As I put this list of conversation starters together I had a moment of realization: I have never posed these questions to most of the people I know. I tend to use these questions with strangers (maybe it’s telling that they usually don’t become friends). Several things become evident as I analyze my conversational tendencies, especially that I like history and hearing stories. When it comes to strangers, I am much better talking to people older than me than to peers or younger people. It occurs to me that while my conversations with friends are rather comfortable, I tend to be a bit boring as a conversation starter. I think I need to work on this.
Here are five of my favorite all-purpose conversation starters:
- Tell me about something you like. Most people have a few subjects that they love to talk about. It might be a hobby, an activity, a food, a location, an event, a person, or something else. This question (many times I’ll couple it with “What do you like to talk about?”) invites the other person to move the conversation right into their wheelhouse. It’s amazing what you can learn by listening to someone talk about what they like.
- Can you recommend something? Have you ever gone to a restaurant that was amazing, or seen a movie that stuck with you, or discovered a product that made your life better? If you ask for a recommendation most people will have one. This is another question I couple with a clarifier sometimes, “What has impressed you recently?” I’ve picked up some good (and bad) recommendations using this question.
- Do you remember (fill in historic event)? I love this question because it not only leads to an interpretation of an event, but also often to stories about a person’s life in that context.
- Have you always lived (current town/state/country)? Sometimes this question leads to great stories. Other times it just leads to a list of locations. But those locations provide follow up material. I think it is fascinating how people have different ideals of where they live. Some are happy where they are, some yearn for a specific location, some just want change.
- What’s your favorite sport? If the answer is baseball I have found a conversation partner for hours. If it is any other sport I see if I can learn something about it. My knowledge of cricket grew exponentially after one of these conversations.
When it comes to starting and maintaining conversations I have a place where I transform into another person. I’m like a kid in a candy store; like a chlorophyll pigment on a sunny day. That place is a ballpark. I go to baseball games alone, and I look for old baseball fans (particularly old fans sitting alone or in small groups). Certain things are clues. Scoring the game, wearing an old hat, references to former players, familiarity that indicates season ticket holders. Eventually I sit close by and make a casual statement, something like: “Domonic Brown reminds me of Von Hayes out there in right field.” And I wait. If that’s not bait enough I’ll ask a direct question. One standby when I’m at Reading is “I see the Reading Phils have retired three numbers. I know the 42 is for Jackie Robinson and the 24 is Mike Schmidt, who was 26? (It is sort of a trick question. Many people think it belongs to Chase Utley, but the answer is Ryne Sandberg. Utley did not spend much time at Reading, he jumped to AAA quickly. This is a test.)
Maybe it’s a tribute to my prior scouting, maybe it’s an indication of how lonely old baseball fans are, but I have never failed at an attempt to start a conversation with a wizened baseball fan at a ballpark (the one close call was a grumpy old man who just hrumphed from time to time, but thankfully his wife turned out to be a baseball connoisseur so I talked to her while he added an occasional hrumph). Here are some of my go to questions:
- Who was the best hitter/fielder/pitcher you ever saw? This question has led to stories about Mike Schmidt, Richie Allen, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Ryne Sandberg, Sandy Koufax, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and many other players.
- What is your greatest baseball memory? It’s interesting to see where people go with this question. One big tough looking guy told me a story about sitting in the bleachers with his dad at an afternoon game when he was a kid. One guy told me a story about sitting at his desk at work one morning and making the impromptu decision to play hooky and drive eight hours to see a baseball game that night in another city. Several people told me about attending the World Series parade for the 1980 Phillies.
- What ballparks have you seen? I’ve heard about Connie Mack Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and a host of other ballparks.
- Have you been to any classic games? I heard a story about a no-hitter. Another person talked about seeing a team clinch their division. Several people talked about World Series games.
- What do you think of (player x)? This is a great way to get scouting reports. I like to ask “Who does he remind you of?”
- Do you remember (player x)? This is particularly fun at Reading, where I remember seeing so many players over the years.
- Tell me a good baseball story. This is the wild card. Anything goes. Some people tell me a story about something they saw, others just recount a good story they have been told.
You should see the response many of these questions get, especially the ones about greatest players or greatest memories. You’d think I offered them $1000 in cash. Their eyes light up, they savor the question for a moment as memories flood their mind, then they tell stories that they probably haven’t recounted in years. The funny thing about these conversations is that I rarely learn names. We usually talk baseball start to finish. Just two nameless baseball fans talking in the stands.
I wish every place was as easy to converse at as a ballpark.