Science shows that swapping more substantive conversations for the same old vacuous small talk can help you be much happier. Which is why I'm always on the lookout for better ice breakers that the usual 'What do you do?' or 'Did you catch the game on Saturday?'
This search has yielded plenty of great alternative conversation starters, but as entertaining as many are, they often suffer from one big drawback -- they're not appropriate for a professional context. You can't (usually) go up to a dream hire or much longed for potential client at a networking event and kick things off with "What's your plan for the zombie apocalypse?" after all.
Are there any conversation starters that tick all the boxes? Fear not, there are a few that are fun, effective AND professional. I've scoured the internet to find them.
1. What do you love most about your line of work?
Several experts recommend some version of this question. Undercover Recruiter offers a couple of reasons why: "One, the subject will feel important and be open to sharing his or her personal stories and beliefs. Two, you'll get great insider information on the field in which you work or intend to work."
2. What's your favorite part of the event so far?
This is basically a variation on question one that's more tailored to large events like conferences, and it shares the same virtues as the first ice breaker -- it's positive and invites a detailed but still not excessively personal reply that should give you more fodder for further conversation.
3. Are you originally from [wherever the event is], or did your business bring you here?
This is a roundabout way of asking "What do you do?" (which, apparently, is actually a rude question in some countries). But "asking thoughtful follow-up questions and sharing information about yourself will eventually lead to what kind of business you are in, just in a more engaging manner," explains etiquette expert Diane Gottsman.
4. This is my first visit to [wherever the event is]. What do you recommend I see while I'm here?
If you're away from home for an event, asking for advice about your destination from those who seem more familiar with the place can be a great way to get people talking.
5. Who are some of your favorite experts or authors?
This one comes from publicity strategist Selena Soo. People like to show they're in the know about cool influencers, so this question is sure to draw others out and you're also likely to get some great recommendations. Of course, you should be prepared to reciprocate with your own suggestions.
6. How did you get into the industry?
"People enjoy talking about themselves, and they enjoy reminiscing about what brought them to the work in the first place," says career expert Nicole Williams, who says this question is particularly well suited to schmoozing with executives and other high-level contacts.
7. I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed by the deluge of info that's being fire-hosed at us today. Is there one nugget of brilliance that's really resonating with you?
This one comes from writer Alexandra Franzen's massive list of 100 alternatives to 'What do you do?' (Some of them are not for the shy.) Confessing to feeling overwhelmed should encourage similar authenticity from your conversation partner and help you make a real connection. As an added bonus, you'll probably also get a bit of your new acquaintance's wisdom to take home with you.
8. What was the best piece of advice you got early on in your career?
9. What's the absolute WORST business advice you've ever received? Did you sense the ridiculousness immediately, or did you have to learn by trial and error?
This is another slightly more daring suggestion from Franzen.
10. I love your bag. Where'd you get it?
No, this won't lead your new connection to instantly bare their soul to you, but it will break the ice and help them remember you. "To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money," explains professor Norihiro Sadato, who studies the subject.
Do you have any other great professional ice breakers to add to this list?