A hallmark of being a functional adult in this world is doing things you do not want to do, which occasionally includes talking to people you do not know. This situation can arise in both social and professional settings. I know, some people are terribly boring and social anxiety is very real, and interacting with other humans that we do not know or like can be the worst. However, it is not impossible.
There is nothing worse than watching your conversation turn into the Titanic and hit an iceberg of awkward silence. It is the most difficult thing to recover from conversationally, but the key to minimizing traumatic interactions with strangers is being prepared.
One great way to spark a conversation is to ask people questions about themselves. Deep down we are all raging narcissists that love talking about ourselves, and we want everyone to think we are as interesting and exciting as we believe we are. Asking someone questions about themselves is indulging that narcissism and can be a really easy way to get a conversation going.
Just be careful not to confuse asking casual, conversationally appropriate questions with interrogation. There is a difference between “Tell me about yourself!” and “Tell me a little about your recent medical history!” You do not need to be firing questions at someone or dredging up details about their personal lives.
That being said, most people also do not want to listen to you blather on about yourself.
For the most part, we are not as interesting as we think we are, so unless you are being asked questions about yourself, try to keep the self talk to an absolute minimum. In some cases, people will just start offering information about themselves on their own (these people have most likely accepted and embraced their narcissistic tendencies). This is fine, but do your best to pay attention and be engaged with what they are saying. Pretending to be interested in a conversation is a last resort, because most people cannot do this well. Faking genuine interest in someone’s semester abroad in college or their recent bathroom remodel can be painful, but sometimesfaking it is all you have.
Next, try to find a common interest. You have infinite possibilities here, so it is a good idea to have a few go-to topics like your favorite movie, a quirky hobby, or anything that anotherperson might be able to make a connection with. Topics to avoid are things that are completelyunique to you, like your banana sticker collection. You will be hard pressed to find anyone whoshares an interest like that, so try to keep it fairly mainstream. When you do find something you have in common, run with it. Every relationship is based on common interests, and almost no relationship is founded on (or can thrive on) a lack of commonalities. Save your banana sticker collection and weird anecdotes about your promiscuous cat for people you are better acquainted with.
Finally, know how and when to gracefully exit a conversation. The best thing about conversations you do not really want to be having is that they always come to an end. It is not a bad idea to leave them with something along the lines of “It was so nice chatting with you!” or whatever the most natural sounding equivalent is for you personally. Ending on a polite note leaves a good impression on whomever you were talking to and wraps up your conversation with a polite finality that gives you a definitive walking away point. Plus, it tricks people into thinking you actually enjoyed the conversation.