8

When talking to people, I often find myself in an "awkward silence". This is usually with acquaintances or friends-of-friends.

Let's say I'm at a family gathering on Thanksgiving (United States). I am talking to an aunt or uncle, and we come to the end of the topic.

What strategies will help me start a new topic that they would find interesting?

closed as too broad by Ælis, avazula, MlleMei, OldPadawan, Anilla Mar 5 at 14:07

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 4
    Maybe it's just me, but I think this is question is too broad. There is no setting, country, situation etc. mentioned. Conversation starters will vary by region. – NVZ Jul 23 '17 at 18:41
  • 2
    This sort of idea generation, poll question is off topic network wide. – Catija Jul 23 '17 at 19:06
  • 1
    You may be able to edit it, though, to make it fit the site. While asking "what can I say", perhaps explain a specific situation and ask about strategies for how to behave in this situation. – Catija Jul 23 '17 at 19:22
  • 1
    Questions starting with "What are some" are usually too broad for StackExchange. – nic Jul 24 '17 at 6:18
18

You will always do better asking a question than making a statement. People can just let your statement hang out there, but they'll feel they must answer a question. Don't make it a yes/no either, make it open ended. Your best bet is something related to the reason you're standing in the same place.

  • at a wedding: "so, how do you know [the bride] and [the groom]?
  • at a work function: "what department are you in?" or "have you been with the company long?"
  • at a party at X's house: "so, how do you know X?" or "how long have you known X?" or "is this your first X's party?"
  • on a train or similar public transit, should you feel the need to continue a conversation: "is this your regular commute?" or "how long have you been doing this trip back and forth for?"
  • if you know the person (eg from work or your commute) and bump into them somewhere else (eg a coffee lineup) don't ask questions related to the thing you have in common, such as work. Instead ask something related to the current circumstance. "Hey, do you live around here too?"

If you are supposed to know the person too well to ask these questions (such as distant relatives at a family gathering) narrow the scope of your questions a little:

  • how have you been? (If you can remember something from last time you saw them, or something a family member has told you, all the better. Eg: "is your hip still giving you trouble?" "Have you completely finished your move to Arizona?" "Are you really going to retire this year?")
  • if you only remember a tiny fact such as where they live or a hobby, work it in: "How are things in Iowa these days? Are you getting all this rain we've been getting?" or "are you still golfing every chance you get?"
  • if your connection involves someone who's not in the conversation (perhaps their child was a cousin and playmate of yours) ask about that person.
  • if you can't think of anything to ask them, ask if they've heard your news in the last year or so: "did you hear I have a new apartment?" or "did X tell you that I'm getting married next year?" Chances are, this person will now dutifully ask you some questions about this topic and you can discuss it for a while. You can always turn things back to them by asking about the time they moved into their first apartment, or bought their own house, or moved across the country, or got married, or whatever. Especially if you introduce it with "I'm sure things used to be different. I bet when you got married you didn't have to choose the toppings for your mashed potato bar!" or "I'm sure things used to be different. You couldn't use the internet to find your place from thousand of miles away. How did you do it?" And so on.

If none of those apply, think about your dental hygienist and other folks who need to make small talk every day. They ask you things like:

  • do you have any plans for the upcoming long weekend?
  • do you have any special plans for a summer holiday? (Or other within-a-few-months time period that people often go away for or make special plans for) At Thanksgiving, you can ask their Christmas plans. At Christmas, you can ask about New Year's Eve, and so on.
  • did you see [tv show] last night?
  • have you seen the new X movie yet?
  • have you been following [sports team or event eg World Cup, Olympics]?

With all of these, there's a chance for a really dismissive answer, but you can catch it and ask a different question that will keep things going:

"No, I never watch that crap. I don't have time for TV."

Oh, that's interesting, what do you do instead?

Really? I often think I spend too much time watching TV. What kinds of things do you do instead?

Oh, so what were you up to last night while I was watching [tv show]?"

But if you get two dismissive answers in a row, take the hint and make small talk with someone else.

  • 1
    Great answer. The second section (small talk) also works really well with younger children, too (in my experience). – HDE 226868 Jul 24 '17 at 23:25
  • Oh my. You've not just saved a question, you've also provided a great answer. +1 – NVZ Jul 25 '17 at 18:09
4

With relatives, I like to work on finding out things I want to know & they want to tell. So I stick to topics that relate to them telling me about their life & experiences either personally or with other family members.

If it's my uncle let's say, I may ask "So, Jim is the oldest, then you right?" and no joke that alone can start them going. If I have something more in mind, I may ask questions like "When Suzie was born, you were already in school then? What grade were you in? Do you remember that? Were you happy to have another sibling or kind of annoyed with it all?" It's fascinating to me to hear stories & usually these kinds of things will spill over into them telling you things they'd never think to tell you otherwise. If Jim & he are close & age & you feel a little cheeky, I may even ask if they ever dated the same girl or had a crush on the same girl, etc.

I would also suppose that since most of my family generally gets along, I am not afraid to step into too many mistakes there. I would keep in mind that if there have been rifts, you may want to be cautious on what you ask to avoid anything you know has been a problem before.

Now let's say the uncle is instead married to my aunt. I may ask how they met, their ages, how he knew her, etc. I may ask something like how old they were when they had their oldest child, then maybe respond with "So you had little Bill then & you lived where?" I just find people often do like to reminisce. I like to get to know people & although small talk is safe generally, I find it harder to actually enjoy it & ultimately I can leave an event not feeling at all like anything meaningful was said by me or to me. So that is how I learned to handle age gaps and have more meaningful conversations. I also find the same is true with kids too. I can ask my young cousin how old he was when his brother was born, how he felt about that. I can ask them if they like to ride bikes, then branch into when did they learn, who taught them, etc. What was learning like? Scary? Does their little sister know how to ride yet? Did they help teach her? Is she pretty good yet? And say an older young cousin, you can ask what they are doing these days (if you are unsure if they are in college, or just working & don't want to bring up something that could feel like pressure - such as parents want them in school, but they are declining). Then branch off from whatever answer, like what made you interested in that? How long have you been doing that? Do you like it?

When possible answer positively, simple things like "I am glad to hear you are doing well, liking your job, blah blah", anything from old stories you can say how much you enjoy the story & how great it is to hear funny things about your grandparents, aunts/uncles/parents, thank them for sharing it.

In less familial settings I would avoid personal related questions. I would stick with things that are much more formal & detached like "What sorts of hobbies do you enjoy?" That is always a good starter as most people like something, even if it's reading & then you can ask what the best book they read lately was & such. This of course also can work with family.

For anyone, avoid questions that might be upsetting without knowing it. Big ones I know right off would be things like do not ask if people have kids. If someone is trying & can't or has lost a child recently, that is a topic you never want to start. Do not ask if they intend to have children either. Maybe one partner wants to & the other doesn't, so it's a sore spot. Maybe they can't. Maybe they don't want to, but do not want to explain why & might feel like people expect an explanation. Never ask anyone ever if they are pregnant. Most of the time, if you are decently smart, you would likely not ask without a reasonable suspicion. However if you happen to be wrong it's so hurtful and if you are right, but again, they do not wish to openly discuss it, it's super awkward.

If you are told sad or bad news, respond simply. Stick to things like "I am so sorry. That must be really hard." If you feel like you need to say anything more, stick again to simple, "Have you found anything you can do that is helpful to you while you are going through it?" This can apply to deaths, losses, health issues, financial woes, breakups, you name it. Do NOT say "at least" or anything that might seem like you could be minimizing how hard it is right now, they are aware if there are any silver linings generally & pointing them out can feel like you don't think their pain is a big deal. Instead stick with kind questions that don't pry. "Have you been getting enough support? How are the kids doing with it?" That sort of thing.

  • I should say too, I once had the misfortune to ask an elderly man about having kids. I may have actually said something about being surprised he did not. I can't recall. I found out then, in an awkward conversation in a professional setting (which felt very out of place) that he had children, 4 of them, all died from a genetic disease they were not aware they carried. It was rare that all 4 kids would have developed it, but that was his story & not one he likely wanted to tell me over a business meeting. This is why I say do not ask people. You really never know. I knew him a year. – threetimes Jul 26 '17 at 9:09

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.