The holidays are a time for connecting with others, but it pays to be careful how you do it—especially in our current highly loaded political and cultural climate. While some people enjoy talking about current events, it can spell disaster for others.
Want to engage in meaningful conversation without accidentally setting off a conversational grenade? A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that more than 60 percent of people don’t want to discuss politics—so make sure you have a few other go-to topics on hand to avoid awkward silence (or a hostile debate). The key to successful, l0w-stakes conversations is to ask about something interesting that’s neither too deep or shallow.
“Thinking about topics you’re interested in ahead of time is a great way to prepare for a mutually stimulating and interesting conversation,” Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., told Huffington Post.
Here are a few easy conversation-starters to keep in mind at all those family events you have coming up.
“What are Your Holiday Plans?”
Opening up with light conversation about where a person is headed over the holidays is usually a safe subject. Expect to hear about traveling to meet with relatives, and use that as a springboard to ask about a person’s family if it seems appropriate. Otherwise, you can see if the other person has exciting trips planned that go beyond ventures to their family’s. Even if the plans aren’t super-exciting, it’s an easy topic for small talk. If you want to stay more neutral on holidays—or are not sure which one a person celebrates—inquire about New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.
“How’s Work Going?”
Here’s your chance to follow up on previous conversations about a work promotion or project. Again, it may not be the best question depending on the person involved—steer clear if the company recently downsized, for example—but it can be a good way to engage in light dialogue.
“Did You See That Game?”
Sports may be divisive for some people, but an objective fan can discuss a good game no matter which team they root for. Know someone who’s into a good game? Ask about how their team is doing this season, or which team they think will make the playoffs. Yes, a tad snoozy, but better than having nothing to talk about at all, no?
“How Did Your Holiday Shopping Go?”
While this one may prompt stress if the other person isn’t done with their holiday shopping, it beats bringing up politics. Did you notice longer lines in stores, or do all of your shopping online? Sometimes discussing the simplest of things can bring on a connection—or at least good conversation. (Just don’t let the words “tax reform” get into the mix!)
“Have You Tried This Dish?”
Food is often a good way to go when it comes to drumming up a conversation at a party. Mention your favorite dish—or ask who brought it—as a surefire way to spark some fun chatter. And hey, if they’re not into it for whatever reason, just take their cues and move on to the next question. (Actually, you can use that rule in general.)
“Do You Remember When…”
This one is best used with family members with whom you have a good relationship or history. Because you can choose the memory, you can select something light. Think about a favorite sledding experience as kids, or another Christmas memory. Keep it light and avoid a memory that might involve a trigger person or other hardship.
“Did You Hear About ____?”
Just because some of us don’t want to hear about politics doesn’t mean other current events are off the table. Bring up a lighthearted story—such as a do-gooder in the news—and let that steer the discussion in a positive direction.
The truth is, there are no guarantees with social interactions at parties and gatherings. Any conversation starter may work—or could be disaster. Be sure to consider whom you’re talking to and what they’re dealing with at the time before you open up. Draw upon what you know about the person, or what he or she enjoys, and let that steer your questions. Otherwise, ’tis the season for small talk, so drink up, smile, and make the most of it!