How can I engage in better conversation and avoid boredom?
December 22, 2013 4:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm tired of dreading large social gatherings where I am bored/bore people. How do I step up my game and engage people in conversation such that it is enjoyable and interesting for all involved? I want to avoid small talk. Please give me tips, tricks, mantras to make it better!

I'm gearing up this week to see lots of people I only see sporadically, and I'd like to get over the boredom hump. I often find solace in cooking or taking care of stuff because it means I don't have to sit on the couch and nod with a fake smile and pretend to be paying attention. I do listen more than talk, and try to ask questions but I guess I need better questions?

The problems I see it are:

1 - Small talk gets old fast. I would like to be able to steer this type of conversation into something more sustainable.

2 - What are good, non-superficial topics that aren't no-go areas? I know we can't talk politics or religion (and probably not most of pop-culture), but what's left if not the weather? I've tried probing questions like, "Why?" or "Please elaborate" to find something to connect to, but I seem to weird people out or make it seem like I'm trying to start an argument.

3 - How do I gracefully nuke conversations that seem to want to pick a fight or sort of insult me? This is why I try to avoid pop-culture conversations. I've had too many people try to talk about something like a new band they like or a TV show they think I should watch, but when I tell them I don't like it that much, they try to tell me why I'm wrong. I don't tell them their taste sucks or anything, and sort of make fun of myself and my preferences, but short of lying (which works but is tiring) what else can I do?

4 - My expectations are too high and that I should just sit through these gatherings and accept it is what it is. The thing is, I know I've got non-mainstream tastes and can be quite a bore. I purposefully do not bring up my hobbies because they're dull, especially to my family. I feel like Eric Olthwaite, so I try to avoid anorak city.

These people are unavoidable because they're family (or very good friends of family). Short of cutting people off because it's intermindably dull, how can I make it better?
posted by kendrak to Human Relations (28 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Don't talk, listen. Let people talk and ask a few questions. Don't get drawn into any arguments.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 4:19 PM on December 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

If people want to tell you about a TV show, ask them more about why they like it, and then bring up a similar show you like, or something they say that you also find interesting ("Oh, you like the character development on Mad Men? I really like well written characters on TV shows too!" or "I just read a book about career women in the 60s, very interesting!" so, even if you don't like Mad Men or would never want to watch it, you can find a common bond).

I think one thing I've learned about social interaction is that people are just looking to make a connection, and you don't always have to respond by telling the whole truth about how you feel.
posted by sweetkid at 4:27 PM on December 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

short of lying (which works but is tiring) what else can I do?

Someone says "I really like [pop culture thing]!" and you say "Oh? What do you like about it?" and "That's interesting. Have you experienced [other pop culture thing that you've at least heard of]? It sounds similar." or "I don't know [that thing] very well, but I really enjoy [other pop culture thing]." Telling someone that you don't like something in response to their liking it is basic bad manners, which is why it's going badly for you even when you try to do it gracefully. There's no graceful way to do it.

Small-talk topics: Work ("So what do you do?") travel/traffic, food, mutual acquaintances ("So do you see Cousin Ed much? I ran into him last month and his baby is cute!") and, yes, weather. If you tend to freeze up during small talk, think about these subjects ahead of time and be prepared with some one-line questions *and answers* to keep the ball rolling.

I find it very useful to have a couple of prepackaged general remarks about some of them that are too hard to explain - for example, my default response to the work question is "I work on the internet! It's very modern and all that. What do you do?" which allows both of us to avoid listening to my What a Community Manager Does speech (which I can also give when people seem genuinely interested.) Your hobbies may be dull, but it's nice to be able to have the equivalent of "I knit! My goal is to someday make a sweater for the lion at the zoo" for your hobby, which isn't boring and doesn't require boring further exposition but gives the other person one more Thing They Know About You. Which is the point, really.

And yes, to some extent these things are unavoidably dull. That's why there's usually alcohol, or at least sugar.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:27 PM on December 22, 2013 [19 favorites]

1) It sounds like you want to steer them into talking about something that's interesting to you... Maybe think of conversation more as a dance that leads to you talking about something interesting to both of you.

2) People love to talk about themselves: their jobs, their families, their hobbies, their histories. The trick is, you have to find this somewhat interesting. Make a study of people. Ask specific followup questions. Brief, nonspecific questions like "why" or commands like, "please elaborate," can sound abrupt and throw people off, leave them at a loss as to what to say next. Ask questions that are easy to answer, like, "How long have you lived in [town]?" "Oh, I would have though X, what makes you say Y?" "Is there anything specific that drew you to that line of work?"

3) If somebody gets into a NO REALLY YOU HAVE TO WATCH X mode, just say, "Sure, I'll check that out if I have a chance." Odds are, they're never going to follow up, but if they do pester you about it at a future date, just say, "Oh, I never got a chance to look that up."

4) If you expect people to talk only about the topics you're interested in, that's an unreasonable expectation. You have to probe around a bit to find something you both like.

Your questions here are coming off a little judgmental and fighty, like you assume people aren't going to like anything you like, and you can't let something slide if you think they are wrong, which also doesn't lead to people opening up and feeling comfortable with you. If, instead, you're open and curious about people, and try to find things you have in common, and just shrug and quickly move past points on which you disagree rather than trying to convince them you're right, you maybe find conversations more pleasant.

I mean, it's possible they're all dogmatic bores who only like terrible things, but the only sure common factor in your unsatisfying conversations is you, and you're the only person you can change in this situation, so treat it like a game or a role-playing exercise. Can you be the most pleasant conversational partner possible?
posted by BrashTech at 4:38 PM on December 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

Conversation trick: Asking people "Why?", even if you're genuinely curious, can make your conversational partner get defensive and shut down. "What makes you say that?" or "What made you decide that?" often produce better results.

As an overall strategy, the more stuff you have to talk about, the less small-talk you need to deal with. Read a lot of things like The New Yorker or MetaFilter, listen to NPR, read lots of smart but general interest blogs -- basically do your best to pick up interesting takes on current events so that you can take the conversation deeper if one of those topics comes up. Depending on your group, science/nature/technology stuff is often a good bet.

As for people who want to go on about their favorite pop-culture whatever, that's mostly when I grin and nod or make some sort of agree-to-disagree statement like, "Well, I haven't seen/listened to a lot of it, I'll have to check it out!"
posted by jaguar at 4:51 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Betty Draper is right: "Only boring people are bored."

Make yourself more interesting to be around. Develop your hobbies, volunteer, read The Week Magazine, read up on how to schmooze, read up on active listening. Talk less.

@restless_nomad is absolutely right about manners: "Telling someone that you don't like something in response to their liking it is basic bad manners, which is why it's going badly for you even when you try to do it gracefully." I was treated to bad manners like this recently when the hostess of a dinner party I was attending started telling a really great ghost story, and one of her guests interrupted her, twice, to say "There's no such thing as ghosts!" Awkward, buzzkill. Interesting, fun-and-easy-to-be-with people do not go around needing to be right all the time. They let the other person talk more than they do. They don't let the truth get in the way of a good story that their hostess is telling under her own roof. They ask follow-up questions.

"No sex, politics, or religion" - true. Unless you're in DC, where I'm told you can talk politics IF you've felt the other person out enough first.

"Small talk" is not some evil, negative, horrible thing. It is extremely useful when applied correctly.
posted by hush at 5:02 PM on December 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

People generally want to find themselves in the company of like-minded others who will agree with them. They want you to follow the same things on TV, to be angry about the same controversies, to be as up to date on your sports stats, etc. Conversations where they have to explain themselves ("See, Breaking Bad is a show about this guy…") are tedious, and ones where they have to support their reasoning are irritating, because they don't like being questioned.

If you're really stuck in this company, in your place I would either find a way to emulate their interests and opinions, or restrict myself to talking about how the weather is different now from what it was like two days ago and how awful the drivers in State X are. I don't think you can "make it better." You either find their company stimulating or you don't.
posted by Nomyte at 5:08 PM on December 22, 2013

I've had too many people try to talk about something like a new band they like or a TV show they think I should watch, but when I tell them I don't like it that much, they try to tell me why I'm wrong.

"Oh, man, I was watching This Thing the other day. It's awesome. You should watch This Thing."
"This Thing, huh? You know what's more my cup of tea? That Other Thing. Have you seen That Other Thing?"
posted by Etrigan at 5:09 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you really like these people all that much, so I'm not sure why you want you conversations with them to go beyond small talk.

Anyway: You already sort-of know these people, so you must know a little bit about the things they like. You could do a little background reading on the sorts of things this group is into. If the lead actor on their favorite show was just cast in a new movie, or caught in a drug sting, that will easily lead you down the path of conversation. I once saw a couple of guys who didn't know each other that well carry on an animated conversation, because they were both into celebrity gossip. I had always thought celeb gossip was dull and stupid, but after that I began to see it as a bonding tool.

You can also ask them about themselves - what they do, how they got into it, where they live, where they're from, what they majored in. Those conversations might be a little easier - not everyone likes Downton Abbey but everyone is from somewhere and lives somewhere and probably is working or looking for work or studying.
posted by bunderful at 5:16 PM on December 22, 2013

There's nothing wrong with cooking, either. Honestly I prefer to bond with people while working with them and talking about whatever we are working on. So maybe accept an offer of help in the kitchen, if you find yourself there.
posted by bunderful at 5:17 PM on December 22, 2013

Thanks for the advice and some lines. It's all making me think even more about this.

Some of these people I do like but just feel really awkward around. They're extremely nice people but with whom I don't feel comfortable sharing my normal sarcastic wit.

I don't think I go for the straight, "Your favourite TV show sucks" buzz kill, but I do know the "oh, huh" response doesn't work with some of my family members.

As for cultivating my interests, I have somewhat varied interests and activities I'm involved in that is hard for me to share with others. Like music: I'm in bands, collect records, and DJ at a college radio station. It can be difficult to talk to people about this though because it can be intimidating for them and they usually assume I only like obscure things for the sake of obscurity.

I will stop reading English football mags for the rest of the week and hit NY Times, MeFi blue and Gawker.
posted by kendrak at 5:53 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

read the entire saki (h. h. munro) canon, followed by oscar wilde and dorothy parker. that'll get you going.
posted by bruce at 5:53 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bring something to do besides just stand around and talk with people (something that other people of all ages can participate in, of course). Jigsaw puzzles have the advantage that you can do them solo and it's easy for other people to join in or drop out of (though you do need a flat surface). Apples to Apples is extremely easy to teach and requires mostly just sitting-around space and a little spot for cards. Werewolf can work well if people are a little more adventurous.
posted by inkyz at 6:19 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm in bands, collect records, and DJ at a college radio station. It can be difficult to talk to people about this though because it can be intimidating for them and they usually assume I only like obscure things for the sake of obscurity.

Surely there are aspects of these activities that are of interest to anyone, though. You don't have to talk about what music is cool or uncool. You can talk about which are the fun bars in town to play at, adventures in lugging around equipment, crazy lengths you've gone to to track down a particular album, weirdos who call in to the radio station, etc.
posted by BrashTech at 6:26 PM on December 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

Non-Creepy Networking: Party Etiquette - This article is about surviving office parties, but it has some scripts in there you might find useful.

I think it may also be helpful to sit down before the party and make a list of reasons why you're looking forward to seeing each of these individuals. Cultivate a joyful curiosity and conversation will flow.
posted by heatherann at 6:35 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Extrovert here! You sound like one of my least favorite conversationalist types... The fighty-flighty in advance. IMO that's normally because you've assumed I already don't like you and that I already think you're weird. Chances are, I don't. If I seem like I do, it's probably because I'm picking up what you're putting down, which isn't that we're having a conversational dance as equals -- we are having a conversational battle as adversaries, because you've already decided in advance we can't and won't like the same things. No one is happy in a conversational battle because they're exhausting.

Some practical strategies to break out of this are to:

1. Mind your body language. If you are closing yourself off or hunching defensively that puts me on the defensive too.

2. Be genuinely interested in what I'm saying. No, you probably don't like Reign, but maybe I'll be super hilarious as I describe to you the plot.

3. Be genuinely interested in what you're saying... And unafraid of sharing your honest to god enthusiasm. Talk about being a DJ, the neato thing in the football mags, and I'll be hooked. Especially if you're willing and able to tell me why you like it without dissing my own favorite things.

Falling that, puzzles force your thoughts to cross the hemispheres of your brain because they incorporate skill sets found in each part. So they relax people and make them way chiller conversationalists.
posted by spunweb at 7:40 PM on December 22, 2013 [24 favorites]

Also, sometimes when people say they're sarcastic what they secretly mean is that they're mean, or at least say mean things because they think they're funny, with the punchline to the joke being someone else's interests, hobbies, or daring to claim conversational space. That's normally called being a bully, but there's a certain brand of cultural elitist who's renamed that as having a dry wit. I'm not saying that's you but I am saying that having to back off from the sarcasm is not necessarily a bad thing. It's sometimes more fun to just be nice.
posted by spunweb at 8:27 PM on December 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice here. My spin on this: especially for early substantial conversations (where the goal is to enjoy talking and get to know each other) I tend to play the Figure Out Their Passion game. The goal is to figure out what makes this person get really excited and get them to explain it (and get excited/happy in the process). If it's too overt ("tell me what you care about in the world!!!") it doesn't work super well, so you have to use some of the thoughtful openings and conversation-starting techniques that others have mentioned. But I found that this is a great way to build a connection with people -- they share with their fullest heart and energy, and in the process, they think "I like this person!" for getting a chance to talk about themselves.

What really helps with this is if you can cultivate a genuine interest in psychology, the quirkiness and diversity of people, etc. Not saying you don't already have such a disposition, but I find that the more mental energy I spend trying to understand people broadly, the better energy I discover in conversations with particular folks. You can do this any number of ways -- reading up on Myers-Briggs personality types, finding shows and movies with lovably geeky characters and concentrating on their lovable geekiness, people-watching on public transit. The point is not so much to develop Perfect Objective Understanding, but practicing being patient and curious with others so that they can show your their best side in conversation.
posted by elephantsvanish at 8:47 PM on December 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

The point is to get them talking, as long as they're talking they're happy. So ask questions. But try to keep to relatively impersonal subjects, listen to what they're saying instead of thinking of what to say next, and default to kind/pleasant. You can go for the sarcastic wit later, but honestly, this is probably never going to be the milieu for that so don't worry about it. Possible "go to" subjects:

anything you remember about the person from last time
anything that has reminded you of them (seeing something they like in an unexpected place, etc)
new restaurants
new construction nearby
travel (as in cars, driving, stuff that entertained you on the plane, etc)
household gadgets/projects

If you know the person's political views or you know they keep up with the news (and you keep up with the news, too), I think it's OK to bring it up as long as you keep it vague/non-partisan, and as local as possible if you're talking about a specific event/politician/policy. I also think it's OK to bring up the social aspects of religion (church events, changing churches, people they know from church, etc), though I would stay away from the more "philosophical" aspects. I'd stay away from talking about or asking about work, most people work too much and are sick of it.

Since you say you tend to be a bore, try not to bring up anything about yourself except to echo that you're in agreement with what the other person is saying, and to tell interesting anecdotes that you've read/seen/lived. Don't worry, you'll find a way to talk about yourself anyway!

If you get bogged down in a subject that they just won't drop, pick things about the subject that you do like, compliment those things, and relate them to the most entertaining anecdote you can think of, to kind of swivel the conversation away from the morass and toward your anecdote/the associations that you guys draw on from the anecdote.

Above all, avoid saying the word "no." If possible, avoid saying anything negative. I mean that literally. An occasion filled with people you care about but are awkward around is the time to be light and sweet, not heavy and sarcastic, it'll make the whole night flow a lot smoother.

I know all this sounds incredibly dull. It won't be once you're actually talking, though. Other people will be trying to make it work, too. And if a conversation takes off on its own steam, that's great, this stuff is just your ace in a hole if it doesn't.
posted by rue72 at 9:27 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Small talk gets old fast.

Yeah, but here's the thing -- you usually don't move on to the Big Talk until the other person gets to know you through Small Talk.
posted by Rash at 9:43 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I find it helpful to check out the news right before an event like that, so I have a ready supply of "hey did you hear about that great-horrible-interesting thing that happened?" If I know the people at an event all work in a certain field, I will Google their industry.

The goal is not to show off any particular knowledge, but just to find something that the other person can connect to. For example, I had a great conversation with some university people a while ago by mentioning some controversial research that had been in the news, and asking when we would see something like that in daily life. My question led to a discussion of how research is applied and commercialized, how the media reports things, etc..
posted by rpfields at 11:36 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

About your own evaluation that you are a bore, I do wonder if it's truly objective, or is your self-consciousness projecting itself to the other person's reaction? In any case, I agree practicing people-watching might help so you could better gauge people's interest. Good conversation is about sharing and just because they didn't know much about your passions doesn't mean they don't want to know about it.

That said, often what loses people is in-field technical language and jargon. The key is being able to relate your interests to outsiders. Most good conversationalists and story tellers can do this and that's a good portion of their charisma.
posted by cendawanita at 1:11 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I may also add, if you're as witty as you claim then better direct that to yourself in the form of self-deprecation, which can be more positive and disarming. But don't go too much in the other direction because that can be off-putting. Sincerity leads to charm which I suppose is a key trait to go for here.
posted by cendawanita at 1:16 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not really qualified to give you tips on making conversations more interesting, but I can tell you that if you're stuck with it, smiling, nodding, and slightly widening your eyes (as in "Really? How interesting!") from time to time will get you through many an interaction. I have a delay in processing speech so I often use this to buy me a few seconds processing time.
posted by danteGideon at 4:20 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

My two cents as a pretty natural conversationalist (i.e., one of those types who walks into a room of strangers and has a bunch of meaningful, memorable conversations) - it doesn't sound like you're that interested in other people and what they have going on if it's not an intersection with what you love. It sounds like your current conversational style is very formulaic and doesn't lend itself to honest-to-goodness connection over the commonality of human experience.

Conversation gets past small-talk to real-talk when you show the person you're talking to that you care about their experience, you relate in some capacity (even indirectly), and you're trustworthy enough for them to put their guard down.

Two changes I might make if I was you:

1) Instead of asking "why" or "please elaborate" - throw in a qualifier that shows you are really interested. If I see that flicker in someone's eyes that signifies this is a thing they really care about, I'll often say something like "Dan, I need you to tell me everything you know about this because your passion is intoxicating." It's a compliment, it lets them know you're really interested in what they have to say, and more often than not the deeper level of someone's passion in a subject is interesting. I don't care at all about Volkswagons, but last night I had a great chat with a mechanic friend from high-school where we connected over our innate love of tinkering with things. It was fun.

2) This one is going to sound weird, but BE interested in other people. Their experiences and interests might not be the primary things you like, but that's true for everyone else too. What separates conversationalists from non-conversationalists is their ability to get enthusiastic about other people's enthusiasm, and thus the subject matter.

I treat these conversations as opportunities to learn about things I'd never know about otherwise too - I know a little bit about falconry, hunting, health care, masonry, the origins of funk music, etc. because of random party conversations and those things tend to intersect with future conversations and make me more readily able to converse in the future. Plus - the falconry guy, now when I see him at holidays, I immediately connect with over how often I refer to our conversation with other people. People are more willing to talk to you about big things if they know you're listening and remember it.

Conversations can be a real treat, but you need to cultivate an interest in others (and not ways for others to be interested in you) in order for them to be that way. It sounds like you are an interesting person with some passions, so having that as your intersection point rather than content will be a lot more successful.
posted by rutabega at 6:08 AM on December 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think I go for the straight, "Your favourite TV show sucks" buzz kill, but I do know the "oh, huh" response doesn't work with some of my family members.

How does responding with "oh, huh" work when you think it works? To me, that sounds like conversation ender.

Small talk is a way to 1) kill time, or 2) feel out topics for further discussion. But because you're intentionally going to an event where there are people you know (somewhat), focus on small talk being in the 2nd category. And because you (to some degree) want to be at this gathering, and you're interested in being a better conversationalist, it shows you care about these people. Their fancies and daily lives may not be what you'd pick to do, those are all parts of who they are. Back to the dance analogy: you can take turns leading, paying attention to less than enthralling bits of someone else's story so they'll listen to you try to find something you like that they'll also be interested in discussing or hearing more about.

Also, small talk is only small if it's specifically a gap-filler. You can ask about the weather because you were genuinely concerned about someone's safety in getting to the gathering, or their general comfort during the winter months (assuming it's winter where you're going). You can ask about their job because you're interested in what they do and more of who they are.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:19 AM on December 23, 2013

Tips for improv actors work equally well in these types of conversations.

I don't think I go for the straight, "Your favourite TV show sucks" buzz kill, but I do know the "oh, huh" response doesn't work with some of my family members.

How is "oh, huh" adding to the conversation, how is that eliciting more information for the (imaginary) audience? Treating the conversation like an improv game can maybe make it interesting enough to hold your attention; after a while you'll be pretty good at it and it will come naturally.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:06 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I usually tell an outrageous bit of gossip and extract a question from it. Eg, a friend of a friend (who is a heavy metal fan) claims not to be in love with his girlfriend but he's gone to fifteen Kelly Clarkson concerts with her. Is this love? How many Kelly Clarkson concerts would you go to for your boyfriend/girlfriend? It gets everyone talking but about nothing more controversial than Kelly Clarkson, yet it's also about the big issues (love, self-sacrifice).
posted by gentian at 12:17 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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