When you have to make small talk with someone you barely know, “how are you?” won’t cut it.
It’s a good line for a quick getaway, says networking expert Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. But if you’re stuck next to a stranger at a dinner party, or in line for coffee with a coworker, you’ll need something better to trigger a conversation.
Pull out these three phrases for better banter.
Small Talk Option 1: If you’ve never met: “What keeps you busy?”
Asking a guy what he does for a living can be a loaded question, says Fine. Perhaps he’s between jobs or recently got laid off. Or maybe he doesn’t want to spend his downtime thinking about the pile of papers waiting for him on his desk.
Pose an open-ended question to give him the opportunity to spin the chat in whatever direction he wants, says Fine. If he brings up work, great—ask him how he got started in his field. But if he launches into a story about his fantasy football draft? Even better.
Small Talk Option 2: If you already know each other: “Catch me up.”
You’ve already got her bio down, but you don’t share much common ground. Go beyond “how have you been?” and show her you’re interested in hearing what’s really been going on in her life since you last talked.
New job? Ask her to name her personal first-month highlights. If she’s training for a half marathon, inquire about her favorite off-the-radar running spots.
“People love to talk about themselves, but the key to a good conversation is to get it launched,” says Fine.
Small Talk Option 3: If the conversation is one-sided: “Yes, and…”
To keep your conversation alive, follow the golden rule in improvisational comedy: Affirm whatever the other person says, and then add something to it.
If someone says, “Yesterday was a beautiful day,” you might simply reply, “Yeah, it was!” But improv comedians refer to this as “blocking”— it sets you up to hit a dead end.
So try something like, “I know, I was so glad I finally got to go on a hike” instead.
“This gives them something to go off of,” says Stephen Rosenfield, Director of the American Comedy Institute.
Image by Kelvin Tan of Mohd Farhan, Gilbert Wong