Here’s a research-backed tip to get you through your next awkward dinner party conversation: Just ask the person you’re chatting with questions ― and a lot of follow-up questions.
In a series of studies on human interaction, Harvard Business School doctoral student Karen Huang and her research team analyzed more than 300 online and face-to-face conversations between people getting to know each other.
For the online conversations component, participants were assigned a random person to talk with for 15 minutes. In the first study, they told one person in each pairing to ask either many questions (at least nine) or a few questions (no more than four).
After the conversations ended, participants reported how much they liked their partner. The conclusion? The people who asked more questions, particularly follow-up questions, were considered more likable.
In the second study, participants also chatted online for 15 minutes, but this time they weren’t instructed specifically how many questions to ask; they were just told to ask many questions or few questions. Then, third-parties observers read the transcripts of those conversations.
The observers said they found the person responding to a high quantity of questions more likable than high question askers, Huang told HuffPost.
“We suspect this is because people who answer lots of questions end up revealing more information about their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives,” she said. “They seem more interesting and complete.”
The goal in small talk, then, according to Huang, is to strike a balance between question asking and answering, without being too interrogative.
Question-asking ― in moderation ― could be good for your dating life as well. The researchers also looked at data from a previously published study of 110 people at a speed-dating event and analyzed the number of questions and follow-up questions participants’ asked. They concluded that those who asked follow-up questions were more likely to score a second date.
The big takeaway here? A good secondary, follow-up question works wonders. Aim for a dialogue, not an FBI-like interrogation, said Debra Fine, a nationally recognized communication expert and author of The Fine Art Of Small Talk.
“There is so much more to a good conversation than merely asking questions and jumping from topic to topic,” Fine told HuffPost. “Follow-up questions are key because otherwise conversations are just question after question with no connection or in-depth real conversation.”
Below, Fine, who’s not affiliated with the study, provided a short list of questions that will score you brownie points with strangers or acquaintances. (You’re welcome, social introverts):
1. “What do you do for fun?” or “What keeps you busy outside of work or school?”
“These are my standard go-to questions when interacting for business,” Fine said. “It fosters a business friendship because you learn something about the person beyond what they do for work.”
2. “Where are you from?”
”This one always works even when the person is from where you are,” Fine said. “The natural follow-ups in that case are ‘Have you ever considered living in another place?’ or ‘What do you like best and least about living here?’ If they’re not from the area, ask them what they miss most about home.”
3. “How’s work/family or that one hobby I know you’re interested in?”
“If I have met someone before, I prepare by reminding myself what I already know about the person,” she said. “Consider topics of discussion beforehand; the worst time to think of something to talk about is when there is nothing to talk about!”