How to Have a Normal Human Social Interaction

Three conversations that have nothing to do with the pandemic

In a way, the pandemic has made small talk easy, even for those of us who struggle with conversations about pets or the weather. These days there’s always an ice breaker close at hand, whether that’s new travel rules, predictions about the next phase of pandemic life, or where you are in terms of being vaccinated. (“Oh, you’re a Pfizer?)

We need these conversations. They help us manage our anxiety, and stitch together reality from our still fairly isolated realms. But at this point? Pandemic talk is just. So. Boring. And reminds us that we’re still in a pandemic, even when we’re finally socializing for the first time in months. But what did people even used to talk about?

Here are three ways to retrain your inner conversationalist, in three different settings.

At the dinner table

If you live with other people, particularly other people you’re related to through paperwork or blood, you may have come to believe that you’ve run out of things to talk about, maybe forever. Before dinner sit everyone down for a brief AV presentation. Conundrums is a series of 14 short videos each of which presents a scenario and then poses a question about it that has no clear right or wrong answer.

Created by ClassDojo and Astra Nova, an Elon Musk-funded experimental online school, Conundrums is designed to encourage critical thinking. The questions each video frames are far more fun, and appeal to a much wider range of ages and people, than a classic philosophical thought experiment. (Though there is a fun video series for those, too.) You may end up arguing about who should get credit for the discovery of a new breed of fox, but at least you won’t be staring blankly at each other.

At an outdoor gathering

Open-ended, experiential questions will help you learn something interesting about the other person and are also likely to lead to a wide-ranging conversation. One word of caution, these can get deep fast, so be careful about what you ask. It’s been a heavy year, and if you’re at a barbecue with other humans for the first time since 2019, you may want to keep it light.

Here are a few fun starters: What was the first concert you ever went to? What’s the best place you’ve ever been? If there was one trip you could do over, what would it be? What are the next two travel destinations on your list? What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten? If you could travel back in time and relive a period of your life, when would it be?

On the phone or in person with a close friend

One of the challenges of this time is that we’re living through a really big story that has constrained our daily lives in such a way that much less than usual actually happens. We have no funny tales to share about our commutes. Trying to share an anecdote about something that happened on Zoom just feels sad. So it’s hard to ease into a conversation with a close friend you don’t see a lot.

Instead, spend the time figuring out what might make you happier in your life, and ask your friend for unfettered feedback. Pose a question that my therapist often asks me when I’m lamenting some aspect of my life: If your job/relationship/life was perfect and you had everything figured out, how would it be different from today? Go even more specific if you like: If you could design the perfect work day, the perfect balance of tasks, what would that look like? What would conflict and resolution look like in a perfect scenario with your partner? It’ll make for an interesting conversation and might just help you to get to know yourselves better.

Bonus round

Whenever someone asks me what I’ve been reading or watching that I’ve loved lately, I choke. My mind goes blank and I forget everything I’ve ever watched or read or listened to. Take out your phone and either make a note wherever you do that, or send yourself a text message with three recommendations. Here are mine: Worn Stories, a fantastic documentary series on Netflix that will make you laugh and cry in 25 minutes; The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet, which I read in pretty much a single day; and the Spotify playlist Songs that Never Fail to Make White People Beyond Turnt. If you lead the conversation with something you’re passionate about, people will have time to remember theirs and you’ll get a fun conversation and new list of good stuff.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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