Think back to the first time you spoke English in a real, authentic social situation.
What was it like? Were you nervous?
What did you talk about? How did you start the conversation?
Did you tell a joke? Did you try to make small talk?
Especially if you’re an intermediate or advanced English learner, you may be getting tired of some of the same old “ice-breaker” questions (questions to get people talking) and small talk topics.
“What’s your name? What do you do? Where do you live? Ummm, how about this weather we’ve been having lately, eh?”
Those are all great questions, but what if you want to get more advanced?
What if you want to do more than just asking the same old questions?
Do you want to know a secret? Even native English speakers get tired of those same old questions!
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Even if you don’t have social anxiety and don’t feel awkward starting a conversation with strangers, it’s still often hard to find things to talk about. Just ask anyone who has gone on a date and run out of conversation ideas!
So in this article, we’ll look at five new ways to break the ice when meeting new people (or even when talking to old friends!). These approaches will make socializing more interesting for everyone involved.
They’re especially useful for intermediate or advanced English learners, but even if you’re a beginner, you can use them for some situations. And yes, they’re a bit unconventional (different), but they’re not too strange or weird. They might even make people want to talk to you more!
This article won’t be about memorizing dialogues or learning specific phrases. Instead, it will give you some flexible techniques that can help improve your social skills in English (and probably in your native language, too).
And the best part? As an English learner, you can also use these techniques in classes or anytime you want to practice English with another person. Just remember that you’ll probably talk differently with a classmate than with a stranger at a party, so you may need to adjust these a little bit, depending on the situation.
So, let’s look at the five techniques!
5 Ways to Break the Ice and Keep the Conversation Flowing
Technique 1: Ask About a Favorite Thing
This is a good, safe technique to use with almost anyone, because most people are able to talk about themselves and their preferences. This doesn’t mean people are egotistical (only care about themselves), but just that they know what they like.
So if you ask someone a question like, “What’s your favorite movie?” then their answer is automatically going to be about something they’re interested in. Some examples of conversation topics are pretty obvious, like movies, games, TV shows, music groups and songs. However, you should also consider other things to make the conversation a bit more unique.
For example, imagine you were at a party and someone asked you, “Hey, what’s your favorite waffle topping?” You might think, “Whoa, this is something new and different!”
You can also ask about things like a person’s:
- favorite city
- favorite pen or pencil
- favorite thing to do on a Saturday morning
- favorite beach
- favorite animal
- favorite word
Really, you can ask about any kind of object or thing (at least ones that probably won’t be offensive or controversial), and the internet has countless other options if you run out of ideas.
Be sure to ask lots of follow-up questions so that you can keep the conversation flowing!
Technique 2: Ask a “What would you do if…?” Question
This is a fun conversation strategy that I like to use in my classes, or even when talking in the car with friends and family. In fact, there are even books based around this concept. (“The Book of Questions” is good, but some of the questions are depressing or unpleasant. So I often prefer “The Kids’ Book of Questions,” which is more appropriate for all audiences.)
If you want to use this technique and you don’t have one of those books, I’d suggest checking a few different pages like this one or this one on Reddit. (Just be aware that this last one changes frequently and won’t always be appropriate for your situation.) Then, simply find a few questions that you like and write them down or make a mental note (remember them).
Personally, two of my favorite questions are:
- What would you do if you had to leave your country tomorrow and couldn’t come back for 10 years?
- What would you do if you had a time machine and could only go to one point in the past or future?
Another fun, more modern option is to have the site What would you do if… ready on your phone. Each time you click on “Play,” it gives you a question and three answers to choose from. You can then see how other people answered, which could give you an additional conversation topic!
Technique 3: Talk About a “Would you rather…?” Scenario
This is similar in some ways to Technique 2, but instead of asking an open question, you give the other person two (or maybe a few) options to choose from.
For example, you could ask something like, “Would you rather travel to the future or to the past?” Or, if you want to get someone’s attention: “Would you rather drink a glass of ketchup or a glass of mayonnaise?”
You can get many ideas for these types of questions on either.io, rrrather.com, this page or this sub-Reddit (again, just beware that not all of the questions here are appropriate for every conversation). There’s also a Would You Rather? app that you can check out. All of these can also be used for a fun, informal party game.
Also, this technique may work better than Technique 2 in some situations. For example, if you’re talking with a beginning English learner, some of the grammar used in Technique 2 may be too complicated or confusing for them. If you just give them two options to choose from, it will probably be easier for them to respond.
If grammar isn’t a problem, you can also take the person’s response to these questions and ask for more details, like in Technique 2.
For example: “Oh, you’d rather drink a glass of ketchup than a glass of mayonnaise? Well, what would you do if you actually had to drink a glass of ketchup? How would you do it? What technique would you use?”
Technique 4: Play Word Association
This is a technique that may seem more appropriate in a psychiatrist’s office than in a conversation at a party, but it can be a fun way to add a spark to a conversation.
To do this technique, you just have to say, “What do you think of when you hear the word ___?” and complete the blank with a word. You may already be thinking of some words that you could use, such as “honest,” “happiness,” “delicious,” “horse,” etc.
But if you don’t have any ideas (or just want new ones), you can use a random word generator. If you want something more specific, you can use one that’s just for nouns or one that gives you several words in a category to choose from.
Also, keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily the most common way to start a conversation. So you probably don’t want to just ask the question out of nowhere. Instead, you may want to use this technique after talking for a few minutes. Say something like, “Hey, do you want to play some word association? I know it’s maybe different, but it’s fun!”
Technique 5: Tell a Joke
Everyone loves a person with a good sense of humor. The problem is that not everyone agrees on what exactly “a good sense of humor” means. If you make an inappropriate joke, it can really backfire (have an unintended bad effect) and kill a conversation right away.
As a rule of thumb (a general rule), if you don’t know the person you’re talking to very well, you should avoid talking about sex, politics or religion. This is especially true if you want to try to tell a joke.
Instead, you can try to focus on jokes that involve puns or wordplay. Jokes can also be a great way to learn new English words and phrases, since puns are based on words that have two meanings. That also means that this technique may be harder for you to use if you’re not an advanced English speaker. Even native speakers may take a few seconds to understand a joke involving a pun.
Personally, my problem is that I can never remember a joke when I want to tell one! To solve that problem, you can make a list of jokes that you think are funny. It may seem strange, but lots of famous comedians do that, and it can also help you remember jokes while practicing English.
Bonus Technique: Get a Drink
This is a bit of a joke, but there’s still a little truth to it. You should only have alcoholic drinks if you’re legally allowed to drink, of course. But I included it because I often hear language learners say things like, “Actually, I speak English/German/French better after I’ve had a drink!”
It’s not certain whether that’s true, but even if you don’t speak better, you may speak more. Alcohol is often called a “social lubricant,” since it can help people relax and let the conversation flow.
If you don’t want to drink alcohol, or can’t, that’s also perfectly fine. But even just having something in your hand (like a drink) can help start a conversation. You can grab a soft drink and walk around until someone asks you, “Hey, what’s that you’re drinking?”
Whatever you do, though, try to get out there and practice speaking English.
It’s the best way to learn and practice a language, and who knows—you may even make new friends!
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.