Relationships

The Only Icebreaker You’ll Ever Need

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.)

  1. Gaby says...

    I’ve been folding/rolling Christmas lights so they fit in the original box, like new, every year for 12yrs.

    • Poppy says...

      WOW! i tip my hat to you

  2. No! I can’t bear “tell me about yourself”. It feels just like a dating app profile. I’m Becca, I’m 37, etc etc. Too hard. Too much! And what do you even mean?

    I do love “how was your day?” though. It allows you to be as specific or not as you like – or to even flex your storytelling muscles.

  3. saramarg says...

    I ask people how they spent their day. It’s open ended, they get to choose what to share, it encourages conversation without being interrogating, and people do really interesting things for hours.

  4. Claude Monique says...

    In my twenties, I backpacked a lot and while traveling in S. America alone, I met a nice group of friends. We decided to sail the Amazon together. Almost every night on of the young ladies in the group would ask what we are thankful for. I thought it was a nice way to close out the night.

  5. Mariah says...

    I am known in my family for punctuating quiet moments with “What’s your first memory of _____?” It elicits good natured groans. My go-to is “first memory of cats,” but any random object will do. It makes people really think and you get to hear random memories people’s lives.

    • Mariah says...

      *from people’s lives

    • Meg Murphy says...

      Love this!

  6. Mari says...

    I usually ask “what have you eaten today?” hahaha I’m a chef, so I’m kind of obsessed with food. My friends now randomly say something like “oh! guess what! I had salmon for lunch today” and it always turns into such a completely different type of conversation. I guess it’s always nice to give other people space to talk about themselves, but not in an intrusive way. I’m partly French and I grew up with the notion that asking someone “what do you do?” it’s incredible impolite – I don’t mind answering, but I’m always afraid of asking, lest I offend the other person.

  7. S says...

    I LOVE asking people which character they think they would be on TV shows. It tells you so much about the person, and it’s really fun to hear their reasoning. Are you a Chandler? A Leslie Knope? An Elaine? I wanna know!

  8. I had someone ask me once, “Tell me something bad.” which sounds kind of strange, but ended up being a really beautiful simple way to share something hard going on in my life that I wouldn’t have normally been vulnerable about.

  9. Annie says...

    I wouldn’t even consider myself an introvert and I totally agree with this. One afternoon I was chatting with a friend in a coffee shop about how I wanted to redirect my career towards a new field but I didn’t know what yet. A business school friend of hers showed up and we mentioned we were discussing my career. So he decides to turn to me and go “So what’s your 30 seconds?” meaning whats my career spiel in 30 seconds. Of course I blanked! I felt bad at first but then I thought what a weird thing to ask a stranger! Especially one you aren’t interviewing.

  10. Andrea says...

    When my four very close in age kids were growing up we had one that would turn EVERY dinner time into a vent and gripe section. Every. Night. It got to be too much for all of us so one dinner after we sat down I said to my kids, tell me something GOOD about your day. Totally changed the tone of dinner time and oh the things my kids shared!!!!! And each time my negative kiddo tried to vent I’d just keep saying nope, tell me something good. And I have found that it works in any situation, and for one son in particular it was well, I didn’t miss the bus! A simple solution that can work anytime anywhere!

  11. I always liked ‘what keeps you busy during the day’ when I was navigating a town that mostly consisted of SAHMs and I was a working mom. Everyone seems to attach a different connotation (I actually often felt like I was pitied because I worked in that particular town) to working inside/outside of the home as a mother, but I never wanted another mother to feel like anything she did during the day was any less than what any other mother did. Every version of parenthood is hard and every day we manage to keep our kids alive and our sanity in check should be celebrated.

    • Lea says...

      Really like this! I’m a working mom but most in my community aren’t, so I usually find it hard to ask that question.

    • Jo Donkin says...

      I love this for the opposite reason! I don’t work and most people I meet do so I always hate the question ‘What is your job?’ because I have to stumble around and confess I don’t work, but this variation gives me the freedom to talk about the volunteer work and activities that I do instead.

  12. Lindsay says...

    Food. I always talk about food. What are they making for dinner tonight? Favorite places around here? If from another country, it’s even more interesting.

  13. poppypop says...

    The guy saying “tell me a story” rubs me the wrong way… like you are supposed to be his entertainment? It’s probably not that bad and I mostly find it annoying because it reminds me of the handful of men who have used the “impress me!” command as an opening with me. I’m not sure if they all got this from PUA instruction, but it’s quite enjoyable to see their discomfort that things are not going as planned when I shoot back with “why don’t YOU impress ME?”

    • Lindsay says...

      I know!!! I would have been done. Or told a story about a guy who gives his dates exams to test them of their awesomeness and then the guy dies.

    • Michèle says...

      Agree!

      And Lindsay’s response to this comment TOTALLY cracked me up.

    • CS says...

      That is an Interesting take, actually. I didn’t interpret “Tell me a story” that way at all. I just thought it sounded like a friendly way to ask for an anecdote about your date’s life in the hopes of getting a fun conversation started, maybe getting to know each other better. On a first date, he may be nervous, too, so I guess I’d be a little forgiving(my personality). My reaction would also depend on the rest of his behaviour that evening.

    • allison says...

      My friends and I all ask people to “tell me a story” all the time. For me it’s not at all performative; I literally just want to know what’s going on with people, what they’re thinking about, who they are, etc.

  14. Natalie says...

    I LOVE Terry Gross with all my heart, but as an introvert, “tell me about yourself” actually fills me with anxiety. I usually blank out. Do they want a brief biography? Or just what I’m doing now? Too open-ended. “How was your day?” is a lot less pressure to be an engaging storyteller.

    • LB says...

      a-gree!

    • Christina says...

      totally agree!

    • Emily says...

      Agree 100%. Also feels job interview-ish. “How was your day?” is lower stakes and would probably flow easily into sharing more info naturally rather than ticking off bullets about myself.

    • sarah says...

      YESSSS. I’m having anxiety right now even thinking about the command “tell me about yourself,” and also “tell me a story.” And I’m a writer! Who writes stories! Still a horrifying question to be asked. “How was your day?” is the best and I’m going to use that with other people from now on!

    • Own says...

      Lol! I’m an introvert, but I would be amused by the question. Surprised by the negative reactions. To me: What a fun opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. Oh well, there is someone for everyone and everyone is different. I guess he wasn’t a love match for this group! 😊

    • 100% agree! “Tell me about yourself”?! Where are you even suppose to start…where you were born? I get so anxious that I’ll either sound lame and superficial or crazy & self centered.

    • Michele says...

      TOTALLY agree. My first thought to this question was, “no.” Just no on every level… hahaha

    • Oh thank you I thought it was just me who feels this way! I’d be happy to answer “what’s your first memory of _____?” or “tell me something you found interesting recently” is easier than being asked “Tell me about yourself”.

  15. Laura says...

    My Dad would always ask our boyfriends when they came to dinner “So (name), who are you? Where do you come from?”
    This used to embarrass us so much, so my sister would always start to sing “I was born in the wagon of a travelling show, mama used to dance for the money they’d throw…”

    • Lisa says...

      Cher for the win!!

    • Cathy says...

      Thanks Laura, I laughed out loud. Guess you have to be a certain age to appreciate “I was born in the wagon of a traveling show…”

  16. I picked this one up from my best friend—saying hello + asking what you’re most excited about right now. Could be something they are working on, or an upcoming show or vacation, or what they had for lunch.

  17. I love meeting new people but loathe small talk and also don’t like the usual “what do you do?” A few questions I like to ask people are: What are you reading? Have you made any good recipes lately? Are you planning any house projects? Those are all topics I love and could talk about all day so if we can find some common ground there then we’re on our way to friendship.

  18. Shannon says...

    Once at the end of a party there were maybe six people left just sitting around a fire and someone asked, “What has everyone been thinking about lately?” It was so interesting to hear these people that I love so much that I spend time with regularly talk about what’s been on their mind. Some people went the heavy route, some people talked about a dream of theirs—years later I still remember someone talking about wanting to make a chair for the first time. I have loved that question ever since.

    • Abbey says...

      I love this.

  19. Amanda says...

    My favorite barista conversation trick was to ask people if they had anything big coming up. Customers would mention their kids, vacations, work conferences, etc. But the real trick! Is remembering and following up after said event. I’ve always found that people’s walls are much lower once you show them you actually care.

    • Abby says...

      This is a great tip! I seemed to struggle with this ever since many of my female friendships were reduced to phone calls due to leaving my home country. Now that there are apps for keeping track of how often you’ve called your friends and family and the in-built ability to write down the important things they said, it’s become way easier for me to be more engaged with them (currently using “Garden”).

  20. Margaret says...

    I always ask people what’s one weird thing they can do with their body. I have double jointed thumbs and my husband has what’s called a geographic tongue. Almost everyone has something!

    • Lisa says...

      Googling geographic tongue. Lol!

  21. K says...

    I went to a dinner gathering recently and was asked “What brings you joy lately?”. It was such a different, positive way to start a conversation. The nice thing about this question is that if work has brought you joy, it totally fits, but if you want to talk about something different the option is there. It actually took me a moment to think about it. I network often and it’s always about work!

    • Sam says...

      This works, until you happen to be talking to someone who is really depressed and trying desperately not to let the mask slip.

    • Claire says...

      I think it’s Liz Gilbert who suggested “what are you most excited about in your life right now?” which is in a similar vein and I absolutely love – it’s so hopeful and people genuinely get excited about it!

  22. RR says...

    I recently asked at dinner in a job interview setting “what’s one non-resume skill or expertise you have?” The answers were hilarious (whiskey! The Office quotes! Specific baseball knowledge!). I’ve been asking everyone ever since!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Oooh what a fun one!

    • Erin says...

      I would love to be asked this in a job interview! I feel like it would totally ease the pressure :)

    • Jorden says...

      I was asked during my last job interview, “If you could teach me anything, what would you teach me?” It threw me off, but after a quick beat I waxed poetic about the joys of homemade pizza; “It’s so easy anyone can do it. And so satisfying! The kids love it.” I am sure she was looking for something about my skills for the job, which is a nursing position, but it led to a personal conversation about cooking, and somehow city versus suburb living. I called my husband after the interview and said, “I talked a lot about how we make pizza…” Unusual interview questions are great.

  23. L says...

    I always ask a person I’m just meeting, “Are you from X?” Wherever we happen to be. Usually that’s Portland, Maine, where I live. The answer is either yes or no, but everyone gives more detail than that. “No, I just moved here from Brooklyn.” (Everyone! Ha.) And with follow up questions, you’re off and running. Which neighborhood? Why did you move? How are you settling in?

    My husband and I were just visiting Rockland (up the coast) and one night I asked a bartender, “Are you from Rockland?” He answered, “I moved here from New York in May. Now I live in a wood cabin with no electricity or running water and just a wood stove for heat.”

    What?! Tell me more! That’s a good conversation.

    • Capucine says...

      I vote for this. After a nightmarish year dense with death, the lights have gone out for now in my emotional world and chatting with people is the.hardest.thing. I cannot fathom why that is, but small talk is a minefield. What brings you joy? How was your day? What’s exciting ahead for you?

      But I could really handle “Are you from here?”. It’s so easy to answer at length or briefly and stop conversation there if I want. Which, that is a gift. Truly.

  24. Meghan says...

    Sorry to hear about your husband, Pearl. Wishing you and your husband health and wellness <3

  25. Kimmie Rodriguez says...

    I love to ask “tell me something true” and I get a variety of responses! Sometimes it’s something personal like “I had pizza for lunch” or “I walk to work”, other times it’s “Beyonce just dropped an album!” I love it, and it always carries a conversation along in an random little adventure.

  26. Lee says...

    I find that asking “have anything fun coming up” yields great results, because even if they have zero fun coming up, they will, unbidden, tell you about the LAST fun thing they did. And “fun” is open-ended and very subjective, so no one feels embarrassed to not have concert tickets or a vacation planned.

  27. Elizabeth says...

    I once heard a friend say to someone in our graduate program, “You know, I don’t know anything about you. Tell me about yourself…” and I thought that was a great opener for people you might interact with occasionally but barely know.

    I do not like “How’s your day going?” from customer service people, either in person or on the phone. “Please,” I long to say, “can we just stick to business?” I learned to resent this especially after my mother died and I had to call the phone company, bank, lawn care people, etc. to settle her affairs and estate. I’m afraid I snapped at least once: “I just told you my mother died. How do you think my day’s going?”

  28. Claire says...

    I tend to ask a version of, “What brings you here?” If it’s a party, maybe I’ll hear about how the other person knows the host, or if it’s a date maybe the question is “how did you end up in New Jersey?” It can be a discrete answer or vague, but almost always opens the door for more conversation. Just don’t ask it in a doctor’s office waiting room ;)

    • Ann says...

      Hahaha! I love the ‘what brings you here?’ idea, with the exception of the doctor’s office. I was at the hospital checking in for my first prenatal appointment after just finding out I was pregnant. A parent of one of my students from school saw me and ran over to ask what I was there for. I mumbled and bumbled and said “I just have a little rash.” No further details. She nodded and walked away. Maybe she learned her lesson?

  29. MJ says...

    I LOVE the “how was your day?” to strangers/new acquaintances and employ it often. It does seem so intimate and friendly! And it’s so easy for ANYONE to talk about things they did just that day – even if the day was boring AF, it’s a good starting point.

  30. Kat says...

    THANK GOODNESS FOR THIS POST! I’m going on a date tonight and was worried about how to break the ice! =))))

    • Joss says...

      Kat! How was your date??

  31. Kerri says...

    I love to ask people what they’ve been excited about lately or if they have something they’re looking forward to. These questions often make people think about what they’re really passionate about and make conversation flow a little easier. Also, if you are being a genuine and sincere listener (and not just waiting for your turn to talk) people are way more likely to open up and share more of themselves with you ☺️

  32. E says...

    Another one I love is “What’s the best thing you are this week?” Most people love to talk about food, and I love to hear about it!

    • E says...

      *ate
      (Oops!) lol

  33. E says...

    I have a friend who always asks: “What’s new?” Or “What’d you get up to today?”
    Both seem so low-pressure… interest/curiosity without any expectation. It’s lovely.

  34. Gina says...

    I actually don’t like the prompt “Tell me about yourself.” It’s too open-ended and reminiscent of the start of all job interviews. As an alternative, I use “What’s your story?” It still allows people to choose how they define themselves, but offers them a place to start.

    • Cheryl says...

      Agreed. It’s oddly aggressive to say Tell me _______.
      I like more casual questions. Have you read any good books/seen a great show/ what was your first concert ever?
      It’s positive, light and not so expectant.

    • Meg says...

      Mine too! Anticipation of holidays is a lovely place to dwell in, and I usually leave such conversations invigorated about foreign places. And inspired in good ways.

  35. jacquie says...

    the other day I ended up at a diner with a my brother and a group of people we kinda knew. in the middle of the table there was a box of cards with “icebreakers” printed on them. we went through a bunch of them and the best one (that got the most people talking) was:

    “what do you like most and least about your birth order?”

    it’s a great one because EVERYONE can add something: only children, siblings who get along, siblings who don’t get along, etc. it seems like everyone has an opinion on their birth order that they like to passionately debate, too :)

    • S says...

      I love the idea behind this (and in a former life I would have LOVED to have this discussion!) but after my older brother died in a car accident, I dread these kinds of questions. I totally get that if we try and take into account everyone’s personal traumas when navigating small talk it can feel basically impossible to ask ANYTHING (hence “uhhh…how bout this weather?”), but until you know someone a little better, asking about their family could be kinda heavy.

  36. Jeannie says...

    I realized recently that most people really just want someone to break the ice. They’re happy to talk but need a little push. It’s made it a lot easier to be the one to “break the ice.”

  37. Nadia says...

    Lol, so this reminds me of the coworker who always asks, “What’s shaking?”
    I never, ever know how to respond to that inquiry. What IS shaking?????

    • Valerie says...

      My all-time favorite response to “what’s shaking” is from Norm as he makes his way to his bar stool in Cheers: ‘All four cheeks and a couple of cheeks.” Cracks me up every time.

    • Kristen says...

      My response to “what’s shaking?” is “Everything that should be!” and sometimes I add, “and more” ;-)

  38. This is so simple and yet so good! Coming from someone who is really awkward in social situations, I need to implement this more!

    Paige

  39. Chelsey N says...

    As a social worker, this question is one of my “bread and butter” questions. Usually, a person will rebut with “Me? Like what? What do you want to know.” And then I’ll say, “Well, I just met you. Tell me all about yourself.” Use of silence is key here. Between that and “What’s been stressful lately?”, an hour of active listening flies by!

    • Laura says...

      As a fellow social worker, so good!

    • Rachel Carney says...

      Yes social workers! I also use an iteration of your friend’s question: “What did you do today?” Never had any blank stares with this question. Even people who did “nothing” usually ate something/watched something/googled something…. :)

  40. Shelley says...

    The only reason that works for her is people are expecting her to interview them! Haha :) if someone asks that I totally blank!

  41. Meg says...

    I usually hate being asked questions like, “what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever experienced” because immediately my mind will go blank. Or even, “what’s your favorite movie of all time” is too much pressure, like whatever movie I pick is supposed to say something about me as a person because it’s my favorite, lol. I much prefer questions like, “have you seen any good movies lately?” or “have you traveled anywhere fun recently?” That’s so much less pressure and I think leads to better conversation.

  42. Jenna says...

    I always love “two highs and a low”….helps to focus on the great things that day/week/year but knowing the hard stuff can also open up really meaningful conversation!

  43. Jeannie says...

    I like, “Hear any great stories recently?” or “Anything funny happen to you recently?” this usually works with friends and new friends alike.

  44. Meghan says...

    My brother, who is brilliant and charming, always commands a room. His go-to party conversation game, once the music is light and everyone is typically sipping a cocktail and making idle conversation is “The Bodega Game,” which he invented one night. The gist is that you are on an island and there is only one store. You have to thoughtfully stock the store with the things that truly you love, that bring you joy, or you just KNOW you just can’t live without. He’ll sit casually sipping his drink and start throwing out topics… “Vegetables, pick 3!” and we all can’t wait to answer. “Board games… only ONE!”, “Books (only 2, TWO?!)”, as the night goes on it gets more absurd and hilarious “Part of your body that a professional masseuse will massage for you (appropriately!) but only one part!”, “Question you can get asked about yourself every day, but it will get asked to you EVERY time you walk in the bodega!”…

    You learn so much about each other, whether best friends or new acquaintances, and it is always a hit!

    • Shannon says...

      I love this!

    • Caitlin L. says...

      New favorite game <3

    • Jojo says...

      Winning comment!!!

    • freya says...

      sounds so fun!

  45. Megan Lec says...

    I live in a university town that is by nature filled with folks flooding in and out quite frequently. With this in mind, one of my favorite openers is asking people where they love to go out to eat. For the new to town folks, I can offer up suggestions or we can talk about places they miss from their hometowns. For those like myself that have been around a while, we can trade favorite spots, best times to go to beat the lines, or lament long closed restaurants lost to time.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that’s really fun, and then you could always go try a place together, if you become friends!

    • AMK says...

      I love this! I also live in a college town (Davis) and totally know what you mean about people coming and going. This is a great idea and I’ll try it at the various kid birthday parties we go to!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      how beautiful, andrea! thank you for sharing. i’ll show her when i next see her:)

  46. Cara says...

    If there’s a lull in conversation, I always ask “what is your death row last meal?” EVERYONE has a fascinating answer and it’s a real insight into someone’s personality — some people are extremely detailed and want to tell you about their starter, main, and dessert. Some people say they don’t care or pick something mundane like a piece of pizza, and some people say they wouldn’t eat anything because it wouldn’t matter.

    • That’s a great one! It’s fun to think about favorite foods.

  47. Megan says...

    One of my favorite questions to ask friends is “What’s on your mind these days?”. I also like to close long catch-up phone chats with “Is there anything else on your mind you’ve been wanting to share?”

  48. A says...

    I recently went through a several-year-long unlucky period of loss and grief, and every time someone asked “how have you been?” or “what’s new?” I froze, not wanting to dive into a deeply personal grief-filled response at a happy casual gathering (“What’s new? Oh, just everything I love goes away… I’m gonna go cry in the corner now bye”), and I got stuck in this mindspace, thinking if I didn’t have something big and positive and new (promotion at work! new pet! traveled the world!) then I was boring and depressing and had nothing to say. So, I typically came to dread questions like this… but recently at a dinner party, a friend said her New Year’s resolution is to try to give thoughtful, more substantial answers to “what’s new with you?” or “how have you been?” rather than just saying “not much” or “good,” even if her answers are fairly mundane things, like “I tried making the viral stew recipe from Alison Roman, have you had it yet?” or “I just scored these amazing drinking glasses from a yard sale.” I love that approach, and I feel like it offers more opportunity for real everyday connections, versus sweeping life stories and generalizations.

    • A says...

      One final thought on my previous comment… I guess it’s more about reframing how we think about our responses and what’s expected in a response versus what questions we’re asking… bc we can’t control the questions and openers other people use!

    • nadine says...

      Love this! I’m going to remember it

    • Leah says...

      This is a solid piece of advice! I often ask people what new show they’re watching because of this – asking about work/life seems like such a big question, when really I just want the every day minor successes that everyone has.

  49. Ali says...

    I work with verbal kids and teens with ASD, and just last week I picked up a new activity from a great co-worker. The first activity we do is to make a Venn Diagram (the groups are small with only two or three kids) to see what kinds of things we have in common and what our individual interests are. The activity is concrete and visual, which is great, and the kids come up with all sorts of interesting things… we might start off noticing that two people have the same eye colour and then move on to realizing everyone likes to read, but in a group this week, we found out that both kids had parents with interesting dental stories! One parent had never had a cavity, and the other still had a baby tooth. In conversations with others, I’m find myself remembering that both parts of the Venn Diagram are fun to share… people are happy when you discuss something you’re passionate about, and people are happy when you find things in common. This makes me less stressed about keeping up my end of the conversation: I can just start “filling out my circle”, and they’ll find the things that overlap.

    • Wendy D says...

      This is great! My daughter, after learning of these at school, had us do family Venn Diagrams on a 3 hour road trip. Fun and enlightening. And cheaper than 23 and me!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that’s really cool, ali! i love that idea. and how wonderful that you work with kids with ASD. <3

  50. hali says...

    I’ve had Terry’s voice saying “I’m Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air” stuck in my head like a song ALL MORNING after seeing her name unexpectedly in this post.

    The idea of asking someone a blatant conversation-starting question gives me anxiety. It takes such confidence to casually say “tell me about yourself” to a new person without sounding presumptuous! The right woman could totally pull it off (Terry, Jo, my best friend’s mom…) but I’m laughing at myself thinking of how that phrase might sound coming out of my mouth to a stranger. I’d have to be feeling pretty good at a party to say that without choking.

    Currently, I still use the mantra “curious and kind” all the time and that generally just points me in the direction of asking thoughtful questions to strangers. I’ve actually made a point to push myself socially this year which has so far lead me to TWO parties where I knew one or no people attending. SO SCARY! But I got such a high feeling like I accomplished something just by showing up! It’s insane how your level of confidence and anxiety expands or dampens your conversation skills in a social setting.

    Love these posts!!

    • Jennie says...

      SAME! I usually do some version of “what are you looking forward to” such as:

      What are you looking forward to this Summer?
      What you you looking forward to this semester?
      What are you looking forward to this holiday season?
      etc.

    • Katie says...

      Yes! I feel this way too. My delivery of the question “tell me about yourself” would be so awkward!
      I’m thinking I could try the one “did you do anything interesting today?” and pull that off.

  51. Amanda says...

    I have a friend who just has one of those FUN personalities, and she’s always asking people, “What are you obsessed with right now?” or “What’s your latest passion?” I love it because someone could go deep with it or say something totally silly – I’d probably talk about how I planted some veggie seeds this weekend and I can’t stop checking every morning to see if any are sprouting yet! LOL The other thing I love that she does is, if someone is hesitating or looks like they’re not sure what to say, she’ll jump in with “I’m trying to perfect my veggie soup recipe” or “I can’t stop drawing robots” or whatever, and it helps set the tone. I’ve seen her ask tons of people these questions and it always leads to interesting conversations!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      “what are you obsessed with right now” = LOVE!

    • Before relocating to San Francisco this past January, my friend and I used to host a monthly dinner series where we would each invite 4 people who didn’t know each other, and ask questions just like this, and instead of coming up with conversation with the person beside you, everyone is part of the same conversation, taking turns answering questions that (hopefully) inspired storytelling. The best part: no one was allowed to say what they did for work. It’s crazy to see how for some, that is a huge relief, and for others, it is a huge challenge (especially my friend who had JUST finished med school! Bragging rights earned).

      One of my favorite questions that I would throw in again and again was, “if any activity was an Olympic sport, what would you be guaranteed to win gold in?” We got the best answers: a would-be-if-it-was-a-thing karaoke regulator, an elite transit navigator, best internal map for coffee shops, a proud texter-and-driver (he was lectured. He defended. We were horrified).

      This dinner series was magical because we were actively trying to skip right past the awkwardness of small talk, and it really taught me the magic of asking better questions.

  52. Molly says...

    I was recently at a BBQ party when someone I don’t know asked me and the VERY new dude I’m dating, “what is your favorite Elvis Costello song?” All three of us are music nerds so we spent the next twenty minutes debating “Pump It Up” and “Accidents Will Happen.” It was such a great conversation starter and even cuter when my new dude later said, “I couldn’t wait to hear your answer to that question.” Thank you, random BBQ attendee! Elvis Costello for the win.

    • Claire says...

      great idea! this would probably work with Beatles songs too, or Bob Dylan…or Barry Manilow!!

    • Rae says...

      Or Prince! Or Taylor Swift! Or the Pixies! Or Marvin Gaye!
      I’m definitely filing this idea away…Clearly I am in the mood to talk music.

  53. kathleenicanrah says...

    Whenever there is a lull in conversation when meeting someone new (or new-is), I’ll ask “what’s your week like this week?” and I find it opens things back up.

  54. Claire says...

    gosh I love these posts about conversation, and the comments are always gold. I capture my favorites on a document I have going that I add to every time some new ideas are shared.
    Hear are some offbeat suggestions:
    What made you laugh today?
    Has anything unexplainable happened to you lately?
    Did you buy school lunch when you were a kid or brown bag it? (there are so many things to say about school lunch and the cafeteria)
    What was the first movie you ever saw?
    Once while waiting for people to dial into a morning conference call w/ colleagues from across the country I asked everyone what they’d had for breakfast. It got everyone talking and laughing!

  55. Kel says...

    Love the How was your day/week or what did you do today/week? Or How do you know the host(s)? I, personally, do NOT like “What are your hobbies or what do you do in your spare time?” It always makes me feel like I should have an exciting/interesting answer like, oh just brushing up on my French or training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. When, in reality, I’m pregnant and have a toddler and my interests involve trying to stay up to 9pm so I can chat with my husband for 2 minutes or watch Netflix and a prenatal yoga class here and there. womp womp.

    • Diana says...

      ugh, same! My “hobbies” are childproofing my house, trying to earn enough money to pay the mortgage, and attempting to sit around at my friends barbecues on the weekends while also watching my toddler. Not complaining in the least about my life, but the hobbies question always makes me feel like I’m not taking on enough already.

  56. I’m in the camp that isn’t fond of “Tell me about yourself.” I always draw a blank when asked something so vague and it’s on the same level as “Tell me a story.” I’d much rather a more specific question to answer…

    • Leanne says...

      I agree!

    • Sarah says...

      Ditto! It always makes me feel like a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. “I’M SARAH FROM OHIO! I’M A SPEECH THERAPIST WHO LOVES BAKING AND READING SCIENCE FICTION IN MY SPARE TIME!” Hah.

    • Jenny says...

      Totally agree!

  57. Rosie says...

    “Tell Me About Yourself” works for Terry Gross because the person she is interviewing is being “interviewed.” They are prepped because they there either promoting something or with a platform to speak about. But it can be off-putting in the real world. Especially with shy/introverted people.
    One suggestion:
    “Have you tried ___?” It’s magic! At a bar or restaurant, “Have you tried -insert random thing on the menu-” or at a party works wonderfully.
    “Have you tried this dish/workout/etc” leaves an opening for an easier conversation. It’s in the same conversation starter pack of “What are you watching/reading/listening to lately.”

  58. Anu says...

    I can attest that “How was your day?” (or its variant “How has your day been so far?”) works. When I was pregnant and in my first trimester, I was super nauseated and also very fatigued so I took an inordinate number of Uber/Lyft rides just to get through my days. Talking to the drivers helped pass the time until I could go pass out on my bed (and distracted me from my nausea) so I would usually try to strike up a conversation. Asking that simple question was incredibly effective! It opened the door to all kinds of fascinating info. They might tell me that they’ve been giving Lyft rides all day and say that they just moved to the city and are waiting to get a more permanent position. That opens up conversations about where they moved from, how they like it so far, what kind of work they’re looking for etc. etc. I’ve talked to people about the war situation in their African home country, why they haven’t been able to go back to Iran, how well people from different religions got along in Albania until recently. I’ve talked to drivers who were former chefs, and we talked for half an hour, exchanging recipe ideas and favorite dishes. Once I was even able to help someone out through a Lyft ride – the driver’s good friend was trying to break into my career area. I offered to look over his resume and we chatted back and forth until he was able finally to get a job in the area!

    • Danielle says...

      I love this. I know there are people who say they prefer to not talk with their driver but it is one of my favorite things. I’ve learned so many interesting things and it’s such a point of connection- particularly in a big (and often lonely) city.

    • Beth says...

      This is great! I once had a Lyft driver pick me up really early in the morning in San Francisco to take me to the airport. The driver mentioned he was tired because he works a construction job all day and then drives Lyfts a few nights of the week, and I was his last fare before he went home to sleep. In the interest of keeping him awake, I kept asking questions and we ended up having the best conversation, to the point where we were at the airport but I stayed in the car for 5 more minutes so he could finish his story. I also once had a cab ride late at night when I lived in NY with a female driver, who was a redhead and super feisty. Anyway, the situation was strange and I kept asking her questions and by the time we got to Brooklyn I felt like I knew much of her life story, including her interactions with Matt Dillon, who she said was a total sweetheart but not very smart. I don’t know why car rides with strangers makes me inquisitive, but it does, ha! Drivers are interesting people.

  59. Cooper says...

    On our first date, my now-husband asked me what my favorite color is – I was charmed!

  60. Savannah says...

    I volunteer as a nurse at summer camp and my favorite morning ice breaker is “which do you prefer: waffles, pancakes, or french toast?” Everyone has an opinion!

    • Peggy says...

      Where is the LIKE button!

    • Carrie says...

      French toast :D

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahaha yes!

  61. Gill F. says...

    My coworker who I have a massive crush on always asks me ‘hows today going’, and it always make my heart flutter. It’s open ended enough but not so wide open I freak trying to come up with an answer. But open enough that I can tell him about my drive to work or the coffee I had or how in anxious about my next tutoring session or anything really. The trick is that he listens. If you really listen to someone then they’ll open up, no matter what you ask. It helps that he’s very cute ;)

    • Lizzie says...

      Now I have a crush on him, too.

    • Lisa says...

      I vote that you ask your coworker out if he’s not already attached. You had me at good listener.

    • Lisa T says...

      This is adorable!

  62. selby says...

    i lead project meetings for a career, and for some less exciting meetings i started doing “zodiac quizzes” at the start of every meeting. some examples: what winter/summer olympics sport are you based on your sign, what type of bagel sandwich are you, where should you go on vacation based on your sign. it was perfect way to engage every person in the room as they agreed or disagreed with their prediction/assessment.

  63. B says...

    I knew someone who used to ask, “What’s keeping you busy?” and I always liked that. It’s a pretty safe question and allows the person to talk about work, school, kids, hobbies, etc.

    • K says...

      That’s a good one. I used to bartend when my oldest was a baby and people were always very insulting in how they asked “what else I did” as if bartending isn’t enough. Had any one ask-
      “What’s keeping you busy?”
      I would have not rolled my eyes (internally while smiling on the outside) and happily talked about my baby at home!

    • Kay says...

      TBH, I’m not a fan of this one… In today’s go-go-go work-focused world, where my friends and acquaintances often work demanding jobs or have a side hustle, I feel like I sound lazy when I respond to questions like this. My job has been extremely slow lately (but pays the bills), and while I try to stay busy with hobbies, this kind of question tends to always lead back to work (again, this might not be everyone’s environment but in my city and typical demographic it is), and I feel like I’m judged for giving my honest answer among so many “hard workers.”

  64. Yen says...

    I like what camp counselors use with kids: What’d you have for breakfast today?

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      haha cutest :)

  65. Jess says...

    If I’m trying to make small talk with someone at their job (think hair stylist, nail technician, body waxer, etc.) I’ll ask, “What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened at work?” Everyone always has an answer, and I’ve heard the best stories.

  66. MJ says...

    I have found conversation starters to be very location specific. When I lived in D.C. it was always, “What do you do?” D.C. is a city where many people are passionate about their work. When I lived in Chicago it was, “What neighborhood do you live in?” Because Chicago neighborhoods have such unique personalities people love talking about which one they chose. Now that I live in Denver, it’s always some version of, “Are you doing anything fun this weekend?” Denverites are all about recreation! Anyway, that’s more of an observation than advice… except to say just know your crowd.

    • Amanda says...

      Haha this is so true! I’ve been in Colorado for a couple of years now and that is ALWAYS the question! I never even thought about it, but I don’t think I’ve ever lived in another place where everyone is so clearly working for the weekend ;)

    • Mary W says...

      That is soooo true about DC.

  67. JMN says...

    I hate that phrase “Tell me about yourself”. It puts all the pressure on the askee to think of something interesting, and causes blank minds everywhere. It is way too vague. If someone were to ask me that then I know immediately that we aren’t going to be very good friends.

    I did have a friend who would ask “Tell me a story”, but she would add “about 7th grade” or “about your childhood best friend” or “about a time you broke the rules”. This would help me reach into my memory for something that I hadn’t thought about in a long time, and would provide fun stories.

    I also like on a previous post here how Jo sometimes asks “What’s your next vacation?” (or something like that). People are always excited to talk about vacation!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      oh yes! i like asking about future trips — even if someone doesn’t have one on the docket, they’ll have a place they WANT to go, and it’s always really fun to hear.

    • n says...

      ack. I used to also ask the vacation question until recently. We’ve been a one income household (NOT by choice) for a year or so and due to our current financial situation, and have no vacations planned. When the question comes up, it just reminds me of how sucky things are right now.

    • D says...

      N- I tend to agree. It’s a great question if you really know your audience well but not for a stranger. I grew up in a family that has really never been able to take vacation and spent much of adulthood in a rust belt town where most people are not regularly planning trips. I was never asked that question until I moved to the Bay Area. I actually find many “ice breaker” questions to feel a bit classist in a way. The “what do you do?” question is well meaning but feels pretty crummy if you are the one scraping by in a party of professionals.

  68. Abby says...

    It was in Jordan Ferney’s story the other day! I saw it and loved the suggestion, too :)

  69. Vanessa says...

    One of my favorite ice breakers is asking: what would your perfect food day look like – from breakfast to dessert and everything in between, and you would never get full, cost/calories/anything that may concern you doesn’t matter.

    People typically get very animated and descriptive describing their favorite foods, planning out their perfect day of eating, plus some good stories typically come out of this (home-cooked meals, travel, etc.)

  70. Hilary says...

    This is super weird, buuuut: I once had a little too much champagne at a party and a new friend and I got into a heated debated about what kind of tail we’d have if we could choose. I chose fox (hello volume and style!) while they chose monkey, because of how useful it would be to have another prehensile appendage. We had only just met, but were howling in the corner and then the whole party got involved.

    It’s not the question for everyone, but for the right kind of weirdo (hi!), it leads to a pretty funny dinner or party conversation!

    • Nigar says...

      Now that is my kind of question!

    • Claire says...

      I cannot imagine how you came to discuss this topic, but GREAT QUESTION!!

    • shannon says...

      Literally laughed out loud!! So creative!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahahaha so so funny.

  71. I like to ask: “How do you spend your time?” because not everyone has a job but everyone has time (and I am curious!). I came up with this question when I started relating to strangers and knew literally nothing about them, but I wanted to reach out.
    I also got a tip from a friend who is GREAT at talking to everybody (and she’s now the mayor of our city): she said to start with the thing you have in common, which is why people often talk about the weather. But also, if you’re both at a park: “Do you come here often?” If you’re standing outside the kids’ school, “How does your child like school?”

  72. El says...

    “How was your day?” is the best– low stakes, it allows people to curate what they want to tell you. A sweet friend who is a social worker always begins conversations this way, and I think it’s brilliant.

    I like to ask my close friends “What are you excited about right now?” That’s how Marlee Grace always ended her interviews on her (sadly discontinued) podcast. I think it’s an easy question to answer (maybe I’m just easily excited?), but her guests would often seem to be put on the spot in answering it.

  73. Andrea says...

    “Tell me about yourself.” Um, did you not read my dating profile at all? ;) I don’t like that question, it’s too open-ended. I like book/movie/what’d you do today/got any weekend plans questions.

  74. Ashley says...

    I’m more interested in character development than plot, so my go-to is, “What’ve you been thinking about lately?”

    • Brooke says...

      Oh my word, Ashley, I adore this! The Jane Austen of friendship development. Very me as well.

  75. Ella says...

    To be honest, „tell me about yourself“ feels just as awkward as „tell me a story“. It sounds so grandpa-y or as in a job interview. I even perceive it as „entertain me!“

    I find it so special if someone really makes an effort to ask a real question that is easy but individual to answer.

    • Jo says...

      I think the tone, and follow-up, of a question is more important than the question itself. Sometimes people ask questions because they are genuinely interested, and sometimes it feels like they ask to see if they FIND YOU INTERESTING. The former is refreshing and the latter is tiresome! Talk to me, don’t quiz me.

  76. Heather says...

    That first date story! (crying/laughing emoji)
    This might sound weird, but reading a Joanna anecdote I’ve never heard before, at this point, is reminiscent of hearing a brand new story from my husband or my mom! A pleasant surprise from an old friend, reminding me that everyone contains multitudes, even the most familiar.

    • Cooper says...

      Haha, and I’m really curious about the bear-sighting at Yellowstone now, too :)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      awww haha you’re so sweet. i have some more stories from my 20s for a rainy day! :)

  77. Lora says...

    I have to agree with resistance about, “Tell me about yourself.” That’s so open-ended that I often don’t know how to start. Also, as a side note, I’m a PhD student in Clinical Psychology and one of my professors has specifically advised against using that line because certain people whose difficulties stem from a lack of clear identity or sense of self can apparently *quickly* decompensate when faced with that void. All that being said, I’m sure if Terry Gross was asking me over a microphone, I’d probably find a response pretty quickly!

    I second comment about food though. One of my easiest opening lines (particularly with children and teenagers) is, “What did you have for breakfast?” It’s easy, concrete, and gets them talking about what they had, what they wished they had instead, their favorite breakfast ever made by their grandma, oh and let me tell you about grandma. And grandpa. And grandpa’s chickens, etc.

  78. Jessica says...

    tell me about yourself is too big for me. It’s like, hi nice to meet you, please explain who you are in a simple palatable and hopefully amusing way. uhhhhhhhh

    I like how was your day, it’s conquerable. I also love asking people about their names. It gets everyone talking and you learn some amazing things. I met a Jane recently and she said her parents named her Jane so she’d never have to explain her name. Ha!

    • Another Jessica says...

      Agreed!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      the name thing is so interesting! i taught the LSAT for kaplan for many years, and as an icebreaker at the beginning of class, i would ask people to tell the class something about their name. there were SO many good stories, and it also really does help you remember people’s names!

  79. You have really made it in life if you’re interviewed by Terry Gross.

    • Claire says...

      oh I know! I would love to sit down for a conversation with her. I wonder what kind of questions she would ask an ordinary person?
      Terry Gross interviews random people on the street…” Tell me about the hat you’re wearing.” or “how did you come to be walking on this street?” or “who were you influenced by as a child that led you to pick out that blouse?” or “what would you mother say about your decision to not use the crosswalk?”

    • Erin says...

      Yeah, I think the reason “Tell me about yourself” works so well for Terry Gross is that the people she’s interviewing recognize that just having a conversation with her is a sign they’ve made it. I agree with other commenters that it’s often too open-ended and intimidating for everyday conversation.

      If I’m talking with someone new who has given some tiny indication of something (anything, could be personal or professional) that interests them, a variant of “How did you get to be interested in that?” is a good way to keep the conversation going. How did you get into that line of work? How did you decide to go there for vacation? How did you get to know the hosts of this party? How did you come to live in this neighborhood/city/state? How did you find that cool pair of shoes you’re wearing?

    • beth says...

      I love Claire’s comment, haha

  80. Erin G says...

    I like to ask/be asked “have you read any good books or seen any great movies recently?” As someone who’s uncomfortable talking about herself, this question puts the focus on something else and gets the conversation started and building on itself.

    • Brooke says...

      Erin, I love this too. It feels immediately friendly but no pressure, and you either have the books/movies/music in common or you learn recommendations!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      great one. bookmarking so many of these!

    • Sarah says...

      Yes! Or the sister question, “Are you into any good shows right now?” Spoiler alert: EVERYONE IS! Hahah. And they’re so fun to talk about!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      YES! “are you into any good shows right now” is the easiest way to have a funny conversation over dinner.

    • FK says...

      I use this one too and usually phrase it like I’m asking for advice. It’s an easy way to start a relaxed conversation. I’m looking for a new book to read. Have you read anything good lately? I want to get more magazines. Do you subscribe to anything? I’m in a cooking rut. What are your go-tos? Same formula for: Podcasts? Places to eat? Places to go for a walk? Things to do with kids? Things to do with visiting family?
      Advice questions are an easy way to engage with lots of different kinds of people—but if in asking your questions, you learn that the person you are talking to is a surgeon, your next question absolutely has to be: what’s the strangest tattoo you’ve seen? The answers will blow your mind!!

  81. Jen says...

    I LOVE the idea of “How was your day?” or “What have you been up to today?” or any variation of that, and I’m mostly writing this comment to help me remember that for future conversations :)))

    If I know the person a bit, like a coworker for example, I tend to use “Got any plans this weekend?” or “Got any fun plans coming up?”, but asking about just the current day feels easier for someone you’ve just met.

    I think “tell me about yourself” is great for interviews or more formal conversations but feels like a whole lot to ask a person as a casual icebreaker.

  82. Cynthia Miller says...

    Jo- or someone!- Please turn these great conversation ideas- in both the post and the coments- into a great deck of cards that we can all put on our Christmas lists! I know I won’t remember these all!

    • Jenna says...

      I love this!

    • Hilde says...

      Yes, please! What a great idea! I would love to get all of these conversation starters put together in a book. A small one, of course, so it would fit in my purse for parties and dates:)

  83. Natalie says...

    Many of my closest friends live far away from me since we’ve all studied away from home/moved for work or relationships, etc but we try to keep in touch with juicy emails! One of my closest friends seemed annoyed when I asked her “what’s new” in an email because she was feeling down and disappointed about a relationship that she didn’t want to disclose yet (I didn’t know her reasons but could sense by her tone that the question hurt her). So next time I messaged her, I asked, “What has been a highlight of your week so far?” It was such an easy way to open a really positive and comfortable conversation.

  84. Two I use at work with new groups (often groups of students I’m mentoring) are: (1) “Tell us how you got your name” or (2) “Tell us something your mom, dad, grandparent, or other ‘grown-up’ taught you that you still remember.” The answers give you a nice, textured sense of someone, and the name one helps the names stick. Not sure they’d be quite right for a stranger at a cocktail party but you never know!

  85. Anna says...

    When I was a camp counselor I liked to ask the girls at my dinner table to share a place they had been in the shoes they were wearing.

    • Megan says...

      I love that!

  86. Steph says...

    One I use as an ice breaker during a company training I have to deliver is “when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?” — I’ve gotten the usual “doctor, lawyer” answers and the hilarious “a cocktail waitress in Bermuda” answers. Not something you share often as an adult so it can be fun.

  87. n says...

    When interviewing people for positions, I always start off with “Tell me about yourself and why you’re interested in :my place of employment:” It’s an easy way to get their elevator bio and how that path has drawn them to sitting in front of me (or hasn’t!). I’ve never thought of using it in a casual setting because it reminds me of interviews.
    Also work related, I attend a good amount of events because of my job. It ranges from exhibition openings to dinners to public programs. Sometimes I’ll be stuck in a group where I don’t really know anyone. I usually ask “So, how do you know :host or artist:?” and it gets the convo going.
    Not work related, I was at a kids birthday party the other day, with other parents I had never met before. When there was an awkward silence I blurted out, “So, what do you think of Game of Thrones?” People had VERY strong opinions and it turned into a hilarious conversation. Note: I have never seen GOT.

    • Paige says...

      Oh man, same boat with GOT. When it first came out, I didn’t own a tv and it was so much fun to have my friends try to explain and tell the story over beers that I decided not to watch it. It was way more interesting to listen to half drunk friends weaving gossipy retellings of episodes and characters, especially when they disagreed with each other’s interpretations! We even had to rescue a friend once who started to wander into traffic because he was imitating a dragon a little too enthusiastically!

  88. K says...

    How was your day-
    A great text to send when you’re thinking of someone.
    A great text to receive.
    It can really keep a friendship’s conversation going when it seems everyone is too busy to come over to play :)

  89. Tami says...

    Every time my husband meets someone new he dives in with the MOST ANNOYING questions:
    1) “Where are you from?” (I know where this is going…)
    2) “What school did you go to?” (cringeworthy)
    3) “What do you do for work?” (double cringeworthy)

    It’s like he’s sizing somebody up – I literally want to stab him but I just walk away and pretend we’re not together ;)

  90. Lisa says...

    Without fail, I alwaysss ask “whats your favorite food?”…..OR “what would your last meal be on death row?” haha

    I LOVE the answers.

    SO anyone answering this, what is your favorite food?

  91. Jeanne says...

    I have a really weird one. I sometimes ask if anyone has had an experience they can’t explain. I get the MOST interesting answers! It’s something rarely asked and most people have some kind of bizarre coincidence, ghost story or something odd their child has said. It often has the effect of prompting others to tell their strange and unusual stories and by then we all want to hear more! Soooo anyone care to share below? :)

    • RR says...

      I LOVE this idea. Have you listened to the podcast mystery show? It’s short and right up this alley!

    • Jeanne says...

      RR: I haven’t heard of that one. I’m so going to look that up right now. Thank you so much!

  92. Courtney says...

    I have kids, and people often interact with them. I’ll often ask, “do you have any kids in your life?” and often people will tell me about being an aunt to these amazing children or will tell me about their awesome fur baby. I’ve found that this is a way for others to talk about themselves without placing a normative value on parenting.

    • Jeannie says...

      I appreciate this SO MUCH. I adore children, and also don’t want any of my own. Your suggestion is so much more inclusive!

  93. Holly says...

    Perfect! Love this.

  94. Kash says...

    I really like “how was your day today?”
    It gets people talking about the personal details of themselves without the pressure of being like Who Am I, Really. Plus, first dates/(any social encounter, really) where you awkwardly rattle off a wikipedia style biography of yourself is way less fun than talking about how your day was ok because you had this weird but delicious thing for lunch and (suddenly it’s a whole conversation)

  95. Allie says...

    I always tell people to give me their favorite three bullet points about themselves. They always laugh and it gets some surprising answers.

  96. Lee says...

    I just read somewhere, I thought here but I guess not, a great ice breaker is “what are you excited about?” I love that! I’m taking my daughter on a mommy and me trip tonight and I’m super excited! It can be a little thing, a big thing, something that already happened but you are still excited by it, or it’s in the future.
    I HATE when people ask me “what’s new”. Makes me feel like a loser. Umm, nothing.

    • Kara says...

      I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out where I read that yesterday, too?? (I loved it as well.) We must read the same stuff on the internet. Haha!

    • Natalie says...

      That’s a great question! Love it. I’m excited about a family trip I’m planning to Nova Scotia this summer:)

    • janee says...

      But that makes me feel pressure I must admit. I’m just trying to make through the week lately – there is not necessarily excitement in that period without a LOT of thought which is too much pressure for casual conversations. What excites me right now? Um, global warming? I am completely overly-excited, not in a good way, about global warming. I think that the pressure to actually have something to be excited about then the depressed feeling that comes when you can’t think of anything just puts people on the spot or forces them to make something up.

      I love the two suggestions in the post though – neither one would cause me stress and allows one to mention everyday life without sinking into negative topics or white lies.

    • freya says...

      I feel the same way re “what’s new?”! I always trail off with “nuthin much….” and then feel like a boring conversation door closer.

  97. Ariana says...

    Many years ago, a few friends and I were out to dinner and somehow we got into a very heated, very hilarious debate about what’s more likely to exist – aliens or ghosts. Two of us were Team Alien and two of us were Team Ghost, and since there was no tiebreaker, we spent HOURS on the topic and continued to rehash it over the years. Since then, I’ve used aliens v. ghosts in conversations and have liked seeing into people’s worldview pretty quickly, while also hearing some really wild ghost stories.

    • claire says...

      wow I love this! thank you for sharing it!

  98. Jillian Bedell says...

    I looked at stock photos of dentists and cheeseburgers (not together), met my ex-husband to have something notarized at the bank then cried in my car, made plans for a moms and kids sleepover with my best friend, listened to “New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down” 7 times, and texted with a handsome artist I’m meeting later.

    #whatdidyoudotoday

    • Natalie says...

      Loved this! XO

    • Y says...

      Was about to say good luck with the artist, but don’t think luck is the right sentiment. How about Happy Dating!

  99. Christine says...

    “What are words?” Made me LOL. I can painfully relate!
    I love the idea of asking “How was your day?” So simple and not a ton of pressure to impress.

  100. Erin says...

    While out at breakfast a few weeks ago, I asked my boyfriend what his favorite thing was about every member of his family. Maybe it’s just me, but I absolutely love hearing people talk about the people they love. It says a lot about those people and a lot about them as well. This doesn’t just have to be about family, you can ask people what they like most about their friends, co-workers, or even their dog :)

    • katie says...

      Oh i LOVE this! What a great question – plus, it’s so rare to be asked to gush about people we love un-romantically (?). Thank you!

    • Savannah says...

      I LOVE this!

    • Karen Canas says...

      adding this to my memory bank for my next date. I too love hearing about other people’s family relationship.

    • Megan says...

      Yes! This! So good. Going to ask my husband this tonight.

    • nadia says...

      I don’t want to be the one ruining this question, it’s a lovely one but I would use it only for someone I already know well as a partner/close friend. I haven’t talked to my father in many years and recently is not going very well with my sister, if asked about them as part of a small talk, I would freeze and maybe start crying.. But if you asked me about my mum, boyfriend, nephews or cat I would have many things to say :)

    • Erin says...

      Nadia- true, I wouldn’t use it on someone I didn’t know well, which is also why I mentioned that you maybe could ask about other people they love, depending on the situation of course. It’s so important to be sensitive to these things, especially when you don’t know much about the person. If I didn’t know the person well, I would probably phrase it simply as, “tell me something you love about someone you love.” Thanks so much for bringing that up and sharing you perspective! <3

  101. Lisa says...

    I like asking people, “Where did you grow up?” or “How long have you lived [where we live]” as it often leads to good stories or other discussions about themselves, their life experiences, travel, or their families.

    • Sondra says...

      I like these questions too…it also leads to good place recommendations that I might not have know about

    • Judy says...

      I love this one! ❤️ Feels totally neutral, non offensive and I can see it being a quick conversation starter!

  102. Laura says...

    Oh Joanna, I laughed so hard when I read that date question: “Tell me a story.” I just started dating after getting divorced a year ago, and that cracked me up. Thank you.

    • Sondra says...

      I also like to ask, “ what made you…?” as a follow up question. As in, “ you just adopted a dog? What made you want to adopt a puppy?” This sort of question let’s you dive deeper than small talk. I use this all the time when meeting new moms at the playground because it kind of gives you a little insight into who they are without being pushy.

  103. Suse says...

    What are you reading?
    or
    What have you read lately that you recommend?

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Oooh love those!

    • megs283 says...

      I love to read – I always have a book going, or just finished a book, or plan to read a book – but that question just makes me freeze!!!

    • Hanh vu says...

      These would be awkward for me. This would be going on on my head: I’m not reading anything. I read something recently, but not anything with such passion that i’d recommend. Should I be reading more? Should I be ashamed for not being more well read? I have good reasons for not reading, but why am I even in this defensive position? Is there a lower barrier to entry somewhere else?

  104. laura says...

    Personally, I do noooot like the ‘tell me about yourself’ conversation starter, along with the, ‘what are your hobbies?’ & ‘what do you do?’ questions. I would prefer the prompt of telling a story. So many possibilities! And they don’t necessarily have to involve myself.

    I like simpler questions. The flight/invisibility one mentioned below. The ‘what are you watching/reading right now?’ question. Things like that that show someone’s personality indirectly, and can lead to broader discussions.

  105. Britt says...

    If I’m catching up with someone after a long time, I’ll say, “Tell me something that’s going really well, and tell me something that’s been harder than you expected.” It’s also what I say to girlfriends when I call in and try to get a 5 minute update (you know, between managing a toddler tantrum, giving the baby a bottle, throwing in a load of laundry, and pouring myself a glass of wine that I will, inevitably, forget about).

  106. JRay says...

    I have to agree with many other commenters…I would hate to have to answer “tell me about yourself” because I would start listing boring biography details. I usually ask what people like to do in their spare time (though I word it more awkwardly so I’m SO GLAD to remember it from now on) or if they’ve seen a movie recently. But at the end of the day, I appreciate it whenever anyone asks me these questions, even if I’m put on the spot. Asking questions is a way of being caring and hospitable–that’s why I ask them and why I don’t mind stumbling through answering them myself.

  107. Awhile back you posted about asking people “what have you been reading lately” instead of “what is your favorite book” and it is much easier to get the conversation started without putting a lot of pressure on guests! Thank you!

  108. Kathleen says...

    I met Mr. Rogers when I was 17. He smiled, shook my hand, and said, “It’s nice to meet you. Tell me — what are you interested in?”

    I’ve always thought it was a perfect question.

    • Anita says...

      That makes me love Mr. Rogers even more! Thank you for sharing that :)

    • Stephanie says...

      That is the perfect question! I love Mr. Rogers! I’m going to have to remember this one :)

    • what a great question!! Definitely going to try that one.

    • janee says...

      Ok this is my new favorite, thanks. It is actually what I want to know.

  109. Lynn says...

    I’ve learned that “what do you do for work?” is considered kinda rude where I live (the bay area of CA). I can understand why, but dude, take a chill pill and maybe don’t write people off if they ask that because not everyone has the perfect opener and at least they are trying to connect! Guess I had to vent. Thank you.

    • megs283 says...

      Yeah! Personally I love hearing what people do for work. It doesn’t make me judge them or think more highly of them. That said, my husband was out of work for a year and now he is “underemployed” and he lives in FEAR of this question when we’re socializing with people…

    • Steph says...

      I had a woman ask me “what do you do with your free time?” at a dinner party recently — I think it was to avoid asking what I did for work, but it was so awkward bc I didnt know if she literally meant my free time (Running! Traveling!) or, what I did day to day (work at a health tech company!).

    • Emily R says...

      I live far far away from the bay area, and I cringe when people ask me what I do. My answer is so boring and isn’t really an indication of who I am. I know it’s an easy default, but unless you are a rocket scientist, I hope there is more to you than work.

  110. Lindsay Burt says...

    I sometimes see Terry Gross in my neighborhood in South Philly. Just this weekend I saw her meeting up with friends at my local pizza place! She’s the best.

    • Michelle says...

      South Philly! Hi neighbor!

    • Judy says...

      I couldn’t ride Septa without assuming every petite woman with a short haircut was Terry Gross 😂

  111. Andrea says...

    someone recently asked me “what’s new with you?” and I have been laying awake at night ever since trying to come up with an answer.

    • Danielle says...

      Lol yes! I hate that one! It always makes me feel so boring, even though there are probably interesting things to say, you just can’t think of anything on the spot.

    • Jen says...

      hahah OMG yes I hate “what’s new?”!!

      Lately I’ve been trying to lean into the pressure of that question and answer with something light but truthful like “Oh, well yesterday I ate a whole large pizza by myself and watched Game of Thrones for 4 hours. How about you?”

    • Melissa says...

      Bahaha! I can relate.

    • freya says...

      Hahaha!

  112. Coralie says...

    agreed. I actually heard Terry Gross say this and tried it on a Thanksgiving guest. He felt so put on the spot, the question was way too much pressure. Total Fail

    • tea says...

      it feels like a job interview!!

  113. bonnie says...

    I love hearing about fun vacations (budget ones, even better), so I often ask folks about a favorite trip they’ve taken. No one’s ever blanked on that and it always seems to be a topic that others join in detailing trips they’re planning or fave memories from trips.

  114. Lindsey says...

    I personally much prefer the “how was your day” to “tell me about yourself.” Telling someone to tell them about me feels so intimidating! There’s so much to tell, how could I possibly narrow it down?! I feel the same way with that phrase that you felt with “Tell me a story.” In many ways, it’s almost the same thing.

    However, my favorite ice breakers are about a specific subject, rather than an open-ended question. I like to ask, “Have you read anything good lately?” or “Seen any killer movies lately?” I think a lot of people, especially introverts or those with social anxiety, need a little bit of direction. Plus it’s about something other than “What do you do?” or “So do you have any kids?”, both of which might be sensitive subjects for some.

    Can’t wait to read the comments–I’m always looking for new ice breakers!

    • Shira says...

      Totally feel you about finding “tell me about yourself” intimidating. It makes me feel like it’s an interview! (Maybe that’s why it works for Terry, her subjects are expecting that).
      I’m also not a fan of “what’s your favorite x?” because I tend to blank and get stuck in deliberations – I liked that book, but is it really my Favorite??

      In e over have, I really like the simpler “how was your day?” and “what are you excited about?” options

  115. Susannah says...

    I like to ask “what’s the best thing you’ve eaten recently?” It usually gets you somewhere interesting really fast (“I was just in Buffalo for a wedding and had wings from the place that invented them!”) and pretty much everyone eats. Or maybe I love this question because I love food and talking about food. Whoopsie. This question also works well with children (I often keep the the “how to talk to children” posts on here in my mind when interacting with little ones) since it isn’t appearance-based and kiddoes often have strong thoughts on food and love to have their opinions taken seriously.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Oooh I love that one, Susannah!!

  116. Calla says...

    Why is it that it’s so hard to produce answers to those kinds of prompts on demand? If someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I will immediately forget every movie I’ve ever seen.

    One thing I noticed when I was online dating and trying to strike up conversation with strangers, is that specific questions are good. It also helps to ask about bad experiences, because who doesn’t like to complain (as long as it is light-hearted)? “What was your worst job?” almost always elicited a better conversation than “What’s your favorite band?” for example.

    Sometimes it feels weird to jump in with something specific, but it really helps to get the conversation going and can help avoid that total blanking out that otherwise feels inevitable.

  117. I love “How was your day?” and this variation: “What did you do today?” That way, if their day wasn’t great or they are going through a rough time, they can still talk about things they *did* so they don’t feel that pressure to share personal details about why their day kind of sucked.

  118. NN says...

    That photo!

  119. Nicole says...

    While this is not applicable to when you are meeting someone for the first time, I overheard my husband ask a friend he hadn’t seen in a while, “what have you been up to in your spare time?”. I thought this was a really nice way to get someone to talk about a hobby or interest, vacation, etc vs just asking the old “how’ve you been?” that tends to lead to a more generic response (fine, good, etc.).

  120. Lee says...

    When meeting new people, I always ask “how do you spend your time”? Sometimes people talk about their jobs and other times people will talk about their love for baking or running.

  121. Ellie says...

    I love, “How was your day?” Or, “What did you do today?” However, I think, “Tell me about yourself” would make me totally self conscious! I never feel confident that what I have to share about my interests/self are interesting to anyone.

    • Calla says...

      I agree, “tell me about yourself” makes me feel like I’m being interviewed and my first response is to take a deep breath, slap on a fake smile and try to sum up my background, job, and interests in two sentences.

  122. Krystyna says...

    My tried-and-true question for meeting new people is to ask which superpower they would choose: “flight or invisibility?”

    For whatever reason, people instinctively know which one they prefer (think about it for a sec), and can immediately come up with a rationale for their choice! Instant conversation ensues. I’ll admit I used it on first dates as a way to suss out whose intentions were noble: inevitably, it seems that the “flight” people cared about seeing the world and creating adventures, whereas the “invisibility” camp just wanted to sneak into movies (or locker rooms)…

    As it turns out, passing my litmus test on a first date may not have been so important after all; I’m a flight girl through-and-through, now happily married to an invisibility guy. (But I still think he chose wrong!)

    • Calla says...

      I love this! I think really narrow questions that are about something outside of yourself are always good. When I was online dating I would ask people if they were more excited for, or scared of, self-driving cars. I found that talking about something that is not yourself was a much quicker way for most people to feel relaxed and be themselves. It’s so hard not to posture and try to present yourself a certain way when you are being asked to describe yourself.

    • Lisa says...

      I love this question and when I have it asked of me or hear it used and yes, I feel very passionately about my answer.

    • cg says...

      Hahaha! I love this. This or that choice conversations can really spark debate. I’m a teacher, and have thrown out “pickles or cucumbers” to the class. It’s amazing how quickly they chime in and they’re extremely passionate about their choice, the ruckus that the convo created was hilarious. One student even mentioned it in their end of year eval for the course, it was so funny.

  123. K says...

    I think asking “How was your day?” is a great one!

    • Calla says...

      Yeah that would never really occur to me to ask a stranger or new acquaintance, but when I think about it , I’d love to be asked that by someone. And its relatively easy to answer

    • Nadege says...

      I was asked this on a first date, and the honest answer (that I promised myself I wouldn’t say out loud was): “Awful! I just signed divorce papers after a 2 year separation. I cried a lot. I shouldn’t even be here. I’ve already been in love. I have no intentions of trying for love again. We can have this drink, but just know that I’m not looking for a relationship onramp of any kind.” which I ended up blurting out anyhow. Surprisingly we went out again. and a few times after that. And now five years and a three year old later we are still asking each other that question.

  124. Michelle says...

    Tell me about yourself…. Four of the most terrifying words to answer in my opinion.

    • celeste says...

      Job interviews :) What the hell will they care about most?

    • Steph says...

      I was thinking the exact same thing! My mind instantly flashes to job interviews and the horror of striking the right balance between sharing my career goals but also seeming like an interesting person. I panic at that question!

    • Karmen says...

      Totally agree! I’m hyperventilating just thinking about it.

    • K says...

      I completely agree! I picture the person who just asked that question then leaning back and crossing their arms as if their job is done while you have to stand there on the spot and put together a long answer. I don’t think this is conducive to the casual back-and-forth that usually gets a conversation going!

      Maybe it works for Terry Gross because she’s asking it in a professional setting…

      I think “How was your day?” is great though! I’m looking forward to using it! I imagine it could open up all kinds of pathways for conversation.

    • Exactly! It makes my palms sweat just thinking about how to answer that…

    • Hilde says...

      YES! It’s way too much pressure, it’s like, sell yourself and make yourself sound interesting in a few sentences.

    • Joe says...

      My reply would be: “What do you want to know about me?” I want to find a common ground (not work, either) with someone I meet and if I have no clue about you, where is the common ground? (Unless of course I see something on you that gives me a clue that we may have a common ground).

      I would say that most people love vacation. Tell me about your most recent vacation. Tell me about your dream vacation. Even if it’s not where you want to go, you might learn something

  125. Erica says...

    I always like something along the lines of “So, how’d you end up here?”. It works at a party or gathering (i.e. how do you know the hosts, who did you come with, etc), or even an icebreaker at work (i.e. what brought you to XYZ company). People like to tell their stories, but also have a way to pass the buck if need be (i.e. my husband got a job here so we moved to town; my friend invited me; etc), and also don’t have to get into anything deeper about themselves than how they literally got to that exact spot today if they don’t want to.

    • Rosie says...

      YES. How do you know the hosts has served me so well at parties where I don’t know many people. I actually really dislike tell me about yourself. I also fall back on complimenting peoples clothes a lot. It’s lame, but most people appreciate the compliment.

  126. EC says...

    Genius! My favorite Ice Breaker for a group is “what was your high school/college job?”. People love telling stories from their teenage years and you get to know a whole new side of people. Plus it usually results in positive and non-offensive conversation; perfect for professional gatherings!

    • Amy says...

      I love this idea! “Tell me about yourself” gives me the hives just thinking about it, but we all have some pretty funny anecdotes from the teen years.

  127. H says...

    Maybe because what I do can spark some intense conversation (healthcare & policy researcher evaluating the Affordable Care Act *gasp!*) but I am not a big fan of “so what do you do?”, so I totally co-sign your friend’s advice/question! First dates, dinners with long time friends, strangers at parties…I always ask “What’d you do today/this week?!” It’s fun to see how people spend their days compared to your own, and almost always leads to a side story that you can relate to and turns into a real conversation instead of something that seems canned or too-specific. Great topic & fun advice!

    • Pearl says...

      Since you mentioned it … Along with all the other issues about ACA, one is front and center – preexisting conditions. In 2007, my husband was diagnosed with AML (leukemia) and fortunately had a bone marrow transplant to the tune of $1 million plus, which our health insurance covered but then cancelled the policy. What are people supposed to do in a situation such as that ? What kind of country do we live in where insurance companies cancel policies because people get sick, and then you can’t get coverage by another company because you now have preexisting condition? Come on people, don’t we deserve better?

    • Hilary says...

      I’d love to hear from readers in other countries, but I find the “what do you do?” question to be a very American thing. Like Americans are overly interested and care about your profession more than other countries. Perhaps because it seems so tied to our identity?

    • Pearl says...

      Just to add to my previous comment as it is unclear. I was trying to make the point how important it is to continue ACA (or something similar) because it provides protection for those with preexisting conditions. Thanks for letting me use this blog as my soapbox. American people deserve affordable health care benefits!

    • cg says...

      @Pearl, it’s unfortunate what happened to you and your husband, and you’re right, it’s something that needs taking care of. However, how does that apply to what H had to comment? What H does for a living is really more of a sidenote to what they’re trying to say (convo starters). In fact, it seems that it’s precisely what H is pointing to, their line of work sometimes sparks too much (uncomfortable?) conversation to start with and the preference is to go more generic.