Yes, You Can Start A Conversation With Anyone — Really!

Photographed by Bianca Valle.
So you're at a networking event and you have no idea what to say to the person you've just met. Do you ask about their job, even though it sounds boring? Inquire about what movies they've seen recently, secretly praying they're not into sci-fi (or whatever genre you don't know anything about)?

Starting a conversation can be challenging, whether it's in the office kitchen or at a friend of a friend's birthday party. You don't want to rely on the same old, "Where do you work?" question, but you also don't want to offend anyone by accidentally bringing up something controversial. And if you don't know what a person's interests are, it's hard to ask in a way that doesn't sound awkward or totally canned.

To get some insight into how to start a convo you'll both actually want to be part of, we turned to the experts. We talked to Lizzie Post, spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute and cohost of the Awesome Etiquette podcast, and Jacqueline Whitmore, certified speaking professional and etiquette expert, to share their tips on starting a conversation with anyone (really!).

Click through to find out the pros' best advice — you'll never fear small talk again.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Post and Whitmore recommend having a 30-second "elevator pitch," so you'll be ready to answer common questions. If you work in an uncommon job field, for example, you might want to have a few talking points ready to explain what you do. You don't have to oversell yourself, but it's good to have an idea you can tweak depending on if you're making small talk with someone you just met at a house party or the CEO of your company.

It's okay to have a few go-to pop culture references, too. Obsessed with Stranger Things or Game of Thrones? There's a good chance the other person might be, as well.

"We've all been in the position where it can be tough asking questions of someone, so be the nice guy on the other side," Post advises.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Post stresses the idea of being "honestly curious" in your conversations. If someone says something that piques your interest — or something you don't understand and want to know more about — you should definitely ask additional questions.

If someone says they work in a field you don't know much about, for example, Post suggests responding with something like, "Oh, I haven't met anybody in that field before — what's a typical day look like for you?"

And if all else fails, there's nothing wrong with a simple, "Tell me more about that."
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Whether you don't want to talk about sports, or the small talk about your job has reached a natural stopping point, it's okay to move on to a different topic of conversation. You don't have to be rude — and you should answer whatever your companion has asked you before changing the topic — but don't be afraid to switch gears.

If someone asks if you're in a relationship, for example, you don't have to tell them the particulars about just why you're single. Offer a vague, concise answer, and then change the topic, suggests Post. Something like, "Yes, and my friends and I just came back from an amazing trip to Costa Rica. Have you been?" answers the question and brings the topic back to a subject you're more comfortable with.
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"It is stereotypical small talk, but gosh darn, it works for a reason," Post says of discussing the weather. That doesn't mean awkwardly looking at the sky, though — use the weather as an opening for a more substantive conversation.

For example, if the weather's nice out, you could use that as a lead-in to discuss a beautiful wedding ceremony you recently attended, Post suggests. Or if you've been having a lot of rainfall, you can ask if the bad weather's affected any of your companions' plans.
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Even if you don't want to discuss them, political topics might come up in conversation. Especially in an election year, you should be prepared to talk politics with both friends and acquaintances.

The key, Post advises, is to not be overly argumentative if someone has an opposing view to yours. She suggests asking them why they believe what they believe — it might help you better understand where they're coming from. "It doesn't mean that, by listening, you're somehow contributing to the other side's agenda," Post says.

She cites a scene from Forgetting Sarah Marshall in which Jason Segel's character, Peter, says, "I'm going to disagree, respectfully, of course," while at a group dinner. A simple phrase like this is all you need — you don't have to launch into a litany of reasons why you think the other person is wrong.
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Asking someone about their job and their hobbies are generally safe bets. But inquiring too much about personal details can be risky.

It's best not to ask, for example, about someone's family or relationship status, if they don't offer that information first. Another topic that should be, for the most part, off-limits, is money, Post advises. Even asking how much someone spent on airfare for a far-flung trip oversteps, so just avoid any questions — even if, for example, you are dying to know how much a roundtrip ticket to Iceland is this time of year.

And if someone asks you a personal question, you can redirect the conversation — but don't ignore them completely, because that's rude, too. For example, if you've just been laid off, and someone asks you about work, Post suggests saying something like "Oh my gosh, work is definitely something I don't want to talk about right now," before asking a question on a different topic.
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If the conversation is starting to resemble an interview, and you feel like you're pulling teeth, you don't have to keep talking to that person all night.

"After you've tried asking a few questions, and you're just getting one-word answers out of someone, it's okay for you to let that conversation go, and move on to try to enjoy yourself with another guest," Post says.

Whitmore suggests politely ending the conversation by saying something like, "It's been nice talking to you, thank you for your time." If it's a work situation with someone much more senior, consider ending the interaction with a handshake, otherwise, a smile is fine.