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What Are the Two Most Common Small-Talk Questions?

Tips for Encouraging Conversation During Small Talk

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When you first meet someone, what are the most likely questions that you will be asked? In most conversations, the following questions are usually the ones that you will hear:

"Where are you from?"

and

"What do you do?"

If you suffer with social anxiety, your first impulse might be to answer these questions as briefly as possibly to deflect the spotlight away from you. For example, you might answer the question, "Where are you from?" with a quick answer: "Chicago". Or, you might reply to the query "What do you do?" with a mumbled "I work at a bank".

What is wrong with these replies? According to author of the book "How to talk and instantly connect with anyone", Leil Lowndes, when we reply with single word answers that give our listeners no additional information, we in essence stifle any further conversation. Lowndes refers to these as "naked" answers.

How can we respond in ways that instead encourage conversation? Basically, you need to provide your listener with a little tidbit of information that helps them understand something more about where you live or where you work; something that gives them a way to connect with what you are saying.

For example, if asked where you are from, instead of just replying "Chicago", you could add something interesting about the city. "I am from Chicago... you know, the place where we dye the river green every St. Patrick's Day". If you are talking to a sports fan, you could make a comment about your sports teams. Talking to an art enthusiast? Mention the Chicago Art Institute. What you say is not as important as the simple act of saying something.

When replying to the question, "What do you do?", try to think in advance about your response. This question is asked so commonly in social circles, there is really no excuse for not having a well-thought-out reply.

In my own life, I have sometimes struggled with how to answer this question. As an employee in the research department at our local school board as well as a Guide here at About.com, I have two jobs that are somewhat hard to describe to other people. In the past I have made the mistake outlined by Lowndes. I might have replied "I work at the school board" or "I am a writer" without giving any additional information. Although these answers were not terrible (they were usually followed up with "Are you a teacher?" or "What do you write?") they certainly weren't helpful to my listeners either.

I was always fascinated when a friend of mine would introduce me as a "writer for the New York Times". Although this was technically accurate (About.com was previously owned by the New York Times), I always felt it was somewhat inaccurate; to me it conjured up images of hard-hitting journalists working at the Times building trying to meet wee hour deadlines.

I now realize though, that he was simply trying to give people a tidbit of information that they could relate to. Not everyone knew who About.com was, but everyone had heard of the New York Times.

Now if I were to explain what I do, it might go something like this:

"I write articles for a website about social phobia. Social phobia is when people are afraid of public speaking or other social situations."

Almost everyone can relate to fears about public speaking so I have opened up the lines of communication by mentioning specifically what I write about. Then, if someone is web savvy, I can talk more about who I write for or the precise aspects of my job description. The most important part of the initial description is to talk about something that others can understand and that will easily lead to further conversation.

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