Last holiday season, I somewhat accidentally ended up at a family-friendly gathering where I knew very few people. And by family friendly, I mean kids running everywhere. As one of the few child-free adults there, I definitely felt stumped at first as to what I could possibly talk about with these strangers.
However, since up-and-leaving would not be socially unacceptable, I decided to enjoy myself and get to know some people. Not every conversation was easy, and not every one flowed. There were some awkward moments and pauses and, “I’m just going to freshen my drink,” ducking-out moments, but in spite of that, it was a genuinely fun evening.
I may not have made any lifelong connections, but I figured out a way to find common ground with people I have little in common with—and that’s always an accomplishment in itself.
Here are my honest tips on how I did it. And I say honest, because sometimes it’s not as easy as simply asking someone what they do and hoping the conversation will flow from there.
1. Feign Interest
Like I said, I’m going to be honest. Pretending to care may be what you have to do before you can get close to anything authentic. As long as your face doesn’t reveal how you really feel, it’s not a bad way to get the ball rolling and see where you land. My easy opening was chatting up other guests about the children running around.
I may only be a parent of a hound dog, but I know that as much as I love talking about that handsome pup of mine, it’s not nearly as much as parents love chatting about their children. Bringing up a topic I knew they cared very much about started the conversation.
And my somewhat forced excitement over the language skills of Paul, Jr. eventually led us to discussing foreign films and how, initially, the subtitles feel like too much work, but if the movie it’s good, you soon forget they’re even there. Unlike Paul Jr., this is something I could talk about for hours.
The point is, if you feel at a loss with where to take the conversation or how to make small talk, grab onto something that you’re pretty sure the other person will latch onto. Chances are you’ll go off on a tangent that has you forgetting how you got there in the first place.
2. Be Hospitable
Offer to freshen a cocktail or get someone you’re speaking with a glass of water. You don’t have to be the hostess to refill someone’s drink or get him a small plate of food when you go up to the cheese board. While not quite a universal love, it turns out that quite a lot of bonding can be done over food and eating. So, if the conversation has come to a quick, thudding stop, and you can’t for the life of you find a way to keep it going, suggest taking a walk to where the snacks are.
You’ll either temporarily lose each other to other people, or you’ll find some munchies and a way back into a conversation about how good the guac is or how much everyone loves those mini-hot dogs with mustard. Before you know it, you’re discussing what the best street food you’ve ever had is and how the food truck craze is the coolest thing to ever happen to the restaurant scene.
It’s not necessary to get into anything deep to find commonality. Some of my best conversations with people I’ve just met are about silly TV shows or debating which local drugstore really has the better prices. Finding common ground is often about connecting on the little things.
3. Ask for a Breakdown
I tend to be fascinated by people who are good at what they do, people who know their industry inside out and can speak intelligently to it. Whether it’s a corporate lawyer, an anthropologist, or a commercial real estate director, I find that hearing someone talk about what they know so much about captivating.
Of course, I usually need it to be broken down to a level where I can understand it if it’s quite far from my wheelhouse, but that works in your favor because people love talking about themselves. Plus, it usually extends the answer to “What do you do?” much further.
Let’s say you meet the head engineer of a company you’re somewhat familiar with. As he starts talking about the challenges of his job, stop him before he goes any further over your head, and simply say, “So, I don’t have much of an engineering brain, but I am interested in understanding what it is you do in a given day or week. Can you explain it to me in layman’s terms?”
Many people will be happy to try to break it down to you—and more often than not, there will be a pause in the discussion when you can jump in with a follow-up question or an anecdote about a similar situation you’ve found yourself in (because no matter the industry, a job is a job wherever you are).
Finding shared interests with people who you appear to have nothing in common with isn’t always possible. But, more often than not, with a little effort, you can find something—even if it’s not meaningful or memorable.
It’s OK if it’s more about just getting through the moment than creating a lifelong connection that you can count on. Learning to do that—with anyone, anywhere—is reason for applause.
Photo of dinner party courtesy of Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images.