How to Start a Conversation

Proper Etiquette for Communication

Businesswoman and businessman in discussion at office conference room table
Be prepared with a few conversation starters to prevent awkward silence. Thomas Barwick/Stone/Getty Images

Some people seem to be excellent conversationalists and can chat up anyone within listening distance while others live in fear of having to talk to someone they don’t know. Learning to start a conversation takes understanding a few basic etiquette principles and a little bit of practice.

Basic Social Concepts to Remember

  • You need to understand that you are not alone. Many people suffer from shyness or reticence around strangers or people they barely know. Once you see that others are more worried about what you think about them than what you say, you should go into a social situation with more confidence.
  • You don’t have to be extremely witty or clever to initiate a conversation. Simply starting out by greeting the other person and introducing yourself is a straightforward way to show friendliness and the willingness to break the ice. More people will respond better to a person with good manners than to someone who tries too hard to impress.
  • Understand that not everyone will respond to your friendly overtures. Although you face the risk of feeling as though you are talking to a wall, that shouldn’t become your problem. Don’t worry about it because the problem isn’t you; it’s the other person.

Be Prepared

There is nothing wrong with being prepared before walking into a social or business situation where you’ll need to make conversation. Doing a little bit of homework can make a big difference between having the confidence to approach someone you don’t know or finding yourself standing in the corner afraid you’ll make a fool of yourself if you open your mouth.

How to prepare:

  • Try to find out who will be present and learn at least one thing about each person.
  • Have a few comfortable opening lines to prevent becoming tongue-tied. Some examples are, “How long have you worked for the company?” “How long have you known the host?” and “Have you had a chance to enjoy all this nice weather we’ve been having?”
  • Practice shaking hands with your spouse, significant other, or best friend.

Be Friendly

Smile warmly to show how friendly you are. A warm smile is one of the best icebreakers you can possibly offer. Being friendly is much more impressive than starting a conversation about yourself or showing off a quick wit. Opening with a few kind words can be much safer than trying to make the other person laugh because humor is so subjective.

Friendly gestures:

  • Extend your hand and state your name.
  • Make and hold eye contact as you smile warmly
  • Introduce yourself and ask a simple question. For example, you can say, “Hi, I’m Susan. How do you like this weather we’ve been having?”

Look Outside Yourself

One of the best ways to stop worrying about conversation is to take the focus off yourself. Make it about the other person. If you see someone you would like to talk to, approach him or her and comment about something you think would be of interest. Be sincere and stay away from cheesy lines.

Here are some examples of effective opening comments:

  • ”I noticed that you chose the sushi. I’ve always enjoyed Japanese food, but I don’t know of any good Asian restaurants in the area. Can you recommend one?”
  • ”I heard you were a runner. Have you run the city’s annual 5K?”
  • ”How long have you known (insert the name of the host)?"
  • ”Where did you go to school?”

Learn to take nonverbal cues from the other person. While asking questions about him or her may help break the ice, some people don’t enjoy talking about themselves. If you get clipped answers and an icy stare, it’s probably a good idea to find another topic.

Beyond Hello

You can only talk about the weather for so long before boring the other person, so start steering the conversation in some direction if you would like to continue. Always be sincere and follow up a yes-no question with a statement or additional question to keep the conversation going. If you continue long enough you are likely to find a common interest that will take over.

Conversation Starters for Specific Places

Take your location into consideration when starting a conversation. You wouldn’t necessarily ask a coworker the same type of question you would ask someone you meet at a friend’s party. If you have any desire to get ahead at work, remember that you only have one chance to make a first impression.

Office openers:

  • ”How long have you worked here?”
  • ”What department do you work for?”
  • ”What shift do you work?”

Greeting for a neighbor:

  • "Your yard looks great. What kind of flowers are those?"
  • "I'm having some friends over to watch the game on TV. Would you like to join us?"
  • "I have an extension ladder that you may borrow if you ever need it.

Party openers:

  • ”How long have you been here?”
  • ”How long have you known (the host or hostess)?”
  • ”Have you tried the delicious (item on the buffet table)?”

School openers:

  • ”What do you think about the food in the cafeteria?”
  • ”What is your major?”
  • ”Do you have a ton of homework in (name of teacher)’s class?”

Generic openers that work in most social situations:

  • ”Where are you from?”
  • ”Are you married?”
  • ”Do you have children, and if so, how many?”
  • ”What type of work do you do?”
  • ”That’s a nice (jacket, handbag, or pair of boots).”

Caution

Remember that even with the best opening line in the world, you may still get blown off by the other person. If you have taken care to be friendly, open, and straightforward without being pushy, you’ve done all you can. When someone lets you know he or she isn’t interested, move on and talk to someone else.