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Advice / Job Search / Networking

7 Conversation Starters Better Than "What Do You Do?"—and 7 That Are Even Worse

I am on a mission: to improve my networking conversations. After recently applying to business school, the countless coffee chats, networking events, and information sessions I’ve been to have taught me one important thing—I desperately need new icebreakers beyond, “So, what do you do?”

Through lots of trial and error, I have learned that asking this classic question rarely leads to meaningful or memorable conversations. Instead, I am experimenting with the following questions (and striking some from my tool kit!) to amp up my networking game.

You’ll notice that none of these new openers focus on work, and that’s intentional. I have found that my best professional relationships start with a casual conversation and genuine connection. Then, once you’ve established a friendly tone, conversation about jobs, opportunities, and professional advice tends to flow naturally.

So give these easy openers a shot, and—trust me—your new contacts will thank you for the lively dialogue.

7 Easy and Improved Icebreakers

1. “Do you have any trips coming up?”

Almost everyone has a trip on the horizon (or has just returned from one), and what could be more enjoyable than chatting about your upcoming week on the beach?

2. “Are you watching House of Cards?”

Current events or popular shows are always great openers and usually elicit interesting opinions. A few months ago, my best opener was “Have you listened to Serial?”—almost everyone was familiar and had plenty of commentary on the popular podcast.

3. “I’m planning a birthday dinner—any great recommendations?”

Even if your birthday is not around the corner, everyone loves talking about his or her favorite restaurant. Be prepared to be hungry after this conversation!

4. “I’m looking for a new book. Have you read any good ones lately?”

Even though this question seems like a snooze, everyone secretly feels smart when talking about a book they just read. Boost your new contact’s confidence with this question and—added bonus—get a great book recommendation.

5. “I love your necklace. Where is it from?”

Flattery works! While you can compliment someone on pretty much anything, jewelry usually carries a story with it—maybe it was a grandmother’s heirloom or a souvenir from an exotic trip. This compliment naturally leads to a more engaging conversation.

6. “I skipped my spin class for this event. What is your favorite workout?”

Most people have a gym routine that they love to talk about (or love to hate!). This conversation starter can turn into follow-up plans to try out the latest fad workout together.

7. “I’m so embarrassed—I slipped on the stairs outside and everyone saw me. Has that ever happened to you?”

I’m naturally clumsy, so this opener is usually some version of the truth for me. I’ve learned that self-deprecation goes a long way—bringing up an embarrassing story can ease tension and draw out funny stories from a crowd.

7 Conversation Starters to Avoid

1. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Talking about your commute is natural, but mentioning a crowded subway or traffic jam generally puts everyone in a bad mood. Avoid this question unless something funny or interesting happened during transit (which is rare!).

2. “Where do you live?”

This question is the cousin of “What do you do?” Unless you are at an event that draws people from across the country or world, a conversation about what neighborhood you live in usually ends quickly.

3. “How much do you hate this weather?”

I recently read the disturbing fact that the average person spends 10 months of his or her life talking about the weather. I am aiming to remove this topic from my dialogue altogether.

4. “Are you applying to this school, company, etc.?”

If you’re at a company presentation or school event, you can safely assume that everyone in the audience is interested in applying. Avoid this question to steer conversation away from the competitive nature of certain events.

5. “How boring is this event?”

Keep your complaints to a minimum—it’s hard to set a positive tone when expressing how much you’re not enjoying yourself. And, you never know whether the person you’re chatting with is someone who organized the event or knows the speaker.

6. “I am definitely coming down with something. Have you gotten the flu this season?”

While your health may be top of mind, avoid sharing comments about sickness with a group. Illness is never a fun topic and may give your new contact second thoughts about shaking your hand.

7. “I am so busy and overwhelmed. You, too?”

Nowadays it seems like busyness is a competition and something to brag about. Stay in the moment, and don’t conjure thoughts of everyone’s long to-do lists.

Photo of people talking courtesy of Shutterstock.