How To Start Conversations With Total Strangers

Apr 14, 2014

Have you ever gone up to an intriguing looking person at a party, tried to start a conversation and froze? Or perhaps you just babbled mundanely about the weather? Well, authors Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker can help.

Along with illustrator Tony Millionaire, they’ve published “What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss’s Boss” (excerpt below).

The book is filled with suggestions to aid in the art of making conversation, as the title suggests, in all sorts of situations. As the authors tell Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “we believe that if you can quell that inner panic enough to actually tap into your curiosity, there’s always a million things to talk about in any situation.”

Five Tips From Chris Colin And Rob Baedeker

  1. Ask for stories, not answers
    • Instead of “What do you do?” ask “What’s the best thing you get to do all day, and the worst?”
  2. Flat-out ignore dead-end questions
    • Instead of answering “How’s it going?” ask “Who do you think is the luckiest person at this party right now?”
  3. Put people at ease by admitting your bottomless ignorance
    • “I have no idea how wind works, if I’m honest. Don’t know much about the Korean War or diesel power, either. Can we put our heads together and figure some stuff out?”
  4. Push old relationships out of their conversational ruts
    • “Most awkward moment of your day so far? How about your year?”
    • “Describe yourself in ten words.”
    • “If you could hear a master recording of everything anyone ever said about you, would you?”
    • “If a wizard offered you the power to walk through walls, but you’d vomit a tenth of the time, would you go for it?
    • “Describe yourself in one word.”
  5. Like every marriage, all conversations must end
    • Talk boldly, exit boldly: “It’s been so nice chatting with you.” Big smile, walk away, no tears.

Book Excerpt: ‘What to Talk About’


  • Chris Colin, co-author of “What to Talk About.” He’s also author of author of “What Really Happened to the Class of ’93″ and “Blindsight.” He tweets @chriscolin3000.
  • Rob Baedeker, co-author of “What to Talk About” and co-founder of the San Francisco comedy group Kasper Hauser. He tweets @robbaedeker.
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Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and you just could not come up with anything to say? Yes, of course. We all have, whether it's the grocery store or the cashier or the person sitting next to you on the bus, plane, or train. So what are supposed to talk about with these people?

Our next two guests may be able to help. Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker are the authors of the new book "What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss's Boss." They're with us from KQED in San Francisco. Guys, welcome.

CHRIS COLIN: Thanks for having us.

ROB BAEDEKER: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, what do you think we should talk about?

COLIN: I object to your premise, Jeremy.


COLIN: What do we get to talk about?


HOBSON: OK. What do we get to talk about?

COLIN: You know, Rob and I realize too often we go into conversations with sort of a survival mindset. And we believe that if you can quell that inner panic enough to actually tap into your curiosity, there's always a million things to talk about in any situation.

BAEDEKER: I'm curious what you had for breakfast, Jeremy.

HOBSON: I had eggs, actually, this morning, which is unusual. Usually I have oatmeal. But today I had eggs.

BAEDEKER: Why did you make an exception today?

HOBSON: Because I didn't have any oatmeal, and so I had to go with the eggs.

BAEDEKER: Eggs and oatmeal is the classic choice. I had eggs as well, but it's a dilemma, isn't it? So many breakfast choices, and we could talk at length about this.


HOBSON: Or we couldn't. Let me ask you this. When you were writing this, and as I was reading this, I'm thinking to myself, I don't have a problem coming up with things to talk about, probably because I talk for a living. But I know that a lot of people do. And you used the words inner panic. Is this for people who are scared to converse?

BAEDEKER: It's for those people, but it's also for people that are doing really quite well, which is most of us. I mean, most of us can hold our own and carry a conversation. But there's about 10 or 11 percent of the time, according to our studies, where we want to go further. We're getting stuck, or we wish we would've connected with somebody on the train or at a party, and we just didn't. So this is a book for fluent conversationalists who want to take it to the next level.

HOBSON: OK. Let's bring up some of the examples that you have in the book. Things you could talk about when it comes to the weather - you could start a conversation by offering to show your feet, if you lost toes to frostbite, instead of just asking people, you know, what's the weather like outside.

BAEDEKER: Or you could start a step back if the toes thing is too dramatic. But, you know, weather is the classic, like, conversational cliche. Beautiful day, beautiful day, and we tend to - we call it mirroring. We repeat the other person's observation, and we get stuck in a dead end conversationally. So start with weather, that's fine. Small talk is OK. Boy, it's warm out. And then transition to something that asks for a story. So what's the worst sunburn you've ever had? Everybody's got some experience about an extreme weather condition. Now you've opened up the conversation to story.

COLIN: I think a lot of people are sort of afraid of small talk. They're afraid, this isn't really what I care about. And Rob and I feel the same way. What do we care about? We care about each other's deepest, darkest secrets, of course. But you can't start there. You can't start at a gallop. So you need a gentle on ramp, and that's what a weather conversation can do.

HOBSON: You have a section with a lot of times that you might need to talk to somebody or want to talk to somebody, what to talk about with the plumber, what to talk about with your doctor, what to talk about with the meter maid, the bank teller, the taxi driver. But do you want to be talking about all these people? Can't you just sometimes live your life and keep quiet?

COLIN: No, no. To answer your question, no, you don't want to live your life and keep quiet.


COLIN: You do want to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and listen to these stories, because not only are they fun and interesting and help you pass the time when you're standing there in line at the bank, but they wake something up in you when they go well. And you know, that gets to another thing we talk about, which is, you know, when our conversations are just sort of mediocre, often it's because we're sort of bored with ourselves. And if you can sort of wake up the part of you that is switched on, then you'll be about 64 percent happier.

BAEDEKER: Think about all the amazing stories that are just under the surface all around you at any time. The taxi driver, the grocery checker, the plumber, they've got incredible skills and they've seen amazing stuff, and it's just lying dormant there ready for you to pour some water on it and let the story shoot sprout out.

COLIN: And don't literally put water on it. That's a metaphor.

HOBSON: Unless it's the plumber, and then...

COLIN: Yeah.

HOBSON: ...that would make perfect sense.

BAEDEKER: Go for it.

HOBSON: OK. Well, let me give you a scenario that we have probably all been in, which is you're on an airplane and you are next to somebody who you don't know. And you've read Chris and Rob's book, and you've decided, OK, I'm going to strike up a conversation with my neighbor on the plane here, which may mean that I'm going to spend the next five hours talking to this person. What should you say?

COLIN: What you should say is, tell me about your shoes - or your lack of shoes. You should say whatever comes to mind just by studying the situation and taps into your curiosity. Shoes are not inherently interesting. The story behind shoes can be fascinating. Why did this person do this? Well, who was with him when they bought their shoes? Do they buy them for a special occasion? So pretty soon, you're off to the races. But this brings up another question, especially on an airplane. How do you end a conversation...


COLIN: ...either a horrible one, or one that's great - but you just are ready to stop talking.

BAEDEKER: And I think, too, Jeremy, part of your question is that five-hour sort of slog that you're imagining. And it's OK. You can stop the conversation after 10 minutes and everybody will respect each other.

COLIN: And what you say is this: It's been so nice talking to you. And that's where our book actually...

HOBSON: But that could be taken like - they might think you're being rude, like I'm dong with you.

COLIN: That's right. That's right. It's OK to be rude. We believe in being a little bit bold. If you're not running the risk of offending people every now and then, you're not doing it right.

BAEDEKER: "I need to take a nap now" is another option and...

HOBSON: Excuse me while I put my headphones in. I won't be able to hear you anymore, by the way.

BAEDEKER: Yeah. You've exhausted me, and I must recharge.

HOBSON: Could you guys act out an airplane scene for me, the two of you?

BAEDEKER: Sure. Yeah. Chris is going to be a wealthy businessman. He's dressed to the nines. And I'm going to be sort of a world traveler...

HOBSON: OK. You're in first class, probably.

BAEDEKER: Yeah, first class.

COLIN: Definitely.

BAEDEKER: I got bumped up.

COLIN: Do you even know where this plane is going? I can't remember.

BAEDEKER: Yeah, it's going to Bombay. It's going to be my first time there. You must have seen a lot in your travels.

COLIN: I travel far too much, and it's starting to take a toll on me.

BAEDEKER: You should know, Jeremy, he's lighting an electronic cigarette now, which is...


HOBSON: I don't - those are allowed on planes anymore.

BAEDEKER: But they will be.

COLIN: I guess my question is, what am I doing with these trips? What is the point of them? Tell me, fellow traveler, what should I be looking for?

BAEDEKER: Well, you probably got into your business, which is...

COLIN: It's rubber.

BAEDEKER: ...rubber importing, out of some sort of deep desire or unrealized dream. You got to connect back to the source, I think. I mean, what do I know? I'm just a kid with a backpack.

COLIN: How did you get up to first class anyways? What, do you have to sneak through?

BAEDEKER: Just being nice to people and asking them about themselves.

COLIN: OK. So fast forward about 15 minutes into that conversation and we're fast friends. As the billionaire, I've offered this young man a job, and we ultimately get married.

HOBSON: So - and is that the point of this, that eventually conversing with more people is going to help you in some way in your life, not just to keep you entertained?

BAEDEKER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, if you think about all the big moments in life, they involve conversation at some level, whether it's a job interview or a date or that random connection you made with somebody on an airplane that became your best friend. Big human moments involve talking.

COLIN: And it's not just these sort of quick conversations with strangers where we're struggling for something to start talking about. Often it's conversations we've had going for years with a close friend or a spouse or partner. Too often we find ourselves in a rut and we're talking once again about, you know, our kids or something or the neighbor. And you know, we sort of long for that wonderful conversation we had six years ago that one night at that pizza place. And we want to know, how do we get it back? How do we get out of the rut?

HOBSON: Rob Baedeker and Chris Colin are authors of the new book "What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss's Boss." Guys, thanks so much for joining us.

COLIN: Thanks, Jeremy.

BAEDEKER: Thank you.


HOBSON: And if you want some more tips on how to talk to people, you can go to our website. We've got five tips for better conversation. It's at HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. We have the opposite problem. People want us to go away, shut up. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.