Parties where you know virtually no one can be awkward, especially if you’re not sure how to start a conversation.
You could rely on the classic “So what do you do for a living?” But then you run the risk of coming off as the least interesting or original person at the party.
Maybe you’re interested in making a new professional contact, or perhaps you simply want to make a good impression on a friend of a friend.
Whatever the reason, busting out the clichés upon the first introduction is never a good idea.
To mix the conversation up a bit, try using one of these 17 icebreakers. They should help ease you into an engaging conversation with people you’ve never met before.
A smile, a name, and a confident handshake can sometimes go a long way, writes Ariella Coombs, a content manager for Careerealism.com.
“Sometimes the easiest way to meet someone is to offer a handshake and say ‘hi,'” she writes.
‘What do you do for fun when you’re not working?’
Asking personal questions about people’s activities outside of work can help solidify a connection, Shan White, owner of Women’s Peak Performance Coaching, tells Refinery29.
Asking about someone’s after-work hobbies is “semi-personal, yet still professionally acceptable to ask,” White says. “This can bring some levity and humour into the conversation while also letting you see what lights them up — what brings them real joy.”
‘Hey guys, do you mind if I join you just to eavesdrop?’
As Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” previously told Business Insider, his policy is: If two people are conversing at a networking event, then it’s rude to interrupt them — but if it’s a group of three or more, then you can politely ask to join the conversation using this approach.
Once you’ve been granted permission to listen in, standby until someone says something you don’t understand. At that point, Ferris says you should ask: “Could you clarify that for me?” Someone will hopefully ask who you are, giving you a window to make your introduction, he explains.
‘I’ll be honest, the only person I know here is the bartender, and I just met him two minutes ago. Mind if I introduce myself?’
Humour is a good method to put another attendee at ease and jump-start a lighthearted conversation.
‘Hmmm, I’m not quite sure what that dish is. Do you know?’
Rather than silently stand in line for food, take the opportunity to start a conversation about the topic on everyone’s mind: food.
Ask about the dish they think looks good, or the mystery dish, Coombs writes. “Who knows, you might leave the buffet with a better plate of food AND a new contact.”
‘Hey, aren’t you friends with …?’
Even if you don’t really think you know this person, you can walk up to anyone and ask if they are friends with someone else who is at the event, writes Jessica Gordon of The Daily Muse.
If they say no, feign a mild surprised reaction and conversation will commence.
‘Have any fun trips planned?’
The holidays are a popular time for people to travel, and talking about plans is almost guaranteed to get the conversation going because most people have some idea of where they’d like to go, even if it’s in the distant future, and love to talk about it. And if the details haven’t been hashed out yet, it’s easy for your conversation partner to say “No, but I’d love to go to …”
‘Are you from around here?’
Asking a location-based question will help you jump-start an engaging conversation with ease because “it doesn’t feel like you are asking for a stiff elevator speech,” Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, tells US News and World Report.
The conversation will allow both parties to talk about themselves, which is the ultimate goal when starting a conversation.
‘Did you hear about …?’
Be sure to scan the headlines the day of the party so you can ask for opinions about it, especially if it affects someone’s line of work, writes Levo League’s Meredith Lepore. This topic will get a discussion going, and it will show that you keep up with current events. That’s a win-win, she says.
Of course, while misery may love company, there’s nothing worse for a first impression than a negative attitude.
‘Have you started watching …?’
If it’s the hottest new show on Netflix, odds are people have heard of it at the very least, and they may even be able to talk in detail with you about if they’re also avid fans.
If they haven’t watched yet, you could follow up by asking what shows they have been into lately. You’ll probably stumble upon something you have in common at some point.
If you genuinely like something someone is wearing, compliment them, Michelle Tillis Lederman, CEO of the professional-development firm Executive Essentials, tells US News and World Report.
Not only will they be flattered, but you can also ask a follow-up question about where they got the item, which could lead to a fun conversation. One caveat: Don’t fake it, Lederman warns. People can easily sniff out disingenuousness.
‘Man, this party’s getting crazy. Mind if I join you over here where it’s a little quieter?’
Find someone on the outskirts of the ongoing conversations and introduce yourself, says Coombs.
Since they are alone and possibly looking miserable, they are probably uncomfortable with the social situation, Coombs says. By initiating the interaction, you can help to put them at ease and get them into the flow of a conversation.
‘What did you think of this …?’
Conversations flow around common experiences, so Lederman says to bring up the one thing you know you both have in common: What’s going on around you.
Asking about the party, the group discussion, or even the restaurants around the area will give you both a chance to contribute to the conversation.
‘Would you have any insight or advice on …?’
Letting people use their expertise to help you will make them feel good and be more open to connecting with you, Lederman tells CareerBliss.
You can ask about anything, from a work project to their opinion on which new car you should buy. Just be sure to genuinely listen and reflect on their advice, Lederman says. As the old saying goes we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
‘What’s your reality-TV guilty pleasure?’
Almost everyone watches at least one show that they’re at least a little embarrassed about, ZinePak cofounder Brittany Hodak tells Inc., and she says that sharing those guilty pleasures with a stranger is fun.
“It’s funny how quickly you can bond with someone who admits to sharing your secret obsession,” Hodak says.
‘What’s your favourite part about what you do?’
If you still really want to find out what the person you’re talking to does for a living, you could try spinning the question by asking what your conversation partner loves about their job or what’s the most memorable thing that happened at their job.
This also has the added benefit of keeping the conversation positive, which will leave people with a more positive impression of you.
“Well, you guys are certainly having more fun than the last group I was talking to.”
If all else fails, try something totally random that just might work, write the editors at The Daily Muse, like inserting yourself into an engaging conversation by commenting on how fun their group looks from the outside.
Natalie Walters contributed to an earlier version of this article.