Sometimes, the only thing standing between two people and a great conversation is an icebreaker. Rather than relying on rehearsed one-liners, however, try using these opening ideas to help you start conversations. Self-disclosure makes others feel closer to you and makes them more willing to share themselves. Therefore, saying, “I love baseball. My dad used to take me and my brother to watch the Cubs play every summer. Do you like sports?” is going to be more likely to start a real conversation than abruptly demanding to know a stranger’s favorite team. Remember, though, that good conversationalists listen at least as much as they talk. Here are icebreaking ideas for a variety of social situations.
Encounters with People You Don’t Know or Barely Know
1. Just say hello. Sometimes a warm hello is all it takes to set someone at ease and allow a conversation to begin.
2. Ask about a prop. Most people respond favorably to inquiries about books they are carrying. Making a positive observation about the sports team whose logo is emblazoned upon a person’s shirt or jacket is another quick way to start a conversation.
3. Look for clues about the other person’s interests. Sometimes you have to have a good eye to figure out what sort of interests your companion has. A key fob bearing the logo of a specific automaker, running shoes or other sports gear or even the presence of a briefcase can suggest the sort of non-threatening questions that might be met with a positive response.
4. Ask about something in your surroundings. If there are no props or clues, make a comment on an interesting geographical or architectural feature in the vicinity, remark upon the size of the line, crowd or audience, or point out a sunset or interesting cloud.
5. Where are you from? If you are in a situation in which most people are originally from other places, such as a university orientation or a large concert or gathering, inquiring about someone’s hometown is almost always a safe bet.
6. Make a comment on the weather. This old standby has been used for centuries because it works. The weather is a factor in everyone’s lives, and its unpredictable nature makes it the perfect fodder for conversation.
7. Comment on the occasion or event that brought you together in the first place. Regardless of whether he two of you are in the same place because you are both friends of the deceased or former classmates of the party’s host, whatever brought you to the event is something the two of you have in common. Make the most of that common ground by commenting on it or asking questions about it.
8. Bring up a news story, sports score or weather event. Talking about something that has recently been in the news will create a spark of interest in most people. While you may inspire more passion by mentioning a negative event or a tragedy, try to stay positive. If you can only think of a negative event, stick to mildly negative occurrences, such as sports losses or celebrity scandals. Avoid depressing stories or disasters that may hit too close to home.
9. Refer to a past encounter, even if it was brief. People respond more favorably to others with whom they have a history of past encounters. So make a joke about how bad the music at your brother’s bar mitzvah was or laugh about how many times you wiped out the first time you tried to ski. Be careful not to make any jokes at the other’s expense, though. It’s one thing to be around people who laugh at themselves and quite another to be around people who laugh at you.
10. Ask about seasonal preparations such as holiday shopping or vacation plans. Virtually everyone gives gifts in the winter and goes on vacation in the summer. It’s usually safe to ask almost anyone about these subjects, especially if you reveal a little about your own plans or progress in the process.
11. Invite other people to initiate the conversation by carrying props such as books or wearing sports insignias. Other people may also be interested in striking up a conversation. Why not make it easier for them? Carrying a book that broadcasts your interests or a jacket that announces your favorite sport is the perfect way to attract people with similar interests to make the first move.
12. Don’t forget to smile. Never underestimate the power of a warm smile to communicate to another person that you find him or her interesting and wouldn’t mind getting to know him or her better.
13. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Confide to a potential date that you don’t know anyone at the event or share that you are a little shy, nervous around people, usually more of an outdoors person or any other trait that you might not ordinarily share with just anyone.
14. Make a funny comment about something that is going on around you. Humor is probably the best icebreaker on the planet. When you make someone laugh, or at least smile, you create a connection, however tenuous. That connection is all you need to begin to create the foundation for a conversation and another meeting.
15. Offer small bits of information about yourself and ask for corresponding information from your date. For example, “I grew up right around here. In fact, I was born in Adamstown. Where did you grow up?” Questions about favorite movies and musical artists, past and current pets, hobbies, childhood experiences, education and general goals and dreams also work well under these circumstances.
Running into Friends or Family
16. Ask after a mutual friend or family member. You probably have a lot of acquaintances or relatives in common. Asking about the other person’s spouse, parent, sibling or child is always a safe bet. If you have friends in common, inquiring about one you haven’t seen in a while is another way to get the conversational ball rolling.
17. Ask about upcoming events or functions involving family or mutual friends. If you know the whole family usually gets together for Thanksgiving dinner, ask if a venue has been determined. Speculate on who might show up at the upcoming class reunion.
18. Offer up some variation of the following: “I haven’t seen you since graduation. What have you been doing with yourself?” Bringing up the last time you were together establishes common ground and asking for updates helps get the other person talking.
19. Ask about plans for the weekend, the week or the season. People like to talk about their plans, especially if they are excited about them. Even people without plans like to bemoan the fact and enjoy having someone commiserate with them over their bad fortune.
20. Ask about something the person was getting ready to do or had just begun the last time you saw him or her. If the last time you saw your college roommate was at his wedding, ask about his new spouse or inquire about the honeymoon destination. Allow the other person to begin catching you up on his or her life and share the changes you have been through, as well.
To Spark Conversations between Couples
21. Make a compliment. Any compliment will do the trick, as long as it’s heartfelt. If you’ve lost sight of the things that make your significant other special, open your eyes. Does she reach over and cover you up in the night when it gets chilly? Does he always remember to make your eggs over easy? Compliments make people feel loved and appreciated can repair a lot of damage over time. Once you start looking for things to praise, you will find it hard to believe you were ever able to overlook your partner’s good points.
22. Point out something that reminds you of a good memory together. Share your feelings about the memory and don’t be afraid to show a little vulnerability. Encourage your partner to talk about good memories, too, and if he or she shares feelings, listen carefully and be respectful of them.
23. Bring up something you want to do before you die and use it to lead into something your partner wants to do. If talking about death makes either of you uncomfortable, just mention something you really want to do someday. You may learn something new about your partner or even yourself in the process.
Starting a conversation is the crucial first step, but having a good icebreaker isn’t enough. Conversations follow a general pattern: first contact, introductions if you don’t know each other, a period of verbal interaction and, finally, a graceful ending.
Once you’ve initiated the conversation, listen to how the other person responds and then respond in a thoughtful manner by sharing your own knowledge, experiences or feelings about their observations. As the two of you weave an interesting conversation from these elements, you will begin to create some common ground, making it easier to strike up a conversation the next time you meet.