Whether you’re at a work event, sitting down in the salon chair, trying to make friends in a new city or on a blind date, there’s one situation that’s unavoidable when meeting new people: small talk. Few words conjure up as much dread as these two. What do you say? How do you start a conversation without being weird? Why waste the time on a fleeting interaction that probably won’t lead to anything? Now, pause. Small talk can be annoying if you don’t know how to do it. That’s why we reached out to the pros—a bartender, an esthetician and a hairstylist—for their expert advice. From easy questions (with a twist) to deep conversation starters, here’s how to make small talk that crafts meaningful connections and conversations.
How to Make Small Talk, According to a Bartender, a Hairstylist and an Esthetician
1. Respect the Boundary
Creating a memorable and meaningful connection with every person you chat with would be great, but not everyone is going to want to lean into the conversation. That’s not a reflection on you or your conversational prowess, so take a breath, smile and move on.
“Typically, [I] start out with basic small talk to get to know them and feel out their energy,” says Megan Hudgin, a hairstylist based in Houston, Texas. “Some people like to talk [while] others tend to keep things more private, and I always want to respect their boundaries.”
2. Lead with a Compliment
Hudgin finds compliments a great way to start a connection. Because come on, who doesn’t love being complimented? It doesn’t take much to make someone feel special—maybe they’re flaunting a cool manicure, or they picked a great restaurant or they said something really interesting. The simple act of noticing and then voicing your admiration can put someone at ease. It shows you’re friendly, paying attention and care. Plus, it’ll kick off a conversation about something you’re both interested in. (And before you scoff that this strategy will never work, know that I complimented a stranger on her handbag eight years ago, and we’re friends to this day!)
3. Find Common Ground
If the person seems open to conversation, Hudgin will try to find common ground. “I want my clients to feel as though they can relate to me, and that builds trust.” Common ground doesn’t have to be profound. Maybe you’re from the same hometown or state, share a deep love for oat milk lattes with a double shot of espresso, are both taking a trip to Paris later in the year or understand how hard it is to juggle work and kids. But how do you get there?
Sometimes it helps to start and ask the “boring” questions: where they grew up, if they’re from the city you’re now in, what brings them to this event. Let these be the building blocks of the conversation—but don’t get stuck here. Think of them as the gateway to get people talking. Further topics will introduce themselves as the conversation rolls on.
4. Ask Open-Ended Questions
So you’ve just moved and signed up for a singles get-together to meet other people new to the city. You get there and are stumped for how to connect with the other participants. Rather than leading with a yes/no question (“So, have you been to this bar before?”), our small talk experts recommend going with something open-ended (think: “What are you drinking?”).
“I like to ask people what their music interests are. These questions seem to work because they usually catch people off guard and get their thoughts going,” shares Tiffany Spencer, a bartender at Eastside Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee. She’ll also inquire about their hometown or where they’re from, which provides the opportunity to offer up a fun fact or follow-up questions. Asking questions that encourage thoughtful answers will lead to more detail and possibility to form a connection.
For Rachel Liverman, a third-generation esthetician and founder of Glowbar, this goes the other way, too. When someone asks you a question, elaborate instead of giving a short answer. “If someone asks me how I am I won’t just respond with ‘good!’ Instead, I’ll expand upon that and share something about why I’m feeling the way I am. This usually gives the other person something to work off of to make the conversation flow naturally.”
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Vulnerable
Remember that if you take a step and share something personal, others may be inclined to as well. “I believe that vulnerability breeds vulnerability,” Liverman says. “Anytime I share something that is self-aware or honest about myself it instills trust and encourages others to open up. From experience, I’ve noticed how this fast-tracks relationships at times because we cut right through the surface.”
Vulnerability doesn’t have to mean baring your whole soul, but it can mean a little more honesty or openness than we’ve come to expect. Instead of asking, “How are you?” to which the standard answer is just, “Good,” try asking, “How is your heart today?” or “What’s a highlight and a lowlight from your week?” This gives the other person an opportunity to share a little more about their life and perhaps embolden them to ask you in return.
6. But Keep Things Upbeat
Spencer recommends bringing good vibes only and setting the tone for a great conversation. According to research, words only comprise 7 percent of communication—55 percent is nonverbal and 38 is vocal (tone of voice). How you present yourself is therefore just as important as the questions you ask.
One of Liverman’s tips is to smile big, because body language and facial expressions often reveal our thoughts—you want your conversation partner to know that you’re happy and interested in chatting with them. Tone and volume are important, too. You want to convey eagerness without drowning them in excitement. To put people at ease, try to mirror their body language. If they seem shy, a bubbly greeting may overwhelm them, so opt for a gentler tone. And if they are incredibly upbeat, then you know it’s time to crack some jokes.
7. Don’t Be Basic
The safest, most predictable questions on the planet are probably “How are you?” and “Where do you work?” Don’t be afraid to dive deeper and give people opportunities to share who they are beyond what they do.
“Be genuinely curious and ask questions that provoke someone to share more than one-word answers,” Liverman says. Need ideas? Try one of the questions below.
- What’s on your bucket list?
- When’s the last time you laughed so hard you couldn’t stop?
- What’s your favorite thing to do in (insert city you’re in)?
- What are you reading/watching right now?
- What are you passionate about? / How do you like to spend your free time?
- I like your (insert clothing item here). Where did you get it?
8. Have a Few Questions at the Ready
Everyone loves to talk about themselves, so the best thing you can do is show your curiosity. “Asking questions that prompt them to talk about their lives and experience is usually going to garner a great response. I love to ask people ‘what do you love about what you do?’ rather than ‘where do you work’ because it requires a bit more,” Liverman shares. You can also ask about hobbies, families, vacations plans and the name of the band on their T-shirt. Have three or four interesting questions in your back pocket and you’re nearly guaranteed an interesting conversation.
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