When striking up a conversation, try skipping the mundane questions like "What do you do?" Advice blog Wise Bread suggests asking something like "What do you get excited about?" instead.
Photo by Sharon Mollerus
Everyone has prepared answers to small talk questions about their job or education, and not everyone really likes talking about them in the first place. To get off script, ask questions that provoke more thought and get people to talk about things they enjoy:
A few years ago I sat down to dinner with a new acquaintance while I was visiting Sweden. But the conversation was unlike any other first encounter I'd ever had, and it has changed the nature of "cocktail chat" for me ever since.
As she unfolded her napkin and prepared her "elevator speech" describing what she does for a living, I instead opened the conversation with a question that stopped her in her tracks:
What excites you?
She blinked and looked at me for a while. With each passing moment, I increasingly feared something was lost in translation or I had trodden on culturally sensitive ground.
Then her face relaxed and she smiled widely. "Nobody has asked me that before!" she said as she then considered how to answer it.
Okay, so "what excites you" might be a bit of a strange question -- not to mention mildly suggestive-sounding -- but the main idea is that by skipping past the typical question, you get them to think, learn something real about them, and stray away from the boring "what do you do" talk. If they're really interested in what they're doing, the conversation can still lead in that direction -- you just avoid the meaningless small talk.
Check out Wise Bread for some other similar suggestions (some of which are a little "desert island-y"). The best questions to get someone talking are the ones that give them space to say the things they already want to say. And if you're ever in doubt, follow the FORD technique.