day like for you?/Whar are your colleagues like?/Where did you go to school?

These are questions that follow directly from the answer someone has just given you. That's a conversation, that's the two of you going off the script. Keep going. Go further. Find out who this person is.

You're a smart person; you don't need to stock up on anecdotes. If you did, you'd just be trying to shoehorn them in. Instead, get serious about trying to really, sincerely be interested in the person you're talking to. Remember that she or he is the protagonist of her or his own story; nearly every event in their life has -- astonishingly! -- centered on themselves! So, find out who they are, what they do, what they love, what they hate. And remember that these things are interesting to them, and try to really be interested in their responses. Be genuinely, sincerely interested in them, and you'll be the most well-liked person at dinner.
posted by samofidelis at 8:17 PM on June 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

Do you read a lot about news and current events? That's a good way to be able to talk about a variety of interesting topics. If you want substantive news, you could read publications like the New York Times, and if you want really in-depth stuff on a variety of interesting topics. I suggest checking out articles on
posted by Dansaman at 10:59 PM on June 26, 2013

If you feel uncomfortable dealing with doctors about doctor things, that's OK. "What do you do when you're not doctoring?" is an interesting question with some potentially very interesting answers: collecting art, fine woodworking, and cabaret theatre are things three doctors I know well are passionate about.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:01 PM on June 27, 2013

Here are some other sources for conversation starters: And if you're a geek, geek out. People like hearing about things that get people excited. Obviously you don't want to put them to sleep, but I think if you know something really well and are enthused about it, it's a lot more memorable than the other conversations they had about the Kardashian's baby's name.
posted by tenaciousd at 8:50 PM on June 27, 2013

I can tell you the algorithm for a compelling conversation. The goal is to find a topic in which you are both genuinely interested. Then the conversation will just flow out of you with unstoppable force. Start with a broad topic and keep narrowing the search until you find something you're both interested in. Examples:

You: "The food at this party is great!"
Stranger: "Yeah, it is."
You: "Do you cook too?"
Stranger: "No, I'm really bad at it."
You: "What do you eat then?"
Stranger: "I eat burritos every day."
You: "Oh, there's a burrito place across from my house that was on the list of Top 10 Burrito Places in the city."
Stranger: "Oh, what's it called? What other places are on the top 10 list?"
You: "This place has a special shrimp taco ..."

You: "What type of work do you do?"
Stranger: "I'm a physicist."
You: "What kind of physics?"
Stranger: "Quantum mechanics."
You: "So do you do a lot of experiments? Or do you prove theorems?"
Stranger: "I prove theorems."
You: "How does that process work?"
Stranger: "I make little bits of progress, and occasionally have breakthroughs."
You: "When I work on things, I get frustrated if it's been a long time since I've had a breakthrough. Does that happen to you?"
Stranger: "Yes, it's terrible. I clean the whole house to procrastinate on my conference papers."
You: "I take long walks! What works for you to finally get started?"

Anyway, the point is that once you find the common interests, human nature takes over and you will chatter away happily. So the whole point of the conversation is to do a search algorithm for those common topics.
posted by cheesecake at 8:57 PM on June 27, 2013

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