How to Start a Conversation
The complete guide on how to start talking to someone in everyday life, at work, in school, over text, or online.
A few years ago, I had no clue how to start a conversation with new people. I committed to reading books on how to make conversation, learning from socially savvy people, and spending thousands of hours socializing.
Today, I teach social skills for a living. Perhaps you’ve seen me in Business Insider and Lifehacker.
In this guide, I’ll share everything I know about talking to people. Here’s how to start a conversation:
Here are several examples of good conversation starters for different social settings:
- How do you know people here?
- What brought you here?
- Do you know [the name of the host]?
- Where are you from?
- I like your [part of their outfit], where did you get it?
- I believe we met before at [place where you met before]?
- Hello, my name is [name]. What’s your name?
- Have you tried the [dish]?
- What’s your favorite type of cuisine?
- If you opened a restaurant, what kind of place would it be?
- What’s the most exotic thing you’ve ever eaten?
- What’s your favorite comfort food?
- Are you a keen cook?
- What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?
- What department do you work in?
- What projects have you been working on recently?
- Where did you work before you started this job?
- What do you like most about working here?
- Did you have to relocate for this job?
- How do you handle stress when work gets busy?
- I think the company’s new policy on [whatever the policy is about] is [give your opinion]. What do you think?
When you join a group conversation, avoid rehearsed conversation starters. Instead, listen in on what people are already talking about and contribute to the ongoing conversation. With that said, there are times where a topic dies out. Here are some ideas for how to start a new interesting group conversation.
- Have you heard the news about [news story]?
- Have any of you seen [recent movie release]? What did you think of it?
- What does everyone think of [latest episode of popular TV show]?
- Has anyone heard the new album by [artist]?
- Have any of you met before?
- What’s everyone’s dream vacation?
- What’s your favorite thing to do when you have a day off work?
- What’s your family like?
- Do you have any cool hidden talents?
- When did you last go to the movies?
- Do you have a bucket list? What’s on it?
- When you and your best friend hang out, what do you like to do?
- When was the last time you felt really proud of yourself?
- How’s it going with [something you’ve talked about before]?
- What’s your favorite memory?
- Would you ever like to be famous? If so, what would you like to be famous for?
- Do you ever think about what you’ll do when you retire?
- Have you ever been so embarrassed that you wanted the ground to swallow you up?
- When do you think we’ll be able to take day trips into space?
- Have you ever wanted to keep a rare or exotic pet, like a tarantula?
For most situations, you’re better off starting a conversation based on the situation rather than using a memorized line. The remainder of this guide will cover how to do this.
The easiest way to come up with something to say is to draw inspiration from your surroundings
- At the lunch table with a random person from another job department or class.
- Standing with others in the hallway waiting for class to start.
- Sitting next to another traveler on a train or plane.
At social events, which we talk about here, the norm is that strangers present themselves to each other. In day-to-day life, on the other hand, you can’t be so direct.
To ease into a conversation, we can ask a question about the situation we’re in.
That gives us a reason to start talking, and it’s not too direct.
It helps to ask something that you already have on your mind. But if you don’t, you can use your surroundings or the situation for inspiration.
Last week I ended up next to someone on the train.
I’d been wondering if they served snacks on board. It was a natural conversation starter because it was already on my mind and related directly to my surroundings.
I asked her, “Excuse me, do you know if they serve snacks here?”
She responded with something like, “Hmm. Yeah, they should!”
It was natural for me to ask a follow-up question: “Good, I forgot breakfast today.” (Both of us smiled) Me: “Do you take this train often?”
Let’s go through some common worries about starting a conversation, and then I’ll talk more about follow-up questions.
You don’t need to ask a deep or meaningful question. What you actually ask isn’t important. You don’t have to try to come off as unique or smart in your first interaction. The best conversation starters are usually simple.
Asking a question is a way to signal that you’re friendly and open to social interaction.
In reality, small talk is often mundane, and people are OK with that. Small talk is just a warm-up for more interesting conversation.
When you know what to look for, you can tell from someone’s body language whether they want to talk to you. See this article for more tips: How to see if someone wants to talk to you.
It’s normal to just get a short “yes” or “no” answer to your first question. It doesn’t mean that people don’t want to talk to you, just that you have to give them a few seconds to switch over to “social mode.”
But if they only give short answers to your follow-up questions, it’s usually a good idea to say “Thanks” or “Nice chatting with you” and move on.
Look at the direction of their feet and the direction of their gaze. If they look away from you a lot or point their feet away from you, it’s often a good sign that they want to end the conversation. You might have lots of interesting things to talk about, but the other person might not be in the mood for social interaction. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong, so try not to take it personally.
Your body language needs to match your words; it should signal that you are relaxed, trustworthy, and happy to talk.
- Maintain good eye contact. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll come across as intimidating or creepy. This article will help you get the balance right.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Avoid rocking or swaying because these movements make you appear nervous.
- Stand or sit up straight, but do not stiffen your back. Push your chest out slightly and keep your head up. Good posture signals confidence.
- Use a genuine smile. When we smile naturally, our eyes crease slightly at the corners. You can practice this in a mirror so it comes easily to you during conversations.
For more advice on how to improve your body language, see this guide.
To signal that we’re interested in talking to someone, we can ask follow-up questions.
In the example with the train, I asked: “Do you take this train often?” That’s a simple follow-up to my question about whether there were snacks available on board.
Rather than asking a series of general questions like, “Where are you from?,” “How do you know people here?,” and “What do you do?,” you can use follow-up questions to dig deeper.
You could ask, “Where are you from?” followed by, “What was it like growing up there?” and then, “What do you miss the most about it?”
Digging into a subject like this rather than asking superficial questions tends to make the conversation more interesting.
How to keep a conversation you start interesting and balanced using the IFR method
We don’t want to ask too many questions in a row or talk too much about ourselves. So how do you find the balance? Use the IFR method.
Inquire: Ask a sincere question
Follow up: Ask a follow-up question
Relate: Share a little bit about yourself that relates to what they said
You can then start the loop again by asking a new sincere question (Inquire).
The other day I was talking to someone who turned out to be a filmmaker. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: What kind of documentaries do you do?
She: Right now, I’m doing a movie on bodegas in New York City.
Me: Oh, interesting. What’s your take away so far?
She: That almost all bodegas seem to have cats!
Me: Haha, I’ve noticed that. The one next to where I live has a cat who always sits on the counter.
And then I inquire (IFR repeat):
Me: Are you a cat person?
You want to make the conversation go back and forth. They talk a little bit about themselves, we talk about ourselves, then let them talk again, and so on.
An open-ended question is a question that requires more than a “Yes” or “No” in response. By using open-ended questions, people often feel inspired to give a longer answer.
Examples of closed-ended questions:
Did you like school?
What’s your job title?
Are you going to take a vacation this year?
Examples of open-ended questions:
What was school like for you?
What sort of things do you do at work?
What would your ideal vacation be like?
However, this doesn’t mean that all closed-ended questions are bad. For example, if you start a conversation in day-to-day life, an open-ended question can feel too abrupt, while a close-ended question is more natural:
For example, “Are you done reading that magazine?” is more natural than “What did you think of that magazine?”
Here’s a longer list of examples of closed and open-ended questions.
The impression you make on other people depends partly on what you say, but it mainly depends on how you say it.
Many people focus too much on what to say rather than their delivery.
You want to speak in a friendly and relaxed tone of voice. If you do, you don’t have to worry about the exact words you use.
You don’t need to BE confident to sound friendly and relaxed. I used to practice by talking to myself in the mirror, and recommend that you do the same.
Note that the examples in this guide aren’t “scripts” or “magic words.” Use language that feels natural to you.
Rather than fabricating questions, you can ask about things that are genuinely interesting or at least relevant to the situation (like I did on that train). Don’t worry about asking obvious questions. If you sound friendly and relaxed, the questions will sound natural.
When sitting next to someone on a train or plane:
You: “Do you know how to make the seats recline?” (Question about the situation)
They: “You have to press the button to the right.”
You: “Thanks! Are you also going to Denver?” (Closed follow up-question)
They: “Yes, I am! I’m going to visit my family.”
You: “Nice, me too. I haven’t been home in 6 months. Where do you live now?” (Sharing about yourself and asking an open follow-up question)
When having to socialize during lunchtime with someone from another department at work:
You: “What kind of fish is that?” (Question about the situation)
They: “I don’t know actually.”
You: “I’m no fish expert either, haha. But it looks good. What department do you work in?”
(They explain where they work)
You: “Okay, nice, I work at (explains). How do you like it over there?” (Sharing something about yourself and asking an open follow-up question)
Waiting with someone else in the corridor for class to start:
You: “Is this the physics lecture hall?” (Question about the situation)
You: “Great. How do you feel about the test?” (Open follow-up question)
They: “I hope it’ll go well. I felt like I grasped the material better yesterday when I went through it again.”
You: “Yeah, same here, even though I didn’t have time to check out the last chapter. How come you chose this course?” (Sharing something about yourself and asking an open follow-up question)
Use the Positive Remarks method to effortlessly start a conversation with someone you’ve said Hi to before.
This is my go-to method with people I’ve only had short interactions with before, like a “Hi” or a “How are you?”
Because you know each other a little bit, you can be a little bit more direct than you can be with complete strangers.
- When sitting next to someone you barely know at a friend’s dinner.
- When you want to speak to someone from another class who you’ve previously exchanged nods with in the corridor.
- When you want to talk with the barista at the cafe where you get your morning coffee every morning.
In these situations, I make a positive remark about something in the environment.
“The salmon looks delicious!”
“This place looks great since they renovated it!”
“It smells wonderful in here! I love the smell of freshly roasted coffee.”
(I don’t make positive remarks about them, e.g., “I like your dress,” because this type of remark can feel too personal if you are only acquaintances.)
When you say something positive, you’ll come off as more friendly. After all, they don’t know you yet, so their first impression of you will be based on the first few words they hear.
You can now continue the conversation, as I showed in these examples.
It tends to be harder than usual to think in social situations, and sometimes it’s difficult to come up with anything to say about our surroundings.
The five senses exercise can help. By tuning into your senses and noticing what is going on around you, you can get the inspiration you need to begin a conversation with anyone.
It also acts as a grounding exercise that helps reduce your anxiety. Instead of focusing on your anxious thoughts, you’re fully present and living in the moment.
Dan Wendler, Psy.D., explains the exercise:
Use each of your five senses to notice things in your environment.
See if there are things in your room that you can:
Have you found five things? Great!
Can you choose one or two things and say something positive about them? Or, if you want a real challenge, can you find something positive to say about all five?
You can use this method whenever you want to start a conversation.
Here’s what I came up with when I did this exercise. They are all good examples of good questions to start a conversation:
“I like indoor plants. It makes the room much nicer.”
“That’s a great design for a kitchen.”
“You can see really far from here.”
“I love the coffee smell.”
“I wonder if coffee tastes good just because it makes me feel good, or if I actually like the taste of the coffee itself?”
“I like it when the evenings get a bit chillier.”
But David, you might be thinking, these are just meaningless statements!
What we’re doing here is signaling to people, “I’m not a threat, and I’m open to making conversation if you are.”
It’s not about what you say – it’s about what you convey.
Use the Getting to Know You method if you’re in a situation where you’re expected to engage with new people and learn more about them. This includes dinners, parties, mingles, whenever you have to meet people as a new employee or student, or when welcoming someone who is joining your school or place of work.
In day-to-day life, we need to break the ice before we can start interacting with someone.
But sometimes, we’re expected to talk to people. In these situations, you can start the conversation by asking a question about them. I call this the Getting To Know You method.
These questions can be used to get to know someone new at work, in school, at a party, mingle, or dinner.
“Hi, Nice to meet you! I’m David…”
“… How do you know people here?”
“… Where are you from?”
“… What do you do?”
Pro tip: I’ve memorized these questions, so I can fire one off if I run out of other things to say to start a conversation.
Here are some examples that also illustrate how you can use follow-up questions to keep the conversation going:
You, at a writing workshop: “How do you know people here?”
They: “I know Becka over there.”
You: “Nice, how do you know each other?”
You: “OK, I see. I know Jessica. She and I are friends from college. She loves writing, so she asked me to come, and now I’m very happy I did. How did you and Becka get into writing?”
You, at a friend’s party: “Where are you from?”
They: “I’m from upstate New York.”
You: “Cool, do you live in NYC now, or do you commute?”
You: “I’m from Sweden originally but moved here a few years ago. How do you like it here?”
You: “Hi, I’m David. Nice to meet you. What brings you here?”
They: “I’m here because I always wanted to learn more about photography.”
You: “Me too! What do you like most about photography?”
You can then tell them what you like most about photography, and then you can ask a follow-up question: “What’s it like shooting analog compared to digital?”
As you can see in these examples, you want to share a little bit about yourself in between asking questions. I talk more about this here.
- You can memorize the “Getting To Know You” questions above, so you can always fire them off when you’re expected to socialize.
- Then, ask a follow-up question based on what they said to get the conversation going.
- In between asking questions, share a little bit about yourself.
In this step, I show you how to start a conversation with someone you talked to before by referencing a previous conversation.
Let’s say that it’s a new day at work or at school. You’ve met your classmates or colleagues the day before, but you still feel awkward about talking to them again. What should you say?
In these situations, you can pick up where you left off by mentioning something you talked about last time.
I think back to what we were last talking about and then ask a relevant question.
- If a friend mentioned that she had a sore throat, I’d ask the next day when we meet, “How’s your throat today?”
- If someone talks about the new bike he bought, I’d ask, “Has the new bike arrived?”
- If someone mentions that they’ll be traveling somewhere, I ask, “How was the trip?”
Only ask about something if it’s likely you both remember talking about it.
From there, we can talk about their cold or their trip or their bike, or completely change the subject.
- Think back to the last conversation you had with a friend.
- Try to remember something they told you.
- Come up with a question you can ask about that thing the next time you meet.
Use these conversation topics when you can’t think of anything to say
These are my 3 favorite starter topics to use when a conversation starts to dry up:
- Newsworthy events (e.g., “Did you hear about..?”)
- The weather (If you’re in an area where the weather changes)
- TV shows and popular culture
Friend: “So yeah, that’s why I avoid gluten.”
You: “Oh, makes sense…”
You: “By the way, have you heard the latest update on that big hurricane?”
(Conversation can continue)
Topics to avoid
When you’re learning how to make conversation with people, one of your first questions will be, “What are good topics to talk about?” However, it’s also important that you know what subjects are best avoided when you’re talking with a stranger.
As a general rule, do not:
- Start a discussion about politics
- Bring up religion
- Talk about sexual matters or intimate relationships
- Share too many details about an illness or injury
- Talk about personal finances or money
- Make generalizations about groups of people, such as a particular gender or nationality
You can talk about these subjects when you have built a relationship with the other person, but it’s safer to avoid them when you are just getting acquainted.
Keep up to date with a few popular topics and draw on them when the conversation runs dry.
Here’s what my conversation looks like when I want to get to know someone.
- Make a positive comment or ask a question about the situation you’re in.
- Ask basic “getting to know you” questions about them and share a bit about yourself.
- Ask what they do or what they are interested in so you can discover mutual interests.
- If you find a mutual interest, talk about that!
- Avoid sensitive or controversial topics until you get to know the person better.
The end goal of small talk is to find a mutual interest. This is something that BOTH of you love to talk about. When you find a mutual interest, the conversation stops being boring!
If you want more specific small talk questions, go here.
14. Starting a conversation with someone online, over text/DMs, or on Instagram/Twitter/ Facebook/Snapchat, etc.
To start talking to someone online, follow these three steps.
In Step 1, I’ll cover how to contact someone out of the blue. In Steps 2 and 3, I’ll talk about how to keep in touch with someone you’ve talked to before.
When you text someone new or someone you barely know, you need a clear REASON why you are contacting them. (Even if you just want to form a connection.)
Examples of online messages with a clear reason:
“I saw your dog on Instagram and would love to know what breed it is?”
“Amanda in our office told me that you’re also into edible plants. Which ones are your favorites?”
“I saw that you also have an electric motorcycle, so I thought I’d reach out to you. Are you happy with yours?”
If you’ve already talked in real life:
“Sorry to bother you, but what pages do we need to study for Monday?”
“Is this your blue beanie? Someone left it the hallway.”
“Do you know what time we start tomorrow?”
Even if you only get a short response, you have now established contact. This is important because it feels natural for you to stay in touch from now on!
Here are a few examples of the type of message you should not use to start a conversation online or over text:
“Hi. How was your day?”
“Good morning 🙂 I’m so bored at work right now. Just wasting time on Facebook.”
“I saw your status on Twitter. It was funny.”
These messages are not specific enough, and they might leave the other person wondering what kind of response you want, especially if you don’t include a question.
Make a comment or ask a question that relates to something you’ve already talked about. Pick a topic that you think will interest them.
“Hi, I saw this article about Russian authors, and it made me think of you!”
“You were saying how much you like electric cars the other day. Have you seen this new model?”
“I know that you like nineties country, have you heard this song?”
Here’s how I make sure that I’m not bothering people: If the person doesn’t come back to me, I try sending something else a week later. If they still don’t reply, I don’t write to them again.
This doesn’t apply to everyone, but MOST people don’t like to make neverending small talk over text or chat.
Rather than trying to keep a long conversation going online, message people as a way to keep the connection going until you can meet up.
You can do that by sending memes, interesting links, or songs you know someone might like. If you’re talking on WhatsApp, you can send them audio messages to mix things up, but keep them short.
Here’s my text conversation with a friend. As you can see, it contains almost no small talk, only easy-to-digest fun links.
When I meet up with someone in real life, I often invite them to join a group activity. It could be:
- Meeting up with friends to talk about a mutual interest or play a game we’re all into
- Going to an event related to our mutual interest (seminars, groups, workshops, or classes)
- Simply inviting them along when I meet up with friends if I think we might all have something in common
Group activities or events are good because you don’t need to talk all the time, and it feels safer for both of you if there are other people around.
I asked several of my closest female friends how much they talk to their friends online.
In general, it seems that girls make a bit more small talk online, and guys are more to the point — less communication overall, and more interesting or funny links.
- Avoid things that take a lot of energy to read or reply to, like long articles or videos.
- Send things related to what you know that THEY like.
- Send things that are fun and interesting rather than negative or sad.
Read more here: The complete guide to making friends online.
Treat everyone on these sites as though they were any other stranger. If you won’t say something to them in person, do not say it online. Keep your messages respectful.
When writing a first message, ask a question that shows you have paid attention to their profile. This will set you apart from most other people on dating sites. Be brief.
Here are a couple of examples:
- “Hi! I saw on your profile that you’re in art school. That’s cool! I draw sometimes. What are you working on right now?”
- “Hey 🙂 Your profile says that you love outdoor sports. Me too, especially skiing. What’s your favorite?”
If the conversation goes well, ask to meet up in person sooner rather than later. Suggest a low-key meetup, like getting a coffee and browsing an interesting local market or strolling around an art gallery. For safety, always meet in a public place.
Ghosting is common in the world of online dating. Don’t take it personally if someone stops replying to your messages after a good conversation or even a couple of dates. Try to see every conversation you have on a dating site as a practice round.
Talking to someone you like isn’t about finding the “magic words” to say!
Rather, it’s about daring to talk to your crush in the first place.
One time, a friend and I were out walking. Two girls stopped us and asked us if we had a pen. We started talking and ended up hanging out.
Later, they revealed that they had just asked about a pen because they wanted to flirt with guys.
We had no clue!
Do you see how they used the method of asking a sincere question I explained in Step 1? This stuff works!
Also, notice how simple it is to start a conversation with someone by asking a basic question.
When you’ve asked your question, you can follow up with another question, as I explained in Step 1.
Here’s a common mistake to avoid when talking to a guy or girl you find attractive: Raising the stakes and thinking that you need to say the “right thing.” Thinking like this will make you nervous and stiff, and you might end up saying nothing at all.
Don’t treat someone you have a crush on any differently to your other acquaintances and friends. Just practice making normal conversation when you talk to them. That will take you far.
- Ask a simple question to start talking to the person you like.
- Continue the conversation by asking a follow-up question or sharing something about yourself.
Go to Step 1 of this guide to learn more.
Related guides you might be interested in:
Here’s another secret to remember when talking to someone you like:
It’s not about what you say, but how you say it. You want to be able to have a relaxed and easygoing conversation. That leads us to…
Here’s how to stop being nervous when you talk to someone: Focus on THEM and THE CONVERSATION. In this step, I’ll show you how to do that.
Whenever I had to go up and talk to someone, it was like every cell in my body screamed, “NOOO!”
I became self-conscious. I started worrying about what others might think of me.
I would start having thoughts like:
– “What should I say?”
– “Do I look weird?”
– “What if they don’t like me?!”
Suddenly, I would feel nervous and miserable.
Here are my tricks for getting out of this rut:
I focus my full attention on the person I’m about to talk to and ask myself questions about them.
In one study, half of the participants were asked to focus on the conversation when talking to someone else. The other half were asked to focus on themselves.
Those who focused on the conversation reported they were half as nervous as those who focused on themselves.
“But David! If I focus on the conversation, how will I then be able to come up with stuff to say? I need to be in my own head so I can come up with questions!”
Here’s the thing: When we focus on someone or something other than ourselves, that’s when questions pop up in our heads!
We become less self-conscious, and it’s easier to come up with what to say.
Let’s imagine that you want to talk to a new colleague at work.
We’ll call her Lisa. Here she is:
The first step is to walk up to her and say, “Hi.”
After you’ve exchanged greetings, what would you ask her?
If I focus on that photo of Lisa, I can come up with the following questions:
- “How do you like it here so far?”
- “What are you working on?”
- “Is that your cactus? Are you a plant person?”
- “What did you do before you started working here?”
I’m sure you can come up with more questions. You wouldn’t have to ask all these questions out loud. You can keep them in the back of your head and fire them off to keep the conversation going and avoid awkwardness.
When you focus on someone else or something else than yourself, that makes you less self-conscious and more confident.
If you overthink a lot, it could be that you worry too much about making social mistakes or being judged.
Here it can help to think, “What would a truly self-confident person do?”
Often, when we ask ourselves this question, it can help us figure out if it’s fine to say something or not. If a confident person can say it, so can we.
You can even have a specific person in mind. Ask yourself, “What would Michelle Obama do?” or “What would the Rock do?” (Or think of any other confident person you know.)
I’ve written more about this in my guide on how to not be nervous when talking.
As soon as we want to talk to someone who’s attractive or someone we have a crush on, we tend to get more nervous than ever.
Here’s where I use the “Mission Trick:”
Have a clear mission of what you want to talk about. In Step 8, I told you how two girls started talking to me and my friend by asking us for a pen. Their mission? Find a pen.
Here are some other missions:
- Find out what time it is (Because you don’t have your phone on you)
- Get directions to a new place
- Borrow something
- Ask for a piece of information, such as when a store opens
When you ask your question, keep a couple of backups ready to go.
For example, in the hallway before the physics lecture:
You: “Sorry, but do you know what time it is?”
They: “It’s 12:30.”
You: “Great, thank you. Do you study physics too?”
Them: “Yeah, I do.”
You: “Nice! It’s fun, but I found this class to be really hard. How do you like it?”
(In this kind of situation, I can keep the conversation balanced using the IFR-method I explained here.)
- Focus on the other person. That makes you less self-conscious, and it’s easier to come up with questions.
- Have a mission. When your mission is complete, ask a follow-up question and share something about yourself, like in the example above.