You wouldn't immediately know it, but I've always considered myself an introvert. While I'm an open-book with close friends and family, I have trouble sharing on social media and essentially freeze, deer-in-headlights style, when meeting anyone new (attending a cocktail party solo is up there with spiders on my scale of "worst fears"). On the other hand, my best friend Cristina can happily float through a party where she doesn't know a soul. But as much as I enjoy getting to know new people, my fear comes from a place of not knowing what to say: What if I ask a question that's a complete conversation-ender? How will I fill in the minutes of small talk before we fall into a more natural conversation cadence? These are the things that keep me up at night—until I came across a helpful tip.
On an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld shares this brilliant tidbit with his guest, Amy Schumer:
Here's my trick for talking to people: numbers! Ask them questions to which the answer is a number. There's always an answer. This is Seinfeld's secret technique for talking to regular people — 'How long have you lived here? What time do you start work? When did you do that?'
It's the perfect question because there's always an answer, and it's open-ended enough that it's more likely to serve as a springboard into deeper conversation. Asking "How long have you been in L.A.?" (a common question in a city of transplants!) may result in an answer along the lines of, "Three years! Before that we were in New York!" at which point you can ask another number question ("How long were you in New York for?") until the conversation flows more naturally.
What Seinfeld doesn't mention is that his "secret technique" also strips questions of potential emotional minefields, and avoids making any assumptions. For example, asking "How long have you worked for [company]?" is a lot safer than asking, "So how do you like working for [company]?" but may lead to the same answer. By the same token, asking "How long have you been in L.A.?" is a neutral way of asking a question with an inherent assumption like, "Have you always lived here?" Paired with a tip Cristina gave me—that you can talk to anyone for three minutes, so think of conversations in three-minute increments—it's the ideal solution. Here are some additional examples that can apply to everything from breaking the ice at an awkward work event to a first date or cocktail party:
Original Question: How do you know Hannah?
Number Question: How long have you known Hannah?
Tip: In this context, asking for a number instead of an open-ended question may actually result in a more comprehensive answer—in addition to answering how long, they'll likely also include how they know them, i.e., "I've known her for ten years! We met in college!"
Original Question: Did you get here early? [Yes!]
Number Question: What time did you get here? [8 this morning!]
Tip: Asking a number question can result in a more specific response, which can, in turn, create a more concrete jumping-off point.
Original Question: Have you been to one of these events before? [Yes!]
Number Question: When's the last time you went to one of these events? [Three years ago!]
Tip: Turning a "yes or no" question into a quantitative one can lead to a more open-ended response.
Do you have any tips for conquering small talk? Do you also freeze up when speaking with someone you don't know well? Share in the comments below!