The 2-Word Trick That Makes Small Talk Interesting
I was at a house party, on my own, sticking close to the table that held the drinks and the charcuterie display. Because I hardly knew anyone, I was tempted to hunker down on the couch with a cold glass and a full plate and go through emails on my phone.
It felt safe, but also a little boring. So instead, I decided to try an experiment: I wanted to see if I could have at least one interesting conversation with a complete stranger.
Like pretty much everyone else, I think of small talk as a drag. After you exhaust the generic questions — What’s your name? What do you do? Where are you from? — the conversation usually grinds to a halt. It’s like a clunky ballroom dance, with both people struggling to find the same rhythm: As you speak, you wonder if the other person gets your humor, appreciates your opinions, or is mentally engaged at all. Sometimes you get lucky and strike upon a shared passion to dive into, but more often, you discover you have little in common and get stuck. That’s usually my cue to get another drink.
At the same time, we’ve all experienced an interesting conversation with someone we’ve just met — an exchange in which words flow back and forth effortlessly, where both people are fully present and happy to be there. There are thoughtful questions, real laughter, and maybe even hints of healthy disagreement. You lose yourself in the moment, and when it’s finally time to depart, you feel energized, more alive.
Alone at the party, that’s what I craved. And I had an idea of how to get it.
While listening to my favorite podcasts, I’ve noticed a two-word phrase that hosts often use with their guests to cut past the surface-level chitchat and into the heart of a story: “I’m curious.”
Usually, the phrase is carefully placed before a good, sometimes tough question. On NPR’s How I Built This, which dives into the stories behind the world’s best-known companies, host Guy Raz uses it often.
He used it when he talked to Lyft’s John Zimmer: “Uber is a good product. Lyft is a good product. They do things really well. You guys do things really well. I’m curious how that competition has actually made Lyft better.”
He dropped it in a conversation with Jeremy Stoppelman, who co-founded Yelp: “I’m curious, Jeremy, when you get criticized — like, I read you did an AMA on Reddit a couple years back and there were some people who just said mean things… do you care about any of that? Does any of it ever get you down?”
And he said it when talking to Ross Bagdasarian Jr., who revived the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise that his father had created. “I’m just curious, Ross… All of these people who are experts in television were saying, ‘Look, this is old. This is a tired franchise. Just enjoy life.’ Why did you think they were wrong?”
And it works. Raz’s guests — mostly high-powered, multimillionaire leaders — are vulnerable with him as they open up about the failures and rough patches they’ve struggled through. Often, they speak candidly about addiction, violence, divorce, cancer, and greed. These types of conversations are special and rare.
What “I’m curious” does is set the other person up for success. You’re not being interrogative, as there’s no right or wrong answer. There’s no judgment, no ulterior motive. You simply want to learn. Raz has explained before why he believes curiosity is better than intelligence. He has also said that that right before recording begins, he asks his guests to “surrender” and “be generous” with their story.
Other popular podcast hosts, like Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, and Cal Fussman, also use the “I’m curious” phrase, or versions of it, in their interviews. When you listen to their shows, you feel like you’re sitting in on a conversation between friends. “I have nowhere near their success level,” Fussman has said of his interviewees, which have included Kobe Bryant, Simon Sinek, and Amanda Slavin. “They might wonder if I’m successful at all. But I’m not thinking, ‘What do they think of me?’ I’m going in with, ‘Who are these people?’ It’s a childlike curiosity. I don’t see why I should be intimidated. A child is not intimidated. He or she just blurts out their question.”
My party experiment turned out to be a success. That night, I met a Mennonite who has 76 cousins. I chatted with a youth pastor who’s building a church. I sat around a bonfire and talked with a group of social workers, one of whom had served Mark Zuckerberg a whiskey ginger in 2012.
Why am I telling you this? Because I am now a convert. I started my questions with “I’m curious,” and it led to interesting, fun, and inspiring conversations. People seemed at ease, and I felt invigorated.
Curiosity is pure. If you believe every person has a great story, you will find that you are right. Sometimes a simple question is all it takes to reveal it.
So, I’m curious — where will this phrase take you?