How To Make Small Talk with Anyone in 5 Easy Ways (Examples Included)

This is part of a series on interpersonal communication.

  1. 8 Simple Steps To Overcome Shyness* (bonus article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 2)
  2. The Secret To Meaningful, Fulfilling Social Relationships (How To Remove Social Anxiety)
  3. How To Make Small Talk with Anyone in 5 Easy Ways (Examples Included!)
  4. 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist
  5. 10 Tips to Improve Your Body Language
  6. Ask Celes — How to Keep Calm and Make a Good Impression When Around New People?

PE readers meetup in Kuala Lumpur
PE readers meet-up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Oct 2012)

“As a quiet person by nature, how can I be more sociable? I do not have many topics to talk about with others.” ~ Starry Starry Night

“I was wondering if you could write on how to start and maintain a good conversation. Maybe something cool like ‘The Art of Small Talk’.” ~ Elfie

Several months ago, I covered the art of conversing and 10 rules to be a great conversationalist. Seeing how I have not written about starting conversations and I’ve been getting questions on that through Ask Celes, I thought, “Why not do an article on that?”

I don’t like small talk (read: frivolous conversations), but I recognize their purpose as conversation openers, space fillers in otherwise enjoyable conversations, tools to discover tidbits about the other party, or tools to decrease social distance (such as a manager using small talk to engage a team member).

If you are someone who has difficulty getting conversations started or keeping them going, here are five methods that will help:

1. Ask a Question

The run-of-the-mill way of starting conversations. I use it all the time.

Five usual questions from my toolbox and sample questions you can use:

  1. What do you do?” — Great for countries with work-centered cultures, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. People here love talking about work. People here tend to tie their identities with their work and invest a good deal of time working and thinking about their careers. They usually have no problems giving lengthy replies about work, especially if you pose follow-up questions, and are in fact more comfortable fielding work questions than personal ones like, “What is your passion?”, “What do your siblings do?”, or “What do you do in your free time?”

    This question is also a great opener for business and work events. Since everyone is there on a work agenda, they would be ready for work-talk.

    After this opener about work, there are tons of questions you can follow up with. From “How long have you been working here?”, to “Do you like your job?”, to “What made you join this company?”, to “Who are the clients you work with?”, to “Where is your work place?”, to “Do you travel as part of your work?”, the possibilities are endless.

  2. What brings you here today?” — A useful one for events, be it house parties, social events, or business functions.

    Use the response as conversation fodder. “I’m here to meet new friends” means the person is open to socialize. Perhaps you can share social events coming up in your calendar. “I got the invite from the mailing list” means the person is already a member of their newsletter. You can follow up on this by asking when he/she joined the list and how he/she knew about this place. And so on.

  3. What did you do today?” , “What have you been up to?“, or “What have you been busy with?” — Sometimes the responses are of routine stuff, while other times they reveal fun tidbits about the person. Bridge on things you can talk about to build a connection.
  4. How did XX go?” — If you know something the person has been up to, follow up on that! For example, I just met my friends who returned from a vacation in Sydney, so one of my first questions after seeing them was, “So how did your Sydney trip go?” 
  5. What are you up this week?” — Since this question is about what’s next, it’s more appropriate to use it in the later half of the conversation, as a space filler if you’ve ran out of things to say.

Two Watchouts

  1. As you ask questions, be prepared to share about yourself. Refer to #8 of 10 rules of a great conversationalist on 50-50 sharing. Asking one question after another without sharing anything can be perceived as invasive. You want to have a conversation, not an interrogation or an interview.
  2. Learn to take a hint and move on when the person gives lukewarm responses. I was at a hair saloon last week and this assistant just kept asking me question after question, in a relentless fashion, even after I got tired out by her and gave monosyllabic responses. She obviously couldn’t read social cues as I was showing disinterest, both in my responses and body language. It got to the point where I became highly annoyed by her nosiness and was ready to ask my regular consultant to take her away.

    You don’t want to annoy people nor intrude into their personal space. Third time is the charm—I usually move on after the third consecutive lukewarm response. Besides, you can’t have a conversation if the other party isn’t interested to engage.

2. Drop a Compliment

Examples:

  • “That is a nice dress! It looks great on you. Where did you get that?” (Works better from girl to girl; else you’ll either come across as gay or trying to hit on the girl, both of which wouldn’t work if they aren’t true.)
  • “I like your bag! Very classy. Did you just buy it?”
  • “You look very refreshed. Did you have a good rest over the weekend?”
  • “Hey Matt, I just read your report on social existentialism and the role of dummies in our society. Awesome work! How long did it take for you to write that?”
  • “Great job on the presentation this morning Max. Everyone was talking about it at the pantry just now!”
  • “You look great today. :) “

Why Compliments Work

Compliments are a great way to reduce social distanceremove tension, and open someone up. They are especially appreciated in a society where emotional generosity isn’t commonplace. (Singapore has just been rated as the most emotionless country in a 140-country survey by Gallup. Go figure.)

I personally love it when people drop me compliments. Their emotional generosity sends all-round-nice vibes to everyone.

  • Friend/Stranger: “You look great today!”
  • Me: “Thank you!” *beams* (This then opens the space for a follow-up comment.)

I also love dropping compliments to other people and making them smile.

  • Me: “You look great with this shirt!”
  • Friend/Stranger: “Oh, thanks! I just bought it last week. I was actually planning to wear a different shirt! I’m glad you like it!” *which then opens up new conversation topics, such as where he/she bought the shirt and why he/she was planning to wear a different shirt*

I think most people’s issue with compliments is that they associate them with disingenuousness, being agenda-driven, or sucking up. That’s quite a fear-based manner of viewing compliments, and it probably comes from being brought up in an emotionally-stingy culture. Giving compliments doesn’t have to be related with falseness or having a motive; in fact it doesn’t have to do with anything at all. You can drop compliments simply because you see goodness in something and you just want to spread the love.

As long as you keep your compliments real, there’s no reason to shy away from them.

3. Use a Surrounding Object as an Anchor

  1. (At a talk) “The speaker is doing a great job. I like the section where he talked about the role of innovation in startups. What do you think about that?”
  2. (At a social event) “I had such a hard time finding the location! It took me about 20 minutes to find the place. What time did you get here?”
  3. (At your workplace) “Regis totally lost his temper at the morning meeting. Did you hear about it?” 
  4. (At a cafe, while queuing up to get your drinks) “I love the dark chocolate mocha here. Have you tried it before?”
  5. (At the supermarket, at the ramen aisle) “I’m thinking between the Mushroom-Flavored Ramen and Hot & Spicy Ramen and I’m not sure which one to pick. Which do you think I should go for?” (This is related to Method #4: Ask for Help / Advice.)

Using a surrounding object takes the attention away from both you and the person and creates a safe zone for both of you to connect without going into personal details. After some sharing and after a certain comfort level has been achieved, you can broach personal topics.

Be open to using different surrounding objects as your conversation starter. It can include the person’s possessions:

  • (Referring to the tie the person is wearing) “I saw a similar tie at Macy’s last week and wanted to get that. Did you get this at Macy’s?”

Or even someone else:

  • (Referring to another participant at an event) “I’ve seen that person at similar events before. I heard he/she is the director at Firm Y. Have you talked to him/her yet?”

4. Ask for Help / Advice

I had quite a blast chatting with this guy, who heads a PR firm, at a Christmas party last month. We had a stimulating conversation which spun off multiple sub-topics and lasted for a good 30–40 minutes.

My opener? I asked him for advice on a goal I’m currently working on.

Hey, since you are in PR, I was thinking to get your advice on something. One of my goals is to up my blog traffic from one million page views a month to ten million. How would you advise me to achieve that?

Since it’s something I’m working on and blogging/social is relevant to his space (PR), and everyone peruses one blog or another as a consumer these days, I thought, why not kill two birds with a stone and use my business agenda as a socialization tool?

This one innocent question got us talking about site analytics, content, viral content, what makes viral content, why it’s pointless to try and create viral content, some of his past client engagements, blogs he reads, why he reads them, and wildly popular content we came across in our space.

At the end of the discussion, he actually thanked me for broaching the topic because it got his brain spinning. I thought that was sweet of him. “Thanks!” I smiled, while thanking him for his thought-provoking answers.

Why Asking for Help / Advice Works

People love to help. Helping makes them feel important. Helping makes them feel like they are adding value to people’s lives. Helping puts them in an advisory role which hones the leader in them.

I personally enjoy it when people ask me for advice, even if it may not be something I have expertise on. Yesterday, I was out for brunch with my friend, Karl, who is the CEO of Groupon Singapore. In between chats, he asked me for advice on whether he should invest in this up-and-coming startup.

“Wow,” I thought. “Is he for real?” I know nothing about investment whereas he used to be an investment banker, and a highly flying one at that. I know nothing about viability of startups whereas he himself has launched and taken his startup to success in a very short span of time, and he is probably many times more in-tune with the startup and entrepreneurial scene than I am.

His innocent question made me feel important as a friend and that he saw me as an equal despite the disparity between our success. I then stepped up to the plate by asking various assessment questions and giving him my thoughts, before we jumped to a different topic altogether.

Sample Scripts to Ask for Help / Advice

Is there anything you could use some advice on at the moment? Broach that as a conversation opener and be surprised at how ready people will be to help. Try the following scripts:

  1. “I’m currently working on this project and I hope to achieve X. [Insert two to three line description about said project.] What do you think?”
  2. “I’ve been thinking about something for the past few days and I could use with a new perspective. [Insert description.] What are your thoughts?”
  3. “I’d like your advice on [insert topic and some background information]. What advice can you give me?”
  4. “I’m currently looking for X resource/contact for something I’m working on. Do you know anyone who can be of help?”
  5. “I’m planning to do X and I’m thinking of either Option A or Option B. Which would you choose?

Even you don’t really have anything you need advice on at the moment, it’s always great to get a new perspective on whatever you are working on currently. I do that all the time, be it for my business plans, decisions I’m contemplating over, or personal agendas. It could even be as simple as picking a movie to watch this Friday!

The interesting thing is that as people crack their brains at giving sound advice, their self-monitoring personas recede and their real personalities emerge from their shells. Suddenly people are no longer fumbling or displaying lacquered personalities in a bid to project a certain image or to conform to social formalities.That’s when real connections form.

5. Share Something about Yourself

What did you just do recently? What new things you’ve been up to? What are your goals for the next three months? Share them.

This method is the opposite of method #1. Here, you open up the conversation by volunteering information about yourself, whereas in method #1, you open the conversation by fishing for information about the person.

This method is useful in situations where:

  1. …the person looks shy or socially awkward. Sharing about yourself helps to take attention away from him/her and onto you, so he/she can ease into his/her own space.
  2. …the person hasn’t been responsive to your questions or comments. Perhaps he/she is not keen on sharing, so you can initiate the sharing instead.

    In doing so, you remove yourself from the power-position (since the person asking the questions directs the flow of the conversation) and allow yourself to be vulnerable (sharing means subjecting yourself to potential evaluation and judgment). As the person see you opening up, he/she may warm up to you and reciprocate in sharing as well.

I’ve to admit I’m not good at doing this unless I’m with personal friends, where we have all the time to catch up with one another. I prefer to use the limited time I have with strangers/acquaintances/new friends to learn about them than talk about me.

My friend Karl is really good at sharing though. In one of the first times we met, he shared with me this story of how his luggage got misplaced and he had to wear this borrowed, grossly undersized pants from his co-worker for a business training, where he was the trainer in a crowd of some 100 people. That was absolutely hilarious. Other times, he would share random things going on in his life or which he did before. Yesterday, he told me his experience shooting for this reality series, behind-the-scenes insights, and the funny things the crew had him do.

I may not relate to everything he share (for example, I haven’t had my luggage misplaced before), but it’s nice learning about him through his stories and knowing more about his personality based on how he approached those situations. It then creates a safe space for me to share about myself, because I know it’s okay to talk this much, and that just as I was interested to listen to him and his stories, he would probably be interested to hear mine as well.

When you start a conversation, it’s either that you talk or the other person talks. So why not make the first move and volunteer some tidbit about yourself, after which you can see who warms up to you more readily? This is a technique I’m going to start using even with non-personal friends.

Final Words

How can you apply these conversation-starter techniques in your life? Do you have any techniques of your own in making small talk? Do share in the comments!

Be sure to check out these other articles in the interpersonal communication series (links below)!

Good luck! :)

This is part of a series on interpersonal communication.

  1. 8 Simple Steps To Overcome Shyness* (bonus article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 2)
  2. The Secret To Meaningful, Fulfilling Social Relationships (How To Remove Social Anxiety)
  3. How To Make Small Talk with Anyone in 5 Easy Ways (Examples Included!)
  4. 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist
  5. 10 Tips to Improve Your Body Language
  6. Ask Celes — How to Keep Calm and Make a Good Impression When Around New People?
  • http://avene.org Glenn

    Great article Celes! There’s a few things here I would never have thought of, although I have actually asked or said similar things to people in the past now I think about it.

    As for the question about what people do for work, these days I’m trying to get myself more in the habit of asking people what they’re passionate about in life. If their answer just happens to be what they do for work, then that’s great, but unfortunaely that’s not always the case. So it’s better to give them something positive to talk about, rather than complain about.

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Thanks Glenn! :D Asking people what they’re passionate about is a great question. It can be a follow-up question after asking “What do you do?”. The latter sets the premise for a discussion about the person’s passion and ambitions. I do that a lot (ask about work, then progress to asking about the person’s aspirations).

  • Sebastian Junior

    Thank you, it is very useful. i have a problem of talking to people so easily, sometimes it takes more than courage to express myself to them.

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      No problem. Glad you found it helpful Sebastian! :)

  • JadePenguin

    Hahaha, I always feel I’m that hairdresser’s apprentice – talking too much when the other person probably wants to run away :D

    I’ll keep trying though. I’ve been meeting quite a cool group of people lately. They can be my guinea pigs :D

    Thanks for the tips; just what I needed, as it often happens ;)

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Hey Jade, that’s funny that you related to the salon assistant. :D I’m sure that’s not the case at all though.

      Great to know that you’ve been meeting new people, and hope you can apply the techniques when with them! :D

  • Paola

    Hi Celes!! I have been reading your articles for over a month now and I have to say that with every new one I read I feel like I am becoming the better version of myself and this one is no exception. Thank you so much! Love from Mexico!! :heart:

  • Hil Shah

    Nice….. And very helpful.

  • Fufu

    Love your article! I don’t talk much myself but I use a lot the question one.

    and in my case I might not like when people compliment me because I don’t know how to respond. I feel flattered but at the same time say only “Thank you” or “Really? Wow! That makes me really happy to know. Thank you!” but I try not to overdo it because I don’t want to come out as rude or as a show off.

    I like to keep it humble and when many people are complimenting me I feel bad because I don’t want to feel better than anybody– which I’m not we are all equals. I feel like I’m offending and dismotivating the people that haven’t achieved what I have. I don’t feel like a source of inspiration.

    For example: If I achieve too much my girlfriend gets sad and thinks she cant make it because I already did it first than her and I don’t want her to feel like that. I just want her to keep on and whatever I achieve doesn’t have to do with her own goals and it’s not a race or anything. I want to see her keep on.

    It’s a really conflicting feeling I’d say.

    • JadePenguin

      Hey Fufu! How do you feel about giving compliments yourself? Do you feel offended if someone has achieved more than you or are you happy for them and happy to let them know? You said you’d like to see your gf follow her goals but if others see you uncomfortable being a high achiever, that might scare them off?

      Also, imagine if no one ever told you you were doing great – wouldn’t you feel some doubt about whether you’re having a positive impact?

      No need to fear greatness; it’s what we’re all destined for ;)

  • sunshinegirl

    i liked the “ask advice” tip… i find it very useful to break the ice with other graduate students in my dept (who aren’t as extroverted as me!) .. plus it works even with really techie/smart ppl who are not comfortable with making small talk!

    one thing i notice is that people don’t know how to respond to compliments… so it doesn’t always work as a conversation starter/filler… when they receive one, most of my acquaintances just look embarrassed and mumble a “gee.. thanks” or try to negate it in a bid to be super modest! :( so i find it a lot more useful to say the compliment with a follow up question and then wait for a response… that way the recipient knows i genuinely mean it, and am interested in learning more…

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Hey sunshine! You’re definitely right in combining the techniques. The five techniques listed here are not meant to be mutually exclusive techniques—they can certainly be combined. Asking questions is always the fail-safe option to elicit a response, and combining it with another technique increases its efficacy. :D

  • http://www.cheap-cell-phones-guide.com wanxuan

    Hey Celes,

    Wow what an insanely useful article loaded with tips! I learnt a lot from this article. I must have you to thank for expanding my circle of friends further :hug: I especially like your point about using a surrounding object as an anchor. Assuming two people met at the same venue, the immediate surroundings will def be a source of commonality for both. I also feel that establishing eye contact and having a great smile at all times will help build trust, enabling people to open up to you easily.

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Hi Wanxuan, I’m so glad you found this article useful! :) I’m also glad to hear that you’ve been keeping in touch with some of the folks from the last PE readers meet-up! :D Hope to have another SG meet-up in the future, though I don’t think it will be this year as I’ll be starting another world trip soon and plan to be away longer this time. More details to be shared on PE!

  • http://www.CoachingWithChristina.com Christina

    Thank you Celes! This is really valuable. I’m definitely going to reread this before my next networking event :)

    ~Christina

  • http://begeneticallydifferent.blogspot.com capePHAROAH

    I’ve also found “small talk” is something I’m not all that good at. Perhaps its because it seems a bit too superficial for me. Superficial things usually tend to be deceitful.

  • Bob

    Hey Celes,
    Great tips thank you for sharing. I have an extra idea:
    6. Imagine you can have great conversations with everyone. Sometimes we may feel intimidated because of the persons social status or age.

    I sympathise about your hairdresser. Hairdressers in general are very inquisitive and nearly always want to control each situation by consistently asking questions. The usual first question I get asked if I come to have my haircut during a weekday is “not working today then?” I’ve had some interesting conversations with a couple of barbers when I asked them questions: one told me all about his holiday in New York, describing the men’s hairdressers there and especially about one barbers shop that just specialised in shaving men. The other hairdresser told me all about running, leading up to talk about marathons, the preparation, running them and afterwards.

    Hairdressers see a wide spectrum of people from all walks of life and are always building up their knowledge by asking questions.
    There are a few professions like this who get to deal with anybody and everybody. I can think of doctors, journalists, undertakers, TV and radio presenters and of course now Internet comments and forums.
    My point is that the more exposure we have to being with different people the easier we find adapting to having interesting and innovative conversations. It is with experience that we start to develop strategies for each new situation.

    • JadePenguin

      Maybe hairdressers are often bored and were happy to have *you* asking about them :)

      Hehehe undertakers are probably not very inquisitive at their ‘clients’ ;)

      • Bob

        Hi Jade thanks for your comment,

        Concerning the hairdressers, instead of having to answer questions I purposely decided to ask questions and steer the conversation away from myself. ;)

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      My hairdresser situation was pretty unique. I generally love to engage conversations with people, including cab drivers, hair dressers, etc., but this one asked about 20 questions in a minute, all pretty invasive, and persisting a same topic/question even when I was giving vague answers and redirected questions back at her (hinting that it’s something private and something I’m not willing to share or talk about). The worst thing was that she couldn’t even take a hint and kept emotionally “drilling” and “bulldozing” her way into my personal space!

      Hence the important that we need to be emotionally aware (not just of self, but of others) so that we don’t unwittingly infringe on others’ privacy. I did feel that you are very good at this (along with your family) when I met you guys in Cambridge, Bob!

  • Bob

    I have had some hairdressers like that as well Celes, not at all subtle and they keep persistently asking questions – I found the best solution for me is:

    1. Body language, I’m here for a haircut not an interrogation.
    2. Asking questions first or back.
    3. Ignoring and not responding to questions.

    I think that the reason they ask questions is to test the person they interrogate, so they won’t question them about the quality of their work and because they feel destabilised or inadequate in front of the person whose hair they are cutting. So in order to have the upper hand they ask questions and/or cut the hair badly!

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