On the job: Ice breakers

Four tips on what to say when you need to say something and there’s nothing that needs to be said.

1. Understand that you are taking the initiative by ‘breaking the ice’ and engaging in small talk. In the sorts of circumstances in which small talk is called for, both parties are seeking to engage in some sort of social interaction. Just about everyone feels awkward doing this. The odds are good that the other party to the conversation will feel gratitude to you for taking a chance at getting the conversational ball rolling;

2. Make your first move with your second move already planned. For example, you could ask ‘Do you have vacation plans this summer?’ You should be prepared to discuss your own vacation plans in the event that the other party responds by saying, ‘No, I don’t’ or ‘No, do you?’

3. The ideal thing is to get the other person talking because as s/he talks s/he will become more comfortable. So don’t ask questions for which it is likely that you will be required to

employ your Step Two. Most people have something to say about vacations, so asking about vacations is a good conversation starter. Asking about classical music is not a good bet unless you pick up some clue that the other party to the conversation has an interest in it.

4. Be a little bold. There are good reasons why the conventional wisdom is to avoid discussions of religion and politics. But you want to avoid the cliché of commenting on the weather if at all possible. Talk about an experience that you had recently that was a bit out of the ordinary or express an opinion that is not likely to offend anyone but which is a little off-centre. Small-talk conversations are not the place for truly bold statements. But it usually takes a statement with at least a little bit of life to get them started.