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Forget ‘How are You’ — This is How Successful People Do Small Talk

Two women sitting and chatting across a desk

When trying to get to know someone new, it’s tempting to make small talk about work, weather or the traffic. You’re nervous and don’t know them super well, so playing it safe seems like the best option.

But while you may be tempted to reflexively throw out that, “how are you?” to your potential new love interest, here’s why you shouldn’t and what you should say instead. 

For starters, these three words are seldom invitation for sincere and complex answers, and the answers are rarely honest and meaningful, leading to empty conversation and wasted opportunity. But don’t panic! According to recent research out of Harvard, the trick is to engage the person you’re speaking with by asking a series of follow-up questions. 

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The research team conducted a series of experiments and analyzed more than 300 online conversations, finding that those who were asked more meaningful follow-up questions found the other person much more likeable. 

The study authors wrote, “When people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation and care.”

As with anything, where you start can impact where you go. Whether in social settings, or professionally, here are some key tips on how to bring out your most charismatic self.

Related: 11 lies people tell in interviews (but really shouldn’t).

Friends having an outdoor dinner and clinking their glasses

Lean on the A.C.T. acronym:

A – Be authentic.

C – Be open to connection.

T – Stick to a topic that gives a taste of who you are.

Don’t settle for low-hanging fruit

No, you shouldn’t talk about the weather. Try discussing something more interesting, like a band you love or a show you’re bingeing. Stick to topics that are more personal to you. 

Be genuinely present

Note your surroundings and anything interesting that grabs hold of your attention, then note that. 


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Share something personal that happened

Did you just adopt a puppy? Say that. Did you just get that scuba cert? Or buy that outdoor pizza oven? People want to know more about who they’re speaking with than the bland, generic news that applies to everyone. 

Don’t wait for that ‘awkward pause’

Jump in early with something to say — especially in group meetings or conference calls. Otherwise, you run the risk of being overshadowed and lost in the conversational shuffle. 

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

Remember that so much of communication is in our non-verbal cues. Make sustained eye contact and smile (yes, even if it’s just a phone conversation). 

See also: 5 pro-tips to get your life together in your 20s.

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