Starting a conversation with someone you don't know is always awkward. It can be harder still when you're talking to someone you don't know, and don't know much of anything about. But in every single social situation, there's a way to start a conversation--I guarantee it. All it takes is a little imagination, a little gumption, and a few conversational openers that apply in nearly any situation.
With that in mind, here are some conversation starters for you to try. At least one, and likely most of these will work in any situation:
1. "How about this weather?"
The weather is just about always worthy of comment, whether it's unusually beautiful, hot, wet, snowy, cold, or dry. Weather is one of the few things we all experience in pretty much the same way.
2. "How was the traffic?"
Traffic is another universal we all have to deal with some time or other. If you're at a gathering of almost any sort, then people had to deal with traffic to get there so asking how that went is a pretty safe bet.
3. "What do you think of the [sports team] this season?"
This conversation-starter won't work everywhere or with everyone. But there are a lot of places where one sports team or another is universally watched, such as the Seahawks in Seattle or the Red Sox in Boston. If you're in one of these places, then remarking on the team's performance, good or bad, is often a good opener.
4. "Where did you get that thing you're wearing?"
Everyone loves to have their good taste validated. So if you ask someone where he or she got that unusual tie/dress/scarf/shoe, etc., you are likely to make that person feel flattered and inclined to talk with you.
5. "Excuse me, can you tell me the way to...?"
It doesn't really matter if you're asking directions to the bathroom, or to the next session room, or driving directions back to the highway. Most people like giving directions so if they know the way to what you're looking for--and often even if they don't--they'll tell you.
6. "Excuse me, do you know about...?
Asking for information often works the same way as asking for directions. Again, it doesn't matter that much what you're asking for information about, although it's wiser to pick something the other person likely knows the answer to (even if you already know it yourself). You could ask how an event went, or what time the next session starts, or whether the Number 10 bus stops at this corner. People love to give information so they will likely answer you if they can.
7. "May I ask your opinion?"
This opening often works for people conducting surveys, but you can use it too. People love sharing their opinions even more than they love sharing information, so if you can get someone talking about the last speaker, or Donald Trump, or the final season of Downton Abbey, you're home free. One caveat: Be cautious about proclaiming your own opinions, especially before you know what the other person's are. It's surprisingly easy to offend someone unintentionally.
8. "Do you have any plans for...?"
This conversational opener only works at certain times of the year, but there are quite a few universal holidays and events so that your odds are good that something is coming up soon. "Do you have any plans for Memorial Day?" "Do you have any plans for Thanksgiving?" "Are you taking (or did you take) any fun vacations this summer?" "Did you go home for the holidays?"
And of course if you're at a conference or other event, it creates its own set of universals: "Are you planning to attend the cocktail party?" "Are you planning to stay till the end of the conference?"
9. "Would you like...?"
In any situation where you can offer something the other person may want or need, consider doing it. This could be an empty seat next to you, for you to pass the ketchup at a dining table, or your help opening a door if their hands are full. Whatever the case, if you see an opportunity to help someone and you offer help, they will likely appreciate the offer and be happy to talk with you.
10. "Isn't this a beautiful [room/hotel/building/part of town/city]?"
No matter where you are, there's nearly always something to admire nearby, whether it's the park up the street, or the view from the upper floor you're on, or the room that you're in or even the town where it's located. If you can find something to admire, then go for it, especially if you come from somewhere else.
Don't, however, lavish false praise on a room, building, or neighborhood that's lackluster and doesn't deserve it--you'll just come off as a phony. And be cautious about criticizing your surroundings since you may be dissing someone's beloved venue or home town.
11. "What do you think of this event?"
There's one thing you and the person you're speaking with have in common--you're both in the same place. Whether it's a cocktail party, or a conference, or a Saturday morning gathering at your local dog park, the event that brought both of you to this same place is almost always a good topic of conversation.
If all else fails, start there. You'll soon find you have a lot to talk about.