How to be an instant conversation starter

February 21, 2013

In your personal and professional life, being easy to talk to is a skill worth developing. But good conversationalists are rare. 

There are plenty of people who excel at making small talk awkward. 
That’s why networking events sell Miller Lite for $4. 
Liquid courage for those ill-prepared to engage.
You can be different. 
And you can be less drunk with significantly more money in your pocket.
Two questions dominate the conversation-starting:
1.  What do you do?
2.  Where do you work?
These are clumsy. 
And awkward. 
The real answer to Q1 probably involves Excel, meetings and email. 
Question 2 will return the name of a company. Hopefully you recognize the name. If not… you go with your gut and say, “Oh, right… what do you do?”    
Ask this instead: Where are you from?
This question creates opportunities for the respondent - and for you. 
If they respond with the name of a nearby town, you now have locality in common. You can inquire about what high school they went to. If they respond with some far-flung city, ask how they ended up here. 
Everyone has a story.  
Where are you from? or ¿De Dónde Eres? can also break the ice with Spanish-speakers. At Red Angle we developed the ¿De Dónde Eres? poster (see image at top) to help start conversations between English-speaking managers and Spanish-speaking workers. 
The ¿De Dónde Eres? poster allows everyone on the team to place a thumb-tack in their hometown.
This gets everyone talking.
It breaks down barriers. 
Hispanic workers don’t get asked this question frequently for 2 reasons.
UNO: the assumed language barrier makes both parties fear the worst, opting for silence over awkwardness. 
DOS: English-speaking managers don’t value the question because they feel they already know the response. “They’re from Mexico. They’re alllllll from Mexico.”  
No they’re not. 
Roughly 65 percent of all Hispanics in the U.S. are from Mexico, so if you have to guess - yeah, go with the odds.
But you don’t have to guess.
This isn't Trivial Pursuit.
This is your life. 
You can simply say, “¿De Dónde Eres?
About 10 percent of all Hispanics in the U.S. are from Puerto Rico.
Cubans, Salvadorans and Dominicans make up another 10 percent. 
Everyone has a story. 
In some cases, an entire group of employees has a story. 
I recently brought a ¿De Dónde Eres? poster to a client and introduced it to 30 Hispanic employees. After half the employees placed a thumbtack on their hometown, I was informed there was no more room. 
Huh? The poster is six square feet....
Turns out nearly everyone was from a few small towns in the state of Michoacán in Mexico. 
I asked how that happened.
And a conversation ensued.
El Presidente

Bradley Hartmann is El Presidente of Red Angle, a Spanish language training firm focused exclusively on the construcción industry. Hartmann has been successful improving Safety, Productivity and Profitability by speaking Spanish on the jobsite. Hartmann lived in Guadalajara, México, during his undergraduate studies and later earned his MBA. Hartmann also teaches Construction Spanish at Purdue University’s Building Construction Management Program. He has authored two books: Spanish Twins: Start Speaking Spanish on the Construction Site with Words You Already Know and Safety Spanish: Simple Spanish Skills for Solving Safety Problems. Hartmann would love to hear your thoughts digitally at or at 630.234.7321.