How To Start Conversations

Overall it's hard to give advice about making conversation that isn't too general. After all, there's an infinite number of ways a conversation can go, and you can't have pre-prepared plans and scripts for every situation. However, the exception is when it comes to ways to start or enter conversations. Here the scope of what you want to do is a lot smaller, there are only so many ways to go about it, and it's fairly simple to have some lines and strategies laid out ahead of time. Ending conversations is similar.

Once you've started talking to someone you could wing it from there, if you're feeling confident about your conversation skills, or you could use a general approach to give you some guidance.

Some general principles of starting conversations

Soon I'll get into more specific examples, but first a few more core ideas:

Your opening line isn't ultra-important, it's more about what you can do after that

It's relatively simple to just initiate a conversation with someone, and the exact phrase you use to do it usually doesn't matter too much. Yeah, some conversation starters are a bit better than others, but not to such a degree that you should devote a ton of mental energy to finding the perfect lines. If you deliver a basic line in a relatively friendly, self-assured way, they it work as well as anything else.

What will really determine how well the conversation goes happens after that first exchange. If you're decent at talking to people, and the other person is open to speaking to you, things should go okay. If your conversation skills could use some practice, or the other person doesn't have much in common with you, isn't up for talking, or isn't great at conversing themselves, then the interaction may peter out. If you find yourself trying to craft the best possible line, or are fretting that certain lines may not work, or that they'd be too intrusive or unoriginal, your real problem may be about your self-confidence and your nerves.

This all makes me laugh about this article itself, and how contradictory it is. I'm going to list a bunch of ways to start conversations, and it's not like I can just neglect to cover this information, but at the same time I'm beginning with, "It doesn't matter a lot what you say." I guess if anything the range of possibilities I lay out below should reinforce just how many viable routes there are to being able to talk to someone.

Your comfort levels play a big role

As I said, starting a conversation is a technically simple thing to do. Often what's holding people back is that they're uncomfortable about going through with it. They may feel shy and insecure and think they have nothing interesting to say or that they'll be bothering the other person. They may be anxious about talking to someone they don't know. They may be intimidated by certain types of people and hesitant to try to talk to them. If that's the case, it's important to work on increasing your comfort levels. Check out the section of the site devoted to that cluster of issues:

Articles On Shyness, Fears, Insecurities, and Negative Moods

Assume rapport / talk to people as if you already knew them

This is a well-known principle. When you start talking to someone, do it in more or less the same manner as if you were going up to someone you already know and are friendly with. Don't go too far and be inappropriately familiar with people, but at the same time, you don't need to be overly formal and courteous and restrained around acquaintances and strangers. When you follow this suggestion you'll naturally adopt a warmer, more confident attitude and put the other person at ease.

It also means it's often okay to skip any formal introductions or getting-to-know-you talk and jump right to a more interesting topic, especially in more casual settings. Like you could go up to a friend of a friend at a party and immediately start talking about a recent bit of news. Of course, if you want to go the route of introducing yourself first that has its advantages too. Just don't feel you have to always follow that template.

It's good to have a backup plan for if your opening line fizzles

Sometimes you'll say something to start a conversation and the other person replies, but doesn't give you much to work with. By far the most classic example is when you ask someone how they're doing and they say "fine" or "good". Or you may ask them about a movie they recently saw, and they'll say "It was okay." Or you'll make a statement and they'll go, "Yeah..." You never know when this will happen, so it's always good to be prepared to try again and say something else that may get the discussion rolling. You could ask a more specific follow-up question, ask about another topic, or make a new statement. In general, as you get better at thinking on your feet like this, it can free you up to ask whatever type of conversation starter you want. Even if the other person doesn't answer in an ideal way, you know you can follow up and recover the interaction.

General ways to start a conversation

Before I get into the various ways you can initiate a conversation, I'll refer you to my quick disclaimer about the use of examples. I've also kept the examples a bit generic. Talking like this is often fine, and you don't need to always come up with extremely colorful, creative opening lines.

These lines can be used on individuals or groups. I also wrote a short article that more specifically talks about joining group discussions. There's some definite overlap with this article, but it covers some additional ideas related to that topic.

Since I list lots of options, and no one can realistically be expected to remember them all, I'd recommend that when you're in a situation where you want to talk to someone that you just go with one of the first opening lines that pops into your head (since they're all equally good). Or if you want to prepare ahead of time, figure out a few conversation starters that you feel you'd be comfortable using.

For people you don't know you can introduce yourself

If you're meeting someone for the first time, you can always start the conversation by introducing yourself. This especially applies to more formal business situations:

That will break the ice, and they may start talking to you after that. If not, you just traded names, and you essentially have to use another conversation starter to get it going for real. With new people you don't always have to introduce yourself to start talking to them. You could start the conversation in another way, and after a while it will only feel natural to introduce yourselves to each other - "I'm Kara, by the way"

Ask the person how they ended up in the situation you're all in

This mainly applies to new people, but you could also use it to start a conversation with someone you've chatted to briefly a few times before, but you haven't asked this information of them yet. Examples:

Comment on the situation

Ask a question about the situation

Sometimes you'll actually have a question about the situation you're in, and it's only natural to use it to start talking to someone. Though I think of all the ways to start a conversation, this is the one where people will 'white lie' the most. They aren't really dying to know the answer to something and are just using the question as an excuse to talk.

Some people feel they have to use this type of conversation starter, because it seems more spontaneous and natural, or doesn't put them on the line for rejection as much because they have the face-saving explanation that they really were trying to find something out. In general though, when you're just chatting to people for friendly reasons, it's perfectly fine to start a conversation more directly.

Ask them a question about themselves

Depending on what you're questioning them about, this one can overlap a bit with asking people about the situation you're all in. Some of these may be a bit too jarring if you ask them right away to someone you just walked up to, but can seem totally fine if you've introduced yourself first. If you've talked to someone before, and are just starting a new conversation, you can generally dive in more. The question you ask may be a context-free 'getting to know you' one, or you may jump right into a more specific topic if you've gotten a sense it's something they'd be interested in talking about.

Make a statement about the other person

An observation about someone can get a conversation going. Compliments would also fall into this category.

Most of the time this approach works fine. The odd person will get a bit flustered and not know how to take it if you make an observation about them or give them a compliment. They may be a bit insecure, and think you might be criticizing them somehow. For example, if you comment that they seem artistic, their mind may jump to, "They're saying I come across as weird and flakey". If this happens just quickly assure them you meant nothing bad by it and then switch topics.

Ask a question or make a statement about an interesting outside topic

I put the question and statement parts together because the intent is basically the same, you're saying something that will hopefully get the other person talking. You could also do a bit of a combo, where you ask a closed-ended question. If they give a detailed answer anyway, then that's a bonus. But if they say something quick like "Yeah" or "It was okay", then you can have a statement ready to go, covering what your opinion is, and hopefully that will get them going.

Question examples:

Statement examples:

Make a statement about yourself

These tend to be a better fit for people you know already, but in some circumstances they'd also be an appropriate way to start talking to someone new. Again, depending on what you talk about, these could overlap with making a statement about an outside topic:

For someone you know, ask for an update about something they've been doing

Ask the other person to do something simple for you

This is more a way to quickly break the ice and allows you to follow up with something else if you want:

Ask them if they want to do an activity together

And then chat to them as you do it.

Saying "Hello" or "Hey" or "What's up?" or "How's it going?"

Even though this is a really common way to get a conversation rolling, and it often works just fine, I put it farther down the list because it has the most potential to cause the interaction to fizzle out. Saying, "What's up?" or "How's it going?" is notorious for often getting back a "Fine" or a "Good, you?" in response, and then an awkward silence settling in. I find using a "What's up?" type greeting works in the following circumstances:

Asking more creative hypothetical questions

These can be interesting, but their importance is a bit over-rated in my opinion. I've read advice on making conversation that says you should avoid any standard methods of initiating chit-chat, and only ask really unique, engaging questions. Like I said, sometimes that can work, but in our day-to-day lives when we're talking to friends, co-workers, classmates, or friendly strangers at a party, saying more typical stuff is usually fine. It would come off as a bit random and gimmicky if you were, say, constantly asking another staff member in a retail store things like, "Hey, If there were no laws in place for a day, what would you do?" And there are way more cases where it wouldn't be appropriate to start talking to a stranger by saying, "If you had to live the rest of your life as any animal, which one would you pick?" then when it would. Used every so often these types of questions can spice up an interaction, and possibly open up interesting areas of discussion, but you don't want to overdo it.

What next?

After you've started a conversation, the next few minutes are often predictable. Here's an article that goes into more detail:

Getting Past The First Few Minutes Of One-On-One Conversation