Chat Tricks

8 Ice Breakers To Help Make Small Talk Less Awkward

Initiating a chat with neighbors, other parents, or anyone, really, can be tough. These conversation starters can help make it less so.

Smiling man having a conversation with a friend

Okay, so you’re not the best at small talk. We’ve all become a bit All you’re looking to have is a decent conversation. It could be with the guy on the sidelines, at the gym, or anyone else you keep running into. But someone’s gotta break the ice. You don’t mind doing it. You just don’t want things to be … ah … um … eeh … awkward.

If only there was a can’t-miss opening line. There isn’t. That’s the bad news, but also the good. The words you say are secondary to just being willing to take the chance. But still, you worry that whatever comes out won’t work. There will be silence, stares, and walking away questioning what you just did.

You know what you say to that?

“So what?,” says Bethany Teachman, professor of psychology and director of clinical training at University of Virginia. The exchange might be awkward, but will it be excruciating? Impossible to recover from? Will it ruin you? Nah. This isn’t the most important person to you, which means it’s not the most important conversation you’ll ever have.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” she says. “Not much will change in your life.”

It’s good to remember one other thing: Conversations take two people to make it work, and the other person may not be engaged because they’re stressed, preoccupied, exhausted, overly shy, or any other reason that has nothing to do with you.

That can reduce the initial stress, but you still need to say something that has a chance of succeeding. The question is, “What?”

1. “Is that a good back exercise?”

Or you ask about the orange car that zipped by or the goofy looking dog. It’s whatever is around you that’s clear and needs no guesswork, says Art Markman, vice provost and professor of psychology at University of Texas and author of Bring Your Brain to Work. A seemingly innocuous – and boring – question like, “How’s work?,” might reveal a recent layoff and the conversation takes a downturn.

But the thing that you’re both sharing is a natural starting point. Hey, we’re both in the gym. Talking about weights wouldn’t seem strange. But it’s also something neutral. Conversations, especially between strangers, are a serve-and-volley. You say something. The other person says something and you both assess as you go. Since there’s already enough to think about, the topic needs to be light.

“It’s harder when something is emotionally charged,” says Daniel Singley, a San Diego psychologist.

2. “I saw you skateboarding. How fun is that?”

You’re noticing something and people like to be noticed, but you’re also wanting to know more about their interest. Often, conversations turn into competitions, where you’re trying to claim territory or let them know how much you know, i.e., more than them. That can shut down a person fast. Your question has no judgment and your curiosity keeps things open while you see if you connect. “You want to make it okay for the other person to be who they are,” Singley says. “You want to show some grace.”

3. “There’s gotta be a story with that hat.”

It could the color, the logo, or because it’s for an out-of-state team. Whatever, it makes a statement and they’re tempting people to ask about it. So ask. “They’re wearing it for a reason,” Markman says. “They’re calling attention to themselves.”

4. “You look bummed out. What’s up?”

You’re not starting a conversation about what you need to talk about. You’re noticing something about them and trying to understand their phenomenology, a fancy word for their experience. It’s empathy, a skill that’s not taught, but that can be done by taking a beat and keying in, and one that will resonate.

“Most people don’t find it interesting because it’s not about them,” says Douglas Mennin, professor of psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University and director of the Regulation of Emotion in Anxiety and Depression Lab.

5. “How do you like those sneakers?”

You ask this out loud. It’s another observable detail, which is safe and lets the other person offer their expertise. And, as has been the pattern, it’s a question. When it doubt, ask one. “A lot of anxiety is about making it work,” Singley says. With questions, you don’t have stress about what to say next because the answer will guide you as long as you’re paying attention. “Talking becomes much easier when you’ve listened first,” Teachman says.

6. “What got your kid to play this sport?”

You could also ask, “How’s your kid liking it so far?” People worry about being judged, but no one is going to judge someone else’s child. It makes it an easy lob into their court, allowing feelings about the game, coaches, sports in general, to tumble out.

“People reveal a lot about themselves when they talk about their kids,” Markman says.

Overall, it’s about getting the conversation going, however you do it. If people want to talk, they will, but even reticent people will answer the initial question and then probably keep going because there’s an ingrained need to form relationships and belong.

“That’s how we roll as creatures,” Markman says. “It’s harder to stop a conversation than to keep it going.”

7. Just ask three questions.

You say this one to yourself. One reason for feeling awkward is you’re looking to have an epic conversation or make a new best friend. You don’t have a say in the outcome. You just control what you can, such as talking to two new people at the baseball game or learning one new thing about the guy you already met. “Set reasonable goals and it’s easier to meet them,” Teachman says.

8. I’m looking to talk to someone.

This is another one to say to yourself. It’s not a pep talk but a reminder of what you’re setting out to do. You can just as well say that you’re going to avoid people. Either way, you’re prepared and more regulated, and because of that you’re not reacting, being caught off guard, and saying awkward stuff. “You can decide how you want to be,” Mennin says. “We make choices all the time.”