In Spanish, the word for…: Conversation starters

Odds are, you know at least part of a foreign language. Whether you’re bi- or tri-lingual, a regular polyglot, or only remember the basics from a high school French class, you most likely remember something, and more often than not that word means “poop.”

The  words people remember from languages they don’t use much are the fun words. Swear words, strange idioms, words that are plain fun to say: these are the words that we remember best.

Beyond some greetings and counting to ten, all I remember from my middle school Spanish class is how to say pencil sharpeners: Las sacapuntas. Why? Because it’s so much fun to say! Sacapuntas, sacapuntas. The fun rhythm made me smile then, and still makes me smile today.

When I moved on to American Sign Language, you can bet your bottom dollar that when showing friends what I’ve learned, I went straight to “horny,” “whore,” “bullshit.” It’s fun to know how to swear in secret—and in this case, in silence.

The first sentence I learned in German was Ich bin Blau: I am drunk. My friend taught me at a high school lunch one day.

My friend’s sister who studied abroad in Italy once told us of an Italian idiom that is equivalent “rose tinted glasses:” “Avere gli occhi foderati di prosciutto.” It’s funny because it is literally translated as “to have your eyes wrapped in ham.”

Language is not just important and brain-expanding; it can be a load of fun, too. Bringing up tongue twisters, swear words, and fun phrases in foreign languages can be a light-hearted conversation starter that leads into a linguistic parade. Bring your dictionaries!

Can you do this?: Conversation Starters

I love showing off my weird left thumb. It’s such a funny thing that people find interesting. I don’t know if it’s double jointed or what, but I can move it in ways my other thumb can’t, and make it look rather short and unnaturally bent. It’s a detail about me that serves as nothing more than a conversation point—and perhaps a slight advantage at video games.

Weird body part talents are a strangely common subject of conversation, probably because everyone has at least one. We all know someone with a hyper-extended knee or double jointed arms or eyes that can cross to the center one at a time. Maybe you can crack every joint in your body, or curl your tongue like an accordion, or lick your elbow. Maybe you can hook your foot behind your head or bend your fingers back to touch your wrist or wiggle your ears and nose. Or do whatever this is:

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Bringing these talents up in the right context can lead to tons of fun. One person mentions that they can raise their eyebrows independently and then the whole group is full of unsuccessful, hilarious attempts to replicate it. It can lead to tons of other fun body topics, like spot on Kermit the Frog impressions and weird freckle formations.

The best part about weird body talents is that it has nothing to do with skill. One cannot teach their shoulders to be double jointed; you can either do it or you can’t. It doesn’t make anyone feel bad.

More of a talent show than a competition, this conversation starter hinges on the importance of independence. It celebrates weirdness and encourages individuality! Do keep in mind, however, that this is best suited for an informal gathering of family or friends. Probably don’t whip this out at a business cocktail party.

The best way I’ve found to start this conversation is asking a kid to replicate your funny. Whether they can do it or not, it gets everyone laughing and allows you to participate without being the center of attention for too long.

Best of luck, and feel free to share your weird talents below. I know you have them!

Meeting the family: Conversation Starters

Your new significant other is amazing. They’re everything you’ve ever wanted, and the last few weeks or months have been like walking on air. They met your friends recently, and got along swimmingly. Now, they want you to meet their friends—or worse, their family.

Naturally you comply, though when they pick you up you’re shaking like a leaf. The night starts out fine, quick introductions, you talk about your job a bit. By the time the appetizer arrives you’re feeling pretty relaxed. It’s halfway through the appetizer that you realize you hadn’t said a word since you ordered, and that was nearly ten minutes ago. They’re all chatting up a storm, and you can barely get a word in edgewise. The topics are changing fast, and inside jokes keep coming up to inexplicable laughter.

How do you deal with meeting a group of people who are already close to one another?

Whenever this sort of scenario happened to me, I found myself being quiet, just observing the family. Whoever was introducing me would later tell me that their friends thought I was “nice, but quiet.” They would say I could talk more. I would be astonished, thinking I had done quite well.

Surviving an evening is different from enjoying one. While it might be beneficial and easier to sit back and observe, these people want to get to know you. They can’t do that if you don’t talk to them.

My suggestion is to act like a predator and go for the weak! Just kidding. Kinda. What I mean by this is to talk to someone who isn’t talking much. Maybe it’s the kid sister, or the father, or one of their quieter friends. I wouldn’t try to strike up a conversation with the person commanding the room, because then everyone will be watching your response. Instead, wait until the table separates into smaller conversations, and talk to a calmer person, to start.

Well, you’ve found your target. Now what? They’re quiet, seem friendly, and are close enough so you can speak at a low-to-moderate volume, but what on earth are you going to say to them?

Think. Didn’t your significant other talk about them before? A great way to start up a conversation is the good old, “So, Sam tells me you’re into [insert hobby here].”

People love talking about their hobbies, especially to new people. It’s also more fun to listen to than a flat description of their job. If you’re lucky, someone has the same hobby as you do, and you can bond over that.

Did your significant other not prepare you at all? Well, you’ll have to be quick…like a predator, again! Follow the conversation and don’t be afraid to jump in. Chances are, they want you to speak, and are waiting to hear you contribute. So, join in. I know, easier said than done (rather, easier said than said in front of other people). But if they’re talking about movies, a simple “Oh, I haven’t seen it yet, is it good?” could get you points.

I find that you don’t have to be a super talkative person on the first group adventure, but you do have to talk. Think of it like a class participation grade.

If it’s truly painful, try to get through the evening mathematically. There are a few different formulas I’ve used to make sure I’m talking enough. One is to try to talk again once I’m the last person to have spoken. Meaning, if everyone in the table has said something since I’ve spoken last, I try to participate again.

Another tactic is to use time and simply try to talk once every five minutes or so.

If you still feel like you aren’t talking enough, remember that a huge amount of language is in the eyes. Make eye contact, even if you aren’t talking. It will make you look engaged and participatory.

Finally, remember: even if your relationship is new, your significant other likes you. They care about you, and want you to have a good time with their family/friends. Ask your significant other for help, if need be. Tell them you get nervous around big groups of new people. Ask them to make space in the conversation to you. Ask them not to leave you alone in a room with them. Ask what so-and-so likes to talk about, and if there are any sensitive topics not to bring up. Ask them to do whatever you want, and they’ll likely do anything to make you more comfortable. After all, they’re probably about as nervous as you are.

If all else fails, just make sure you say something, at some point. It’s okay if they think you’re quiet, because, well, you’re quiet. Things will get easier the more time you spend with them, so just bite the bullet until it becomes second nature. Until then, best of luck. May the flow of conversation be ever in your favor.

Where you from?: Conversation Starters

It’s the first day in a new class, or at a new job. You don’t know anybody, and have two choices: either hide in the back-left corner, take out your laptop, and pretend you can’t see or hear anyone, or strike up a conversation with someone nearby.

You know the class/job will likely be easier if you have someone to talk to. And look! There’s someone who doesn’t seem so loud or annoying. You start talking a bit, and it’s going well, but you realize you’re running out of things to say. You can only discuss classes and majors and previous jobs for so long, and you don’t know anything else about this person. Where’s the best place to go from here?

Place…that’s it!

It may sound lame, but asking where someone’s from is one of the oldest and best tricks in the book. No matter where they’re from, it can inform and further the conversation.

Are they from your hometown? What a coincidence! Ask about their high school experience, if they ever went to that great Indian restaurant, if they know so-and-so.

Are they from your home state? Great! You can talk about how you have/have not been to their town. You can talk about your ventures to the capital city, or the other big attractions. You can talk about how you’ve always wanted to go there.

Are they from a well-known place, like New York City? Now you can ask if it’s really like how it is in the movies. Is it as crowded/expensive? What stereotypes are true? You can ask this about really any place you don’t know well. They’re from England/Morocco/Alabama/Kuwait? What’s it like there? I’ve heard this, is that true? What’s the best part about it? This is a great way to learn about them and a new place at the same time.

Are they from a place you’ve never heard of? Like a strange farming town or a country you couldn’t point to on a map? Even better. Admit that you’ve never heard of it—they probably won’t be surprised that you haven’t—and ask questions.

The best thing about this question is that it’s easy and harmless. Plus, it gets turned back to you with no pressure. Someone will almost always ask the question back to you, but you have the answer prepared. You know where you’re from, and you know plenty about it.

Much like the “weather” conversation starter, this may seem obvious and maybe even cliché. But it’s a tool you can keep in your tool belt when conversation begins to run dry. You can always find another question to ask after you know where someone’s from.

However! This only really works with people you just met. Don’t ask it if you already know the answer! That would just be awkward. Good luck!

So…crazy weather we’re having, huh?: Conversation Starters

The weather. The epitome of an awkward conversation. It’s a trope in comedies that whenever our main character is left alone in a room with an attractive person or a stern father in law or an ex wife or an estranged son, the conversation falls to silence and then turns to…”Been chilly, lately.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Chilly, chilly, chilly…”

However, weather can actually be a great conversation starter. You can turn a short phrase into a conversation pretty quickly, especially if you live in an area with some extreme weather. 

For example, I was lucky enough to be in Florida when hurricane Irene caused NYC to evacuate. Unfortunately, our flight was cancelled, and my sister just had to get home for the first day of school.

We decided to drive from Orlando, Florida to Massachusetts.

It was terrible. We sped the whole way, down the longest empty road ever. We hit DC and then NYC  in about an hour. 

The worst part? We get on the highway, and the gps says, “Turn left in 678 miles.”

We all accepted it at first, then did a double take. 

“SIX HUNDRED WHAT?!”
Everyone has a crazy hurricane or earthquake or blizzard story. Tell yours when the conversation dies down, and have the pressure taken off rather quickly when the focus changes to someone else’s wacky weather adventure.
So much of a successful conversation is just finding a way to make your personal experiences relate. With a little practice, even the weather won’t be awkward. Try it out! 

 

Going on autopilot: Conversation Starters

I get so lost in thought I sometimes go on autopilot. It’s amazing what I’m capable of doing without noticing, but also pretty funny when my mind messes up.

I’m sure we all have had brief mess ups like throwing away a plate and putting the pizza crust in the sink, or squirting out body wash and using it as shampoo. Those happen all the time, a strange short-circuit in the brain where it confuses your hands and pieces things together wrong.

Sometimes I’m five minutes into driving to work when I realize I had meant to drive to the supermarket. Sometimes I just mix objects up all together. I was reading a book and didn’t know the definition of a word, so I pressed it with my finger, waiting for the Kindle definition to pop up. I actually tapped it a few times before I remembered that books don’t do that.

Other times, I just get so in the zone that I don’t stop. I once cut the leaves off a whole carton of strawberries when I had only wanted a few for a snack, for example. Similarly, haven’t we all been so engrossed in a movie we ate the whole extra-large popcorn?

It’s not a bad thing, I don’t think. I usually end up laughing at myself—like when my phone buzzes because I got an email and I assume it’s my alarm. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been halfway through doing my makeup before realizing that it was 2 a.m.

I think the best is the time I was so engaged in a conversation with my friend and offered him something to drink. I was concentrating hard on what they were saying as I took out the glass from the cupboard. My body then automatically washed the glass with soap and water, and placed it on the drying rack. My friend gave me a strange look then laughed, asking me what the heck I was doing, taking clean cups out of the cupboard and washing them, and could he have his drink already?

These are fun conversation starters that allow everyone to relax and laugh a little bit at themselves. Were you ever a kid and accidentally called your teacher mom? Did you ever work as a receptionist and answer your home phone with your scripted greeting? Ever get angry when your dog won’t respond when you accidentally call it your daughter’s name? The stories are easy to tell and entertaining to hear. Share yours!

Berlin, England: Conversation starters

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I get compliments on my bag all the time, which is funny because it’s crap. I mean, I like how it looks too—that’s why I bought it. But it was $25 from a street vendor in New York City, made of fake leather that is already falling apart at just a year old.

Its leather isn’t the only thing that’s cheaply made. As you can see from the photo, it’s a map of the world in nice earth tones and fancy calligraphy. It looks great from a distance! But then I’m sitting on a New York subway, admiring my new purchase, and I notice something…

Every single country is spelled wrong.

At first I think, cool! Every country must be in its native language…or something? Or, maybe it’s supposed to be old English? I look closer. The calligraphy is hard to read, but it seems to suggest “Palaka” is Poland. Well, I suppose that could be true. But, “Dalaka” for Germany?palaka.jpeg

“Tuikiye” for Turkey?

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I get more suspicious when I see the Mediterranean is labeled “Madilseeanean,” and Algeria is “Algeica.”meditalgeca.jpeg

Again, I tell myself, maybe it’s old English. But then, the other shoe drops:

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London is labeled as “Berlin.”

Well, that settles it. Somehow, for some reason, everything on this bag is wrong! Could they not get the rights for the world? Do you NEED to get rights for the world?

I don’t mind my terribly-spelled bag. After all, it’s still adorable, and it’s a great conversation piece. People love spending time poring over every misspelling, wondering if it’s this language or that until I point out Berlin, England (or the “United Hingdom,” according to the bag). Then they throw their hands in the air and laugh, deeming the bag a mystery.

I too wonder how and why this bag ended up this way. I can only imagine it’s a knock off of a designer bag, and misspelling/labeling countries somehow got around copyright. But whatever the reason, I don’t mind. It’s a small-talk I don’t mind having, since it doesn’t focus on me. It’s a fun game to play when I don’t have anything else to do. It’s a centerpiece of a love of all things ironic, the love of ridiculous things that are so bad they’re good.

It’s the little things like Berlin, England that make life wonderful. While it’s unlikely you have a bag like this, a piece of jewelry or a shirt with a story behind it are great conversation starters in a pinch! You get to share a story, get a few compliments, and get out of the spotlight as people try to top your story. Good luck:)