01/30/2014 09:29 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2015

9 Surefire Ways To Break The Ice

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Some people have that magical Barbara Walters-like ability to get anyone to talk. The rest of us need a little help.

By Amy Shearn

1. Ask Someone About Seahorses. Or Elephants.

I love seahorses. I shouldn't even have to explain why, because they are clearly so awesome: They look like weird fantastical creatures; they live in water but can barely swim; the males gestate the babies; they can live in the Hudson River. In short, they make no sense. I am always happy to share my seahorse obsession with someone—at a party, at my co-op building mixer, waiting to pick up from toddler ballet—and I've also found most people love telling me about their beloved beasts. Er, except for the cab driver who told a harrowing tale of being charged by an elephant as a child in Ghana. Everyone, besides him, has a critter they're dying to wax poetic about, if only somebody would ask….

2. Slap a Smartphone on Your Forehead.

As anyone who's ever taken an improv class knows, there is something about being goofy that creates an undeniable sense of camaraderie, which is the logic behind the latest flood of grown-up games meant to break the ice at bars (and parties). Heads Up! is a game app (developed from the game Ellen DeGeneres plays on her show [http://www.ellentv.com/2013/05/02/download-ellens-new-app-heads-up/] that requires you to hold your phone up to your forehead, so that others can see the word displayed there (but you can't), and then to guess the word using clues given to you by your fellow players. In other words, anyone can play it, and it essentially forces everyone involved to be at least 73 percent silly. Another good game-app to get people to loosen up is Word Party. And, of course, there's the old standby Trivia Night (don't worry, it's an app now, too, called Trivially).

3. Ask About His Last All-Nighter.

So, you're on your seventh Match.com first date, and you think you've gone through all your conversation starters. Well here's one you probably haven't used before: "When was the last time you stayed up all night?" Sleep (or lack of it) is easy to talk about (unlike, say, politics) and, what's more, if someone did stay up all night it was probably for something special—a person, a project, a dance marathon, a Netflix binge. And let's face it, there's something inevitably flirtatious—and conversation-starting—in asking about someone's night life.

4. Play "Where'd You Rather?"

Surely you recall the NSFW college-era game of "Who'd you rather?" Here's the SFW version: On a gorgeous sunny day when you're all stuck at the professional-development thing, ask someone, "If you could be anywhere else right now, where would that be?" On a miserable, pitch-black night, as you trudge through the snow. In the waiting room. You'll learn something about someone, and you'll give them a three-minute-long imaginary vacation while they talk.

5. Put on Your Track Suit.

For their short film The Runners, London filmmakers Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley approached runners and interviewed them—figuring, as they told The Guardian, that the runners would "be distracted; perhaps you could ask about things that you couldn't otherwise." They found that the runners were often very willing to open up to them, frequently even offering advice: "I had a conversation with a woman who told me about her regretting not having had children and how it was now too late…," said one of the directors, Ivo Gormley. “[She said,] 'Take care of the present, because it's all you've got.' We smiled at each other and she ran off." So lace up your sneaks, hit your stride (walking works, too) and ask the big questions. It's a good way to get a parent, or cousin, or in-law to break out of chitchat mode.

6. Share Your Worry Wheel.

Artist Andrew Kuo created one of the loveliest and most hilarious infographics we've ever seen with his Wheel of Worry, which revealed that while falling asleep he frets about loneliness and the New York Knicks in almost equal proportions. Try this one with a book-group member you've never quite connected with: What oddball worry would most color your Wheel of Worry? Share a bit of yourself—and yes, this involves making yourself a little vulnerable—and you'll be surprised at how people all around will cleave to you. Trust me. I had a conversation that began, "I know, I always think I'm going to get walked in on in public restrooms, too!," and bloomed into an entire friendship.

7. Speak Her Language.

If you're in France, you need to speak a little French—even if it's only to say please and thank you, and to not be the "TALK ENGLISH?" traveler. If you're on the PTA committee to raise funds for the school, you have to know what all those DOE abbreviations are, and learn how to talk so the Board of Regents will listen. Communications coach John Artise told O magazine that there are four basic kinds of communicators: Feelers, Sensors, Intuitors and Thinkers. Notice how the person you're talking to operates (for example, the bossy PTA committee chair who talks a mile a minute and then gets annoyed when you ask her questions) and attempt to mirror her style (She's an intuitor and thinks you know what she's talking about, so let her speak for a while before asking your questions). She'll likely feel more understood, and thus more like opening up to you.

8. Assign the 2 of You to a Minimission.

When you're naturally on the shy side, as I am, you're constantly worried about annoying people, which you seek to avoid by talking as little as possible. But people sense when you feel uncomfortable and it makes them uncomfortable, which starts the whole toe-staring, blushing cycle anew. Here's a shy-person trick from the trenches: Invite someone to be your sidekick on a minimission. Enlist someone else at the church coffee-hour to accompany you to pick up an extra box of cookies when the refreshments are running low, and your shared purpose will bring you together.

9. Ask Someone Else About Her X-ray Vision.

Sounds crazy, I know, but sometimes the best way to get to know someone is not to talk to her at all. At a dinner party, you might say, "So you two have been friends since high school? What's her superpower?" Ask the friend of the person you want to coax out of her shell—being flattered will relax her, and give her something specific to talk about. Even if it's just, "Oh no, I’m so NOT a superstealth scarf knitter, maybe a social-setting shapeshifter though…"

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Earlier on HuffPost:

10 Nice Things You Can Say To Anybody

  • 'Take Your Time. I'm Not In A Rush.'
    This one is great for the grocery store, the takeout burrito restaurant or anywhere else that involves really tired people trying their best, even as they fumble and flail. For example, the woman in front of you pays the cashier but then has to rifle through her overstuffed wallet to put away the change, then store the receipt, then mash the whole fat leather money accordion into her purse. She will usually complete this action with frantic fingers because she knows she's delaying the whole line; she knows everybody just wants to go home; and she knows she should not save old, mostly-used-up gift cards with 63 cents on them. Telling her to "Take your time. I'm not in rush" always sets off the same reaction: first, surprise (really? because everybody's in a rush...) and then a flash of sweet wide-open relief. You have just given somebody a three-minute holiday, not from the stress of life, but from the stress we put on ourselves.
  • 'Three Different Sources Have Confirmed That You're Generous, Nice To Animals And Funny.'
    It happens all the time during coffee dates or lunches at work -- a friend's name comes up in conversation and everyone there suddenly begins to talk about how amazing this person is: for example, how whip-smart she was during the budget meeting, how kind she was to the obviously lonely woman in production, how she always smells a little like fresh vanilla cupcakes. Unfortunately, due to her absence, she'll never know about this avalanche of admiration -- unless you inform her. Passing along the descriptions will not only make her feel quite special for possessing these characteristics, but it will also disable the compliment-deflecting shield that so many of us have, because by delivering this praise, you can't possibly just be trying to "cheer her up" or trying to "be sweet." You didn't actually say those things. Other people did.
  • 'The Way You Eat A Sandwich Is So Elegant.'
    Long ago, when I was a young student and traveled, a Frenchman said this to me. He was not my boyfriend or interested in becoming my boyfriend or even interesting in just having sex with a cheerful American. He was dating one of the most beautiful people on the planet, a woman who was snuggled up on his arm like a tall, dark luxurious human stole. What the two of them were doing at a student cafeteria, I will never understand. And yet, as we stood together at the counter, strangers eating our ham-and-cheeses, he noticed a habit I had developed of taking very small bites off the huge long hunk of bread and wiping all the little flakey crumbs that showered down onto my chin with a napkin. Twenty years later, when I think of this comment, a little sunset still glows inside me. Because -- and this is a little embarrassing -- I had worked at sandwich eating. Eating a sandwich in France is the European equivalent of eating a large drippy log-size burrito, due the size of thick baguettes and the overuse of butter. I wanted it to do to it with a wee less glop and a wee more class. Somewhere in your life, someone is carefully serving your salad before serving themselves. What's interesting is that very, very few people notice it. We expect good table manners and usually only comment on the bad. Praising something that's this invisible not only makes a person feel good for doing what they've done (improving the view during dinner) but also for what it cost them -- which, when it come to manners, means things like not getting to lick the chocolate sludge at the bottom of the ice cream bowl.
  • 'I Saw What You Did, And Please Don't Think I'm A Nut Case, But It Restored My Faith In The Human Race.'
    Oh, the things people do! The woman who climbs up the two flights of stairs at the train station, then climbs back down them to help an old man with his suitcase. The strange little man who walks around downtown slipping packages of cookies into the bags of the sleeping homeless people. The guy who picks up the public trash can on the corner that fell over. Everybody walking by notices these tiny kindnesses. So few will take the socially risky, even embarrassing step of approaching the complete stranger who's done them and thanking him or her for what they're really doing -- helping us remember that, despite the constant headlines, human beings don't just invent Ponzi schemes and burn up the ozone. They also offer to share their umbrellas with strangers during pouring thunderstorms, even if it means their backpack will be a little wet.
  • 'You Have A Genius Not Understood By Mere Mortals.'
    This was probably said to Einstein. But you can say it to anybody in those moments, say, when you catch your new boyfriend in the shower... with his yoga mat. Or you go over to your best friend's house and find her layering her sandwich like this: ham, cheese, lettuce, onion, ham, cheese, lettuce, onion, hamcheeselettuceonion. We all have these quirky rituals. They are a little screwball. We usually do them alone. But they save time (for example, rinsing off a yoga mat while you rinse yourself) or just work better (for example, making 12 individual layers of sandwich filling ensures that you'll get a little taste of all the flavors in each bite, instead of, say, just a hunk of ham and lettuce or a mouthful of onion and cheese. Understanding the reasoning behind these private processes and praising the person for them is a moment of respect. You're not saying that you are going to do it at your house -- which would be a lie -- but you are saying that their idea makes sense, right in the moment they most expect to be ridiculed for being a complete kook.
  • 'That's Awful.'
    Sometimes, the nicest thing you can do is not to ask a bunch of probing, sensitive questions ("So what are you really feeling? Shock? Terror?"). Or try to think of way you can fix it ("Have you looked into natural herbs? Have you called those clinics in Bora Bora?"). Or to offer to help ("I'll drive you! I'll clean your house! I'll make you a lasagna!"). Or even to apologize over and over, explaining that you know that you didn't make the horrible event happen, you're just sorry it happened. Sometimes you need to take you out of it. A person in your life is upset and scared and maybe even in denial. Recognizing what's really happening gives that person the rare and much-needed opportunity to look at this terrible thing with somebody, instead of alone.
  • 'I Love The Sound Of Your Voice.'
    Just go say this to the nearest three people you like. Watch what happens.
  • 'I Am Not Inviting HIM To My Birthday Party.'
    Everybody wants to feel protected -- especially when they've been dumped. Offering to full-on hate somebody's ex certainly lets her know that you're on her side. But hate is exhausting; hate sucks a lot of energy. Plus, it doesn't make rational sense if you never even met the ex. Instead, take the kind of loyal, immature path of kindergartners all over the world and declare the offender crossed off your birthday list. Not only will it make that injured party in question laugh, but it also creates the pleasing fantasy of her drinking champagne and dancing on a table while the dumper sits home in front of the TV, crying over a carton of cold limp egg foo yung.
  • 'You Bring Me Joy. You Make Me Happy.'
    There's ticker tape in most of our brains that spits out these kinds of loving phrases at regular intervals throughout the day. But the phrases themselves don't make it to our mouth, because they seem cheesy or we don't know the person well enough or we were raised by people who shook our hands (or worse) when they really wanted to hug us. Interestingly enough, people don't titter nervously when you say these so-called "overused" things to them. Nor do they run away. They may smile wildly or just slightly, but inside, little Roman candles of happiness are going off. Just say it, and if that's too goofy or embarrassing, text it.
  • 'I Just Can't Make This Decision Without You.'
    Everybody likes to be liked for who they are. But there's a special kind of glow that comes when somebody likes what you think, when you know that what they want is your help in making a decision or in figuring out a messy problem. This may also be another way of expressing that most honored of human emotions: trust.