The Wonder Years

The Wonder Years

The last time I had dinner with my family, something strange happened…

Over Labor Day, I made a quick trip home, and on the first night back in Missouri, my family was unusually chatty during dinner. The Mom-pausing-mid-story-to-catch-her-breath-and-angsty-teenage-brother-chiming-in-with-anecdotes kind of chatty. Who were these people? This was not my family.

The next morning, I investigated.

My dad revealed that he’s started prepping for these types of get-togethers. “I’ve been writing down two to three conversation topics to bring up,” he said as he unfolded a miniature handwritten note he’d pulled from his trouser pocket. “They have to be positive; that’s for sure. They also have to be interesting enough that everyone will have input. And a question helps, of course. I’ll think of them throughout the day. It’s what I’ve learned from being a teacher for over 30 years, but I just realized I could apply this to our dinners. Otherwise…” He smirked and refolded the note.

For the rest of my week at home, every “casual” conversation pitched to our group worked with flying colors — and made me laugh. I was the only one who realized the sweet strategy behind them. But now that I’m back to my normal day-to-day in Brooklyn, I’ve been thinking about how his advice also works for other tricky situations — work events where I don’t know anyone, never-ending coffee shop lines and too quiet block parties.

If you’re looking for conversation starters for tough crowds, here are some ideas:

  • When asked what’s on his note this week, my dad said, “40% of Americans list ranch as their favorite salad dressing. This is a compelling subject for multiple reasons.”
  • Shared experiences (asking how they know the host, their thoughts on the beer being served, F trains delays)
  • Serial season three
  • Upcoming weekend plans or trips
  • Questions about their day (what they did, what they ate for lunch)
  • ANYTHING to just show you’re trying

    Recently I was reading this guide about how to be better at parties (as one does), and I came across this part: “Remember that conversation is part of what you bring to any social event. Ms. Fine [author of The Fine Art of Small Talk] said, ‘I don’t walk into a party without two to three things to talk about.’ These topics can be anything that’s interesting to you in the moment, and you need not even talk about them — but they are there if you need them.” Further proof that parents have most of life’s answers.

    Any other tips you have for getting conversations rolling? Any questions? A friend of mine has a rule with his mother that they won’t talk in the car on the way to a restaurant to make sure they won’t run out of things to discuss later, haha.

    P.S. A dinner party icebreaker, and funny questions to save the day.

    (Photo from The Wonder Years.)