Small Talk with Strangers: How to Feel Less Awkward

Holiday season is nearly upon us, and with that comes work parties, networking events, receptions, and other perhaps awkward conversations with strangers. Some people seem to strike up a conversation with almost anyone, instantly charming and leaving with a handful of new friends. If you find networking low-key tortuous, consider yourself not at all alone. It’s easy to dismiss small talk as vapid and pointless, but without it we wouldn’t get to know others. Think of small talk as the ’on ramp’ to deeper relationships.

Here are some easy strategies to use when meeting new people – whether at a professional event, a work party, or a social gathering. These tools help get the conversation going, and make you feel more in control.


Anchor: find something in the current situation (say, networking event at a museum) to comment on that serves as the ‘anchor’ to start the conversation. This does not need to be a deep thought, and, in fact, it shouldn’t be; most people at events are there to be light-hearted. Try observing something interesting around you. “This museum always has such interesting exhibits.”

Reveal: next, say something that connects back to your anchor, and perhaps share something about yourself to spark interest. “I came here frequently growing up, and my favorite exhibit was the Chihuly Glass.”

Encourage: keep the conversation going with a question to engage the person you’re speaking with. “What’s your favorite exhibit or piece of art?” Continue with questions and comments, relying more on asking and listening than speaking about yourself. Give the other person time to speak, and for you to relate and engage with them. Eventually, you’ll start talking about something other than the anchor, and you’ll be on your way to less awkward conversations.

If you find yourself chatting in a small group and the conversation goes stale, remember FORM. This is an easy acronym to remember questions to spark the group.

Family – do you have any siblings? What was it like being an only child/middle sibling/oldest?

Occupation – how did you get into _____? I heard you mention research earlier, what are you studying?

Recreation – what’s your favorite thing to do outside of work? Are there any good hiking trails around here?

Motivation – where would you go if you could travel anywhere?

Imagining yourself as the host in social situations puts you in the driver’s seat of conversations. The host is a leader and is active, not passive, in group settings. Good hosts take initiative to meet new people and work to make others feel comfortable and welcome. You do not have to be an extrovert to feel comfortable meeting new people. In fact, sometimes it is best to listen more than talk. Happy Chatting!

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