Small talk is the worst.
Trying to find common ground with someone you've never met before--and may never meet again--is doomed to be awkward.
As wonderful as it'd be for everyone to agree to kill small talk entirely and just get straight to the juicy bits, that's simply not how most emotionally intelligent people operate.
Like it or not, your future holds many conversations with strangers that must start somewhere, usually with small talk. There are networking events to suffer through, friends of friends to meet, and job interviews to hopefully not bomb. Here's how to do small talk right.
An icebreaker that works in every situation
There's one icebreaker question that'll work every single time. It comes from Terry Gross, who is a legendary interviewer. As the host of NPR's Fresh Air, Gross has conducted thousands of interviews. And she's been doing it for over 40 years. From political figures to pop culture icons, Gross can start a great conversation with absolutely anyone.
She tells the New York Times this is the only icebreaker you need: Tell me about yourself.
This is much more effective than the dreaded, "So what do you do?" because you don't make any assumptions about the other person. Here's why Gross said these four words are more likely to lead to a genuinely interesting conversation:
"It allows you to start a conversation without the fear that you're going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious. Posing a broad question lets people lead you to who they are."
Stay curious and engaged
After you get past the initial breaking of ice, your next move is equally as important.
You have to really listen to how the other person responds and care what they have to say. Don't instantly zone out. Don't drain your drink so you can quickly exit the conversation. Tune in to what they're excited about. Build upon it. Ask them more questions about that thing.
Gross says having a good conversation comes down to curiosity. You need to want to hear what the other person has to say. Bringing enthusiasm and energy to the conversation will go a long way.
And you've heard it before, but Gross wants you to hear it again. Body language, people. Pay attention to body language. If you're paying attention, you can tell if someone's interest is waning. Even if you're excited about a certain topic, the other person might not be. Body language like eyes wandering, crossed arms, or turning away from you signals boredom.
How to exit gracefully
Not every conversation will be a slam dunk. Inevitably, you're going to get a dud. Or, you just run out of things to talk about. Gross has one last trick for you (which isn't really a trick at all). Be honest. Say you've got to go--to the bar, to the bathroom, to say hi to your friend across the room. Then go.
Sure, it might feel rude. But do you really want to be stuck talking to someone when you have nothing to talk about? Think of it like this: Ditching one lame conversation frees you up to start another with someone new, leading to a potentially interesting discussion. There's only one way to find out. It starts with, "So Bob, tell me about yourself."