For me, there are few things more torturous in life than small talk. I don't care about your sports team. I have nothing interesting to say about the weather, and for the love of all that's holy, don't make me talk about the comparative merits of various afternoon activities at one more kid birthday party.
So what can I -- and all my fellow small talk haters -- do to escape vapid chitchat? Over the years, I've used my position as a writer to investigate this question, coming up with scientific studies that both validate my dislike of small talk (more substantive conversations make people happier) and contradict my opinion (small talk, apparently, is important for social bonding).
I've dug up tricks for more interesting small talk, tips to be a better conversationalist, and out-of-the box icebreaker questions (so many questions) to get good conversations going. But perhaps, after all this research, I've missed the best and simplest solution. Recently on blog Cup of Jo I came across a great small talk-busting question that is effective, versatile, and all of four words long.
One icebreaker question to rule them all
The post kicks off with a hilarious story about one of writer Joanna Goddard's worst personal small talk fails (it involves a first date and a grizzly bear), but she quickly moves on to share an all-purpose icebreaker question courtesy of Terry Gross, the host of NPR's "Fresh Air."
Here it is in all it's glorious obviousness: "Tell me about yourself."
While it's hard to think of a simpler question, according to my personal experience at least, it's still not much used. That's a shame. According to Gross, Goddard, and common sense, it's a straightforward request with near magical powers.
"Those four words work, [Gross] says, because they let person choose how to tell you who they are. The person can bring up whatever is most interesting to them -- their teaching career, their new kitten, a recent move, their obsession with finding the best carrot cake in the city,| writes Goddard.
The question has other virtues too. Unlike more common conversation starters like "So what do you do for work?" it makes no assumptions about a person, so it's guaranteed not to force anyone to make any uncomfortable or potentially embarrassing admissions.
Goddard goes on to share the advice of another friend who swears by simply asking people, "How was your day?" as well links to others claiming to offer alternative one-size-fits-all conversation starters. Check those out if you're not 100 percent sold on the simple elegance of, "Tell me about yourself."
But to my mind Gross's suggestion for the best ever conversation starter is hard to beat. It's impossible to forget, universally applicable, neither weird nor uncomfortable, and pretty difficult to give a boring answer to. I'm going to give it a try and see how it goes.