You are at a networking event, or a conference. You don’t know anyone. You’ve already done the thing where you kill a few minutes replying to texts and emails, maybe even while frowning slightly at your phone to suggest that you’re engaged in Serious Business Work. It’s mingling time and you are not, by nature, a mingler. What to do?
For the introverted among us, it’s probably easy to justify not trying. After all, it’s likely just going to be superficial discussion about the weather and poor quality of the breakfast buffet—and that’s only if you get past the awkwardness of approaching a stranger to talk about the breakfast buffet. But there’s a lot to be gained from challenging yourself, says Andy Molinsky, a professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Brandeis University; the desire to avoid these situations can end up limiting social and professional opportunities.
As superficial as small talk may feel, “pretty much every non-superficial relationship you have began with small talk on some level,” Molinsky says. Quartz asked his advice for getting those conversations going.
“Own and embrace what’s in it for you,” Molinsky says. “Say to yourself, why is it important for me to be here?” Whether it’s to make friends in a new city or to advance your career, motivation is an important factor in changing behavior. The relationships you make at these events should be honest ones, but it’s okay to admit that you want those relationships.
At the start of an event, the crowd is smaller and less intimidating. Also—speaking from Quartz’s own experience—the cheese trays aren’t picked over yet.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, Molinsky says. Before you walk up to someone else, ask yourself what you would consider a welcome approach. What would you like to be asked? Asking others about themselves—and listening to their answers—builds genuine connections and takes your attention away from your discomfort.
Approaching a conversation is a lot less intimidating if you know you’ll be able to gracefully end it. Review your strategies for gently transitioning between conversations in advance.
Having one or two ice-breaking statements or questions in your back pocket can be a helpful guard against spontaneity-blocking anxiety.
But here’s the catch: you have to think of it yourself. We tried to get Molinsky to share a few sample conversation starters. He wouldn’t budge. The most effective lines are appropriate to the setting and authentic to the person speaking them, he says.
“Despite all the click-bait headlines, there is no magic bullet,” he says. “The barometer is: within the realm of appropriate, what makes you feel the most comfortable? When you’re comfortable, you’re going to appear and feel more authentic, and that’s going to make small talk go better.”