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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

How to Talk to Almost Anyone

My boss called and asked me to go to the Vancouver BC airport to pick up our banquet speaker. I was the only one in Canada, the executives and board members wouldn’t leave Seattle until later. The biggest problem with my assignment was that I wasn’t a football fan, so I’d never set eyes on the reigning Seahawks coach I was to meet. I wasn’t sure how I’d recognize him even though I’d been told he was wearing tan pants, white shirt, and navy blue blazer—not exactly unique business garb during that era.


It was a rocky start. The literally big man did not want to buckle his seatbelt because it was tight. I insisted saying it was Canadian law and I didn’t want to get pulled over. What I really thought was, “What if I have accident and he’s injured???” It became glaringly obvious that I didn’t follow his or any sport. But what might have been a painfully silent twenty-five minute drive to the upscale hotel was saved by my ability to engage in small talk.


I pride myself in being able to chat with just about anyone. It might not be the most scintillating of conversations but I’m capable of greasing social wheels. I tried a number of topics before igniting a spark with travel. A recount of his recent trip to France eased the awkwardness and he visibly relaxed—and my blood pressure returned to normal.


Small talk gets a bad rap but it’s a way to break the ice. It’s an essential skill if you wish to help colleagues, customers or anyone else, feel comfortable and welcome. If you have the higher status (i.e., socially or hierarchically), the burden is on you to find conversational fodder to put others at ease. Apparently, the coach wasn’t aware of that; fortunately, I was on the case.


It used to be that weather was an uncontroversial opener. What could possibly go wrong discussing temperature or precipitation (or the lack thereof)? Apparently, a lot. Recently, I was asked by the online journal Bored Panda to comment on a story about a man who was assigned sensitivity training by his company. During an afterwork social, his banter with colleagues turned to the extremely high temperatures where he lives in Canada. He mentioned this was due to climate change. Seems his Texas coworkers perceived this as a criticism of their political and religious beliefs and reported him to HR. (I will leave my thoughts about the business’s dubious response for a different conversation.)


So, how does a person land on inconsequential subjects these days? I’m guessing travel may continue to be an approved topic. Here are some others: music, sports or who has the best streaming shows, food, hobbies, pets, where you grew up, surprises that delighted you, places you’ve lived. What conversation starters do you use? Please share them in the chat.


Now that you know what you might discuss, the next thing is how.


  • Use an open-ended question or statement that invites elaboration from the other party. Examples: “What have you liked about living here?” “What about your hobby drew you to it?” “Tell me the story of your pet.” “How do you decide where to go?”

  • Acknowledge what they’ve said through a brief statement or a question about the content. Examples: “No kidding.” “I didn’t know that.” “Wow, that’s impressive.” “Do you consider yourself to be fluent in Basque?”

  • If the conversation drags, use prompts to keep them talking. Examples: “Tell me more about your experience.” “What was that like?” “Where did you find a teacher?”

  • Add your own relevant experience to develop the conversation. Examples: “A similar spot for a great get away is____.” “I get engrossed in _____.” “We binge-watched our way through_____.”


It was the prompt, “What did you most enjoy about Paris?” that opened up my passenger. At the hotel (after he squeezed out of my tiny green VW Scirocco), the coach was mobbed by adoring fans who knew who he was even in BC. That evening, our guest, as well as the president of my organization, a flock of vice presidents, and I adjourned to the lounge. Everyone was far above my pay grade. As they slid into a large banquette, I found myself right behind The Star. I panicked because I had no more banter to offer. I turned to the vice president behind me, a former college football player, and motioned for him to sit next to his hero. As if giving me a gift, he said, “That’s okay, you can sit next to him.”


It’s not every day you can simultaneously play fairy godmother and save yourself. “No, you have more in common.” He beamed and took my place. Soon they were drawing football plays on the back of a cocktail napkin. Meanwhile, I chattered with a couple of vice presidents who also didn’t follow sports. Thank goodness for easy small talk.

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