When you attend a networking event, cocktail party, or meet someone for a business lunch, exchanging superficial small talk is par for the course.

Sure, questions like What do you do? and Where do you live? are almost necessary to get some conversational momentum. But how many of us are willing to go deeper? How many of us can say we are adept at drawing someone into a meaningful conversation that may lead to mutual benefit?

As science discovered, the exchange of the often-rare meaningful interaction in social or business settings can be the difference between happiness and unhappiness.

Kiss the small talk goodbye, says science

As published in Psychological Science, researchers found that the happiest participants in a study involving more than 20,000 recorded conversations had twice as many genuine and deep talks as the unhappiest participants. This confirms what most people know: Surface-level small talk does not build relationships.

Behavioral scientists Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely tested the theory by hosting a dinner party where small talk was literally banned. To set some parameters for good conversations, they provided big index cards with examples of meaningful conversation starters. 

Instead of decreasing freedom, "people appeared freer to talk about the things they really wanted to talk about," state the authors. In turn, "everyone was happier."

Entrepreneurs and leaders of every persuasion have seized on the opportunity to socially engage with captivating questions posed at "Jefferson"-style dinners across the country.

Try Jeffersonian dinners

Jennifer McCrea, senior research fellow at the Hauser Institute for Civil Society at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, co-authored a book about Jeffersonian dinners called The Generosity Network.

"We were kind of tired of traditional galas and standing cocktail parties where people were making small talk and then would get pitched to by an organization--and nothing would come out of them," McCrea explains. "The genesis is that Thomas Jefferson himself apparently would do dinners like this at his home and bring in very important people."

Such events, whether attracting big wigs or neighbors, open up all kinds of possibilities for introverts. Barry Breaux, a Bay Area physician, hosts such gatherings with simple rules of engagement, including: 

  • No small talk once discussion starts; no side conversations.
  • Confidentiality is a must -- respect the privacy of personal stories and information that may be shared.
  • If you disagree with something, attack ideas, not people.

Breaux writes, "I'm also an introvert--someone who prefers not to engage with people much of the time and who finds small talk and 'networking' absolutely exhausting," he says. "I've spent far too many social interactions wearing masks to try to fit into what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal.'"

At No Small Talk, dinner events are planned around the world with two hard and fast rules: no phones and no small talk. Guests also receive cards with meaningful-conversation prompts.

So what's the key to great conversations? It comes down to two things: 1) showing curiosity in the other person (which is reciprocated); and 2) choosing captivating questions to ask, with one important caveat: If you're in a conversation at a work-related function or meeting someone to talk business for the first time, your best move is not to ask work- or business-related questions; it's to discover common ties with that person that will steer the conversation back to the "work stuff," but with a deeper connection. In other words, get to know that person! 

12 questions to kill the small talk

If you've bought on to this idea of banning small talk from your conversations, here are 12 no-fail conversation starters cherry-picked from a few credible sources:

  1. What's your story?
  2. What absolutely excites you right now? 
  3. What's the most important thing I should know about you?

  4. What human emotion do you fear the most?

  5. If you could do anything you wanted tonight (anywhere, for any amount of money), what would you do and why?

  6. If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
  7. When's the last time you failed spectacularly at something?
  8. What do you value more, intelligence or common sense?
  9. What is the greatest lesson you have learned from one of your enemies?
  10. If you did not sleep, how would you spend the extra eight hours a day?
  11. If you had to pick the character from any book, movie, or TV show who is most similar to you, whom would you choose? Why?
  12. How different is your job today from what you wanted to do as a kid?

Lastly, whatever you do, avoid at all cost controversial or sensitive questions related to topics like politics, physical appearance or age, religion, and generally anything rated R.