Questions for strangers (to make them less of a stranger)?
June 19, 2015 9:46 AM   Subscribe

What are some of the questions you've asked of total strangers that get surprising, interesting and engaged responses? How can you MeFi socialites guide someone to talk about what they want to talk about?

Ideally, these would be things I can ask of someone on the bus/out dancing/at work after saying hello, how's your day and trying to get a conversation going.

I'm awesome about talking to people about their work ... but that topic of conversation runs dry pretty quick. Beyond that I'm in social quagmire territory - what do I ask that's not going to offend this person? How do I ask 'what do you want to talk about?' and not seem like a total dunce?
posted by thebotanyofsouls to Human Relations (45 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
I ask people if they have read a book recently that they loved. I then I ask them what spoke to them about that book.
posted by heathrowga at 9:49 AM on June 19, 2015

Best answer: “Tell me your story.”
“What are you geeking out about lately?”
posted by hijinx at 9:52 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

One of the neat little things I've picked up from AskMeFi is a way to contine the inevitable "What do you do?" exchange.

Whatever someone answers(whether the person is a supermodel, plumber, or astrophysicist) say "That sounds really hard." It gets them talking!
posted by maya at 9:52 AM on June 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: The absolute easiest way to make a connection with another person is through shared commiseration. Made even easier if you are woman talking to other women. Nothing forms bonds faster than, "cripes, can you believe this douche?!"

Reacting to some experience you're already sharing together immediately gives you common ground to start talking.

And I'm going to be honest, if a total stranger came up to me on a bus and started talking to me about anything other than the something immediately relevant to that shared act of riding on that bus together, I would flag them as a potentially dangerous person and be super wary of them. So keep that in mind.
posted by phunniemee at 9:57 AM on June 19, 2015 [16 favorites]

I usually go with "So, what's your story?" People either launch into their story or sort of laugh at the open-ended nature of the question or the way I phrased it, which itself usually provokes a conversation.
posted by holborne at 9:58 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

+1 "So, what's your story?" Countless tales. Fascinating disclosures.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:00 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Depending on the person and the context, asking people innocuous questions about an item of clothing (or bag, or jewelry, or whatever) they're wearing is a pretty good icebreaker because you're basically starting the conversation off with a compliment.
posted by griphus at 10:03 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

I usually ask where the person is from and hopefully the conversation goes from there. But if they're from a boring place and are introverted, I usually ask what brings you to this event/restaurant/bar/etc. Watch for the widening of a person's eyes when listening to their conversation and queue the next question in your brain around that point.
posted by singmespanishtechno at 10:03 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just to give another perspective if someone asked me "So, what's your story?" I'd think they were a really lazy conversationalist who wanted me to entertain them while offering nothing. You might get interesting stories from exhibitionist types, but I don't think it's a good approach for regular conversation with regular people.
posted by bimbam at 10:06 AM on June 19, 2015 [56 favorites]

"What do you make?" is so much more interesting than "what do you do?" Getting someone to tell you about their knitting or cookies or babies is far more enlightening than their marketing or accounting.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:08 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Agreeing with bimbam. I absolutely hate topic-starters like "what's your story?" or "what are your passions?". I would probably give you a pretty uninspired response and then try to remove myself from the conversation as fast as possible.

If a stranger were to talk to me, I'd prefer they start with small talk, about the day, about the train, or anything else observational, and build on that. I'm not about to tell a random stranger my "story".
posted by alligatorman at 10:15 AM on June 19, 2015 [18 favorites]

"Nice watch. What brand is it?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:16 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How can you MeFi socialites guide someone to talk about what they want to talk about?

Ideally, these would be things I can ask of someone on the bus/out dancing/at work after saying hello, how's your day and trying to get a conversation going.

You don't need to "guide" anyone to talk about what they want to talk about and you certainly don't need to grill them with questions to achieve that. You need to be good at listening and accepting people as they are. You need to be polite, respectful, and observant.

People often treat me like I am their BFF and they want to tell me their life story. I don't have some kind of stock list of good questions to ask them. That sounds awful to me. It sounds manipulative and shallow and like a means to use other people and treat them like animals you expect to perform for your entertainment.

I try to engage people where they are at. I am willing to blather on about myself, which convinces people they know me better than they really do, and I try like hell to respect their boundaries. I really care about their welfare, sometimes too much for my own good, and I have worked hard on not getting too butt-in-sky about that. I try to be sensitive to what they must be dealing with based on what I am observing.

I try to compliment them, but not too much because that goes weird places, and I try to agree with them if possible, and I try to be funny in a light-hearted way that doesn't inadvertently get into deep topics because I have no way of knowing where they stand on politics or what their sexual orientation is or whatever. If I can't do any of those things, I give people their space. Respecting another person's space is a surprisingly good way to get them to eventually come to you.
posted by Michele in California at 10:25 AM on June 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

Before you start asking questions, you need at least one (ideally more) positive interactions with them that indicate that they want to talk to you.

A quick joke can work, you see how they react. It doesn't demand much more attention than the person is immediately ready to give. If you get a grunt you know not to try. If they talk back, you're good to make another quick observation or say something quick about what you're doing there or whatever. Compliments on jewelry are great. Shoes, also good. People love compliments and will tell you a little story about the item if they like you.

If they talk back again and seem interested in further conversation, then maybe, maybe you can ask a question.

But people often really don't like questions until they've already decided they want to talk to you.

Once they're interested in talking to you, you can basically ask them anything, though I am not a big fan of "what's your story" because I am way more interesting than one story...!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:25 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

(also, in some areas, notably the northeastern part of the US, "what do you make" means "what salary do you make" so it might get a really puzzled expression :)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:28 AM on June 19, 2015 [26 favorites]

I was once on the receiving end of "What's your story?" as a conversation-starter and I pretty much completely froze. My story is, mostly, not anything I want to share with a random stranger I've just met, and being asked that versus something chit-chat-y about our immediate situation set off the "this person's boundaries are way different than mine and I want away from this" alarm bells in my head. I should note that I've since gotten to know that guy better and I know he's a giant cuddly teddy bear and I love him to death, but that as an opener nearly killed our friendship before it got started.

Which is to say people are different, and there are very few stock questions that will work for everyone without tripping someone's personal stuff. I'd recommend sticking to chit chat about your immediate situation until something in that conversation opens up a natural way to expand beyond that.

Then again I am super-awkward at social interaction so take any advice from me with a giant grain of salt.
posted by Stacey at 10:33 AM on June 19, 2015 [16 favorites]

Just to add to my answer and to echo what others have said:

There is a pretty good chance that your average person on the bus doesn't lead an exciting life with a story worth telling, or doesn't have a creative hobby, or isn't super passionate about something. And that's okay. But making that kind of assumption in a conversation starter can, in the best case, lead to an awkward moment, and in the worst case, trigger feelings of self-loathing, anxiety, and depression.

I say this from personal experience. Private people are willing to talk, but take it slow and respect their boundaries.
posted by alligatorman at 10:49 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Eek. "What's your story?" is the kind of question I don't have an answer to, and it's the kind of question that prompts a long answer rather than encouraging a quick back-and-forth conversation. I'd feel put on the spot if you asked me that.

I'm also not crazy about talking about work. I like questions like "what have you been up to lately?" or "what do you do in your spare time?" because it lets me talk about hobbies, books, travel, and things I do enjoy talking about.

I also really like "Did you grow up around here?" (Full disclosure: I think I got that from a previous AskMe.) It's a prompt to talk about local things, other places you've lived, where you went to school, family, etc. - but it doesn't feel dauntingly open-ended. The positive "around here" phrasing is important; you don't want to imply that they seem foreign.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:54 AM on June 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

If they are with a person, ask how they met that person. "How do you two know each other?" If you have a person in common with this stranger, ask how they met the person you know in common.
posted by oxisos at 11:00 AM on June 19, 2015

Maybe it's an especially California thing, where "everyone" is a transplant, but I often ask people where they grew up. Hometowns are interesting to me, particularly if they are a place I am not familiar with. If people grew up in California, it's usually interesting to know how their family got here.

I don't like questions like "What's your story?" that make me feel like I have to perform. I'd rather people ask me more about stuff I've already said.
posted by vunder at 11:02 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't like questions like "What's your story?" that make me feel like I have to perform. I'd rather people ask me more about stuff I've already said.

I completely agree. I've also had versions of, "what's the craziest/most dangerous/most embarrassing thing you've ever done" which also makes me feel like I have to perform or be entertaining or whatever. It doesn't make the asker seem very down to earth either.

I think you should find a way to converse by responding to something they've already said, and if that's somehow a completely dry well then asking if they grew up around here or something about the locale is perfectly acceptable and can lead to interesting conversation. But don't just ask a barrage of questions, add in some of your own anecdotes or bit of information or whatever, give your conversation partner something they can respond to as well.
posted by JenMarie at 11:07 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

My standby is "Where do you like to eat around here?" If they can't come up with something, I can certainly tell them about places I've enjoyed. Also, I love food.
posted by advicepig at 11:08 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about a statement instead of a question? I dislike it when strangers ask me personal questions, even innocuous ones. It depends on context of course, but for instance, I recently met a new person at a friend's house. We were hanging out in the kitchen, and I said something like, "Royce is such a great cook. That eggplant is beautiful!" That launched us into a conversation about food, and praising Royce, who was cooking for us, etc. Broke the ice and then we built up to exploring personal stuff. That person and I are now fast friends.

I find the social expectation of small talk about personal information difficult and often a bit offensive, so I always try to steer the conversation to whatever's happening at the moment, or ideas, or something we can mutually geek out on.
posted by ljshapiro at 11:19 AM on June 19, 2015 [10 favorites]

"What do you make?" is so much more interesting than "what do you do?"

Carefui though, in some areas this is shorthand for 'How much money do you make?'
posted by corb at 11:30 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Okay, clarification: if you're NOT at a gathering of making-things people, try "What kind of things do you like to make? What sort of hobbies do you have? I'm not asking how much money you make."
posted by Lyn Never at 11:56 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

At work I like to ask people about their weekend plans (either past if it's before Wednesday or future if it's after Wednesday).

Talking to people on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or in other non-social situations is highly location-specific. I see that you're in Portland, OR, and I'm not sure what the culture there is, but I've lived in two cities, DC and Chicago. In Chicago this is a typical, accepted, and encouraged way to meet people. In DC it is rude and depending on your demeanor could be interpreted as either you're a tourist, or you're a threat.
posted by capricorn at 12:00 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

All I can say is "what's your story" had always worked well for me, so I guess mileage varies.
posted by holborne at 12:24 PM on June 19, 2015

Its not always the right approach of course, but if you get folks to play 2 truths and a lie, it makes for a great way to break the ice!
posted by iiniisfree at 12:33 PM on June 19, 2015

Best answer: Whenever I'm out and about and someone wants to bum a cig from me, I require payment in the form of an embarrassing story. It's a pretty good icebreaker!
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:44 PM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Do you want to have a pleasant one-time conversation or are you trying to get people to hang out with you? I chat up total strangers nearly every day, but I don't have any expectations of becoming BFFs. Even my local counter guy, waiter, sales person, whom I see very often--I can't think of the last time one of these casual conversations resulted in meeting outside of the normal venue. I think your expectations need to be clarified.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:09 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Which I thought was a great question! If my memory serves correctly, we ended up talking about raccoons and Homo floresiensis for like twenty minutes. So I think "what is your favorite animal" is the perfect winner here.

if you're an animal what animal would you be

do you believe in god
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:10 PM on June 19, 2015

I'm going to quote my earlier comment on this topic: "What's your story?" "What are you about?" Too broad and too personal and too intimidating.

I think the kind of people who enjoy chatting about their personal lives with strangers will do so without any extra prompting.

Questions for complete strangers can be about the weather, the activity you are both engaged in, a compliment and question about shoes/bag, local things like restaurants or sights. The gives the people the chance to share more if they want to.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:58 PM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Chuck Klosterman's 23 questions are certainly able to start interesting conversations.
posted by Hatashran at 3:17 PM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots of gems! Thanks everyone.

I'm looking for non-threatening questions to work as social lubricant. ZERO expectations from these social interactions; I'm just wanting practice getting people to talk, but I've quickly realized my usual tricks are scenario specific - for instance, talking about work, or we're at an event that we have something in common.

I'm going to try the "So what's your story?" but ONLY after I ask if they're a transplant or a local. I agree with everyone here - if I got asked that out of some kind of context, I'd shrug and tell the person I'm putting my headphones back in.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 3:37 PM on June 19, 2015

Best answer: "How's your day?" never fails to get a response from someone who wants to talk, and gives an easy out ("fine ") to anybody who doesn't.

Instead of asking what people do, I always say "What keeps you busy?" This frees people to talk about a beloved hobby rather than the day job.
posted by jessicapierce at 4:01 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a fun thing I do, that I only recently realized was a pattern.

Come up with a private "I wonder" statement about the person you'd like to chat up. If possible, combine this with a compliment or empathy, and turn it into a question.

Examples: to a cashier, "It's so cold out today... do you get chilly working next to these front doors all day?" Or, to a woman whose bag you admire: "Great bag! Is that big enough to hold a tablet?"

As with anything else, people who want to talk will probably jump at the chance, and if not, it's not too hard for them to get out of the conversation. You're inviting people to talk, rather than cornering them or putting them on the spot.

The last time I tried this on a grocery clerk, I said maybe 5 words and then she told me her feet hurt but nothing was as bad as working at Party City although it was super fun wearing costumes to work on holidays and she sure missed Robert who used to dress up in all those Disney princess costumes, Robert was such a HOOT. Had we been at a party, I would happily have kept talking to her, and as it is, now I have a reason to seek out that checkout lane at the grocery again. It's not a friendship, but it's still nice.

(P.s. "What keeps you busy" is also a great way to invite people to talk about their pets or kids, without actually having to say "Do you have any pets/kids?", which can be a non-starter or emotionally fraught topic.)
posted by jessicapierce at 4:27 PM on June 19, 2015 [22 favorites]

Response by poster: Jessicapierce, those are the kinds of suggestions I was hoping for!
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 4:58 PM on June 19, 2015

I'm a big fan of non sequiturs. A nice, odd little observation on an immediate situation is a well packaged statement - it requires no response. But it presents the opportunity to respond. If I really want to chat with someone, I'll just let my mind wander and say whatever comes out of it. It's a weird way to start a conversation, and it doesn't work half of the time, but for the types of people it works for, we tend to have good conversations.
posted by special agent conrad uno at 9:54 PM on June 19, 2015

My husband asks a never fail one: "What's your passion?"
posted by shazzam! at 11:08 PM on June 19, 2015

My brother was out here helping with my remodel. He would ask the cashiers in response to "did you find everything you need today", Uh no, can you direct me to the isles with ten million dollars and ten hours of sleep?" They invariably replied that they wanted to find that too. Now you have your conversation starter "What would you do if you actually had ten million dollars?"
posted by Jim_Jam at 11:23 PM on June 20, 2015

I'm the last person you'd expect to make this suggestion, but I was once tasked with teaching an ESL class called Small Talk, and this was one of the strategies. Even though (like me) you may discard the sports section of your newspaper without reading word one, you might glance at it occasionally in order to break the ice with some appropriate "How about those Mets?" comment.
posted by Rash at 9:32 AM on June 21, 2015

I always ask people- so, what's your story in five sentences? (sometimes three depending on the situation.) its great because it removes the overwhelming and paralyzing open-endedness of 'what's your life story?' It lets people basically choose whatever handful of things they most want you to know about them, and gives you jumping off points for other conversations. I also prefer just 'story' to life story because maybe people just want to talk about what they're up to now, or how they came to be at whatever location you're both at right now, not where they were born or what dark thing may have happened ten years ago.

Plus, it's a challenge! People think really hard to answer this question and it can end up being pretty funny.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 12:20 PM on June 21, 2015

(Plus, I think five sentences is all you need to determine whether you want to keep talking to someone- great way to prevent getting sucked into the life story of someone you have zero interest in continuing the conversation with)
posted by GastrocNemesis at 12:22 PM on June 21, 2015

Since people keep suggesting it, I'll chime in as another person who loathes being asked what my story is, what my passion is, or any similar question, at any time, by any person. ugh. I probably don't want to talk to you in the first place, if you're a stranger, and if you're a friend/date, thanks, you just made conversation awkward as the pressure of being asked to summarize my entire life on the spot (and even harder, also make it interesting yet non-offensive, if i want you to like me) makes my mind go blank while my anxiety skyrockets.

I think I do a pretty good job hiding it (e.g. the laughing response mentioned above) and usually manage to salvage the conversation to be polite, so the people probably thought they were great conversation starters, but from my point of view, it's awful every single time, and I think poorly of them for it. nice to your conversational partner - share the conversation burden "hot potato" style, by rapidly exchanging small talk tidbits that don't require any deep thinking, instead of throwing them a huge weight that they might not be skilled enough to throw back before they get burned...
posted by randomnity at 3:51 PM on June 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Nthing the dislike for the "what's your story" thing, even with limitations. It seems like an interview question, and I'm not applying for a job. Also any question that basically asks a person to define themselves is pretty off-putting. However, there are variations on those questions that are fine: instead of "what's your favorite book?" try "are you reading anything lately? or "what are you reading?"
Also, the "that sounds hard" or "I bet you have some crazy stories" or something of that nature after the "what do you do" type of question is pure gold. And it works for their job, or their hobby, or any other variation and it usually opens up a million other topic areas.

I am an inveterate hermit but I have to chat with a lot of random people for work, and that is amazing advice. The other thing is to always be paying attention to the conversational prompts in people's replies- the things that lead to other questions or topics and keep things going.

All that being said, my go-to random question is "have you ever almost died?" It depends on the situation, like definitely don't say that right off the bat to someone on the bus. But everyone has a story. Some are actual life-or-death situations, some are not, but no one has ever not had a reply.
posted by Missense Mutation at 2:36 PM on June 24, 2015

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