Talking about the weather while stuck in the elevator with a total stranger; getting peppered with questions about your love life from the person you just met at a party; and answering the age-old, “So, what do you do?” question with a reluctant dive into your resume while in a coffee shop line–small talk sometimes sucks. Yes, small talk can feel boring, awkward, and soul-sucking, but it can also be incredibly useful. Knowing how to talk to someone new is a crucial skill for building personal relationships, meeting new friends, and networking. Small talk is a way to get to know people and form quick connections. Since a conversation with someone new can easily lean into boring, offensive, or pushy territory, we’ve listed eight ways to respond to the worst small talk questions. Read on to become an expert on changing the subject so you know how to get out of any tricky small-talk situation.
1. “This weather/traffic/party is ____.”
Is the same old weather conversation mundane and boring? Absolutely. But the weather, traffic, or commenting on the event you’re at is the easiest way for the person you’re talking to to find common ground and build a connection. They don’t know anything else about you, but they know you are experiencing the same weather, traffic patterns, or current experience that they are. Build off of the common ground (no matter how basic), to ask questions that will get you deeper. For example, if someone brings up how nice the weather has been lately, respond with, “I know, we’ve been so lucky for this time of year! Have you always lived in the area?” Likewise, if you’re at a party and someone brings up the event, ask how they know the host. Use the opportunity to ask deeper questions to better understand their background and build more commonality than just the weather/traffic/party you’re at.
2. “When are you having kids?”
While a lot of small talk can be painful, overly personal questions are by far the worst. (FYI: Stop asking women about their reproductive plans. Period.) Not only can asking about your future plans feel intrusive and inappropriate, but it might even be triggering. Your life timeline and family planning is private, not a topic of small talk at a family gathering or open for the person you just met at a party to discuss.
No matter if they’re a family member, stranger you just met, or a professional connection, you do not owe them a response beyond, “That’s a personal question I prefer not to discuss.” If you’re looking to continue the conversation in a different direction, say “I’m focused on other goals right now,” and talk about a topic you’re more comfortable with like settling into a new home or something you’re working on in your career, or turn the conversation on the other person by asking them questions on a different topic.
3. “When are you two getting married?”
Can we all just agree to stop asking women when they are getting married? Whether or not or when you’re taking a next step is nobody’s business besides you and your significant other (no, that does not include your mother/sister/nosy aunt). Even if you are in a LTR does not mean you’re looking to put a ring on it (so this question just feels offensive), or maybe marriage is a point of disagreement in your relationship and that question might be triggering. Again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation and a totally acceptable response is that you prefer not to answer that question. For other ways to divert the conversation, try “We’re enjoying dating right now! We actually just booked a vacation for next spring and are so excited…” or “Marriage is not a priority for me. I’ve been much more excited about the project I’m starting at work…”
4. “So, what do you do?”
First, reciting your business card is boring as hell. But it also might feel like the other person is asking just to fill an awkward silence, not because they care, or worse, you feel like they’re asking to determine if you can do anything for them. Yes, work is the most basic conversation starter since work can reflect of what you’re passionate about. But our culture is focused so heavily on success and work culture, we confuse what we do with who we are. News flash: Your identity is not the same thing as your career. If you love talking about your career, go for it! But if it feels like another boring conversation, divert the conversation to passions instead of jobs. Say, “I work in marketing, but lately I’ve been really into volunteering at the animal shelter and it’s been so fulfilling. How do you spend your off-time?”
5. “Who did you vote for?”
You’d think we’d be past the point of confusing small talk with controversial politics, but some nosy family members or acquaintances looking for a disagreement just can’t take the hint. You should feel confident and proud of your political preferences and decisions, and it’s totally OK to talk politics, as long as you want to and are prepared to have an open-minded conversation with someone who may have a different perspective. If you’re not interested in sharing your voting decisions or you know the conversation is not going to end well no matter what, answer with a simple, “Voting is really important, but now that the election is over, I’m focused on X, Y, and Z issues. What about you?”
6. “Where are you from? No, really–where are you from?”
OK so there’s a couple of ways this question could go. In one way, someone might be asking out of genuine interest in your background and history. The topic of where we’re from can spark conversations about childhood, or help us get to know each other better by knowing the life paths that brought us to where we are. In other words, asking about hometowns can be a great conversation starter to get to know each other better. However, if someone is repeatedly asking you where they’re from even after you answer (read: “I’m from Chicago” “…no but where are you from“), it’s just plain rude. If you want to, you can ask for clarification like, “Are you asking where I was born, where I grew up, or where my ancestors originated from?” or answer with whatever that question means to you, and ask them the same thing. Also, if you want to excuse yourself and walk away, that’s cool too.
7. “How are you?”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking “How are you?” but it is more of a polite phrase than it is a conversation starter. If only we lived in a world where a normal response would be “I’m really struggling at work and am questioning the future of my relationship so I’ve been really on edge and stressed lately,” instead of “Good, you?” this question would actually be a great way to know people better. To move on from the basic politeness and get into a deeper conversation, you don’t have to answer truthfully how you are if you don’t feel like opening up to the cashier who’s just being polite or a friend’s friend who is just looking for a basic chit-chat. In fact, all you need to spark something a little detail is to give a specific anecdote like, “I’ve been tying up a huge project at work, so looking forward to relaxing!”