Parties can cause me slight anxiety as I circulate about and “work the room.” Mingling is essential to having a good time, an art if you do it right. Having a few drinks helps me to be more confident and relaxed: interested and interesting. But how do you spark a great conversation? You start out with the unavoidable, discerning small talk. What do you do for a living is a typical opening question, personal but not too personal. It’s this kind of generic interaction that can lead to the next banal talking point. Unless they say something like, “I’m a brain surgeon.” Then I got nothing and am forced to reach deep into my mind to come up with something smart or witty. When I get that same question, I always tell people, “I fetch rocks and put out fires,” which is true albeit non-specific. I hate saying what I “do” because it’s not very impressive and tough to explain.
I do have one advantage in the small talk realm though, I am a naturally curious person. This trait doesn’t guarantee a meaningful conversation, but it can be more compelling. Why ask something mundane when you can really connect. However, never mix up small talk for genuine interest. There is nothing small about being inquisitive because I often pose more of a soft invitation to explain or describe. Sort of like a casual interview. It’s a great way to become familiar with someone on a real level. My inquiries usually start with “Tell me about …”
Maybe my amiable interrogation stems from my love of stories. I enjoy hearing about other lives. I guess deep down I’m a voyeur seeking a fix. So, after I determine the conversation is going well, I’ll inevitably look for more information to absorb. I may ask, “Tell me about your first job.” This question usually causes people to happily reminisce as they recount what it was like to have their first grownup job. One guy told me that he buried dead cats. What? Another man said he managed a pizza shop at 16 years old. Impressive. You can imagine all the follow-up questions to those answers. No matter what the job was, the discussion usually led to a lot of laughter.
When I become comfortable with someone, I like to ask my favorite “Tell me about…” inquiry. The question always produces such a wide and varied range of answers. Sometimes there is no response because they have no knowledge of it, or they are taken back by the personal nature of it. Either way, I ask it because it involves the most profound of all stories: Love. “Tell me your parent’s love story” I say. Some people stare at me with a blank look and confess that they have no idea. I feel bad for them, because if they don’t know how their parents met, do they really know the very beginning of their own family story? However, most of the time, people will gladly elaborate on their unique history.
A man from New Jersey told me that his parents met in Central Park NYC. His mother was on an out-of-control runaway horse and his father jumped on another horse to save her. He was delighted telling all the details and I was rapt. Another guy said his parents had met a few times at the office, became pen pals when he was in the service during WWII and got engaged through letters. They never had a date before they were married. He enjoyed telling their story, as he smiled and shook his head, “married until the day he died.”
Small talk serves an important purpose in many situations, especially parties. I understand that, but I’ve never been very good at it. I prefer to dig a little deeper when the time is right. Believe me, my unusual questions are never the first thing I ask. I have the obligatory chit chat that eventually evolves to a place of authenticity where stories emerge. Life is built on stories. So go to the party, have a drink, eat some cheese and crackers, mingle and introduce yourself. Some big conversations start with small talk.
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I’ll start: My parents met on a playground when they were kids!