A Trick for Avoiding Small Talk

Imagine this: You’re in the elevator with your upstairs neighbor, and you have ten slow floors to climb until you can get out. What do you talk about? The weather? It can be mind-numbing. If you’d like, here’s a trick for avoiding small talk…

Joy of Three Chairs had this tip:

What you do is: ask for advice. It can be something small like, “What should I get my brother-in-law for his birthday?” or something bigger (“Should I take this job in Oregon?”). The point isn’t so much to get sage advice (although that can, unexpectedly, happen), but to jolt some mindfulness into the conversation. Wait until there’s a tiny gap of silence, and then perk up and just go for it. You end up learning something about each other, and the conversation almost always takes a really great turn.

Clever, right?

When the conversational well is running dry, I’ve found these two conversation starters to be really helpful:

“Are you planning any fun trips?” (Even if they’re not, they’ll end up talking about past trips, dream vacations, where they grew up, etc.)

“Have you seen any good movies lately?”

I’ve used them a million times at parties, on road trips, at dinner with my in-laws, after running into a neighbor. And I’ve even asked them on first dates. They work every time.

According to Google search results, people are more worried about small talk than ebola.

Also frightening: Surveys say we spend 10 months of our lives talking about the weather. (!!)

What are your foolproof conversation starters? Please share below! The world needs to know!

P.S. How to make dinner conversation, and conversations with a four-year-old.

  1. Justine A Clark says...

    Where you are right now: at work, rather reluctantly
    A book, TV show, movie or podcast that you like: Book “The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F***”
    Something delicious you’ve eaten (or made) lately: Chocolate covered almonds
    What you’re excited about these days: Possibilities!
    What’s worrying you: Not taking advantage of possibilities
    Your current celebrity crush: Idris Alba

  2. Over the past while, my partner and I (inspired by a Native People’s saying) have taken to asking: “Is your sky open?” before launching into our ‘own thing’ with one another (whether personal, business/creative-related, or anything else).

    I LOVE this practice.

    Though I haven’t researched it properly, as best I understand, it goes this way: In the community where it is practiced, there is no assumption that a person is open and available for small talk – or any talk.

    You see and witness one another – AND you respect where they are, in their heart-mind-body and process. Before anything else, you ALWAYS ask: “Is your sky open?” (rather than assuming you can jump into their thoughts, mind and conversation and have full attention).

    • I love this.

  3. Amber Fawson says...

    wonderful. A little friend at my daughter’s school asks everyone he sees, point blank every day, “what did you eat for breakfast?” I am not sure I could pull this one off as an adult, but I love being nearby and hearing the responses.

    • Stefanie says...

      I’m just stumbling onto this feed and I adore this little kid!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that is so, so cute.

  4. Sharon Sorour-Morris says...

    To extend the conversation :) a bit on your post, my trickiest times at the moment are trying to engage teenagers in conversation. Phew. Forget about the weather. Movies? Yes. But the anwers are monosyllabic and if you try to drag things out a bit you get The Look. Or Silence. Or The Big Ignore. Ahem, that’s when you take out your mobile and text someone (because that’s what they’re doing).

  5. Love this post! I assumed I was the only one who had trouble with this. Seriously, when I’m out I feel like everyone around me is just talking, talking, talking while I’m PRing in awkward silences.

    Agree that reading a book in public can lead to some great convos…though a word of advice, don’t read a book with a title like “Virgin Land” on a NYC subway. It does not spark the right kind of conversations.

  6. Love this! Especially the one about movies because as a business owner and a mother of almost 2, I genuinely never have ANY idea what the big movies are, and which ones are worth watching.

    Julia Kristina

  7. In LA we don’t use much of the weather small talk, but talking about traffic or routes to and from different places is generally the hot small talk topic. haha, I love the ideas you gave!

  8. I love the trips question. I have made some amazing friends based on a mutual love of travel that we have discovered. Plus who doesn’t like talking about vacation?!?!

  9. I always ask about Jim Carrey movies! People either love him or hate him, but not enough to feel heated over the topic. It’s always fun and somehow leads to a fun satellite conversation.

  10. I’d like to echo what some others have said – I enjoy talking about the weather! Even though I live in California where the weather is mild, it still affects our daily lives.

    I have always dreaded small talk, but have found that since the birth of my daughter, I have grown a lot in my comfort with it! Everyone wants to talk to her and I’m trying to teach her to be gracious and kind, even if getting into convos with strangers isn’t always my first choice.

    I’ve also learned that people love to talk about their families. (I mainly have other people with children approaching me.) Where before I always felt I would come across as nosy or that I would somehow offend, I’ve tried to ask more personal questions to give people an opportunity to share.

    • Messa says...

      Move to Northern California where is snows, then you can enjoy conversations about the weather.

  11. I got “How to avoid…
    Big Ships

    Very weird! Great post Joanna. Could you do a post on how to interact at a big social event when you don’t know many people, and are shy about joining into ready made groups of people who are already chatting? I always find these situations uncomfortable and would love some advice. Thanks!

  12. how to avoid ebola
    how to avoid diabetes
    how to avoid a hangover

    what does this say about me.. yikes.

  13. My google search made me laugh out loud:

    how to avoid…
    death by powerpoint
    huge ships
    the friend zone.

    What the…? Ha!

  14. “did you see the game?”
    ive made TONS of pals that way, regardless of their sport/team :D

  15. I love asking people what they did that day (or yesterday, or last weekend). It tells you so much about them – how they spend a normal day!

  16. Great article – and tons of good comments!
    I read once (in O mag?) that it’s good to have a joke ready. In an elevator ask, “What did one elevator say to the other? I think I’m coming down with something.” I’ve used this successfully joke several times and even got a hug from someone who was overwhelmed with gratitude for a corny laugh.

  17. I enjoy being the hostess, so I can politely excuse myself to greet other guests, refill glasses, etc.

    What I really need is a code word my husband will remember so that he’ll wrap up a conversation at a party. ;)

  18. To avoid small talk, I don’t talk. If someone talks to me, I just say “yeah”, “no”, “hmm”.
    I don’t like talking in general, let alone with strangers.

  19. Ebola, getting Ebola, kidney stones, a hangover.
    Um, how about pregnancy? That’s what I’m more worried about. (Though I kinda know the answer to that.)

  20. In Texas, there is no “Small talk.” Yesterday I found out where my cashier buys underwear. Seriously.

  21. If it turns to the weather, ask a more interesting question like “Oh, where did you grow up? Did you have hot summers there, too?” Or, “what’s the best kind of ice cream to eat in this weather, do you think?”

  22. Even though I am very shy and introvert, I HATE blanks in a conversation. Silence makes me so uncomfortable I have to talk. Not during a short elevator ride but during dinner or if I’m stuck in the same room with a work colleague. For some reason, I associate silence between two people with hostility.

  23. I like to ask “Have you been to any good restaurants lately?”

    As for spouse conversations, my husband and I have started to ask “how does that make you feel?” or “tell me more about that” during dinner conversations in order to dig into each other’s daily lives a little more. We’ve had some really amazing conversations that way!

  24. Hah! I got ebola, miscarriage, gestational diabetes, diabetes, and plagiarism. I can tell you I’m not really worried about any of those, but I guess Google disagrees :)

    Just in case though, I’m glad my husband works for a diabetes medical device manufacturer haha!

  25. FYI those are YOUR google results. Since everyone’s are different, I typed How to avoid and got: Ebola, Plagiarism, Miscarriage, and Gestational Diabetes as my top hits. Could be a fun survey….

  26. Ha, good one! Small talk is definitely awkward. However, I find awkward moments pretty amusing :)

    Circus & Bloom

  27. This is an awesome post and such great ideas! I am going to try them out immediately. Only problem, my building is only 6 stories high.

    How to avoid plagiarism
    How to avoid mosquito bites
    How to avoid kidney stones

  28. I would add “avoiding small talk” to my list of reasons I’m chronically late (from your recent blog post). I hate getting to meetings early and having to chit chat until we can get down to business. Also, because I hate small talk, I assume others do, too, and I feel bad forcing it just so that we’re not sitting at the conference table in awkward silence. OTOH, I think it’s rude to just stare at your phone in those cases. I like your suggestions.

  29. In college, I always used to ask people “What’s the best thing that happened to you today/this week?” – got some very funny and interesting responses. I haven’t asked people that in YEARS, should try it out again! :)

  30. Living in England, we always chit chat about the weather. Weather is like a single entity in these parts, and it’s a definite ice breaker.


  31. I thought you were going to say, “Just take out your phone!” :/

  32. In my marriage, I was the chatterbox and my husband was the strong silent type.
    So I can think of something to say to anyone anywhere .. but .. I hate it when strangers talk to me on the elevator. Because we are sort of trapped in that small space with strangers and I don’t really like to share thoughts or info with them. Living in NY must have affected me :)

  33. Fav conversation starter with new & old friends: If you could give a Ted Talk, what would it be on and why? Some of the best conversations of my life!

  34. Hm, interesting. My preference is to just remain quiet, haha. #introvert

  35. One of my favorite shows and I don’t get tired of watching the reruns.

    Have a great day!
    Instagram: @stylishlyinlove
    Twitter: @stylishlyinlove

  36. If you come to Miami, most conversations with strangers include bitching about the traffic. Start a conversation with, ‘Did you SEE that pile up on the Palmetto?’ or ‘When the hell are they going to be done with adding extra lanes on the Dolphin?’ You’ll fit right in! :)

  37. Like a previous commenter, I adopted the approach of asking people what they like doing with their time rather than the standard “what do you do?” – I find it leads to more interesting converstaions.

    how to avoid ebola
    how to avoid wrinkles
    how to avoid dry socket

  38. I know how to end conversations. I tell them I’m a Technical Writer and no one knows what to say after that!

  39. Silence is fine too

  40. I’m laughing because I thought this was about how to avoid small talk so that you wouldn’t have to converse period! In that case, just stare at your phone right?!

  41. Hahaha, my solution for avoiding small talk has always been to say nothing. Somehow it never occurred to me to simply change the conversation!! Honestly, though, I’m both shy and an introvert. My favorite place I’ve ever lived was southern Germany, where even smiling at a stranger makes you look crazy. No pressure to make small talk, and none of the awkwardness that ensues from being so terrible at it :)

  42. One tip I learned was to ask about a person’s siblings. People love to talk about their siblings or wax poetic about their life as an only child, etc. This has gotten me out of some precarious small talk situations!

    Andrea |

  43. I’ve been dreading an upcoming cocktail party, and this post helped me realize that most of the other guests probably are too!

  44. Let’s all play the google game. I got ebola and huge ships! Maybe that’s how to start a conversation….
    Seriously, though, being able to socialize (make small talk/conversation) is a valuable skill. I try to observe the folks who excel at it when I’m out in the world. It puts others at ease. If I’m on line at the grocery, I ask what someone is making with that thing in their cart. I’ve had some interesting conversations there.

  45. I was a reporter for many years, so I actually have never found it difficult to get a conversation going, but I can share some wisdom: people LOVE when you say anything that acknowledges life is tough sometimes. If they seem overwhelmed, say, “That must be so overwhelming…I can imagine that’s tough” and you’ll be amazed how that one little bit of empathy opens the floodgates. Asking for advice or recommendations is always great, too! Say, “I have family coming in from out of town and I’m stuck on where to take them.” Boom! Off to the races.

  46. Thank you for these tips.
    I was at a party the other day and a friend asked me “what have you been passionate about lately?” It was surprising and led to a great conversation. Another variation is: “what’s been inspiring/interesting you lately?”
    I also heard that instead of asking someone “what do you do?” you could ask “what kind of person do you want to be”.
    I have a personal rule of never asking someone what they do if I’ve just met them. I always prefer to ask ‘what do you like to do with your time?’ or something like that.

  47. My Google search supplied Ebola, plagiarism, kidney stones! Not sure what that is all about :)
    Thanks for these tips, I am also an introvert like previous commenter and find it boring to have to make small talk. I am comfortable with silence and a smile.

  48. I always end up blurting out some random piece of info about what I’m about to do or just did (and I try to make it funny) as opposed to asking the other person a question. It works, mainly because I know I’m up for putting myself on the spot, even if they may shy about making “first moves”.


  49. Haha I was expecting something like “run away!” I’m not the greatest at talk, big or small, so I don’t really have any advice, but yours and everyone-in-the-comments’ is greatly appreciated! -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

  50. My go-to quesiton these days is “what’s the best thing you’ve got going right now?”

  51. Only ask about dogs and kids if you really want to hear. I’ve asked about dogs before and then wondered what I was thinking.

  52. I totally thought the answer was going to be an ironic one – ‘just don’t say anything!’ Small talk is a cultural thing in america and sometimes it beats me why we have to talk everywhere we go here. Maybe the trick is to just keep to yourself when you don’t feel like talking.

  53. I always ask people “What famous person do people tell you that you look like, because you look so familiar” when I want to make small talk. I did it to the guy at the sandwich shop today on my lunch. He looked exactly like Jack Black. (I try to only ask if it’s a compliment, though. You don’t want to tell a lady she looks like the old lady on the Golden Girls or something.)

  54. Funny. the google search must be tailored to the person! Mine came up as how to avoid “gestational diabetes”. it must know that i was recently pregnant.

  55. As an introvert, I find this such an amazing tip! I like talking to people but despise small talk. Thanks for sharing!

    XX, Kalli

  56. B. says...

    I am always reading a book on the train when I commute into NYC (a real book, not a kindle). They have sparked so many amazing conversations.
    I am amazed at how many people are surprised by a young(ish) girl reading on the train. A plus is also that the people who start the conversation are usually intelligent and have similar interests to me, so it is usually a pleasure to keep up the conversation!

  57. This is funny to me, because I don’t really mind small talk (most of the time). My husband thinks I’m the queen of small talk! I think what I like about it is that it makes me feel instantly connected to someone, even if we are just all talking about the weather before our barre class starts…it makes me feel like we’re just humans, getting through the day (and the weather) together!

  58. I love asking for advice in these situations. I have a baby, so my go-to these days is “any parenting advice?” People LOVE giving their two-cents on parenting and I’ve received some surprisingly lovely thoughts from strangers in line at Starbucks.

  59. Staring at my phone or the old, run to the next aisle always works for me. There is a small part of me that wants to say I just busted out of prison and I need some quick cash. Then ask them for some suggestions.
    Texas Jak

  60. Such a good idea! I use the vacation one all the time and just realized it.

  61. Haha, @happilyoz mine was too! “Ebola” then “diabetes” and then “getting ebola!”

    I always ask people about their favorite restaurants or places to visit in the city.

  62. In Canada, talking about the weather is pretty much a national sport. I actually don’t mind it — there’s ALWAYS something to say!

    I also find that my go-to for making small talk with women is to compliment their clothing! Creates an instant bond. :)

  63. I seriously love your blog! You have such great and interesting posts. I feel like I send a link to one of your posts to my husband or friends at least twice a week. Thanks for such awesome content!

  64. I have always heard you should ask about their dog! Even if they don’t have one, there’s usually a good conversation that ensues..:)

  65. Any tips on how to avoid small talk with a spouse or partner? I’ve been with my bf for 5 years now and we know everything about each other so it can be tough to think of something interesting to talk about over dinner other than ‘how was work today?’

    Would love to hear, thanks!

  66. I think the google search result is tailored to you ;) in my google ebola is still more feared. haha

  67. I wish I had thought of this when I lived in NYC in a 31 floor storied apartment building. Still- great tips!

  68. Oh, I’m a big fan of the movie question! It usually sparks interesting conversations that go beyond movies…plus, you can learn interesting tidbits about the other person.

  69. In our defense, sometimes the weather is interesting! I like talking about freak storms and snowpocalypse situations. :)