what conversation starters can I use at industry events?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

My industry requires me to go to a lot of events, especially when travelling. I work in sales so it is expected that I’ll use my time to mingle with people and build relationships. The trouble is that I have NO IDEA TO WHAT TO TALK ABOUT at these parties — no one wants to talk about work, and I struggle for more personal conversation topics.

  • My go-to questions are usually:
  • asking about and/or complaining about the weather
  • asking if they’ve been to this event before / how many years they’ve been attending this event
  • do they enjoy travelling / what are their favorite destinations
  • …?

Part of my problem is that I’m still dealing with imposter syndrome, and many of the people I meet are older, more established in the industry, have more impressive educations and often come from more privileged backgrounds. They’re also usually straight, while I am visibly queer. It leaves me feeling like we have no common ground, and that my conversation will be a boring imposition on them — which I know is a self-defeating prophesy.

I’m at the point of googling “how to talk to people?!?” — so you know I’m desperate. Do you or your readers have any suggestions?


{ 335 comments… read them below }

  1. JokeyJules*

    My favorite topic to discuss is food and recipes. Hopefully, (and usually!) the person i’m talking to enjoys food and it can be a fun, bipartisan, conversation. Even if the food at an event sucks, you can find something related to talk about. Sometimes that even segues into arranging a lunch/coffee/dinner meeting to talk business.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      To expand on that, special cocktails, local beers, or favorite wines (that is if you are interested in wine/beer/cocktails and you have a decent hunch that the other person does as well such as if they have one in hand).
      Also if the event is away from your home base, you can expand on some of your other questions about what you shouldn’t miss about the area. Do a little research on the event location ahead of time so you you talk a bit about the top 2 or 3 “must see’s” in the area.
      If someone is wearing a really interesting piece of jewelry or unusual tie, you can comment on that as well. “I noticed your ring, I haven’t seen anything like that before. May I have a closer look?”

      1. Dragoning*

        I would be careful of this one, because I do not drink, and part of that is for family history reasons. And it feels like I have to wind up avoiding a conversation about alcohol at least once a day already.

        1. ACraftBeerEnthusiast*

          Yeah, I love craft beers and I use them often as a conversation starter at parties and events and think they can work really well. I think it’s important to follow the rule of “Only use this tactic if you can see they’re currently drinking one” though, to avoid putting anyone in an awkward position or make anyone uncomfortable. It also has the added benefit of being a bit more natural/less random. I find it works better to say something like “Do you mind if I ask what you’re drinking? I hadn’t noticed that they had any reds on tap, is it local?” rather than to just go up to a random person and start with “So do you like beer?”

          Also, in my experience the people this is most likely to work on are also the people that are most likely to be drinking a beer (or wine, whatever) at an event anyways.

        2. JokeyJules*

          yeah, everyone eats, not everyone drinks. I also feel like you’d have to know a lot about different kinds of liquor, wine, and beer to turn it into a substantial conversation. It can go really well though!!

          1. Federal Employee 167590*

            Agreed. This one can be tricky. I’ve been caught in numerous conversations with beer enthusiasts. I enjoy a beer every now and then, but I don’t know a lot about the subject (and don’t really care beyond knowing, in general, the types of beer I might like). It’s sort of like assuming someone wants to talk about the pros and cons of different spark plugs just because you saw them driving a car. It can be a fine subject, but just like anything else, you have to be a bit skilled at knowing whether the other person is really engaged in the topic.

            1. CmdrShepard4ever*

              I think not knowing much about beer/wine/cocktails can be fine, if you are willing to admit you don’t know and want to learn or at least pretend to want to learn. I think many beer/wine/cocktail enthusiasts or enthusiasts of anything really tend to enjoy talking to people about the things you enjoy.

              I agree seeing someone driving a car and asking them what their favorite flux capacitor brand is, is going to deep right away. I think starting broad and then getting deeper/detailed has worked for me. What kind of car is, what do you like best about it, are you into cars. My default is to ask questions, but I avoid simple yes/no questions. If I ask an open ended questions and I get short responses I usually know its not a topic worth diving deeper, or if they go on and on I know I have found a subject to keep talking about.

        3. anon today and tomorrow*

          I don’t really think it’s that difficult. It’s small talk. They’re not expecting a long personal story about why you don’t drink. If there’s alcohol at an event, it’s a natural conversation starter.

          I don’t drink anymore and usually I say, “I don’t drink” or “I don’t drink, but what’s in your cocktail?”

          It’s not going to ruin my psyche if I have to make five or ten minute small talk about it.

    2. WellRed*

      How does this work? Do start talking about the pre-frozen eggrolls at the reception?

      1. JokeyJules*

        “did you try the little crostinis? i saw a recipe similar to this one and i always wanted to try”

        “this food sucks almost as much as the dinner served at my cousins wedding, the chicken was dryer than the sahara amiright?”

        1. JokeyJules*

          with the second one just be absolutely sure you aren’t talking to event staff or catering.

          1. Dragoning*

            Yeah, I find trying to bond by complaining frequently winds up giving someone the wrong impression.

        2. JSPA*

          Danger, will robinson…
          industries and the industries that serve those industries and degrees of separation all make this dangerous. You’ll never find out that the person you talked to is the officemate of the mother of the caterer, but ohhh, they’ll know who you are.

      2. fposte*

        You absolutely can. “I have no shame in my love of frozen eggrolls, and I’m trying to figure out if these are a kind I could get at home. What do you think?” Or branch out to “Did you get any of those little hamburger things? Those were surprisingly good.” Or “I don’t know if egg rolls will be enough for me; I’m thinking about heading out for something more substantial. Do you know of any decent place nearby?”

        1. JokeyJules*

          the “decent place nearby” thing works even if they aren’t serving food!

          I think about food 100% of the time, so in my mind it’s an acceptable topic to discuss 100% of the time.

            1. Nicelutherangirl*

              The question made me giggle. It seems to imply that food is the new sex.

              1. President Porpoise*

                Reminds me of the song by Flight of the Concords “if that’s what you’re into…”

            2. Anonerson*

              “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?”

              1. Media Monkey*

                LOL RIP Douglas Adams. Did you know Hotblack Desatio is the name of (at the time) a chain of London estate agents?

    3. CmdrShepard4ever*

      I have found that a lot of people like talking about TV shows, podcasts, movies. I think Netflix posted something about how many people tend to have an average of 7 shows in common.

      Caveat I would only do this if the other person brings up/mentions their children first. Definitely DO NOT go up to people and ask if they have kids. But if they have mentioned having children/grandchildren asking questions about them. A lot of people I have found enjoy talking about their kids. A lot of people tend to like talking about themselves. Asking where they grew up, where they have lived previously, where else they have worked, what they like best about their job etc….

      I am not the greatest at small talk but I am good at asking questions that has been my best networking/mingling tactic.

    4. Marina Magdalena*

      There are reasons I don’t launch into food as the commonality — I know that for myself, and for reasons I couldn’t discuss anywhere BUT here (past ED/taste, texture issues/can’t digest certain foods anymore) I don’t really eat at events. People are indeed rude enough to point this out and insist I… what, force it down? So no, I don’t know how the food tastes.
      a) How on earth do I navigate that conversation bomb and
      b) I know I can’t be the only person with issues around food.

      1. LaurenB*

        It’s irrelevant whether one can personally eat the food, as it’s called small talk. I can’t eat shellfish, so if someone says to me “boy, that shrimp platter looks amazing!” I can say “it sure does! But I’m holding out for those desserts!” I needn’t bore people with my dietary preferences/restrictions because it is small talk, not a review of my GI tract with a medical professional. There is a tendency for people on AAM to believe they somehow personally can’t possibly engage in small talk over sports they don’t care about / movies they haven’t seen / foods they can’t eat. But it’s not true. Of course one can.

        1. MayLou*

          My wife doesn’t eat (like, at all – she’s intravenously fed) and people are always hassling her about it at work events. Her attempts to tactfully deflect by making the sort of comment you suggest usually fail, and she feels uncomfortable announcing to colleagues that her intestines don’t function and “just a bit to taste” would mean a close and personal relationship with the toilets very soon after. Small talk is one thing, but noting and highlighting that someone isn’t eating and trying to persuade them to eat isn’t small talk, it’s rudeness. If you only have one or two things you can’t eat, you probably haven’t experienced how persistent people can be in trying to locate something that you CAN eat. It’s often from a good place of wanting to be helpful, but there’s such a thing as too much helping.

  2. Foreign Octopus*

    I have to do this all the time as an ESL teacher. The first lesson is always getting to know you stuff. I generally ask them:

    1. Where are you from?
    2. What made you want to learn English? (adapt to your industry)
    3. How long have you been learning English? (see above)
    4. Complain/comment about something regarding learning English to get a laugh. In my case, it’s prepositions but whatever is specific to your industry.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      One of my favorites about English is the quote about how English doesn’t borrow words from other languages – English hits other languages over the head, drags them into dark alleys, and rifles their pockets for words.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Not just words but random bits of grammar, which is probably the greater offense against anyone trying to actually learn English, whether as a second or a first language :)

      2. Foreign Octopus*

        That really does sum English up. We’re very much a collection of other languages and we do like to steal things.

      3. OlympiasEpiriot*

        Oh gawd that is TOO accurate. Is that from Terry Pratchett? Is reads like something he’d have said.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          It is very Pratchett-ish, but Wiki Quotes attributes it to spec fic writer James Nicoll in a UseNet article in 1990, and I believe that.

          (I first heard this over 20 years ago. At that time, I’d read most published Pratchett and it wasn’t in there, and Pratchett didn’t talk about ‘English!’ or ‘How I Write!’ much, so I’m very comfortable it’s not Pratchett…)

          1. The Gollux (Not a Mere Device)*

            James notes that he has seen that quote all over the place, including on T-shirts and such, sometimes attributed to other people:

            Back in 1990, I made this comment:

            “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

            * Usenet article (1990),

            Much to my surprise, that was my fifteen minutes of fame. It’s been quoted around the world, on BBC and in Chinese ESL texts. Most of the products with that phrase on it or a paraphrase have nothing to do with me and I don’t see a penny from them. The sole source of such goods actually connected to me is my cafepress site.

            Depending on context, common quotes and misquotes might be a direction for small talk.

        2. Parcae*

          I could swear I read it in Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, but I don’t have a copy handy, and he might not have invented it.

          1. Martha*

            It’s not in Bryson–I thought it was, but just checked my e-copy of The Mother Tongue and searches turned up empty.

            The “stealing” thing is true about all living languages, though some try to resist (e.g., Icelandic).

              1. Lime green Pacer*

                France has erected barricades to protect the “purity” of French. Quebec has built fortress walls and posted guards (Office Québecoise de la Langue Française).

              2. Media Monkey*

                i’m not sure. le parking, le weekend, le chewing gum, l’hamburger…

                they do try very hard though!

                1. Lucie*

                  I have to disagree as I lived in both Quebec and France. Le parking,le weekend, le chewing gum and even l’hamburger are translated in Quebec to Le stationnement, la fin de semaine, la gomme baloune, l’hamboureois! I think the French are not as worried as the quebeckers. One such instance is the Stop Sign: In France it says Stop, while in Quevec, it says Arret.

    2. Angwyshaunce*

      This is great. Asking somebody questions is definitely the easiest way to start a conversation, especially if you don’t know them well.

      1. Blue*

        Yes, questions are key! Most people will talk about themselves if you give them the opening. I am a textbook introvert, and my last job involved talking to people I didn’t know and building relationships out of it (ugh). Question-asking was my game plan every time. You just need a few broader go-to questions like Foreign Octopus and then ask follow ups to whatever they said. The follow up is key, in my experience – you’ve made it clear you’re paying attention and it keeps things going until it can turn into a more organic conversation.

        1. MtnLaurel*

          YES. In my experience, getting people to talk about themselves is a great way to do it. At any industry event, where are they from? What do they think of this venue? Interesting clothing/jewelry, etc.

      2. OP*

        I have a friend who is a small-talk superstar and always seems to know the right questions to get someone to open up about their entire life. I think part of my problem is that I panic and end up trying to fill the silence with word vomit, instead of engaging the other person. I am going to be making notes from all these comments, though — thanks!

        1. Miriam*

          I find it really helpful to have a specific extrovert in mind while attempting small talk. For a while my mom was dating a guy who could start talking to a jam vendor on the streets of NYC, and within ten minutes have the guy’s entire life story and be comparing notes on their childhoods in New Jersey.

          One time when I was at a party, I said to myself, “What would Dave say?” and sure enough, found myself questioning an antiques dealer on the effects of the internet on the antiques business.

          Most of the time, I do far more asking questions than talking myself, and it tends to work really well. There are always people who don’t seem to be engaged about ANYTHING (or venues where you can’t hear well enough to get a proper conversation), but most people have things they like talking about, if you can just find the right questions to ask.

    3. triplehiccup*

      I really like the one about their motivations. That may not work well in all fields, but in mine (education) it’s generally a winner and one I often forget to use.

    4. Ambarish*

      ESL is different, but in general work-event contexts, watch out if you’re asking “Where are you from?” of someone who looks visibly different from the dominant ethnic majority of wherever you are. I prefer a wording of something like “Where did you fly in from?”

      1. Richard*

        “Where are you from?” is fine with most people, even those that are in ethnic minorities, as long as it is not followed by a weird look or something awful like “I mean, where are you really from?”.

        1. DrR*

          Richard– the problem is that it is not fine with plenty of people, and you won’t know ahead of time. You are potentially putting these people in a really difficult position because it is hard / awkward / perceived as rude to say that you don’t want to answer this Q. Plus, how do you know that it is fine with most ethnic minorities? I know a lot of people who really hate this question but most of them don’t say that to acquaintances. There is a great video on YouTube about this titled “Where are you from?”
          posted by kentanakajan on May 31, 2013 . Please watch this!

          1. Richard*

            I work in a very diverse but predominantly Asian-American (primary targets of the “where are you really from?” microaggression) community and have been involved in many in-depth conversations about this specific question, both in formal and informal settings. It’s true that it’s a problematic question for some people, but nearly any question can be. Most of the people I’ve heard from say that, as long as the question is asked and the answer is received neutrally, it’s fine. Most of the concerns you see (including the video you posted) are all about the racist followup comments and questions and microaggressions, which can be avoided by being a decent, considerate human being.

            1. Sarah*

              Please don’t do this. It may be fine for some, but for those that it isn’t fine with, it may be a near constant reminder of painful family dynamics and that they are different enough to be commented on. It’s not the one question, it’s the fact that that one question is always asked, and that the actual answer is almost never accepted without a raised eyebrow and the expectation of an explanation.

      2. AVP*

        “Do you live in this part of the country or did you come in for this event?” or something like that can also work, and then you can segue into talking about regional specialties/must-sees while you’re both in town or in your own region, etc etc.

        1. DaffyDuck*

          Yeah, I use “How was the trip in?” Works both for the folks who live nearby and those who flew in on an airplane.

      3. Jules the 3rd*

        Or, ‘where’s your home / home base?’, to make it clear you’re asking about where they live now rather than geographic origin of some ethnicity you think they might resemble.

      4. Me*

        It’s a safe question at a conference/event where most people will not be local.

        Anywhere else, it’s a no-go.

        1. Patty Mayonnaise*

          I find this to be very culturally-dependent on the city that you’re in. Where I live, and especially in my industry, very few people were born and raised here. My non-white husband and white me get asked “where are you from?” at about the same frequency and my husband says it only ends up being a microaggreasion 5-10 percent of the time.

      5. L. S. Cooper*

        I find that asking “You live around here?” in a casual and cheerful tone will get people talking. Curiosity about their place of origin is implied in the question, but leaves them with an easy out. Once you get people to start talking, they’ll often share as much as they’re comfortable with, in my experience.

      6. Someone Else*

        There are two reasons I tend not to ask people where they’re from at conferences:
        1) What you just said – it can lead to an uncomfortable situation where a minority doesn’t know if you’re asking innocuously or racistly and why add that stress to anyone’s day.
        2) Every major conference I’ve been to, the name badges put your city/state (or city/country for non-US attendees) on the badge. I know that’s not necessarily the case at all conferences or in all industries, but I’m so used to being able to see the answer to that it’s totally off my radar as a question to ask.

      7. Anna*

        ‘Are you from around here?’ might also be a good alternative to this question.

    5. DrR*

      I can see why this makes sense for Foreign Octopus, but for others: Please BE CAREFUL with “Where are you from?” In the US (and a lot of other predominantly white western countries), this question is often directed at non-white-presenting people and carries an implication of “why are you here” / “what is your race / ethnicity” / “I need to put you in an understandable category.” It can range from annoying and awkward to hostile.
      Alternatives, depending on context, “How long have you been / lived in _____[ city , town, state — not country if possible]”

      1. Grey Coder*

        I’ve heard that the British royals use “Have you travelled far today?” as a stock small talk question.

        1. pancakes*

          That’s much better than “where are you from,” and gives people an opening to talk about their train or flight or whatnot too.

    6. Elemeno P.*

      I also teach ESL! My favorite thing to bring up is how quickly people talk. Anyone who has learned another language and tried to talk to a native speaker has a lot to say about that topic.

  3. ArchivesGremilin*

    I’m not in sales so I have no idea how that industry works but, if you’ve gone to a session or something, maybe ask if they went to the same session (if there are multiples going on) or what session they went to and then ask about that. That’s what I do at conferences.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Yeah I like to talk about the thing that we obviously both have in common, which is our attendance at this event. “How are you finding the sessions” or “is this your first time at X meeting” are my go-tos and they’ve always worked okay. I mean, for people who are willing to network with me.

    2. Psyche*

      Or discuss the ones happening tomorrow and which ones you plan to go to/they plan to go to and why.

    3. Person from the Resume*

      I’m a bit confused about the “no one wants to talk about work.” That seems like the most obvious place to build on common ground because you both work in the same industry/field. I think school/training/education is a way not to talk specifically about current job but about their history in the field especially of these people have more experience than you.

      How did you get into sales/field?
      Where was your first job?
      Where did you go to school?

      1. Person from the Resume*

        Oh and of course reciprocity. You share your answer first and then ask them the same question?

      2. The New Wanderer*

        Yeah, work-related topics are almost exclusively the conversational choice at conferences and industry events in my industry/academic field. I mean, not everyone wants to talk about their job but every single conversation I had at a recent industry event was about some aspect of work. Sometimes the conversation morphed into other topics but work was always a starting point.

        If there are any industry ‘hot topics’ those are almost as safe a bet as the weather to get a conversation going, as long as they’re not too controversial. Anything covered in a keynote speech or a well-attended session is good fodder.

      3. Psyche*

        Yep. It isn’t a good time/place for a hard sell, but talking about work and work adjacent topics is generally why people are there in the first place.

      4. OP*

        I guess I meant it more in the sense that industry talk is fine, but no one wants to talk about our products because that’s what we’ve been doing all week at the event. I actually wrote this letter before I left for a recent trip, and I did find it was a lot easier to ask people about their careers, why they chose this particular path over another, where they started out, etc. It’s kind of a niche industry, so I did find it was an easier conversation starter to ask how people landed where they are. And I also think it’s helpful for people to share that information, because glass ceilings are easier to break when you know how someone else did it before you.

        I don’t like asking people about their educations though (unless they bring it up), because I find that talk about certain schools can bring up uncomfortable class disparities, and I don’t really think that their education is all that relevant at this stage.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      Yeah, I haven’t been to many conferences, but there’s usually something going on you can use as an icebreaker.

  4. Akcipitrokulo*

    All the above are good icebreakers – but something that can work very well is to ask about them, and then listen. Like when you ask about if they’ve been here before, and they say yes, ask them what was their favourite bit… or no, what they think will be worth checking out… and then listen and use open questions.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      (This is something I’ve had to learn to do as my natural instinct is to hide in a corner and avoid all those scary human-type beings out there… but it does work!)

    2. TacocaT*

      I wholeheartedly second this. People actually think I’m an extrovert b/c of how I handle myself at professional events…I am distinctly not an extrovert. I find asking people about themselves to be the easiest. Also, introducing myself and saying “I’m TacocaT and I’m from [company], where I [job].”, then the other person will usually reciprocate, which can then open up the conversation in other ways “Oh, you’re a llama groomer? Wow, I’ve always been really interested in that. Would you mind telling me how you got into that line of work?” Etc.

      1. R.D.*

        How you got into that line of work is one of my favorite ice breakers. Usually it’s a rather interesting story that leads to a more in depth conversation. Most people do not have linear career trajectories. I rarely have to search for an additional topic for small talk.

        1. TacocaT*

          Yes! I also went to an event recently where we had an icebreaker and had to ask the person who we were assigned like 3 questions or something. I found out my coworker used to be a radio broadcaster (we are buyers…and not for any kind of communications)! So you can definitely find out some interesting things that way.

          1. Beatrice*

            I think that’s especially interesting for people working in supply chain. It’s an emerging field and a lot of people who’ve been in it longer (10+ years) have really interesting backgrounds, because there really was no linear path to the industry way back when. I’m an English major, and I’ve worked with people with backgrounds varying from former PE teacher to someone with a degree in animal husbandry.

      2. Middle School Teacher*

        I’ve also found that when I ask the questions, I usually don’t have to talk about myself as much :)

    3. Vemasi*

      And other events that they’ve been to! I am always frantically intimidated by older and more experienced people, so I usually kind of discretely interrogate them about resources, their experiences early in their careers, and their interests. This helps build up a vocabulary for your industry, and then when you’re talking to the next person, you can say, “Oh, I heard that the XX conference this year was interesting,” or “Jane told me she’s been reading ZZ’s biography, and she thinks it has a lot of relevance to our industry.”

      Also, you can always bring up pop culture in a way that lets the other person lead, and play off them. Bring up the most generic, mainstream thing (the Oscars, Endgame, GoT, the Office) and see where they take it. Sit back and let them talk for the most part, asking prescient questions. You’ll get a reputation as super friendly, because people love to be listened to.

      1. Sam Sepiol*

        Bring up the most generic, mainstream thing (the Oscars, Endgame, GoT, the Office) and see where they take it.
        They…. aren’t generic mainstream things. I take zero notice of the Oscars and I don’t watch any of the other things.

        1. gg*

          Then use that response to spin the conversation the other way.

          “So have you seen Endgame yet?”
          “I don’t have any interest in seeing it.”
          “Oh, what kind of movies do you like?”

          1. Lauren*

            Or answer the question like an engaged adult would:

            “So, have you seen Endgame yet?”
            “No, actually I’m not familiar with it. What’s it about?” OR
            “I haven’t, but I hear a lot of people really like it! Have you?”

            Not “I don’t have any interest in seeing it,” which is what Debbie Downer would say. It’s small talk, so by definition it’s not all about your particular set of interests.

        2. The Ginger Ginger*

          But you know what they ARE, so they are mainstream and ubiquitous. They’re just not everyone’s cup of tea. So even if they haven’t seen them and don’t want to, they at least know what you’re referring to, and like gg said – then you ask them what they are interested in instead.

        3. The OG OOF*

          I mean, “generic” doesn’t = “applies to everyone all the time.” In this context I think it’s pretty clear the writer means “large swaths of the population are at least aware of it if not particularly familiar.” I see no nit worth picking in Vemasi’s comment.

          1. Pommette!*

            “Large swaths of the population are at least aware of it if not particularly familiar” while at the same time “the people who aren’t familiar are probably so by choice, and won’t be embarrassed to say so and suggest another topic”.

            If you ask me whether I’ve seen the latest match between the California Sea-Dogs and the Alaska Snow-Cats, I’ll get that you mean “let us chat!”. It will be easy enough to say no, to acknowledge (un-self-consciously) that I have no idea what sport they even play, and to turn the question around by asking you if you are a fan, ans which team you were rooting for.

          2. Arianrhod*

            (Comment a week later, so prob no one will see it, but.) Honestly, I don’t watch any of the things I wrote, except that my sister did make me see Endgame. I am just very aware of them, tangentially, as things people like, and I often see a bit of them when my friends watch them or see Buzzfeed headlines about them. But those Buzzfeed headlines are great for asking people about!

        4. Archaeopteryx*

          They’re still mainstream even if an individual person isn’t into them. Plus they’re well-known enough that friendly conversationalists can still turn them into a good topic starter. If someone brings up the Superbowl, say, and you don’t care about it, your only option isn’t to shut down the topic with “I don’t watch sports. … (awkward crickets)” You can talk about the commercials, or the food, or even tell a funny childhood story about being bad at PE.

          So even if you don’t watch the Oscars, that would still give you the opportunity to bring up a movie you like or a celebrity you’re tired of. They’re still enough of a known thing to parlay into an interesting conversation.

          1. Washi*

            Exactly! I haaaaate baseball and avoid it whenever possible. But if someone brings it up, I’m not just going to be like “I don’t watch baseball.” I might say something like “I’ve never been into baseball, maybe because it isn’t something I did growing up. Did you play baseball as a kid?” If someone is clearly trying to make conversation with you, make conversation back! It doesn’t have to be about the exact topic they just brought up, as long as you help fill the awkward silences, you’re doing it right.

        5. Middle School Teacher*

          So…. you basically shut down conversations right away? Um, ok.

      2. kittymommy*

        I am not an extrovert either, though my friends and coworkers would probably disagree. I have found that learning a little about a lot of things helps mightily. Especially things I have zero interest in: baseball, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, a lot in the world of entertainment, a lot of different sports. etc. I try to keep up on big items that I see pop up in headlines so I can at least ask/make vague question or statements during conversations.

        1. Dziner*

          Keeping up on headlines and conversing about them is great – as long as one makes sure to avoid politics and religion! Unless the other party has *already* shown clear signs of sharing the same views – in which case the discussion will likely launch itself well past small talk at warp speed. :-)

          Staying informed at least a bit about much of popular culture is certainly always a good strategy.

          1. Kittymommy*

            Oh yeah. Never talk politics or religion (& I say that as someone who’s two main interests and degrees are in politics and religion). Way too fraud with danger.

    4. Linzava*

      Yes to this. I was taught at a young age that when a conversation is 50/50, both parties perceive the conversation as being 70/30 with the other person doing most of the talking.

      Making a good impression is as easy as asking about the other person and occasionally asking intelligent questions about the subject they are speaking of. Example: they are taking about their new car, so you ask, “I’ve heard those are great cars, are they as comfortable as I’ve heard they are?” Always frame the questions in a positive manner and don’t ask questions that are too detailed as you don’t want to risk the perception of calling them out or making them feel stupid. Also, stay away from politics and religion. It’s sad this must be said, but I really don’t respect a person who hoists their opinions on me regardless if I agree with them or not.

      Don’t forget to discuss yourself a bit as well, preferably if you have something in common.

    5. Bulbasaur*

      This is more or less how I do it. If you don’t want to lead with that first thing, then just try looking for little details or circumstances in your environment as inspiration and casually mention them as if you’re picking up from the middle of a conversation. Assume they want to talk to you until proven otherwise (they probably do, or they’d have retreated to their hotel room for the networking part). Humor is good, as are random observations. Try and frame it as an invitation rather than an imperative, i.e. invite a response but don’t require one.

      (In the buffet line) “Let’s see if I can manage to put this back without the handle falling into the sauce.”
      (In line to exit after a presentation) “I love how they’ve organized the [seating/agenda/catering/etc.] here.”
      (In the trade booth/displays area) “I keep looking at that banner and thinking of [celebrity/TV show/movie/etc.]”

      Come up with your own examples. A lot of conversations at events like this start this way.

      “That’s funny, I usually see that widget in yellow.”
      “Yes, me too. You do see the green widgets now and then at horticulture events though.”
      “Oh, that’s interesting. Are you in the horticulture field?”
      “No, I work in…”

      Proceed as normal from there.

  5. Daniel*

    It sounds like you’re often going to events that other people are also traveling to. Is that correct? If so, I like asking how much of the host city they’ve seen–if they’ve seen any interesting sights, or if they have found any good restaurants, things like that.

  6. Dr. Speakeasy*

    Those are perfectly appropriate early networking questions. In fact, I’d push back that you really want to get more personal in an early conversation – that might be seen as awkward or inappropriate. People might not want to talk about work per se – but asking about how they are enjoying (or not enjoying) the event also seems appropriate. You might also ask our their trip in was/where they are from (or if you know from the company name, how they like Chicago, etc.) if everyone is traveling. That will open up towards more personal topics (the flight was bumpy, we live in the near north side, they went to Northwestern, etc.). I think for early introductions – it likely shouldn’t be all that personal – what your aiming for here is phatic communication topics. Topics that say “I’m here with you socially” but aren’t digging deep into disclosure.

    1. Danger: GUMPTION AHEAD*

      Agreed. I like to go for light connections and talk about where the event is being held (e.g. “This is my first time in $City, have you ever been here before?”), past industry events (e.g. “Did you go to Hedgehog Manicurists Expo 2018 in London?”), about the meeting (e.g. “Which breakout did you go to after lunch?”), and where they are from. Any of those can branch into a conversation long enough to make a networking connection. Which brings up another point, don’t aim for conversations longer than 10-15 minutes unless you are seated next to each other. And even then I tap out and talk to the person on the other side of me after about 20.

      1. OP*

        Can I ask how you would politely end a conversation in this situation? I find myself making a lot of unnecessary trips to the bathroom…

        1. Nerfmobile*

          At an event where networking is the goal, it’s rather expected that you will disengage and move on at some point. Aside from bathroom/new drink/more food, i’ve Seen and used a number of different gambits. “I see someone else I want to check in with.” “I need to make a quick phone call home.” “I’m going to go get some fresh air/find a place to sit/look for a quieter spot” all work if you feel the need to have a reason. But often a plain “I’ve enjoyed talking to you, and we should probably both mingle some more!” work very well.

    1. Evil HR Person*

      Thank you for sharing this! As an introvert that also leans shy, I need a little guidance!

    2. OP*

      Thanks, that was helpful! I liked some of the questions like “what was your favourite day (of your vacation) like?” and “what was the highlight of your day?” — seems like they could lead to more interesting conversation.

  7. Not Maeby*

    Small talk can be torture sometimes, especially if you feel like the odd-one-out. If there are speakers or presenters, you can talk about the content of those presentations if you think they’re particularly interesting. Also, pets have at least a 50% chance of being a good conversation starter. If it’s an event that’s mostly local people, you can talk about [new event center / venue / restaurant] that is opening or recently opened. If it’s a wider-scope regional event, there’s the “where are you from” line of discussion.. I sometimes have luck just being up front about how awkward it can be to make conversation once you reach an awkward pause. I feel for you. Best of luck!

    1. hermit crab*

      I sometimes have luck just being up front about how awkward it can be to make conversation once you reach an awkward pause.

      I totally do this. I have literally said things like, “Hi, let’s network!” or “May I awkwardly stand here with you?” and the other person laughs and it diffuses the tension. But I recognize that it’s a know-your-audience kind of thing.

      “Did you have to travel far to get here?” is another one I like for events that aren’t strictly local. It gives folks a wide opening to talk about where they’re based out of, who they work for, how much they love TSA PreCheck, whatever, while avoiding the more personal “where are you from?” question.

        1. OhNo*

          Definitely agree! In fact, something to that affect is usually my go-to opener when I go to conferences. I’m in a field where many people think of themselves as awkward (librarians!), so naming the feeling is usually well-received.

        2. Bulbasaur*

          “Absolutely! Awkward standing is my favorite thing to do at these things!”

      1. District Cat*

        My friend’s go-to when running out of conversational topics is “so, how about that local sports team?” Good for a chuckle and easing the awkwardness tension, and can open the conversation to sports themes if desired without committing to it the way “did you catch the Cardinals game last night” does.

    2. Foreign Octopus*

      Sometimes honestly is the best policy. I would just advise to avoid the phrase “I hate these things” because someone said that to me once and it immediately put me off. She was perfectly warm and friendly but the fact that she said it to me made the rest of the conversation awkward on my side because I was well aware that she didn’t want to be there talking to me. And I get it, it’s awful, but I didn’t need to know that.

      1. Properlike*

        I met one of my best friends in the world when he came up to a group of us at a party and said, “Hi, I don’t know anyone here! My name’s John!”

          1. MayLou*

            My wife is spectacular at this. She will go up to someone and say “Hello, I’m MayLouWife, what’s your name?” Another question she uses a lot with people she’s met before but doesn’t know well is “What’s been happening in your life?” Actually she asks that of friends she hasn’t seen for a while as well. I love it because it’s so inclusive, and so open. People can choose what they want to focus on in their response, unlike “How’s work?” or whatever.

          2. Pommette!*

            I love this. It feels like a win-win, too: either the other person is in the same boat (“yes, let us stand awkwardly together”) or they aren’t, in which case they get to feel good about being nice to someone who’s in an awkward spot.

        1. Dziner*

          That’s neat that you made such a good friend at a networking event like that! That happened to me once, too, at an alumni event.

          I don’t think I’ve ever used the “I don’t know anyone here” part, but I definitely walk up to interesting-looking people, stick my hand out, and say, “Hi, I’m Wendy X!”

          Hopefully, they’ll respond with at least reasonable enthusiasm and their own name. If they don’t bring something up first, I’ll launch into asking them about the kinds of event or work-related topics, food, etc. others have already brought up.

          So many people feel just as awkward and tongue-tied at these events that just making that little bit of an effort to reach out and introduce oneself can really help open the floodgates that will get the conversation just flowing.

          If they mention kids or especially grandchildren, I will totally bore down deep into that, because that is one of the topics people *most* love to talk about. I get into where the kids are, how often my conversation partner gets to see them if they are not local to one another, what the kids are doing with their lives/studying in school, etc.

          I will sometimes ask first if they have kids or grandchildren (although not as the first topic), but I generally avoid asking about their relationship status unless they bring it up first, because that is just far too freaking awkward too much of the time.

  8. Sorrel Gilbert*

    I draw on recent news – try to keep it away from stuff that’s too controversial. Maybe there’s a local marathon? Or TV.

    The big thing is to be OK if they just say “no idea it’s not something I watch/am aware of” the point it that it starts a conversation then you will find something. It’s artificial, but everyone knows that! You may have to try a couple of topics until you find a good one. But that’s what everyone does.

    1. JokeyJules*

      “i havent seen that, what do you like about it?” can lead to a great talk

      1. Dziner*


        I find that “What do you like about that?” is a great followup question to many things the other party might say, *especially* if it’s something I know nothing about.

  9. LadyByTheLake*

    If the conference is not in your home city/people came in for it, ask if the person had a chance to explore/if they have been there before/know or tried any interesting restaurants. That often turns into a conversation about food, travel or both.

  10. AnonEMoose*

    If these parties are in conjunction with a conference of some kind, and you find out that they’ve been attending for years, maybe ask them something like “I’m still a bit new to this event. Is there anything I should make sure to check out/absolutely shouldn’t miss?” Or, if they’re new to this, too, ask them about their experience so far, or things they plan to check out, or mention something you’re interested in.

    Maybe mention something you enjoyed or would like to see in [current city] and ask if there’s anything they particularly recommend, which could cover anything from restaurants to museums to…well, just about anything.

  11. TacocaT*

    I’m a buyer, and attend conferences and vendor expos. Some I’ve used are:
    -What does your business do/make/sell/perform?
    -How far did you have to travel to get here?
    -Oh, you’re from [place I have a recollection of/connection to]? I [insert own story here].
    -Did you find [speaker/class/lecture/whatever] as engaging as I did? I really enjoyed how they [X].

    1. Public Health Nerd*

      I am often asking people for advice on favorite restaurants in their area, or about what I’m planning to do in town, things like that.
      I also recommend:
      – Be honest when you don’t know about something and ask them about it so they get to be the expert. “Oh, I’ve heard about (your company) but am not super familiar with what you do. How does (your company) fit into (industry/conference topic/business community)?”
      – Be a giant nerd about the work/hobby you’re doing and be obviously excited about it. It’s easier for people to join in the fun you’re having, particularly if it is obscure or unexpected. I’m forever telling new people about my goal to eat at a diner in all 50 states, for example.
      – Use probes to keep them talking. “Tell me more about X.” “You mentioned X, I think that’s an interesting approach/program/hobby. Can you tell me more about that?”

  12. Molly*

    How are you enjoying the conference? Were you in the x talk? What did you think of it? Where are you from? Tell me about your organization. Tell me about how your role is structured at your organization. What do you think has been most valuable so far at this event for you?

    1. Beth*

      This is pretty much my approach! Especially if I have the chance to talk to someone who has been in one of the same sessions that I have, and either did or didn’t think it was good/worthwhile.

  13. Christine*

    If you’re travelling, ask other people about where they’re from! If you’ve traveled to where they live, ask what’s cool or fun to do in the area–even if you won’t necessarily have time to take advantage of the recommendations, people still like to talk about neat stuff where they live. (Insert a comment of “oh I’ll check that out if I get some free time!” or “I’ll have to plan a trip to come back just for fun, then!” for enthusiasm as appropriate, even if you have no intention of doing those things.) And you can adapt this if everyone has traveled to the location. Where are you from, oh I’ve never been there, what’s it like, what do you like about it, what’s cool to do there if I’m ever in the area, etc etc.

    You have my sympathies–this can be really tough to navigate! Especially if no one wants to talk about work. That’s at least the common denominator everyone has, and it definitely makes conversation harder if no one wants to talk about the one reason you’re all there!

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      Agreed :)

      Just don’t follow it up with a cliche about where they’re from… if you hear I’m from Glasgow, don’t try the accent, don’t say that you’ve heard it’s cold there and don’t mention deep fried mars bars.

      But as long as you avoid that, people like talking about where they’re from!

      1. Media Monkey*

        OMG what is it about deep fried mars bars? i have never eaten one in my life but you would think it is the staple diet. also Trainspotting was set in Edinburgh, not Glasgow, so let’s not go there (not you clearly Akcipitrokulo).

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          From what I’ve heard, it was some high school kids at the chippy one lunchtime decided to ask for a joke “hey mister, will you fry this for us?” – he did, they told their friends…

          But at least they had the good taste not to use salt & sauce on it ;)

  14. drpuma*

    Ask people what surprised them about ______. This is a good go-to for me, whether in a job interview or at an event. You can also ask them if they learned something new at the event or recently in general. Favorite/least favorite thing about events like these / traveling / city you’re in (if it’s a destination event like a conference) could also be good. Or depending on the person’s vibe, you could even ask for advice. “Sometimes I find big events like these to be really draining – what do you like to do to recharge?” I am an introvert and relatively private, and I feel you on how hard it can be to keep a conversation going when you’re not comfortable sharing a ton about your own life.

    1. Dorothy Zbornak*

      you know, I had never received a “what surprised you about _____” question from anyone until after I did a trip to Iceland a few years ago. When I got back, I had SO many people asking me that. It wasn’t something I had ever really considered before and was definitely a good conversation topic!

  15. Precious Wentletrap*

    It’s worth being at least conversationally familiar with sports, particularly locally. When traveling, ask for restaurant recommendations. Learn to talk about yourself without really talking -about- yourself, ie have some go-to hobbies and interests that are popular enough to gin up some chitchat without bringing anything serious or controversial into the mix.

    1. Richard*

      Sports are underrated here. I started passively following sports, mostly paying attention to the different leagues around the playoffs and trying to know at least a few of the big teams, players, coaches, and storylines, especially those in the city I live in. I can’t hang with people that live and breathe them, but it creates a lot more goodwill to be able to chat about them than passive-aggressive “Which sportsball team is that?” jokes.

      1. OhNo*

        Alternatively, learning a few details of team history is a good substitute for following the current news on them. I’ve endeared myself to many sports fans by pulling some random factoid about their favorite team out of nowhere. (e.g.: “Oh, you like the Ravens? Don’t they still hold the record for most leagues crushed in a single basebasket game?”)

        1. Richard*

          Good call. There are definitely some sports (baseball, college basketball) where I don’t pay close enough attention to know when a team/player that was really good 5 years ago has totally tanked or vice versa. Evergreen factoids are a smart solution.

  16. Nonprofit Lady*

    I like to ask people how they got into this line of work. And then what they enjoy about it. And then just have a natural curiosity about their career path/their interests. People love talking about themselves, generally, so if you go down that line, it can feel like a really natural conversation.

      1. Esme*

        This is the go-to line they gave us in law school when they were helping us navigate all the networking events. If you can get a lawyer talking about their work/law school/the bar, they’re going to enjoy the conversation and you just need to keep up with well-timed follow-ups and pleasant comments.

    1. Â*

      A fun one that will get people talking: if you could go back in time, what tips/advice/caveats/warnings would you give your 20 year old self about job/career/industry? People like to talk about “oh, how I wish I had known XYZ.” And as a bonus, you might pick up some useful tips and/or find a point of mutual commiseration!

    2. Blue*

      At the last industry conference I attended, someone at my dinner table asked us all about the best or most fun job we’d ever had *not* in our collective field. It was a genius question – a nice change of pace from the constant industry talk, plus you learned something personal about everyone else at the table without getting too personal, if that makes sense. We were pretty much all talking about part time jobs we had at some point during our education so there was a random mix of jobs and an equally random mix of entertaining stories from our experiences, so it ended up being an enjoyable (and sizable) chunk of our dinner conversation.

      1. Pommette!*

        I love this!
        It seems like a great way for people to make connections with one another, too (by learning about commonalities they may otherwise never have become aware of). And it’s a good leveler, since people with a lot of experience in the field and newbies alike are likely to have something to say.

    3. Dziner*

      That’s another of my major go-tos. I’ve learned some absolutely fascinating things about people from their answers.

  17. Liz*

    The easiest thing for me is talking about whatever is happening at the event itself (what did you think of the presentation? did you see they have a margarita machine? I had an awful time finding parking but at least the building was easy to find! etc.)

    But it’s also nice if there’s something work-related but not work itself you can find to talk about. Like, did you see X company acquired Y? Have you done any work with [my specific niche area]? Do you think X is the big thing of the future for our industry?

  18. NYC Redhead*

    I got these from an article in Inc. (which I was only on because of AAM) by Geoffrey James called “7 Ways to Connect With Anybody”:
    What do you do for fun?
    What are you most passionate about?
    What’s your favorite cause or charity?
    What’s your guilty pleasure (and why?) (I have never had the guts to use this one.)
    What in life makes you the most proud?
    What’s on your bucket list?
    In case I can refer business to you, who is your perfect client or partner?

    1. Person from the Resume*

      I like these. I don’t see why the LW doesn’t want to talk about work for work networking, but I think these are good conversation starters. For conferences, I would totally ask/talk about what the know about/recommend in current city and their own home town.

      I might change “passionate about” (tad bit personal) and “do for fun” into “how do you spend your free time?” or “What do you do when you’re not working?”

      IMO a key is a conversation is meant to be a two way street. You answer the same question that you ask. Or you provide the answer to your own question and then ask them.

      “In my free time I love to hike. How about you?”
      “I just read Michelle Obama’s biography. Have you read any good books lately?”

      1. Dziner*

        I was just going to mention books – both asking if people have read X hot book, and asking if they’ve read anything good lately, and what kind of books they like to read, etc.

        I love to ask people what they do with their time, or just what do they like to do for fun. The former will tell you in a social situation if they are retired, and in all situations, will help reveal how they view their lives – if work is central to them, or if they have a more balanced life, etc.

    2. Â*

      These are great! I also like “what do you like to do with your time?” That leaves it open for them to answer for a work-related or personal perspective, and keep it either really surface/lightweight or get more personal.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      I pretty much don’t like any of these except “What do you do for fun?” and would find them off-putting from a person I just met, regardless of context. These are more like ‘second date’ questions than ice-breakers in my mind. Fine to ask once you’ve established a rapport, but IMO too personal and invasive to ask a stranger that you’re attempting to network with.

      1. Pommette!*

        I would find all of these off-putting! I’d appreciate what the person was trying to accomplish, and would do my best to come up with a passable answer, but most feel wayyy to personal to be ice-breakers. And frankly, most a genuinely hard to answer. What in life makes me most proud? I’d have to think about that one for a long time, and probably go through a minor existential crisis, before coming up with an answer!

      2. Femme d'Afrique*

        They sound like interrogations, and I’d feel really weirded out.

        I think conversations at work events should develop organically, not veer into the overtly personal, while still keeping things light, if that makes sense. You need to get a sense of what the other person is like. As many others have said, I’d start with a work related statement/question then take it from there.

    4. LaurenB*

      These are not icebreakers in these settings. You can’t stand next to someone in the buffet line and all of a sudden say “what’s on your bucket list.”

      1. Dziner*

        No, not straight out like that, but it can be something to bring up once the initial chitchat seems to be going well. It’s about timing and reading the other party.

        I would never ask what people are most passionate about or their guilty pleasures in a business setting, but the first in particular can work really well in a social context.

    5. Jadelyn*

      I feel like these are more “relationship enhancers” than “conversation starters”. They’re all a little too personal/in-depth to be mere small talk.

      I’d discourage the “favorite cause/charity” one in particular – wayyyy too easy to get that into political and potentially controversial territory.

      Plus it can put queer folks (those who aren’t immediately, visibly so anyway) and invisibly disabled/mentally ill folks on the spot, since many of us are (understandably) involved in causes around our specific marginalizations, forcing us to either A: think up a lie on the spot and try to make it sound natural and not like we’re lying or hiding something, or B: out ourselves to you and risk awkwardness at best, or discovering that we’re talking to a homophobe and didn’t realize it at worst.

    6. Cassie*

      The question about what makes me most proud – I’d feel awkward answering that because I would feel like I’m bragging about whatever.

      As for the rest of the questions – I don’t like any of them. Depending on who’s asking me, I might feel like I’m going to be judged about my answer because it’s not what the asker likes to do. I know that’s partially a “me issue” but I’ve had too many conversations where the asker responds in a way that definitely sounds like they disapprove.

  19. MuseumChick*

    Asking how the food is is usually a good conversation starter, something like, “Oh they have mac and cheese? I must have missed it when I was in line! How is it?” Or, “That looks really good. What is it?” If they have a interesting looking drink you can ask about that.

  20. MK*

    Eh, is “no one wants to talk about work” something you know/have observed or an assumption on your part? Because the common topics in such events are work-related, though not in a “work of the day” way. Wouldn’t it be acceptable to discuss your industry in general?

    1. Czhorat*

      My thoughts exactly!

      If I’m at an industry event, I’m in work-mode. I also expect the people I meet to care about their jobs and the industry (otherwise they’d not be attending) and OK discussing it some.

      I’d certainly rather talk abotu my place int he industry than the weather.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      Yep! Either you have people who were forced to go to the event, or you have people who are pumped to be there and want to find connections, answers, insights, and solutions to their problems. If I go to a data conference, I want to talk data all the time and I’ll move on from off topic conversations until I find another data nerd.

    3. Amy*

      I think they need to disabuse themselves of the idea that no one likes to talk about work.
      A) It’s not true and B) It’s a deeply unhelpful attitude for a sales role.

    4. Jadelyn*

      Exactly. I go to an annual conference put on by the vendor for one of our major systems, and while I’m there, I’m talking to people and getting a sense of “are you positioned similarly to me/could you be a resource for me/could I be a resource for you?” and pursuing the ones that meet those criteria. It’s not just a social event.

      If I, a specialist at a 700-person nonprofit who’s been using this system for 3 years, am talking to you, a VP at a 2,000-person corporation who just implemented last year…we’re not going to have much common ground, and it’s not a relationship I’m going to pursue. But if I find you’re a similar level, specialist or analyst maybe, and are either with a nonprofit or just a similarly-sized business in general, we might have some more common ground and could help each other out, so that conversation I’ll stick with, and be open to tangents at that point because now I’m getting to know a person, not filtering for relevancy in my search results.

  21. Czhorat*

    It depends on the type of event, and how long you’ve been in the industry.

    There are always “war-stories” and the like. If it’s a new person you don’t know, you can ask what part of the industry they’re in and possibly talk shop a bit.

    Until you get to know someone, work IS a safe topic and something you have in common. After talking about industry stuff for a bit, they or you could open up a bit about life outside of work. That usually comes later and more organically.

  22. fposte*

    Any time you’re not in your usual location you can also ask them about place-related things. Do they know the town? What’s the best place to get coffee/sandwiches/whatever nearby? If you were going to go for a walk/a drink/whatever in the evening, is there a place they’d suggest? What hotel are they staying at, and is it nice? If you’re at a convention center, pretty much anything is fair game–have you found a location to sit and catch up on email? Is there a not-jammed place to get food?

  23. AndersonDarling*

    When I go to conferences, one of my main goals is to find people to collaborate with and hopefully find ideas to solve our problems or enhance our systems. So I cut to the chase:

    Where do you Work? What kind of work do you do? (sometimes I can chime in with people I know who work at those places or do that kind of work.)
    Do you like the work/industry? (If they are enthusiastic then I know they will want to talk about work stuff)
    Have you run into problems with ___? We are trying to figure out how tackle the ___ updates and the ___ things.

    At this point, we will either pull out our laptops and start sharing ideas, or part ways and have appetizers. I’m generally shy, but once I connected with people who are excited about their work and want to collaborate, I learned that they are out there and I just need to find them. And when you find that person, it’s like you made a new best friend on the playground! There isn’t anything wrong with conversations that go no where, as long as you are friendly. You need to go though a few dead end chats to find the ones you need.

    1. CM*

      I really like this advice, and it can also help you get useful information. I often have a few questions in mind that I want to ask people — like, this certain thing at my company seems really inefficient, how do you do it? Or on a more personal level, if there’s something that bugs you about traveling or some other aspect of your job, you can ask about that. People love giving advice.

      Or you can go with, “I know a straight person! My uncle is a heterosexual and I’ve always supported him.”

  24. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    If you can – genuinely compliment someone. “That’s a great tie!” “I love your purse.” Etc. People love to talk about themselves and it can often (not always, of course) lead to a conversation. Depending on how they reply – who got it for them/where they got it – you can ask follow up questions.

    Plus, they’ll get a nice little boost AND you get a positive first impression. Win-win.

      1. Kendra*

        That’s a good one! I work in tech and wear a smartwatch, and it’s come up as a conversation topic even in job interviews.

    1. OhNo*

      Make-up can work for this as well, though it’s probably a little more hit-or-miss. So far I’ve only tried it on the younger crowd (twenties to early thirties), but it’s always worked as a conversation starter. Plenty of people want to talk about how much practice it takes to do perfect winged eyeliner, or their preferred eye shadow palette.

      (FWIW, I’m a guy who has never worn makeup properly in my life – I just think it’s neat what folks can do with makeup.)

    2. OP*

      Oh yes, my favourite people to meet are usually people with an eccentric taste in eyewear or jewellery. (Bonus, this time I found out that one very fabulous person who lives locally to me has an annual closet sale!)

  25. SezU*

    Look up Celeste Headlee on Ted Talks “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” It’s a good watch!

  26. Bend & Snap*

    I usually have two drinks and ask people about themselves/their work/their hobbies. And then just let them talk.

  27. Missy*

    1. You can start by being honest! Ask questions you actually to know the answers to. Maybe sit down and make a list of things that you’re wondering about the industry. (Is that really a faux pas to ask about anything related to work at all, or do you just feel insecure?) If you don’t want to ask about work, make a list of things you’re interested in in general. For example, maybe when you go to new cities, your favorite thing is to try new foods, and you ACTUALLY want to know about where to eat. Ask for recommendations!

    In other words, my telling you a list of questions to ask people is always going to feel forced and weird. Talk about something you actually care about. You could even tell a funny story about your dog, and then you find someone who’s like, “OMG I have a dog too! Let me tell you my funny story now!” You’re allowed to share things you care about — you don’t have to just “ask questions.”

    2. Some things to consider: Are you in sales? It kind of sounds like you’re in sales. I’m not sure that you are, but it seems like you have a bit of social anxiety, which is rare for a salesperson. Again, I don’t know if you’re in sales or just travel for some other thing, but you might want to consider a different job if you’re a salesperson if it gives you that much anxiety to talk to people.

    Also, are you sure that the people in your industry aren’t just jerks? I don’t know, but it’s POSSIBLE that they’re the problem, not you. For a second, instead of wondering if they want to talk to you, ask yourself if they’re people YOU want to talk to.

    3. Go to events outside of work. Practice talking to non-work-related people. Then you can mess up and get better and work through awkwardness without feeling like YOUR REPUTATION WILL BE RUINED. You can find things on Meetup or Eventbrite or go to a bar. PRACTICE!

    1. Sophie before she was cool*

      “you might want to consider a different job if you’re a salesperson if it gives you that much anxiety to talk to people” is not super helpful advice. The LW wrote in because this is something she’s trying to get better at. I think all of us have parts of our jobs that don’t come naturally to us, and it’s normal to look for strategies that will help us get more comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

      1. Amy*

        I’m a talkative extrovert who loves meeting new people. And even I will struggle sometimes with the constant demands of networking, selling, being “on” during long days and conferences, introducing myself to 10-15 strangers in a day, working a room.
        It is indeed a tough road to hoe if you have social anxiety.

      2. Missy*

        You’re right, and I don’t think they should discredit the rest of my advice if they don’t agree with that point. What I’m saying is, IF the person is in sales, and talking to people is literally 95% of the entire job description, why are they in sales???

        1. Pommette!*

          There may be a big difference between un-directed small-talk of the kind you might have at an industry event, and small-talk that emerges naturally when you are discussing a product with your clients. Especially for people in technical sales, you have obvious and substantive starting points for conversations (trying to get a good picture of the client’s needs and of how your product or services may fit in to those). You may have more natural opportunities to slowly build rapport than would be the case in a conference setting.

  28. Elizabeth Proctor*

    I like to talk about books because I’m a reader. But I don’t know if that’s a good thing to bring up if you don’t know someone else likes to read.

    1. Jshaden*

      You could always ask a more general “What is the best book / article / movie / play you’ve experienced recently?” If you’re both readers, yay, something to talk about. If they answer with something you don’t know much about, you have something else to ask questions about.

      Also, don’t ask questions that can be answered easily with yes/no or a single word. That avoids the “Are you from here” “No” “Where are you from” “California” type conversations, which can feel super awkward.

    2. Betty*

      I could also see a variant like “I’m always looking for new audiobooks and podcasts to listen to on my commute– is there anything you’ve come across that you’d recommend?” That plus relevant followups (“I read her first book, is the new one similar?” “That sounds interesting, is there a particular episode you loved that I should start with?” “Oh, I love true-crime podcasts, did you happen to listen to X?”) should get things moving.

    3. Lilysparrow*

      Yes, questions around, “what are you reading” or “read anything good lately” can also lead to similar questions around music, movies, TV, or sports. IME, salespeople nearly always have favorite business or self-development books to discuss. And if they aren’t readers, they’ll usually volunteer what they do like instead.

  29. Clawfoot*

    A friend of mine uses “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the past year?” which I’ve used a couple of times. It *sounds* like a canned networking question, and, frankly, it is, but I find it works pretty well. When thinking about the best things, people really do light up and engage more. I’ve heard about births, vacations, courses they took and loved, promotions, all good stuff.

  30. Rachel*

    Another thing that sometimes help is using current pop culture (have you been watching GoT? Did you see that Mic Jagger has heart surgery? Can you believe how good the Seahawks have been this year?) Sticking with big/popular things is usually best : ) Hope that helps!

  31. AvonLady Barksdale*

    I’ve met people at conferences in the weirdest circumstances, but the ones I’ve truly connected with have been over some seriously mundane topics. “Isn’t this the most gorgeous day?” was how I got started talking to a lovely group of people, and we covered the weather, our home neighborhoods, and bagels (as in, why I can’t get a good one where I live). I also once connected with a woman in the ladies’ room because she asked about my shoes.

    “Ooh, that drink looks really good, what is it? Where did you get it?” can start a conversation. Replace “drink” with “muffin” or “coffee”.

    Talking about sessions is always a good topic, especially if you felt strongly (positively or negatively) about something that was discussed. Generally start with the positive, but if someone said something you found odd or wrong, you can bring that up.

    Stick to what’s in front of you. Like, if the conference is in city that’s new to you, ask if they’ve been there and if they have any recommendations. If the conference venue is interesting in some way (maybe it’s massive and it’s easy to get lost, maybe there’s a really cool sculpture in the lobby), talk about that. Talk about the food and drink, ask if they tried those awesome breakfast bars that were out on the coffee table. What you want to avoid is a kind of “first-date interviewing”, where you ask things like, “What’s your favorite novel?” or “What TV shows do you watch?” Unless it’s Monday morning and you all had to attend a dinner and you missed G0T the night before and you’re bummed and they are too.

    Incorporate your own opinions and impressions. Remember that conversations are about you too! Even something as simple as, “I have a pair of those shoes too, I love them, they’re so comfortable,” can start a conversation.

    1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Yes, this I like. Especially because I’m one of those people who will freeze up when asked direct personal questions… but if we start talking about the weather or those delicious little cheesecake things I guarantee you I’ll end up telling you useful conversational information organically.

      Observational questions are great, as are just plain observations. Oh I loved that last speaker, the way they described X was exciting. What did you think?

  32. Sloan Kittering*

    One piece of advice I was given when I first started out is, if you are trying to meet new people, don’t sit down. Once you sit down you’re limited to the folks on either side of you and people are going to assume you’re focused on your food / notes / whatever. Standing (for those who are able, I mean) seems to raise my energy levels.

    1. Elizabeth Proctor*

      Ah I am mostly not trying to meet new people, so I do love sitting down :)

      But actually yes all this is stuff I need to get better at. Because I’m mostly not trying to meet new people because I find the initial interactions awkward.

  33. Audrey Puffins*

    People enjoy receiving compliments – if someone’s wearing an amazing scarf or a really nice jacket, tell them. BUT follow my Golden Rule For Compliments: make sure the thing you are complimenting is something they have chosen. (So body parts are off-limits, with the possible exception of hair if it’s clearly not their natural colour. You should probably still avoid hair in a business context though.)

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      That is also my Golden Rule! “You have beautiful eyes” is a no-no, but “I love your glasses!” is a-ok.

    2. TheMonkey*

      Hair compliments can come off creepily unless it’s a simple “Your hair is a great color!” or something.

      …recent experience on the receiving side of a series of creepy hair compliments at a professional event would lean me toward not commenting at all on physical appearance, hair included.

      1. Audrey Puffins*

        Yeah, I probably wouldn’t comment on hair at all in a business/networking setting unless someone walked in with full unicorn/mermaid/galaxy hair. As a woman, I think I might have a little extra leeway to compliment a woman who’s styled her hair in a particular way, but the focus needs to be on how the colour/style is awesome, not that the colour/style makes her look good.

    3. CM*

      I think this works best if it’s a woman complimenting another woman — it’s unfortunate that everything has to be so gendered, but there’s more potential for creepiness with other combinations.

      1. Washi*

        With men I feel like whatever it is just has to be more striking to comment on – but I’ve complimented a dude’s unusual socks or cool tie before, and it hasn’t been weird. But yeah, especially as a woman I would not be like “I love the cut of your suit” because it’s too easy for compliments like that to be interpreted as flirting.

  34. TooTiredToThink*

    I have heard SO many great things about taking a Toastmasters and an Improv class to help with this kind of stuff; but I personally don’t want to do it. But I’ve heard it helps.

    I’m a natural listener (I’m the type that the random person in the grocery store will tell me their life story); so its fairly easy for me to get into a conversation with a stranger; and maintain if I need to. I wish I had more concrete advice; but I will say figuring out what that other person’s interests are can be a life saver – then you can listen to them drone on and you can nod your head appreciatively.

    Since it sounds like you are traveling; one thing that might help is just asking the other person what they know about either a)good places to eat or b)great museums (or other interesting things to do) in that city OR if you are about to travel to another city – asking them about that city. With that you should be able to then find a common interest (either a type of food – like Indian food) or a favorite artist, etc…

    1. Pommette!*

      As a natural listener, I have to admit, I often have a hard time getting into conversations with new people unless they very far on the “natural talker” end of the spectrum. I get the impression that many people are made uncomfortable by the fact that I’m not putting in my half of the conversational effort.

      (Thanks, natural talkers! I love listening to you and interjecting with the very rare question or insight!)

  35. StephThePM*

    Remember, everyone likes to be an expert and be thought of as interesting. Also, everyone is in the same boat as you – they need to mingle awkwardly with strangers. Find someone who also looks awkward yet sociable, and say Hi.

    My favorite starters are:
    1) Hi – I’m StephThePM Where are you based? I love that city! My favorite is X. I live in X. blah blah.
    2) Restaurant recommendations for X type of food a) their home city b) city of conference
    3) Where can I get a) coffee b) drink c) tickets to X
    4) Where’s your home city? Home City is X – “Oh cripes. Security’s always a mess there. how early do you have to get to the airport? What’s the best place to eat breakfast/lunch/dinner?”
    5) How did you meet X person? [insert: colleague, boss, friend, wife, husband, etc.]
    6) I’ve just totally destroyed my last tie/shirt/pants. Anywhere in the area I can get X?

    and then….listen for opportunities for follow up questions. Like, “I was in city X when I went on vacation or saw this client.” …so”what did you think about Duluth?” etc. Ask questions, and then bring others into the conversation.

    1. StephThePM*

      Also, I wanted to say – I meant “how did you meet X person” as a follow on question to the person mentioning something about their boss, wife, husband, friend, colleague. Not for assumptions.

  36. VermiciousKnid*

    I always ask, “What’s the weirdest experience you’ve had when traveling?” I’ve heard a lot of amazing stories that way, and I get to talk about the time I stayed in Lizzie Borden house. Win-win!

  37. PJ*

    I’m terrible at this, too. I’m shy and self-conscious. And I had to do traveling for a past job and work with a few companies merging into one.

    But a friend of mine suggested something worthwhile. Read/watch the news and get a few things you can talk about from there.

    Of course, there’s the things one doesn’t talk about at the Thanksgiving table theory (sex, politics and religion) but those things aside, the suggestion worked well for me. I’m not a sports fanatic but I learned enough about the most recent game or teams playing to be able to do 2 minutes on it. Same with local construction projects and little fun things happening around town. One time I talked about, yes, a cat in a tree, and that led to a long discussion about animal shelters, and some nice connections that I still have to this day. And there always seems to be one TV show in the conversation mix, like GoT.

    Christine’s suggestion is great too.

  38. LSP*

    The good news is that folks in sales tend to be more social and enjoy talking to new people and networking, so take advantage of that and give yourself permission to just start a conversation. And while, yeah, people might not want to get too deep into work, something work-oriented (as suggested by a few folks above) is a great place to start. Ask about them, what they do, where they traveled from, what they liked best or are looking forward to about the event, etc. A natural opening for a non-work topic might naturally present itself, or it might not. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

    Also, you can never go wrong starting off a conversation with an innocuous compliment (“I love your shoes”), or a question, (“Oh, how’s the coffee here? It’s usually a little weak for my taste at these types of events”).

    I am one of those rather shy introverts who has trained herself to act more confident than I feel concerning work situations, because my job requires that I run meetings, manage teams, and facilitate virtual discussions. Networking and relationship building is also important in what I do, so I put aside my shyness and try to realize that even if other people I am speaking to have more experience/education than I do, I have an important role to play. When I travel for work, I basically pretend to be someone more confident than I am. I slap on the warm smile I perfected when I was a waitress and say “hi.”

    1. Â*

      Bran is NOT the Night King. But I did wonder for a minute there if he maybe wanted to be.

      1. Women should be knights AND maesters*

        You really can interpret that expressionless stare as anything. :)

  39. Rebecca*

    I actually really enjoy small talk–polite, simple, undemanding conversations can be really pleasant! Here are some easy ways to start. I think one of the most important things about small talk is to remember that it’s not about asking some brilliant question everyone is going to remember–it’s about being engaged and enthusiastic and asking questions that give those you are talking to an opportunity to engage back:
    –compliments–asking about someone’s shoes or bag, anything that looks chosen carefully, can often yield a happy and enthusiastic reply. Women are often used this sort of compliment, but men are usually surprised and pleased too.
    –asking where they’ve travelled from (if it’s that sort of conference/event) and what are some good things to see/do there if I ever visit–you never know, and most people like to share a little hometown pride
    –mention the book or movie I enjoyed (or didn’t) on the plane, ask if they’ve read or watched anything good lately?
    –ask about what they think of the event (I know you don’t think folks want to talk *too* much about work, but they are immersed in it–maybe a little?) and ask for recommendations on sessions worth checking out, or places near where you are staying to go see?

  40. Lynca*

    At conferences we usually end up at a table full of strangers for meals. One of the more interesting icebreakers I’ve done is to discuss what films/books/shows they like. Last conference we were all discussing our favorite movies and generally had a good time.

    My industry is way more work focused at these types of events so that’s always the default position. Making personal conversation isn’t as common.

  41. TCO*

    At work events I like to ask, “What’s something interesting you’re working on these days?” or “Oh, you work at X? What’s your key focus there right now?”

  42. CR*

    Honestly if someone came up to me and asked me a high-level question like “What’s your favourite travel destination” or “What’s your guilty pleasure” I would be kind of weirded out. Talk about the event, the food, the speakers, your job. It’s a small talk kind of event, it’s ok to make small talk.

    1. Washi*

      I agree! I don’t think those questions are actually good ice breakers, specifically. I think they can be good conversation topics – like if you admit you love the Bachelor, you can then as a follow up question ask if the other person has any guilty pleasures. But you have to kind of ease into it. There’s something that can feel kind of “off” about trying to jump into deep topics with very little preamble, sometimes I feel like I’m being hurried along into a rapport that I don’t actually feel.

    2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Absolutely. If it starts to feel like a quiz or a dating app. I start looking for the exit.

  43. Girl in the Windy City*

    I once heard a suggestion to use the acronym FORD. People like to talk about what they’re invested in, and they tend to care most about their – Family/Friends, Occupation, Recreational activities, and Dreams. Obviously, you’re probably not going to get most people to open up about their dreams without some foundation of trust already built. In general, though, I’ve found that the other three topics develop stronger connections and make for more interesting conversation than banal small talk.

  44. MsMaryMary*

    I’ve posted about this before, but compliments are my favorite form of small talk. “Oh, I love your earrings/tie/shoes!” makes the other person feel flattered, and they usually want to chat about whatever you complimented. I avoid complimenting physical attributes, since that can get creepy fast.

    Professional compliments also work, of course. “I thought your last blog post was really insightful” or “I saw you present at Big Conference last year and was really impressed.” On Monday, I met someone who was very impressed by the card stock of my business card. But hey, it was something to talk about and our marketing coordinator was thrilled when I told her.

  45. LizA*

    People may not want to talk about WORK, but they likely will be interested in talking about the INDUSTRY. Don’t ask about their job – ask them about trends and big news in the sector as a whole.

    I work in transportation advocacy, so at networking events I can say things like “how about that new City Council bill on x? Think it has a chance of passing?” or “wasn’t that an interesting speech from x politician last month?” or “so what are your thoughts on this scooter trend?” Keep it relatively neutral, and then just let them talk and ask follow-up questions that show you’re listening and absorbing what they say. Anybody involved enough in your industry to attend a conference will have some opinion on the big happenings in the field and everybody likes a receptive audience for their opinions. Plus it will place you more firmly in their memory as “nice industry person” rather than just “nice person” – they may think of you the next time the issue you discussed is in the news.

    1. LizA*

      I should add, I think a lot of the above suggestions are good OPENERS to a conversation, but I wouldn’t spend more than a minute or two on non-industry stuff unless it feels natural. A segue into shop talk will make it feel less like an awkward date and will likely make many people feel more comfortable talking to you.

    2. boo bot*

      Yes – agreed, people at industry events seem like they would generally be there to talk about the industry! You might feel like that doesn’t apply to you as a sales person, but really the more you can casually discuss industry stuff, the less it will feel like you’re just there to make a sales pitch, and the more it will feel like you can be trusted to know what you’re selling.

      Also: for people who have long-established careers, ask them about that! I would avoid random acts of flattery, like asking them how they got to be so awesome, but see if there are specifics you can go into (a paper they published or talk they gave) or just a way to frame the shop talk, “as a such-and-such, what is your perspective on the new so-and-what?”

      1. OP*

        Thanks. I think I wasn’t really clear in my original letter, but you’re right — industry talk is fine, as long as it’s a more macro conversation that’s clearly not a sales pitch. I just got back from the trip I was angsting about, and I did find that asking about the trajectory of people’s careers was a good conversation starter (and genuinely interesting).

  46. LibbyG*

    This one might come across as bland, but I’ve had a good experience with, “What’s keeping you busy these days?” It’s especially good socially (when “What do you do?” is potentially rude) and if you’re catching up with someone you’ve met before but don’t know all that well.

    1. GameofThronesIsKeepingMeBusy*

      I like this because it invites the person to take the conversation in whatever direction they like, and make it as personal or impersonal as they’re comfortable with. They could talk about their job or their new baby if they choose or they could stick to a blander topic like a TV show or a recreational sport they play if they prefer.

    2. Mrs Mary Smiling*

      +1 I kind of think the blandness the the best part??? People can leap to work, recreation, family, jobs, births, marriages, deaths, vacations, model train hobbies, tv binge watching, podcast listening… whatever works for them.

      1. Mrs Mary Smiling*

        Also, if you’ve met before and you know you kiiiinda should remember the person, it gives you an out with “these days” and time to charge your memory!

  47. Stackson*

    I like to hope for the best and plan for the worst, and I always worry I’m going to try to chat up the one person who doesn’t want to be there and isn’t interested in talking to me at all (although you can usually tell because they’re avoiding eye contact).
    One thing that I would have ready is a way to get out of conversations, in case you try to talk with someone who really isn’t having it or if the conversation just isn’t flowing. That way, even if things go downhill with one person, you have an escape route and can go find someone else to talk to. Maybe something like “Oh excuse me, I just noticed a colleague across the room I need to catch up with, but let me leave you my card in case there’s ever anything I can do for you!”

    1. Shirley Keeldar*

      Yes! I came here to say something similar—what are people’s strategies for getting OUT of networking conversations that are going south? (If you’re just not connecting with the person, if you’re asking questions and they’re giving you one-two word answers and just letting the conversation sit there, if the pauses are getting agonizingly long…) I swear, the day I realized that I could say, “Oh, nice to meet you, I’m going to go get another drink” and I DID NOT HAVE TO GET THE DRINK, it changed my networking life.

      If you know you don’t have to stay in the conversation forever, it makes the whole thing much less anxiety-inducing and therefore easier.

      1. Amber Rose*

        This just makes me remember an old letter from someone who would try that but people would follow her, even to the bathroom.

        I’m so glad I have an anti-social job in a corner.

      2. OP*

        Yes, this is a great suggestion! (And also really helpful because it is wayyy too tempting to suppress social anxiety with more drinks.)

    2. irritable vowel*

      Yes, getting out of the conversation can be its own challenge. This doesn’t happen to me as much now that I’m over the hill, but escaping from “networking” conversations with people who, while they might not be actually hitting on you, are clearly taking more pleasure in the conversation than you are, is definitely a skill to have in your back pocket. I also hate conversations at events like this where the other person is just staring at your name badge the whole time and eventually makes a sales pitch. It’s totally fine to say something like “well, I don’t want to keep you, it was nice talking with you” or whatever and skedaddle.

  48. Wing Leader*

    You can start with introductions and names, and then you use what they say to ask more questions and keep them talking. Make sure you pick up on what they care about, because that’s how you build rapport. So, a conversation might go like this:

    You: Hi, I’m Linda, I work as a salesperson for the Empire.

    Them: I’m James, I’m an executive at the Rebel Alliance.

    You: Oh, wow! I’ve heard that’s a great company. How long have you been there?

    Them: Oh, a few years. I started in graphic design but I was able to move into management.

    You: Sounds like you enjoy managing much better.

    Them: Yes.

    You: So you mentioned you did graphic design first, can you tell me more about that?

    And whatever, continue on. Just start with a basic introduction, and then ask questions and build on whatever they say.

    1. Kris*

      Your comment reminds me of some advice I heard that I have found very helpful — to think about small talk as a game of catch. You ask a question, throwing the ball to the other person, who then talks for a bit and throws the ball back to you. Each person plays a role in keeping the game going. So when the other person asks you a question, you should not just answer it and shut up but should try to find a way to use your answer to continue the conversation. This works even when you ask or are asked a question that misses the mark for some reason. For example, “What do you think about the recent Game of Thrones episode?” If you are not a GoT watcher, you reply “Oh, I haven’t had the chance to get into Game of Thrones, but I know so many people who love the show. Are you a fan?” “Yes, and I spend a lot of time binge watching. How do you like to spend your free time?” And on and on. This sounds like very obvious advice, but thinking about it in this way really changed my ability to engage in small talk. I realized that I had a responsibility to the conversation, but it wasn’t solely my responsibility. It took the pressure off of me and allowed me to enjoy learning about other people.

      1. FD*

        Yeah, I feel like this is accurate! And part of the art lies in feeling when the other person is starting to get bored of throwing the ball around, so you can give a graceful, “Well, I’d like to go mingle some more, it was great talking to you!”

        (This also can work with the conversation hog, which you will occasionally encounter at these things.

  49. theletter*

    If I remember right from the old “How to win friends and influence people” the general rule is:

    1. Name
    2. Where they are from
    3. What kind of work they do (or maybe ‘Did you hear any really good talks today?’)
    4. Do you have any trips planned?
    5. Hobbies
    6. Ideas and dreams.

    Usually for me, what happens is that hobbies sort of naturally springs from the trips, and Ideas and dreams comes naturally from that. If the conversation dies after the trips question, I excuse myself.

  50. Screaming Flying Monkey Toy*

    Some of the best networking advice I ever received was from my first boss, who was an extremely charming, outgoing, charismatic person. The perfect networker, if you will.

    He said to remember that at a networking event, most people will feel insecure in various degrees. After all, everyone wants to be liked and fears rejection. And his secret trick: people will be extremely grateful if you take the lead and first approach someone. Because that way they won’t have to do it themselves!

    I always remind myself of this when I have to network, and it’s worked really great for me.

    Another tip, don’t hang out by the entrance, go hang out by the bar, which is a natural ‘waiting for my drink’ moment to open a conversation.

  51. CTT*

    Local restaurants are always my go-to. I’m in a borderline-foodie city, so people always have opinions about which is the best place for tacos or the best cocktails, and it’s a thing that there can be spirited discussion or even disagreements about without it being too controversial to bring up in mixed company.

  52. Seifer*

    I do this a lot when I get a tattoo. It’s awkward as hell, sitting or lying there for hours at a time in silence. Plus, it helps distract me from the pain if I’m talking or listening. So my go-tos:

    – Do you like to travel? How was your latest trip?
    – Do you live around here? It’s such a cool town. Do you know any good places to eat/buy books or cool tchlotchkes?
    – What is the weirdest thing someone has asked you to tattoo? (Change for your industry)
    – What is the weirdest thing that you’ve actually agreed to tattoo? (Not always the same answer as the above question!)(Change for your industry)
    – How long have you been tattooing?
    – You have a dog!!! Please tell me everything about your dog.

    I used to not be as good at it, and would sit there in pain and like, ugly crying by the end of it because I literally could not think of anything else besides for, I am in so much fucking pain right now holy god why am I like this. But I’ve found that generally, people like to talk about themselves, and if you’re interested in them, they’re likely to return the favor, and you’ll be able to find common ground sooner rather than later. And if not, awkward exit time.

  53. CaptainLaura*

    There is a book called “The Fine Art of Small Talk” by Debra Fine that was recommended to me in Grad school, and it 100% improved my mundane conversation game! Seriously, she breaks the whole thing down into really manageable pieces and it changed my life!

  54. Nicki Name*

    Turn your imposter syndrome into a strength by looking at the people around you as sources of useful information.

    What are your thoughts on/How were you affected by [big thing happening in industry]?
    This is my first time at this event, what thing on tomorrow’s schedule do you recommend?
    This is my first time in this city/this part of town, what do you make sure to never miss when you visit here?

  55. purpleparrots*

    So, we we did the “knowledge swap” thing in 2018, (https://www.askamanager.org/2018/03/knowledge-swap.html) I posted a bunch of stuff about making small talk at networking events – same name, purpleparrots. I’m going to paste an edited chunk of it below, that I hope might help.

    There are a couple of things that I think might help. First, make the conversation about the person you are talking to. I know that sounds dumb and everyone says that, but the truth is, if you ask someone about themselves, you are asking them about a topic that they are the WORLD’S #1 EXPERT about. They will always know the answers, and will feel more comfortable.

    Actually listen to their answers instead of letting your brain race ahead to what you should ask next. This is tough, especially when anxious, but try to listen to understand, not to respond. (adding : it is helpful if you “float your tongue – literally lift your tongue away so it is not touching other parts of your mouth.) This has two purposes: first if you’re listening, you don’t have to talk, and second, it keeps your foot out of your mouth.

    When you do get to ask questions, I like to lead off with “where are you from?” (for conferences where everyone has traveled) or “are you from (current city/state) originally?”(for networking). It’s a neutral topic that doesn’t make an assumptions about where they work, since everyone is from somewhere and will have an answer to this. Plus, it’s an intro that starts of showing you want to know THEM, not what they do and by extension what they can do for you. They’ll normally respond with either “yes, I’m from (suburb of city)” in which case you can bring up something about that area, or “no, I’m from (totally different place)” in which case you can ask what brought them to the current location.

    When you start asking follow up questions, think about 2 things : aspirational over historical, and trailing threads. First, try and ask questions about what people want to do in the future, what plans or goals they have, or even places they want to travel or movies they want to see, instead of things relating to their past. This takes you from superficial small talk to real connection more quickly. Plus, you are going to make a better connection with them if you can align yourself with places they are *going* instead of places they have *been*. If someone professionally thinks of you as a contributor to one of their future goals, they are going to respond to any follow ups in a more constructive way. Some of my favorites are “How do you see yourself developing in your current position in the next year?” “Wow, it sounds like you’re really excited about X Program — do you have any future plans to grow it coming up?” “So, do you have any vacations planned this year?” “What’s on your “to do” list this summer?”

    Second, is this concept that a friend of mine in sales taught me, which is trailing threads. Before you leave that conversation, find a lose end to attach to that gives you a REASON to follow up with that person – preferably related to something happening in the future. For example, if they say they are going to Las Vegas, and you just read an article about it, say “I just read a great article about X restaurant there – have you heard about it? I’ll send it to you — can I grab a card?” or “I’d love to hear more about your idea for (specific future plan) – I think I can help you with X. We should meet for coffee on Wednesday!” Get a business card, and when you can write a note of your trailing thread ON IT. Then follow up. This does a lot of things. 1) Gives you a link to reconnect without being awkward — they are expecting you to email them! 2) Shows you’re accountable and the connection you built is important to you 3) Keeps you connected with a FUTURE plan of theirs, so even if you don’t have coffee, when they go to tackle X of whatever specific project, they’re going to remember that you could help, and want to tug on that trailing thread.

    Last thing in this manifesto, I swear: Good conversation is like ping pong. If the person doesn’t hit the ball back, you are not playing. A good conversation partner should answer your question, and lob one back to you. If the don’t ask about you, keep “serving” at them by asking more and more questions. Give them a whole lot of chances. I like to play a game to see how many questions in a row I can ask someone before they ask about me. If the score ends up being me asking 10 questions, and them asking zero, then that tells me a whole lot about them as a person, gives me good info about wanting to be a connection of theirs, and tells me what that future relationship will look like (one sided, obviously).

    1. OP*

      This was all really, really helpful — thank you! (The anxiety brain-racing is definitely a big part of the problem, at least until I relax a bit.

  56. MicroManagered*

    I think it’s good to have a story or two about yourself too, so that you aren’t just battering people with questions and making them do all the work of thinking of stuff to say. Store up a funny thing that happened on the flight, or a strange attraction you saw advertised on the drive there, something of that nature.

    It’s great to ask people abut themselves, but sometimes at events like that, I get sick of answering question after question!

  57. thin acetate frames*

    Music festivals. Hobbies.
    Are you going to any of the events?
    Do you make stuff?

  58. HailRobonia*

    How about “have you heard about this awesome advice column Ask a Manager?”

  59. Rae*

    Never underestimate the power of talking about sports. Because even if people don’t watch sports, you can then talk about not watching sports.

    1. Lucille2*

      I regularly travel with some of our sales people and this seems to be a pretty effective go-to for them. It helps that they are super knowledgeable about sports and can usually zero in on some local college or professional team. Even if the recipient doesn’t follow sports, they are usually well aware of the recent winning or losing streak or latest scandal of their local team.

  60. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Cis- and straight middle-aged white woman here. Also, I am considered exceptionally outgoing. (I don’t feel that way, but other people comment on it.)

    First off, all those topics you mentioned are fair game and can be good IF the intro for them is rephrased a little. Something I often say is “so, whaddya do for fun?” This has opened several conversations, I think partly because it is NOT the way we normally ask this kind of thing in a work setting.

    In my industry, people often wear lapel pins for things. There are some who are ex-military and have small insignias denoting their former affiliation. I do my best to have a basic knowledge of the kinds of imagery that might turn up and use that as a conversation starter as, I assume, they are LITERALLY wearing their interest/affiliation/issue and would be up for talking about it. If I don’t recognize one, I ask about it.

    [Tangent Story: I once was feeling especially jokey at a networking hour at a conference (kinda “well, f— it, this is boring, and who cares”) and recognized a SeeBees pin (I’m in construction, this isn’t unusual, but it was a combat one and the guy was a little on the older side and also looked like he had a sense of humor) while standing in line at the drinks table and I actually said “Hey Sailor, buy me a drink?” My body language and tone were definitely All Business But Friendly, and the words were so out of context for him that we both burst out laughing…with impeccable timing, we were next at the bartender and he said “And a drink for my Leatherneck friend here!” Note, I am not nor ever have been a Marine, but, I do give off a bit of a Seargent-vibe. I asked what bridges he had built and that lead to a great conversation where he also introduced me to a few other people he knew at the event and WHAMMO! it was suddenly a whole lot less boring. /end story]

    I make the assumption that everyone is a little bored or anxious or feels like they don’t know how to network. I’ve noticed that a lot of people tend to talk to those they already know. Personally, I’ve often had good luck checking out groups who seem to be made of that and at an opportune moment kinda jokingly force myself into them with some line about we-are-all-here-to-network-and-you-guys-seem-to-already-know-each-other-so-one-of-you-introduce-the-group. This — of course — takes a whole lot of careful body language analysis as well as a large dollop of chutzpah, but, honestly, if they aren’t actually discussing a mutual job or contract, they’re clinging together because they’re scared of meeting new people, too.

    More heavily women-filled gatherings, the dynamic is a little different, but, similar tactics can be used.

    Other women at the male-dominated events? I often make a joke about it right off and just introduce myself and then ask how they came to be there. My field of engineering has a LOT of subspecialties and the answers to that question are often interesting. I ask that same question of the guys, too, just a little further into the conversation after I’ve gotten them to laugh and be more relaxed around me.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      PS to Above: I’m naturally very curious about people. I like hearing their stories, even though I also talk a lot myself. If I get them relaxed a bit (hence having jokes available), I often hear good stories. That also helps me remember something about them for the next time I run into them at something.

    2. Lucille2*

      I have to be honest, I sort of panic a little when someone asks me what I do for fun. Maybe that’s because I’m a bit of a book nerd and an introvert and this question always comes from an extrovert. I never know if I should give a safe answer like hiking with my dog, or talk about my obscure hobbies or how I’m training for a marathon. Each response is likely to take you down a rabbit hole you can’t easily escape.

      1. OlympiasEpiriot*

        I’d love hearing about any of those! Seriously! And I guarantee I’d find some weird and twisted way of tying it to our industry and make you laugh. :-)

      2. OlympiasEpiriot*

        PS…I’m supposedly an extrovert, but, I read a lot, do things alone, etc, etc. I absolutely would love to hear about anything.

        1. LaurenB*

          Introvert doesn’t mean “never socializes” and extrovert doesn’t mean “never pursues hobbies alone.”

      3. Cassie*

        I panic a bit myself when asked this question. I usually feel like I have to give some great answer because nobody wants to hear about my plain Jane life. Although there was one time where I said “uh, I like play games on Facebook, I like solvable puzzles” and the person replied “like Candy Crush?”. I said (a bit embarrassed) yes, like Candy Crush, and it turns out that he plays Candy Crush and other FB games as well!

        Honestly, maybe I should just be honest and talk about liking puzzles and reading audit reports. Maybe the asker will judge me, but that’s their problem!

        1. OlympiasEpiriot*

          Oh yeah, just go with it! Puzzles are a very good topic and, honestly, I like hearing (anonymized) Tales From The Audit.

  61. starsaphire*

    Let me add one really important thing that I don’t see covered here yet: Be a good listener.

    * When you’re done asking a question, pay attention to the answer. Be visually engaged – look at them. If eye contact is uncomfortable, look at a fixed point near the eyes, like the bridge of the nose or the forehead. (Don’t stare at any unusual features, though.)

    * Engage with what they’re saying. Nod, smile, insert “mmhmm”s in pauses. Mirror facial expressions — if they look serious, look serious. If they smile/laugh, you smile too.

    * Practice phrases like, “Oh, I’ve heard that’s a lovely place! What’s your favorite thing to (eat/do/etc.) there?” and “Oh wow, I’ve always wanted to try that!”

    * Smile and say “Thanks” and move on if you get a brushoff-ish short answer. Smile and say “Thanks, it was a pleasure to meet you” if it seems evident that they’re wrapping up and want to move along. Be sure to tack on the “I didn’t quite catch your name?” if they aren’t wearing a badge and you didn’t do introductions.

    In short — be a good listener, and no one will notice that you’re not an inspired conversationalist. It’s been working for me for 35 years.

  62. Not A Manager*

    My experience at large gatherings is that there’s a difference between small talk when you’re standing up/mingling and when you’re sitting down for a meal.

    For mingling, you might want to get away after a bit (or your conversation partner might want to get away), and it can be awkward to get into long exchanges while you’re standing up/balancing drinks, etc. So I try to stick to one-and-done topics. You can always string them together or make them longer if you hit it off, but you don’t have to.

    * Have you been to this conference before? What speakers should I absolutely not miss?
    * Can you recommend a good place for breakfast/business dinners/coffee/cocktails?
    * I have an afternoon to myself after the conference. What should I be sure to see in the city?
    * I’m coming to Your City in a few months. Same questions.
    * You’re coming to My City in a few months. Make recommendations.

    None of these MUST lead to long explanations about anyone’s backstory, etc. but most of them can turn to that if it seems appropriate. They can be turned to business if you want to, or not. They can easily lead to invitations/exchanges of contact info/promises to keep in touch.

    At dinner, I’m more inclined to ask about hobbies, kids, “how did you…” questions (how did you get your start in the business, how did you decide to relocate to Your City, etc.) and to talk about popular culture.

    I’m an introvert. People exhaust me. I always try to turn my natural affect and energy level up by about 10% when talking with people. Not enough to be “intense” or creepy, I hope, but enough that people feel that they are interesting to me.

  63. Amber Rose*

    This thread makes me laugh at myself.

    I can just picture myself walking up to someone and being like HI DO YOU LIKE SPORTS AND/OR MUSIC AND/OR FOOD ME TOO COOL OK BYE

    And just like. Walking around doing that to everyone.
    LW, as long as you aren’t that, I think you’re fine with whatever ice breakers you use.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      That reminds me of an icebreaker breakfast at a conference. We all got given little slips of paper with questions we were supposed to ask everyone around us. They had obviously very sincerely been made by someone (likely in marketing or Events/PR) who had attended seminars on this kind of thing and had were shoehorning this stuff in. Several older guys, some looking like they really needed another cup of coffee first just looked DEFLATED reading them. I saw a couple of winces.

      This would have been a great thing to say.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Oh no, that’s hilarious!

        I love people watching, so in reality me at a conference would just be sipping a drink and watching faces. Something like that would slay me.

  64. Amy*

    I’m in sales and attend a lot of industry events. I completely disagree that no one wants to talk about work – it’s what you have in common. Also it’s not a regular social event, you’re being paid to represent your company there.

    While you don’t want to be overly “sales-y,” you do want to open up opportunities to discuss why you’re there and make contacts. The weather, food and travel might lead there eventually but it’s a pretty roundabout route.

    If you’re at a conference, there should be tons of industry-relevant talking points.
    For example,
    -What did you think of X speaker? I love the work her company is doing with Y.
    -I’m looking forward to Z workshop. How about you?
    -Do you attend a lot of industry events? Which has been the best this year?
    – I’m really hoping to hear more about this industry problem. How about you?

    You want to open people up to discussing their issues with you. And if you’re in sales, the goal is usually to start the process of of selling them a solution to their issue – a product, a platform, services etc.

    This may sound awkward if you’re new to sales but this usually how this stuff works.

    It’s can be nice to chit-chat a bit about unimportant things but usually when clients are thinking about next step with an issue, they will remember sales people that expressed expertise on an industry topic, correctly sussed out a problem (oh it’s sounds like you need this) or demonstrated an understanding of an obstacle. Clients will provide you with incredible insight into their company if you let them talk about their needs. Don’t assume they don’t want to talk or are bored by work stuff. Most people actually aren’t.

  65. Kay*

    The biggest thing is knowing how to keep the conversation going, assuming they’re giving you something more than a cold brush off. So if you start with “Did you have to travel far for the conference?” And you get back “No, I live close,” instead of going “oh okay, cool” and staring at them awkwardly, pivot it into something like “Oh, really? Do you enjoy it? I’d love some local recs!” Basically, the point is not to get answers to a survey, it’s to get some material to make the conversation more tailored and personal—and then ideally do work in some work questions, bc that’s kind of the whole point :)

    1. Kay*

      Oh, and if it gets awkward or the pauses grow, know how to make an exit! A smile and “it was lovely meeting you, I’m going to go grab a drink/snack/etc” gives you the perfect excuse to walk away and you can always circle back later in the evening/event if you want.

    2. Washi*

      And I think the corollary to this is that if someone asks you “Did you have to travel far for the conference” try not to just say “No, I live close.” Conversation is like playing catch, and you need to toss the ball back and forth. If you respond to someone’s questions just with short 2-4 word statements, you’re basically holding on to the ball and staring at them. Try “No, I live just over in Springfield. Are you local as well?” Or “I feel like I travelled far, traffic was nuts! I finished a whole episode of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on my way over!”

      It doesn’t have to end in a question, but you have to give them something to respond to!

  66. TwoCents*

    Hi, not sure as this helps with your situation but here are my two pieces of advice.

    1. When I was a new real estate agent going to large company events I would ask other agents “What is your best advice for a new agent getting their business off the ground?” I got loads of great advice and people love to share their success. You mentioned you are meeting people who are older, more established so perhaps some variation of this question would work for you?

    2. In social situations when I need an ice breaker (like at a wedding when seated at a table with a group who don’t all know each other …) figure out who has the most obvious celebrity look alike and say “do people tell you that you have a celebrity look alike?” Then share who it is and let others chime in. For whatever reason ….it always leads to a fun conversation with a large group.

  67. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I am shocked to hear that “nobody wants to talk about work”.

    If I’m traveling for work, I’m in work mode, I want to talk about work, I want to sell you our product and network in that way. It then gets to the “how’d you get into this business” and so on. I don’t want to talk to strangers about my life or hobbies unless we find out we’re into the same thing at some point.

    I like to ask about the city, if they’re familiar with it or if they have any place they would recommend, since some are not necessarily traveling to the location.

    Honestly always keep in mind that a conversation is a two way street and your starters actually sound pretty good to gauge if they’re interested in continuing a chat.

    1. Trisha*

      I agree. When you’re at a work conference, it’s automatically about work. I talk about work until those ice breaker exercises that seem to get foisted on us.

  68. Trisha*

    Coffee. I always open with talk about coffee – good coffee, bad coffee, no coffee, need for coffee – whatever, just a quick, smile inducing “Oh coffee!” kind of comment. Then I introduce myself, and ask about them. Who they are, where they are from, what company, what do they do. They key is open ended questions. “What do you do?” gives you a short response “I’m a manager.” What is the focus of your work – usually gives you more detail.

  69. Scott M.*

    I don’t try to meet new people at social events. Instead I pick out those I’ve already met and chat with them. Since I know a little about them I can tailor the conversation that way. If I’m lucky, they are around other people that I can be introduced to, and that’s one way to break the ice. It’s easier to chat or listen in a small group when no one person is responsible for driving the conversation.
    I use this method when I go to work conferences, and I hate (hate, hate, hate, hate) socializing. I meet new people at the the presentations and breakout sessions, and talk shop there. Then I catch up with them briefly at the after-hours social events. But then, I work in I.T., not sales, so my expectations are different.
    Also, manage your expectations. It’s unrealistic to expect to have lots of deeply meaningful conversations at those events. In my opinion, you should expect to make one good connection every few events.

  70. Happy Pineapple*

    My go-to conversation topic for any and all life events, but is especially helpful when you’re traveling for work, is to ask where someone is from and what are some great things to do in that city. Everyone has something to say, and it naturally evolves into other topics such as shared interests and hobbies.

    If they’re born and raised in your current location, ask for insider tips on the best places to eat/grab a drink/enjoy nature/see a show. If they’re from the same place as you, swap stories and commiserate. In the unlikely event they admit that their city is boring and don’t have much to say, prompt them about favorite places they’ve ever lived/visited or where they would like to go.

  71. Eukomos*

    Ask them about themselves. With most people you can get them going on that topic pretty well and then all you have to do is stand there and make the occasional supportive comment. They walk away thinking what a great conversationalist you are!

  72. Katie**

    I sometimes ask, “What are you missing in the office by being here today?” I work in transportation so I also ask, “How does your upcoming/did your previous construction season go?” even though I don’t work in construction myself.

  73. East of Nowhere South of Lost*

    You can always use the old-fashioned-but-still-works Dale Carnegie Conversation Stack:
    base is Name (who are you, what is your name)
    Next is Home (where are you from )
    Then Family/Friends/Coworkers (Are you married, have any children? How old? etc)
    Then Travel (have you travelled/do you plan to travel? )
    Then Hobbies (etc)

  74. SongbirdT*

    My favorite conversation starter lately is “What’s the best / most interesting / weirdest YouTube rabbit hole you’ve gone down recently?”

    Endlessly interesting answers and serves as a great launch point for follow up questions!

  75. Serin*

    I read a networking book which was terrific for introverts (Ann Baber’s “Strategic Connections,” if anyone is interested). She suggested that before any networking session you work on a “Give and Get agenda” — a list of things you’re looking to get right now and a list of things you have to offer.

    For example, a Give could be “I know the pros and cons of every pizza place in town,” “I just read the greatest book,” “A lot of visitors to the city are grateful when I tell them about the kids’ museum,” etc.

    A Get could be “I want to get a sense of how our procurement process compares with how they do it at other companies,” “I’d like to talk to people whose kids made the transition from private school to public school,” “I’m looking for recommendations now that my favorite TV show is ending.”

    I’ve done this, and it’s really helpful to have a pre-prepared list to fall back on if nothing comes out of the first few minutes of conversation.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I like this framing, and it helps organizing one’s prep for an event.

  76. Save One Day at a Time*

    Since you are traveling, ask about their home city, how many times they’ve been to the destination city/what they recommend you do there, how long it took them to travel there. If they are from somewhere cool ask for recommendations for what to do in that city.

    Most industries also have nerdy topics you can get zealous about at conference — if you work as a teacher, you might be able to talk about education policy if it’s something you are passionate about, related to work but not your day-to-day “work talk.”

    Since you’re at a conference, reference things that have happened during the day and get their takes on it

  77. Save One Day at a Time*

    Also — COMPLIMENTS! They don’t always start conversations, but they do enough times that it’s worth it if you see something you want to compliment someone on!

  78. Jenny*

    I collect different eyeglasses and wear a different interesting pair each day. This often causes others to start conversations with me about my awesome glasses. From there it’s usually easy to keep the conversation going. This works well for me since I often feel shy/awkward around new people.

  79. H.C.*

    If the dress code isn’t overly strict, I’d try to wear a few accessories (lapel pin, patched bag, sticker’d notebook or padfolio) emblematic of my hobbies and interests (e.g. TV/movie, video games, nonprofit causes I support) – provided they aren’t particularly controversial.

    People at the event sharing those same interests will gravitate towards to discussing those topics to you, and people who don’t know might get intrigued & ask you about them); either way, an easy way to icebreak with conversation topics you’re comfortable with.

  80. CQ*

    First of all, you are awesome. I’m not sure where you are in in your career, but regardless, you have talents and gifts to give. Don’t let someone’s more seasoned experience intimidate you. You have amazing things about you that probably intimidate them! :)

    I work with young professionals who are new to the workforce and/or struggle with social anxiety and/or imposter syndrome. Networking can be intimidating! Best thing to keep in mind (as other commentors have said): people love to talk about themselves! All you need to do is ask a few open ended questions that get them talking about themselves. If you share a similar interest, you then reflect that back and it keeps the conversation going. They might then start asking you questions.

    For example:
    You: How long have you been with your company?
    Them: 3 years
    You: What were you doing before this job?
    Them: I was working in Austin at a teaport factory.
    You: Did you grow up/go to school in Austin?
    Them: I did! I went to UT.
    You: That’s amazing. My cousin went to school there and I visited them last summer. We went to this awesome restaurant called Bubba’s BBQ. Have you been there?
    Them: Yes! That’s one of my favorite places. Did you see any shows while you were there?
    You: I did! I saw a cool local band one of my cousin’s friends is in.
    Them: Nice – where did they play?


    There is some great advice on this thread. Good luck!

    1. L. S. Cooper*

      This really showcases how I feel about making smalltalk– it’s like trying to peel a stubborn sticker off something. You gotta keep “picking” and trying new approaches until you find the right topic and can just actually talk.

      1. Washi*

        “it’s like trying to peel a stubborn sticker off something”

        Such an accurate description!!!

  81. Introvert who fakes it*

    What information have you already found most valuable from reading classics like “How to win friends and influence people?” What info from those sources doesn’t work for you?

  82. Green Goose*

    I have to meet with people fairly often and I always feel like the conversations that go the best are when both people are talking about something they are interested in. I’m a big reader, so if its feels like people are bored of talking about work I’ll ask people what their favorite book is or what’s the best book they read in the past year. I’m genuinely interested in that topic (always on the lookout for new recommendations) and the other person is usually happy to tell me about their books.

    And if they say they don’t read, it’s a good opener to ask what other hobbies they have which can get people talking as well.

  83. Wantonseedstitch*

    I like talking to folks at other organizations about how they handle work, how they’re structured, etc. (Background: I’m in prospect research in the fundraising department of a university.) I might ask them questions like, “So, what kind of work do you find takes up most of your time? Do you do a lot of proactive work, or is most of it reactive?” I might start by telling them a bit about our office. “We’re going through a lot of changes right now. We’re working on a project to overhaul X process. Have you ever had to deal with something like that?” Sometimes people feel more comfortable talking about work because they know it’s not something folks are as likely to take personally, and it’s something we know we all have in common. If we’re at a conference, or if a big industry conference has recently happened, I might ask what sessions they attended and what they got out of them.

    For moving on to more friendly chit-chat from work stuff, I often use the open-ended, “so, what do you do when you’re not prospect researching?” That gives people an option to talk about their hobbies, and maybe we can connect on some of those subjects. Sometimes it’s hard, and the hobbies a person talks about might be things that are so outside of my own interests that I can’t think of much to say. If they’re a big baseball fan, for instance. But even then, I can ask them what team they follow, and how they’ve been doing lately, and if they go to the games often. I can then come back and say, “I don’t really follow sports, but I’ve been to a game at Fenway Park, and our team at work actually had a summer celebration there one year–it was cool to see the World Series trophies!” Trying to find some way of connecting to what a person says can help keep the conversation going.

  84. Don't Want to Talk About Kids*

    I personally hate the question, “Do you have kids?” When the answer is, “Yes, but not living,” it’s painful and not a topic I would delve into with someone I just met, especially not some random person at an industry event.

    I like some of the other suggestions mentioned above that are more open-ended, like, “What’s keeping you busy these days?” That leaves room for them to talk about kids, or work, or hobbies, but doesn’t put someone on the spot re kids. You never know who is dealing with loss or infertility, who’s child-free by choice and tired of hearing about it, etc.

    1. Existentialista*

      “Are you married?” is just as bad, “Do you have any pets?” almost as bad, and personally I have trouble with “Where are you from originally?” because I’ve lived a lot of places.

      1. Close Bracket*

        > I have trouble with “Where are you from originally?” because I’ve lived a lot of places.

        I usually say “Mars.” People usually laugh, and because I am female, occasionally comment on men being from Mars. I answer that with, “That’s a common misconception,” and we both laugh.

    2. Beth*

      Yikes, yes. You can run into some terrible minefields. I once asked an acquaintance how his dog was — I had remembered he had a dog from our first meeting — and it turned out that since that meeting, his marriage had gone down in flames and his ex-wife had taken the dog. Ow.

  85. annakarina1*

    This is all very helpful to read! I find when I go to industry events, I can feel overwhelmed when there’s too many people. I can do idle small chat with people, but don’t like crowds. I usually try to find people I recognize, and then can branch off to other people to talk to either on my own or through them. I went to my first big conference last year, and it was hundreds of people and way too much for me. I would chat with some people, but often just felt lost by the noise and crowds. So a lot of these tips will be very helpful for future networking and industry events.

  86. Librarian Liz*

    I always like to ask what people are reading or watching, or if they have pets.

  87. LaDeeDa*

    A lot of great advice has already been given. I think the only thing I can add (or expand on) is that the key to networking is active listening. Find a question/opener you are comfortable with, really listen to the answer and be prepared to respond on what they said. A little trick you can do, until it becomes more natural is to expand on the last thing they said. It would like something like this::
    You “How did you find that last keynote speaker?”
    Them- “I was really excited to get to see them live, it is part of the reason I came. I read their book a few years ago and really enjoyed it.”
    You “Oh really! I haven’t read that one– what about it was so meaningful to you?”
    Them “It really helped me understand XYZ about my relationships.”
    You “And how has that understanding helped you?”
    Them “It has made it easier for me to give constructive feedback.”
    You “Have you seen the TED about feedback from X person?”

    This can literally go on forever. Someone mentioned improv class above, this is one of the techniques you learn in improv, but it works in every situation. I use this technique when I am coaching people who have a hard time building relationship or who need to work on their active listening skills.

    It will seem awkward to you the first few times you do it, but you can ask to practice with someone you really trust.
    I hope this helps, and you aren’t an imposter, you are just new. :) You got this! Good luck!

    1. FloralsForever*

      Yes! The art of a follow-up question is really an excellent skill to have. I like that LaDeeDa recommends practicing with someone. Just because we talk everyday doesn’t mean that we can’t improve our conversation skills! You can also follow-up with a compliment or a positive comment toward the person you’re conversing with.

  88. Rat Racer*

    For people who travel a lot for work, I have found that talking about airline rewards programs and debating the merits of fidelity to a single airline vs. picking the most convenient flight provides endless fodder for conversation. Yes it’s stupid, but it’s totally safe (no one will get offended that you prefer Delta over Southwest) and everyone’s got an opinion.

  89. Evil HR Person*

    Don’t know if anybody said… Michael Kerr has the Humor at Work blog, and he has some very good/funny opening questions.

  90. Beth*

    How I Got My Current Job, At An Incredibly Good Place To Work:

    At an industry conference, I entered a user session in my usual mode: look around and try to spot an empty seat towards the front, next to someone who looks like they might be interesting to talk to.

    I spotted a man with a brochure and other materials from a completely unrelated organization, an arts group where I had worked for several years prior to a career change. I sat down next to him and said “Oh, Llama Regional Theatre? I used to work there!”

    We chatted and hit it off exceptionally well, and swapped business cards when we parted. He told me to call him if I was ever in his part of the country, and we’d have lunch.

    Several years later, I *moved” to his part of the country for personal reasons, and had lunch, as it turned out, with his entire office. They had a vacancy, my skill set perfectly matched their firm’s needs, and I landed a terrific job with an outstanding firm, during the recession, in a terrible job market.

    I’ve had pleasant chats with a lot of people at events. Only one of them ultimately led to the Best Job Evar, but that was enough. You never kn0w when the pleasant chat will change your life.

  91. Lucille2*

    I think your conversation starters are good topics. But if you’re like me, the real challenge is turning small talk into a networking opportunity. So I think it’s good to have some 2nd level type topics that could lead to more meaningful conversations.
    – Chatting with a vendor: ask about their product, and they will typically steer the conversation from there. If it’s not a product you’re interested in, you’ll need an exit strategy.
    – Chatting with a fellow attendee : Ask if they’ve attended the conference before, what brought them there, what do they wish to learn? And to keep it light, what’s the best nearby coffee/lunch spot they recommend?
    – Bring up speakers and break out sessions you’ve attended. The best thing about conferences is learning what other companies are doing to solve problems you’re also experiencing. Vendors are more than happy to tell you how they will solve your problems, but their customers will provide a more realistic view or may offer some more creative solutions.

  92. Vanny Hall*

    “How did you become involved in [field, (or area of mission, for nonprofits)]?” “Have you been in [field] for your whole working life?” (Often people have unexpected past careers. I met a white-haired state forest ranger who used to dance for the Boston Ballet!)

    I’ve also had interesting conversations about whether there’s a “typical” [person in my field], or whether you can make generalizations about the kind of person in [my field]. This works especially well if you have positive feelings about what you do and others who do it. Recently I hazarded a comment that people in my (new) field, even total strangers, seem unusually generous with their time and expertise when I ask for help. This (a) is true; (b) makes people in the field feel good; and (c) evokes interesting stories about times people have had to call total strangers for advice about arcane problems, and how those people have come to the rescue. Win/win/win!

  93. Bopper*

    This article has great ideas:

    One tip I like is to indicate that you will not be taking too much of a persons time…”I have a call I have to get to soon, but which of the break-out sessions do you think would have the most value?”
    People get worried that people will latch onto them or they won’t know how to get out of a conversation.

    1. CM*

      Interesting… a lot of this is basically active listening techniques. I never thought of that as social engineering!

      I would tweak your suggestion a bit. In the article, the examples talked about asking the other person if they have a time constraint, or acknowledging that the other person is busy and you won’t take up too much of their time. Your suggestion is focusing on yourself and the fact that you are busy and don’t have time. I would be put off if someone started the conversation by saying “I don’t have much time to talk to you.”

  94. Madame Secretary*

    I ask people if they have any big travel plans coming up. If yes, cool, where to, who with, etc. If they don’t, it’s usually because something else is happening and they discuss that.

    1. Candace*

      That probably works for most, but for me, it’s be off-putting. I’ve never had $ to spare to travel, unless I wanted to go camping or something, which I don’t. Most of my life, I’ve struggled financially, even being homeless once. Travel – even a weekend trip – seemed like a huge waste of $. So the whole topic of travel, while it works & is safe for most, is uncomfortable to me. I mention it just so folks may be aware that even apparently safe topics can be tricky, Example – my spouse was at a party given by his PhD supervisor, & everyone was jetting somewhere fancy for Xmas. They asked WHERE he was going, not if, clearly assuming we came from money. His response was “Nowhere. I don’t travel.” It was like a skunk in an elevator.

  95. Kaitlyn*

    I have a few stock questions I go to in situations like this:

    – how did you get into this industry? What’s your favourite part about it?
    – is this your first time at this event? What’s changed since you started coming/what made you come this year?
    – what’s the best thing you learned about today?

    More general:
    – what fun stuff do you have planed for this spring/summer/month/whatever?
    – I’m super jazzed about seeing [local attraction]. Have you been? What are you going to get up to in your off-hours?

    I feel like work events like conferences are a REALLY great opportunity to do kind of Big Picture conversations with people: what’s great about this industry/sector? Where are we really succeeding? Where are we failing? Starting or joining in on that level of talk is a great way to make connections.

  96. Betsy S*

    I don’t think it’s verboten to talk about anything work-related – it can be good to get into the big picture things, like what conferences have they been to/felt were valuable, how they feel about [industry trend] or [issue facing industry], etc.

    Love the phrasing of ‘have you traveled far?” or perhaps for Americans “are you based in this area?” as opposed to “where are you from?”

    Maybe I’m just a techno nerd but it feels a bit off beat to me to be making completely personal chat with people I have just met at an industry event, unless it’s a local event, or unless we’ve already been chatting and seem to be turning into friends. The thing we all have in common is the industry, and the folks I’ve met at conferences have become mostly casual-tech friends with whom I talk tech when our paths cross (and any one industry is often a small world)

  97. Lily*

    One of my favorite icebreakers is “What are you reading right now?” I find it tells you a lot about a person and there’s often further conversation topics within. If they’re between books, you can ask what their favorites are/the last thing they read, and if they’re not a big reader, you can ask what they like to do instead. I think it can be a nice, low-key question that moves slightly beyond the weather without getting into personal awkward territory.

  98. Rebecca1*

    My go-to is to ask about people’s pets. If they don’t have and never had pets, usually they mention something about why they don’t. Then I ask them a question about whatever that is, and let them talk while I nod. This usually goes over very well. Seriously.

  99. Lebanese Blonde*

    I’ve started going to lotttts of conferences where I’m the odd one out (think industry conferences, and I’m a journalist reporting on that industry). I’m a young woman and everyone around me is typically much older and already knows everyone else. I’ve actually had a lot of success being mildly self-deprecating and pointing out that I’m new to the events — everyone loves to be welcoming and show you the ropes!

    So, I’ll introduce myself, ask them if I can sit nearby (or whatever), and then ask them if this is their first XX conference. They almost always say “No, I’ve been coming for 20 years! But that’s nothing on Jim [across the table], he helped organize the first one!” and I say “Oh wow, I’m glad I found you then, this is my first one and I feel like a new kid on the first day of school! What should I know/what restaurants are good nearby/who should I talk to?” and it flows so nicely from there. Also asking people to explain something you might have misunderstood in a session is a great way to make friends.

    This might work because a lot of the people I’m talking to probably have kids my age so they instinctively take anyone who looks young under their wing, but — especially since I’m a journalist trying to bond and meet sources however I can — I have made it work to my advantage. It’s really not too hard once you practice a few times! I really enjoy the conferences that used to make me anxious just a few months ago.

    Maybe this is counter-intuitive/bad advice, but I’m convinced that 90% of being charming is being mildly self-deprecating and/or laughing at yourself to show you’re human, and then just asking questions and acting interested in someone.

  100. President Porpoise*

    I have a terrible time at networking things. I can smalltalk with no trouble – but I’m mildly face blind (I sometimes rely on friends to wave me over to the right table at restaurants because I can’t recognize them without that nudge) and can’t remember names. It is embarrassing.

  101. Better with age*

    I was once browsing in the commercial building at the state fair. I stopped to browse at a booth selling skin care products. The vendor started telling me all about of his products. I said thank you and walked away . Then I came back, and told him, if you really want to get interest, don’t talk about your catalog. Ask the person what their goal is, or what problem they are trying to solve. And listen to them. Once he asked me those questions and listened to my response, he told me about products that were directly related to my situation. I actually ended up buying one of his products. I think this approach might be adaptable to your industry.

  102. Kitty*

    What are they watching on TV/Netflix lately?

    Have they read any interesting articles/books or industry pieces lately?

  103. Jess Amy*

    I like to ask where they’re from. If it’s near me or somewhere I know well, we have a shared frame of reference. If it’s somewhere I’ve never been, people love to talk the best (and worst) bits of their hometowns!

    I live in a town that’s famous for a single and very specific food item, so that provides an easy jumping off point.

  104. jcarnall*

    The key thing about moving around events and mingling is:

    Most people at these events are happy to be friendly, positive, and pleased to meet you, for about five minutes. Have business cards with you but don’t press them on people. Don’t try to keep anyone talking for more than five minutes but if they ask for your card or offer theirs have one ready to hand. Don’t act like you’re eager to run off, but gracefully “lovely talking to you, I was heading over there – ” and move on.

    Small-talk sometimes becomes large-talk and then the five-minute rule can be gently shelved – if you find something you really have in common you can just keep talking, though there again, people still want to move on, and they’re not snubbing you and they will be enjoying your conversation just as much as you enjoyed theirs, but this is a networking event and they have a lot of people to speak to.

    “Have you travelled far today?”(if it’s the first day of the conference) or “Are you staying over – do you have far to get back?” if it’s the last day.

    “What do you think of the [conference location]?” Whether it’s a hotel or a purpose-built conference centre, it’s something anyone can have a view on after they’ve been there half an hour. Is it old, new, attractive , ugly, accessible, non-accessible, too large, too small, too warm, too air-conditioned?

    If the event repeats from year to year, “This is my first year coming to [this event] – how about you?” (If they say yes, their first time too, you can then ask them what they’re looking forward to: if they say they’ve been here lots of times, ask what’s different this year from last time.)

    Keep this in mind; At any event like this, people you talk to will want to talk to you. (For five minutes. There are a lot of people to talk to.) They will be happy if you put forward a question they can readily answer and that leads to a few minutes easy chat. Think of questions that you *know* the person you speak to will have the answer to, and stick to those questions.

    “Isn’t it warm in here?”

    “Isn’t that an amazing view?”

    “We’ve been having some weather, haven’t we?”

    “Did you travel far today?”

    “Are you enjoying the event so far?”

    “Those are gorgeous ear-rings, are they custom-made?/where did you get them”? (YMMV, but I find that ear-rings are always safe ground – if someone is wearing some kind of decoratively-visible ear-rings, it’s generally OK to compliment them and ask questions – the wearer chose to put them in for the event and obviously likes them themselves.) This works for other small items too – a badge, a brooch, a scarf – anything clearly personally-chosen, decorative, and not too intimate.

    So, to summarise – don’t plan on staying in small-talk with anyone for more than about five minutes and you’ll be fine pretty much no matter what you say, and you can’t go wrong if you only ever ask questions that you *know* the person you’re talking to will be able to answer.

    1. OP*

      That five-minute tip is actually really helpful – I think that would calm down a lot of anxiety. Thanks!

  105. EAW*

    For work-related events, you can’t go wrong with some variation on “So, what kinds of projects (or issues, or topics, etc) do you work on?” Or if you know the person a little bit already, “So what kinds of things are keeping you busy lately?” Basically ask people a question about what they work on – most people are happy to talk about themselves, and chances you’ll learn something useful for connecting with them.

  106. chickaletta*

    Do you listen to podcasts? (great for you especially since you’re on the plane/car/waiting around a lot). Try a mix of industry related podcasts with ones that are completely out of your industry and feature interesting topics (I like Hidden Brain and Radiolab, I’m sure readers here can suggest others). Over time they’ll give you a wealth things to talk about. Hint: veer towards the popular podcasts and NPR – chances are you’ll run into other people who listen to them too and then you can discuss them. The other caveat is to probably avoid politics and controversial topics because you don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of someone you’re trying to connect with when you’re at networking events.

  107. Anonandon*

    The Small Talk Mnemonic is F.O.R.D. Family, Occupation, Recreation, Destinations.
    Since you’ve already said you don’t want to talk about work, that leaves you with F-R-D. “Tell me about your family. So what do you do for fun? Where are you going next? What do you want to do in the future?”

  108. Smiling*

    I love this discussion. But for the ultra shy people, how do you even start up a conversation? Do you just start talking to the guy next to you at the punch bowl?
    This is always the hardest part. Once I get into the conversation (if it’s something I can truly contribute to), I have no problems following through, but the startup is the hardest part.
    I had a colleague who had the same problem just last week. He went to a local 3-hour event that the company asked to him to attend. He spent the entire mix and mingle part of the event walking around bored because he knew almost no one. The very few people he did know were so embedded in conversations with others that he didn’t feel comfortable breaking in to say hi.

  109. JSPA*

    This city / town / area / the next area over, that I drove through / looks interesting! I didn’t think to check out it’s history or any event listings, did you? / I don’t know much about the area, do you? / It’s so green, I wonder if there are hiking trails / I wonder if they have bike rentals / I wonder if there’s a public building or restaurant with a view / I wonder if there are tours / maybe there’s a concert schedule…Have you seen anything like that? / Are you familiar with the region? / Did you read anything about this place, or are we all flying blind?

    Based on response,

    Oh, do you like architecture? / Oh, are you outdoorsy? / Oh, what sorts of places do you prefer? / Oh, I’ve never been to an [name of musical style] concert, what would it be like?

    It’s basically like making friends, when you want to clearly not be flirting, but you do want to find stuff you have in common. Because, basically, that’s sort of what you’re doing.

    And actually, it DOES make sense to pivot back to work. “I’m really glad that working in X means we get to do things like this, as well as the daily[whatever typifies your standard day]. Don’t get me wrong, I love the [name good points of daily process], but it’s nice to also see new places / see our region in a new light / see people who usually are only names on a computer screen / hear how people approach the issue of XYZ (etc). I do sometimes notice how well [product I sell] seems like it should work out here, but suppose ABC could be a confounding factor. What do you think?

  110. G. Lefoux*

    For years, I did not understand why some conversations I had went so well, and others seemed to fizzle and die. And then lo, the heavens opened up to me, and a voice said, “You do not have to be genuinely interested in a subject to have an interesting and engaging conversation about it. You only have to be interested in the person.” And lo, I began to ask follow-up questions about football and data-tracking and people’s mothers, and had many pleasant conversations because I reframed the experience in my head to not be about connecting on a shared interest but acknowledging and connecting kindly with a fellow human being regardless of whether we shared interests. And you know, people being interested in things often makes them interesting to me, at least for the course of the conversation! I may never knit, but hearing about someone’s knitting passion helps me see another viewpoint, and that is fun.

    Also, learn to be okay with silence. Sometimes silence will happen! And the brain weasels will begin to whisper “awkward awkward awkward, this is sooooo awkward.” And you have to tell the brain weasels, “No, this is normal, silence happens sometimes.” And try to keep a pleasant smile on your face until you naturally think of another topic instead of desperately blurting one out to fill the void.

  111. Allison*

    What brought you to this event? What are you most looking forward to? What’s stood out so far?

  112. Candace*

    Not many suggestions, but I just want to say I empathize – I have struggled with this for years. I am in the upper ranks of academe, and most of my peers talk about travel, golf, symphony or opera or chamber or classical music, museums and fine art, and other topics that reek of privilege. I came from a very poor family, and my parents had grade 8 and 6 educations. I worked multiple jobs to make it through school, and struggled financially until my current position. I have never traveled internationally, never played golf, and my tastes in music run to rock and metal. At one point in an interview, my would-be boss said that if I was the final candidate, he’d invite my spouse and I to stay with him and his wife in their home for several days and hang out and attend museums and the symphony to see how we’d fit! I am sure my horror showed on my face. This is one kind of discrimination that will never be illegal, but is nonetheless real. It’s class based. I am very good at my job, but when it comes to small talk, I have struggled. I have learned a few tricks. I try to notice a nice piece of jewelry or tie or scarf or something, and compliment it while asking about it. For example, one major donor, a woman often wore lovely silver jewelry. I commented that it was beautiful and looked unique, and asked if it was by an artist. It was and off she went on the joys of handmade jewelry. I try to learn in advance about anything interesting or comment-worthy about their family; the same donor had a grand-daughter who had been accepted to Yale, and my assistant director’s son had also been accepted to Yale, so I congratulated her and mentioned it, and that was food for another conversation about majors and interests. I basically try to learn about anything personal (but not private – big difference)that I could congratulate them on – an award, a child’s graduation, etc. People like to talk about their interests, successes, children, etc. I still struggle, but I am a bit better than I was. Good luck.

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