What are conversational topics that work magic as instant icebreakers?
June 19, 2016 11:07 PM   Subscribe

I've recently come across an instant ice breaker that works nearly instantaneously for certain category of people. This icebreaker topic concerns asking people about their pets and it usually works like magic. Are there other topics that the hive mind has found that can act as almost instant ice breakers with people without the topic delving into personal areas that are not appropriate for, say, work, or while at a bar, or making talk with someone with whom you'd like to establish a rapport or a sense of connection?

I'm interested in asking the hive mind for examples of topics that serve as great, non-threatening icebreaker topics to get people to open up. Quite recently, I've found that whe interacting with people who happen to be pet owners, I've been able to elicit an almost gushing forth of emotion, warmth, and connection when bringing up the topics of their pet. Often I'll share a picture and description of my pet and have them reciprocate with their own, usually charming store of their pet and the role this creature serve in their lives.

This got me thinking to other topics of conversation--think conversational icebreakers--that work almost instantaneously as almost kind of cues getting people to offer up their own experiences with less guardedness, or at least more eagerness, to share their thoughts and feelings. From asking people about their pets and getting them to talk about their cat(s) or dog(s), I've found that a connection and intimacy is established even with individuals who can initially be guarded. The example I offered, one involving pets, is limited as it has a significance usually for those who are already pet owners.

Are there other such topics, more universal in appeal and applicability, that the hive mind has noticed has a similar effect on people? The only other topic that comes to mind with a similar effect on people is getting them to talk about a particular neighborhood for which they have a fondness--usually one in which they've grown up--and permitting them to talk about the way it has changed, for better or for worse, over their lifetimes. I'd love hear people's experiences on this particular thread.
posted by caudal to Human Relations (35 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Kids? In my experience people absolutely love to talk for hours about their kids.
posted by FireFountain at 11:30 PM on June 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think the number of generic topics that hit those kinds of places, for even a sizeable chunk of people, is pretty small. Maybe limited to pets*. Not even sure about kids... people have issues with them sometimes, also not everyone has or wants them, and that can be touchy.

You can try ethnicity, but that only works for pushing fuzzy buttons if you're a member of roughly the same group (and can go dramatically wrong even then, depending). Hometown, same deal.

If you happen to like the same sports team or music or whatever, that's lucky, but this is now missing the point.

Food can be good - rather, cooking, not "food", I mean recipe talk - as in people can get excited about it. But it doesn't tug on the same kinds of strings, plus there's sometimes oneupmanship.

*And not for everyone. And this kind of talk, about fuzzy wuzzums and cute moments in training etc. can be a bit of a drag, if you're not a pet owner currently or for the foreseable.

Any subject that could spark the kind of warmth you're hoping to benefit from associationally - home, family, etc - can just as well be a trigger.

I think the best thing really is to adapt to the person you're talking with.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:50 PM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ask them if they're in to podcasts. If not, tell them about your favourite and why it's so great and why podcasts are great. If so, ask about theirs. Then discuss the nature of podcasts. Better than, "Who's your favourite band/author/radio program."

If you don't do podcasts, then you can puzzle about the nature of them together. (They're a fascinating tech comm development.) Or maybe you should just podcast so as to have an icebreaker.
posted by taff at 12:17 AM on June 20, 2016

When talking about their work, I offer respect for how much challenge they must have in their job. I find it tends to make people feel seen, and open up...
posted by frumiousb at 12:46 AM on June 20, 2016 [16 favorites]

I spend an inordinate amount of time in coffee shops and overhear a lot. Topics that tend to have a high probability of hitting well are 1) travel and 2) favorite local restaurant. Everyone likes to talk about where they've been. Even if they haven't been anywhere, there's somewhere they're planning to go. Likewise with restaurants. Everyone has a favorite, and a place they want to go. (Or never go to again.) People love giving recommendations or telling stories about that one time...

In addition, both of these have a lot of adjacent topics that the conversation can diverge to, depending on shared interests (experiences, culture, food, etc.) I've found while they work well in the US, they're also great in other countries—particularly if you're not fluent since many place and food names are universal. (Though instead of restaurant, usually the more generic "food".)

(But pets do absolutely nothing for me, and I rarely hear people talk about them, so take this with a grain of salt.)
posted by Ookseer at 12:47 AM on June 20, 2016 [27 favorites]

Start broad.
If you are not at a specific event, try point of interest about your location or general news item (nothing too 'hot' like mass killing/ crazy racist police/ political extremism.) Suss out their inclination, if it seems like one you find sympathetic or interesting, pursue. Ask the questions you're curious about, point out the facets you find interesting. Respond to their reply. Know you can politely bail at any moment.

I lean towards the misanthropic and this is the only way I can interact with strangers - to exploit my own interests. Naturally, I assume everyone else is the same way (though I know, rationally, they are not.) This strategy has served me well and made the at times arduous task or engaging with my fellow human less arduous.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:47 AM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

These questions are supposed to promote intimacy.
posted by Dwardles at 12:48 AM on June 20, 2016 [8 favorites]

Reagrding asking about work, that can be awkward for the under-/unemployed, so rather than "What do you do?" (commonly taken to mean "What is your job?"), something like "How are you filling your time these days?" or something can ease that.
posted by quinndexter at 1:41 AM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree with travel -- mentioning any plans you have (or want to have) and asking them where they've been recently, or would like to go, or what was the best vacation they ever took. I think this brings on warm and fuzzy memories and most people have had some semblance of a vacation in their lives they like to think about.
posted by EtTuHealy at 2:10 AM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

In the UK, this is the job of The Weather.
posted by paulash at 2:24 AM on June 20, 2016 [24 favorites]

After you ask what they do, say "Wow, that sounds really hard." And wait for the floodgates.

Works as a non-work follow up too.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:29 AM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Travel works quite well in some circles, I have spent whole weddings talking to stranger about their travel plans providing some relevant personal experiences every now and then.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:49 AM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I first came out as trans, I was amazed by how I could start a conversation with pretty much any (girly) person by telling them I loved some aspect of their outfit and asking where they got it. It worked especially well at club events where people wore more costume-y outfits, and you could get them talking about if they made that crazy thing themselves or what.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:53 AM on June 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

At parties or weddings, asking how someone knows the host/bride/groom usually works well for me.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 5:03 AM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with restaurants, cooking and food - people get really into their recent food discoveries and love giving recommendations on recipes or places you should eat.
posted by windbox at 5:18 AM on June 20, 2016

1. What did you watch on TV as a child on Saturday mornings?
2. Do you collect anything? Have you ever collected anything?
3. When did you know you wanted to.... [fill in the blank]?
4. When did the Simpsons stop becoming funny?
5. Remember the world pre-internet? How weird was that?
6. Where is the greatest place to get local produce?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:26 AM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

In essence I think the gushing about pets, talking about travel, food, etc. can be generically defined as getting people to talk about their passions. Pet owners tend to be pretty passionate about their pets so there is probably a pretty high correlation between "has pet" and "will talk enthusiastically about pet".
posted by mmascolino at 6:47 AM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nthing that it's a good idea to ask about food and cooking. I often ask, "Do you like to cook, or does your partner/spouse?" Of course, if the person says, "Nope," you're back where you started. But a lot of the time people get super excited about talking about their specialty dishes and so forth.
posted by holborne at 8:17 AM on June 20, 2016

I have two ice-breaker tactics:

1. Make a bit of a Seinfeld-esque observation to break the ice. I keep it limited to things easily observable and utterly unimportant so that is unlikely to offend or be an emotional topic for them.
"Look at the size of the muffins here! They are larger than most cakes! What's up with that? I mean, yes, they are delicious, but really does any one really need two pounds of muffin for their breakfast?"

2. Call out the elephant in the room, overtly acknowledge the 'ice breaking'/awkwardness of the situation.
"Hi, I don't know anyone here. Do you mind if I hover here awkwardly and attempt to make small talk with you? Prepared small talk topics for you to choose from are "Cats: Why are they so weird", "What is this liquid falling from the sky and in what ways will it impact our lives", and "The Rise and Fall of barbershop quartets". I can adlib small talk on a different topic as well, should you wish."

I most often use #2. In my experience it is extremely effective in most situations. It is actually very effective at bars back when I was single (I'm a woman, in case it matters). It also perhaps bares stating that I used similar tactics in dating, as in "So the date is winding down. Where are you currently standing on the whole end of date kiss thing?"

if you're going to use a topic like "do you cook" for your icebreaker, I highly suggest bringing it up in reference to something that happened recently, like "Man, I'm really hungry, I hope they have snacks at this event. I could really go for one of those giant muffins they always seem to have at these types of conferences. I can't bake worth a damn and can't make a muffin to save my life. Do you bake?"
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:25 AM on June 20, 2016 [7 favorites]

In essence I think the gushing about pets, talking about travel, food, etc. can be generically defined as getting people to talk about their passions.

Yes - OP is this what you mean? Or do you mean that you're noticing that the natural gushy (and particularly, lovey) feelings people have for their pets bubbles up when they talk about them, and that sharing in and trading that sentiment leads to it spilling over onto you, a bit? (That's how I read it) And/or that they maybe even trust you a bit more, because of the fact of caretaking being important? (With extension of trust maybe related to choice of pet when it comes down to it, eg dog people trust dog people, likewise for cat people, etc?) I think it's those other emotive, home-and-hearthy topics that can sometimes do that but can also go explosively wrong :/ BUT Elaine Aron's intimacy-promoting questions (via Dwardles) sound great for this.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:54 AM on June 20, 2016

There is no universal topic that will work for everyone. Even with pets, you'll eventually come across someone who recently lost a pet. They tend to have short life spans. Which isn't to say that's off limits or anything. Just tread lightly.

The weather is the classic choice, of course, and it's cliched because it's tried and true. Not that someone somewhere won't crank it up with climate change talk, for good or for bad, but it's about as safe a topic as there is.

Food is another good choice, as are compliments and questions about someone's attire. Again, though, there will be exceptions.

Open ended media and entertainment questions can be good, but prepare yourself for "that's not music!" style rants.

Questions about people's jobs are OK, but I honestly don't see the appeal of the oft-recommended "Wow, that sounds hard" response. I believe people when they say it's effective, but personally, it would sound strange to me.

I don't really think those 'hopes and dreams' types of questions are appropriate for new and/or casual acquaintances. Forced intimacy type of questions like that can set off pick up artist/grifter flags and can feel intrusive. Generally speaking, you want to stay conscious of people's personal bubbles. Every now and again, you'll sort of get on a fast track to intimacy with someone, but make sure it's happening organically and reciprocally. Don't pepper people with questions about themselves, and no matter what you're asking, be on the alert for squirming.

A normally progressing conversation should not be perpetually going back to square one icebreakers. If you've already tried with a couple of topics and they're reaching dead ends and there's no reciprocation, leave them be. If it's just one question they don't respond to, yeah, maybe it caught them flatfooted and they don't know how to answer, or it's a sensitive topic or something. But if they don't respond to the second one either, then they probably aren't into it.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:57 AM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Music. But framed to connect them with their younger selves (to avoid those arguments about what's music and what's not.) For example, "What was your first musical love? You know, the music that first really struck you." If someone's not interested in music, and never has been, you can say "What was it for you? Something where you were like 'this is for me!' the first time."

If it's just a means to have people introduce themselves, Mr. vitabellosi has a technique he uses when he's facilitating a group where he asks people to introduce themselves and say how they came to have their first name, or what their first name means. This is not just an excuse to have people talk, it is also his method for learning everyone's names. It associates something very specific with each name. When everyone has introduced themselves, he goes around the room and repeats everyone's name, to see if he knows them. He almost always remembers everyone's name, because he remembers each story. It helps everyone else remember everyone's names too, because they journey with him to each person and each effort. If he stumbles, it pretty much gets everyone on his side. He always insists that no one give him a hint, and if no one blurts it out, he usually comes up with it.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:09 AM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

A couple small modifications to the standard "what do you do" and "where are you from" conversation starters make them a lot more interesting:

- How did you decide you wanted to become a (job description)?
- Why did you choose to move to/live in (Chicago/NYC/SF whatever city they live in)?
- (If talking to a couple): How did you two meet?

Notice that they are all open-ended questions, and the longer/more involved answers they prompt will give you more conversational fodder than the usual "what do you do".
posted by AceRock at 10:12 AM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

"What did you do today?" Works even with people you've just met.
posted by agregoli at 10:55 AM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I like asking "what is something you're excited about right now?" It is open ended but likely to touch upon something they want to be talking about.
posted by azalea_chant at 11:12 AM on June 20, 2016

In my (very geeky) circles, stuff like "flight or invisibility?" or "would you have signed the accords or not signed?" works well.
posted by joycehealy at 11:38 AM on June 20, 2016

Gardening. I was at an outdoor wedding this weekend, and found out pretty much everybody likes to plant something & watch it grow, big or small scale. As a New Yorker, my observations probably sound like semi-complaints ("Holy moley! Are these trees covered with effing gypsy moth caterpillars or what?!!") but that gets the conversation started as well.
posted by Wylie Kyoto at 1:10 PM on June 20, 2016

OK, I don't use this any more, but there was a significant period of time when I was working in, and having to socialize in, a male-dominated industry and whenever I ran out of conversation, I would say:

"Strategy in baseball? That's ridiculous! If you're batting .300, you're considered a super hero. How can you talk about strategy if you can't even hit the ball more than 30 percent of the time? Ugh. "

That would get pretty much any man wound up long enough to chatter away for 20 to 30 minutes with no response from me needed other than an occasional "really?" or "huh!"

Now, what's even better is that I got the exact same response by describing the strategy, even if I started by saying "I actually don't believe this, but men go nuts when I say it" --- and even if I responded throughout the resulting monologue with "I KNOW" and "I'M NOT SAYING I BELIEVE IT" and "YOU'RE JUST PROVING MY POINT HERE, YOU KNOW."
posted by janey47 at 1:50 PM on June 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I ask: What have you been thinking about?
posted by miles1972 at 3:34 PM on June 20, 2016

What's your idea of a perfect vacation?
What's something you really liked to do as a kid?
What's your favorite time of year?
What's one of your superpowers?
posted by ottereroticist at 6:36 PM on June 20, 2016

What's the worst job you've ever had?

Also, apparently if you let people help you they like/connect with you more. Ask their advice on something.
posted by bendy at 8:46 PM on June 20, 2016

Maybe Fire/Ice?
posted by DynamiteToast at 7:20 AM on June 22, 2016

Agreed with agregoli: I use "what did you do today?" It's almost always a good launching off point for follow-up questions. And if not, we can bond over Watching TV And Finally Getting That Laundry Done.
posted by Zephyrial at 8:05 PM on June 26, 2016

I'm an introvert whose work is about 90% extroverted, and have had to teach myself conversation openers with all sorts of people very different from myself. Two lines that work pretty well are:

"So, where are you from?" because you can chase that all over the place

or a variation of how that,"how'd you end up here (or doing this)?" Which allows people to tell a story.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 3:52 AM on June 30, 2016

Just one thing I have to add. Whenever possible, please phrase your questions in such a way that "No" is a polite answer.

I've been cornered with questions like, "What have you been working on?" or "What did you do today?" more than a few times, and I resent the fact that the burden of coming up with a polite deflection is on me. I've spent a good amount of my time and energy trying to come up with ways to avoid exactly these types of questions, and I sometimes have to get increasingly creative and/or rude when someone is being persistent. Not everyone wants to talk about their day, or is comfortable with strangers asking them personal questions.

I'm sure these are great icebreakers for some people, but they can be very uncomfortable for others, so if you just phrase it as a yes or no question whenever possible, then you're not putting people in a position where they have to come up with a creative deflection. So, "Have you been ...?" rather than "What...?"
posted by ernielundquist at 10:19 AM on June 30, 2016

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