I once went on a first date at an Italian restaurant…

As we waited for our table, among giant potted plants and checkered tablecloths, my date turned to me. “Tell me a story,” he said and winked. The whole moment felt so awkward that I literally blanked on every anecdote in my entire life. Suddenly, nothing had ever happened to me. What would I say? What is conversation? What are words?

I ended up mumbling something into my wine glass about how we once saw a bear in Yellowstone on a family vacation, and then filed the whole evening under “Things to Never Think About Again.”

But! What should you say to get a good conversation going? What will work on a first date, or when meeting a new colleague, or at a dinner party? Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air”, has interviewed thousands of people in her career and has figured out one magical sentence.

“Tell me about yourself.”

Those four words work, she says, because they let person choose how to tell you who they are. The person can bring up whatever is most interesting to them — their teaching career, their new kitten, a recent move, their obsession with finding the best carrot cake in the city. Another reason? The phrase also lets you to start a conversation “without the fear that you’re going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious,” writes the New York Times. More pointed questions — like, “What do you do for work?” — presume certain things to be true.

Another conversation starter I love is the very short and sweet, “How was your day?” My friend Linsey says this whenever we meet up, and I’ve seen her ask it to strangers at parties. The great thing is that activities that people just did always seem extra important to them — I painted my apartment! I played hooky and watched Cheers reruns! I stepped in dog poop! — and feel intimate and fun. Boom: You’re instantly two friends just having a chat.

What about you? How do you start conversations with new people? Or get conversations going on dates and dinner parties?

P.S. How to introduce someone, and my first date ritual. Plus, a dinner party conversation starter.

(Photo of Marilyn Monroe at the Photoplay Gold Medal Awards Dinner, 1952.)