Mark Sherman: Conversation starters

Mark-Sherman SQUAREDo you have trouble starting conversations? If so, I’m here to offer solutions. But before I do, keep in mind that, as usual when it comes to difficulties and behaviors, you’re not the only one. Okay, if you are the kind of person who enjoys lying face down on your lawn with your nose buried in the grass or soil, while you try to sing “God Bless America,” yes, you probably are the only one. But for most behaviors, you’re not.

So for those millions of us who do have trouble getting a talk going with another person, here are some solutions.

 

1. Don’t talk. You don’t have to. Look at all the young people around you. They’re not talking; they’re texting. Learn to text. You’ll never have to say another word to anyone.

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2. If you still miss actual conversation, a very good starter is “Nice day today, isn’t it?” I know that sounds trite, but it’s not if you use it incongruously, such as when there is a blizzard outside, or it is pouring rain. Similarly, if it’s a beautiful, and seasonally appropriate, day — not when it’s 85 degrees in the northeast in December — and you say, “It’s a beautiful day,” that’s not a conversation-starter; it’s a conversation-ender. After the other person says, “Yes, it sure is,” then what?

On the other hand, if you say, “Nice day today” when it’s miserable out or “I hate this weather” when it’s perfect outside, then the other person will say, “What do you mean?” Now you’ve got a conversation going! (Unless, as may happen, your potential interlocutor decides that you are crazy and gets away from you as fast as they can.)

 

3. Then there is the all-purpose starter, “Excuse me, could I ask you something?” When the other person says, “Yes, go ahead,” you have two choices. You can pose an interesting question such as “How big do you think the universe is?” or “How often do you floss?” Or you can be a little more creative, and say, “I have no question for you, really. I just wanted to know if it was okay to ask one.” Chances are that either of these alternatives won’t lead to a long chat, but my feeling about anything you have trouble doing is to start slow. And besides, I’m talking about starting conversations, not keeping them going. Even an exchange of two sentences is a conversation.

 

4. At a party, which is the prototypical situation in which you may want to start a conversation, a good line is (referring to the party host) “So how do you know Frank?” But that’s really too easy, and could be embarrassing if, for example, the person to whom you are speaking is Frank’s parole officer or psychotherapist.

Better would be this: “So how you do you know Kathy?” when there is no one named Kathy at the party. When you ask this question, the other person will say, “Kathy who?” and you can follow with “Isn’t this Kathy’s party?” Now you’ll probably hear, “No, it’s not” to which you can reply, “Oh, I don’t care. I’m staying here anyway. This seems like much more fun than Kathy’s parties usually are — except maybe for that wild one she threw in 1998.”

See what’s happening here? Now you’ve got a very interested person.

Of course, there is no Kathy and there was no wild party in 1998, which leads to my fifth and final suggestion for conversation-starters or even continuers.

 

5. Make things up. Your life is boring. Come on, if you were having an interesting life, you wouldn’t even be reading this. People with really interesting lives aren’t reading, they’re living! And texting all the time, not to mention “tweeting.” So you have two choices: Live a more interesting life (which takes all kinds of time and effort) or do what lots of people do: Tell stories, under the guise of reality. Some people call this lying, but I prefer the more politically correct term, “reality enhancement.”

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