How To Start Conversations
Overall it's hard to give advice about making conversation that isn't too general. After all, there's an infinite number of ways a conversation can go, and you can't have pre-prepared plans and scripts for every situation. However, the exception is when it comes to ways to start or enter a conversation. Here the scope of what you want to do is a lot smaller, there are only so many ways to go about it, and it's fairly simple to have some lines and strategies laid out ahead of time. Ending conversations is similar.
Once you've started talking to someone you could wing it from there, if you're feeling confident about your interpersonal skills, or you could use a general approach to give you some guidance.
Some general principles of starting conversations
Soon I'll get into more specific examples, but first a few core ideas:
Your opening line isn't ultra-important, it's more about what you can do after that
It's relatively simple to just initiate a conversation with someone, and the exact phrase you use to do it usually doesn't matter too much. Yeah, some conversation starters are a bit better than others, but not to such a degree that you should devote a ton of mental energy to finding the perfect lines. If you deliver a basic line in a relatively friendly, self-assured way, it'll work as well as anything else.
What will really determine how well the conversation goes happens after the opening exchange. If you're half-decent at talking with people, and the other person is open to speaking to you, things should go okay. If your conversation skills could use some practice, or the other person doesn't have much in common with you, isn't feeling talkative, or isn't great at chit chat themselves, then the interaction may peter out. Also, if you find yourself trying to craft the best possible line, or are fretting that certain lines may not work, or that they'd be too intrusive or unoriginal, your real problem may be about your self-confidence and your nerves.
I realize I'm being contradictory. This article lists a bunch of ways to start conversations, and it's not like I can just neglect to cover that information, but at the same time I'm beginning with, "It doesn't matter a ton what you say." I guess if anything the range of possibilities I lay out below should reinforce how many options you have.
Your comfort levels play a big role
As I said, starting a conversation is a technically simple thing to do. Often what's holding people back is that they're uncomfortable about going through with it. They may feel shy and insecure and think they have nothing interesting to say or that they're being a pest. They may be anxious about talking to someone they don't know. They might be intimidated by certain types of people and hesitant to try to talk to them. If that's the case, it's important to work on increasing your comfort levels. Check out the section of the site devoted to that set of issues:
Articles On Shyness, Fears, Insecurities, and Negative Moods
Assume rapport / talk to people as if you already knew them
This is a well known principle. When you start talking to a stranger or distant acquintance, do it in more or less the same manner as if you were going up to someone you already know and are friendly with. Don't go too far and be inappropriately familiar, but at the same time, you don't need to be overly formal, courteous, and restrained. When you follow this suggestion you'll naturally adopt a warmer, more confident attitude and put the other person at ease.
It also means it's often okay to skip any formal introductions or getting-to-know-you talk and jump right to a more interesting topic, especially in more casual settings. Like you could go up to a friend of a friend at a party and immediately ask their opinion on a recent bit of news. Of course, if you want to go the route of introducing yourself first that has its advantages too. Just don't feel you have to always follow that template.
It's good to have a backup plan for if your opening line fizzles
Sometimes you'll say something to start a conversation and the other person replies, but doesn't give you much to work with. By far the most classic example is when you ask someone how they're doing and they say "fine" or "good". Or you ask them about a movie they recently saw, and they'll say "It was okay." Or maybe you make a statement and they'll go, "Yeah..." You never know when this will happen, so it's always good to be prepared to try again and say something else that may get the discussion rolling. You could ask a more specific follow-up question, ask about another topic, or make a new statement. In general, as you get better at thinking on your feet it frees you up to ask whatever type of conversation starter you want. Even if the other person doesn't answer in an ideal way, you know you can follow up and keep things going.
General ways to start a conversation
First, I'll refer you to my quick disclaimer about the use of examples. I've also kept the examples a bit generic. Talking like this is often fine, and you don't need to always come up with extremely colorful, creative opening lines.
These lines can be used on individuals or groups. I also wrote a short article that more specifically talks about joining group discussions. There's some definite overlap with this article, but it covers some additional ideas related to that topic.
Since I list lots of options, and no one can realistically be expected to remember them all, I'd recommend that when you want to talk to someone that you just go with one of the first opening lines that pops into your head (since they're all equally good). Or if you want to prepare ahead of time, decide on only a few conversation starters that you'd feel comfortable using.
For people you don't know you can introduce yourself
If you're meeting someone for the first time, you can always start the conversation by introducing yourself. This especially applies to more formal business situations:
- "Hey, my name's Adam. Nice to meet you..."
- "Hey, what's your name?... I'm Michelle."
- "Hi. I'm Amy from (some company)."
That will break the ice, and they'll likely start chatting with you. If not, you just traded names, and you essentially have to use another conversation starter to get it going for real. With new people you don't always have to introduce yourself to start talking to them. You could start the conversation in another way, and after a while it will only feel natural to introduce yourselves to each other - "I'm Kara, by the way"
Ask them how they ended up in the situation you're all in
This mainly applies to new people, but you could also use it to start a conversation with someone you've chatted to briefly a few times before, but just haven't asked them about this yet. Examples:
- "How long have you been playing on this team?"
- "How do you know everyone else at the party?"
- "How long have you been working here?"
- "What brought you guys out to this bar tonight?"
- (At a university freshman orientation mixer) "What program are you in?" "Where are you from?"
- (At a business convention) "What company are you from?"
- (At a games night at a hobby store) "How long have you been playing Warhammer?"
Comment on the situation
- "This is a pretty sweet party."
- "Man, there are a ton of customers in here today."
- "Class was more interesting than usual, huh?"
- "The last time I was at this bar there were a bunch of rowdy Engineering freshmen here on a pub crawl."
- "Wow, it's so hot out today. I checked the temperature online and it's 37 degrees (Celsius) with the humidity." (The weather is kind of an all-encompassing situation everyone finds themselves in).
Ask a question about the situation
Sometimes you'll actually have a question about the setting you're in, and it's only natural to use it to begin talking to someone. Though I think of all the ways to start a conversation, this is the one where people will white lie the most. They aren't really dying to know the answer to something and are just using the question as an excuse to talk.
Some people feel they have to use this type of conversation starter, because it seems more spontaneous and natural, or doesn't put them on the line for rejection as much, because they have the face saving explanation that they were only trying to find something out. In general though, when you're just chatting to people for friendly reasons it's perfectly fine to start a conversation more directly.
- "Do you know what the sauce is with those hors d'oeuvres?"
- "I missed the first class. Did the prof hand out a course outline?"
- "Do you know when we need to be back from break?"
- (At a bar) "Do you know when this place closes?"
- (At a nightclub) "What's the name of the song that's playing?"
Ask them a question about themselves
Depending on what you ask them about, this one can overlap a bit with asking someone about the situation you're all in. Some of these may be a bit too jarring if you ask them right away to someone you just walked up to, but can seem totally fine if you've introduced yourself first. If you've talked to someone before, and are just starting a new conversation, you can usually dive in more. The question you ask may be a context-free "getting to know you" one, or you may jump right into a more specific topic if you have a feeling it's something they'd be interested in talking about.
- "So what are you taking in school?"
- "What do you do in the company?"
- "Do you have any kids?" / "How old are your children?"
- "What video games are you playing right now?"
- "Do you follow baseball?"
- "What do you usually do for fun on the weekend?"
Make a statement about them
An observation about someone can get a conversation going. Compliments would also fall into this category.
- "You look like you're in a good mood today."
- "Are you into (type of music)? I get a sense you might be."
- "That's a nice hat. Where did you get it?"
- (To the host of a party) "Wow, you've got a lot of neat houseplants."
Most of the time this approach works fine. The odd person will get a bit flustered and not know how to take it if you make an observation about them or give them a compliment. They may be a bit insecure, and think you might be criticizing them somehow. For example, if you comment that they seem artistic, their mind may jump to, "They're saying I come across as weird and flakey". If this happens just quickly assure them you meant nothing bad by it and then switch topics.
Ask a question or make a statement about an interesting outside topic
I put the question and statement parts together because the intent is basically the same. You're saying something that will hopefully get them talking. You could also do a bit of a combo, where you ask a closed-ended question. If they give a detailed answer anyway, that's a bonus. But if they say something quick like "Yeah" or "It was okay", then you can have a statement ready to go, covering what your opinion is, and hopefully that will get them going.
- "Have you seen (new popular movie)? What did you think of it?"
- "What do you think of (the latest development on a popular TV show)?"
- "You went to that concert last night, right? How was it?"
- "Did you read that article yesterday about....?
- "I'm thinking of seeing (new popular movie). I saw the trailer for it. It looks awesome, etc, etc."
- "So I heard (something happened on a popular TV show). I think it's so weird that (character) is doing that now, etc., etc.
- "I wish I had seen the concert last night. I love that band. I heard that on this tour they're..."
- "I read a really interesting article the other day. It was saying that...."
Make a statement about yourself
These tend to be a better fit for people you know already, but in some circumstances they'd also be an appropriate way to start talking to someone new. Again, depending on what you talk about, these could overlap with making a statement about an outside topic:
- "I'm so happy right now, I just handed in my last paper for this semester."
- "I just got home from visiting my parents this weekend. They were..."
- "I just found out the manager wants me to pick up a shift this Wednesday night."
- "So I heard back from my friend about whether he's going to go traveling in South America..."
- (At a bar or party) "Dude, I'm so buzzed right now. I just did three shots in a row."
For someone you know, ask for an update about something they've been doing
- "So how was your weekend up at the cottage?"
- "How's school treating you? What have you been covering in your classes lately?"
- "How's your daughter doing? Has she gotten over her cold yet?"
- "Did you end up buying that game you were talking about? How is it?"
- "What have you been up to lately?" (And be prepared for them possibly saying, "Not much")
Ask the other person to do something simple for you
This is more a way to quickly break the ice and allows you to follow up with something else if you want:
- "Do you have a light? / Do you have an extra smoke?"
- "Do you mind passing that drink down to me?"
- "Would you mind saving my chair for me. I'll just be up for a second."
- "Do you want to exchange emails, so we can send each other our notes in case one of us misses a class?"
Ask them if they want to do an activity together
And then chat to them as you do it.
- (Near a pub's pool tables) "Are you waiting to play with anyone? No? Want to play after these people are done?"
- (At bar's swing dancing night?) "Want to dance?"
- (At a party) "Want to form a beer pong team?"
Saying "Hello" or "Hey" or "What's up?" or "How's it going?"
Even though this is a really common way to get a conversation rolling, and it often works just fine, I put it farther down the list because it has the most potential to cause the interaction to fizzle out. Saying, "What's up?" or "How's it going?" is notorious for often getting back a "Fine" or a "Good, you?" in response, and then an awkward silence settling in. I find using a "What's up?" type greeting works in the following circumstances:
- You're using it simply to get the conversation opened up, and you've got some follow-up statements prepared.
- The person looks friendly and like they want to talk to you. You get a sense that if you begin with "Hey" or "What's up?" that they'll take the ball and say something substantive back.
- You're both not rushing somewhere else. It's clear that you can both stick around and talk to each other. For example, if you catch a co-worker as they're walking out of the break room, they may take your "Hey, what's up?" simply as a greeting. However, if they're sitting down at a table, and you join them and say, "What's up?" that sends the message that you want to have an actual conversation.
Asking more creative hypothetical questions
These can be interesting, but their importance is a bit overrated in my opinion. I've read advice on making conversation that says you should avoid any standard methods of initiating chit chat, and only ask really unique, engaging questions. Like I said, sometimes that can work, but in our day to day lives when we're talking to friends, co-workers, classmates, or friendly strangers at a party, saying more typical stuff is usually fine. It would come off as a bit random and gimmicky if you were, say, constantly asking another staff member in a retail store things like, "Hey, If there were no laws in place for a day, what would you do?" And there are way more cases where it wouldn't be appropriate to start talking to a stranger by saying, "If you had to live the rest of your life as any animal, which one would you pick?" then when it would. Used every so often these types of questions can spice up an interaction, and possibly open up new areas of discussion, but you don't want to overdo it.
After you've started a conversation, the next few minutes are often predictable. Here's an article that goes into more detail:
Getting Past The First Few Minutes Of One-On-One Conversation