Part of our everyday life in hostels is chatting up guests. We do it at check-in. We do it over breakfast. We do it constantly. Eventually most of us get pretty good at it.
Or perhaps, if we're a little burned out, we get stuck in a single conversation that just keeps repeating with every new face (Where are you from? How long are you traveling? Where have you been? Where are you going? Repeat)
Not everyone is an expert schmoozer from day one, and sometimes we all need a little jump start to get back in the groove. A little inspiration (or maybe a little cheat sheet?) can help in both cases.
I stumbled across an interesting article about business networking that actually relates to creating a great hostel atmosphere: 9 Questions the most interesting people ask to cut through small talk
It was written to address how to meet people for the first time at business events and jump straight into a more personal and meaningful discussion than "So, what do you do?" This article could easily be applied to breaking the ice with our newest traveling friends.
The nine questions from the article are:
1) What excites you right now?
2) What are you looking forward to?
3) What is the best thing that has happened to you this year?
4) What's the most important thing I should know about you?
5) What's your story?
6) What is one of your defining moments?
7) Why did you choose your profession?
8) What are you currently reading?
9) How can I be most helpful to you right now?
Here are some more general suggestions from another article on the same theme. Their suggestions are less specific about the exact questions, and more about the topics of discussion:
9 ways to skip the shallow small talk and have deep conversations
1. Have some "deep" conversation starters on hand.
They suggest reading books on behavioral economics and pop psychology because they are interesting and "fundamentally about people" so it's easy to talk to people about those topics. Also, watch interesting TED talks for cool ideas that inspire people.
2. Ask questions about topics the other person is interested in.
Find something your guest is excited about. Try to learn something new about it by asking them questions and getting them to explain that thing to you.
3. Find out what makes the other person special.
Don't ask, "What do you do?" but rather, "What makes you a badass?"
4. Avoid discussing the weather.
Period. It's boring and shallow. [Unless it's just a way to segway into a great weather-influenced suggestion of something amazing to do or see in your city. That's not a deep topic either, but at least you can salvage an otherwise lifeless conversation this way.]
5. Assume the other person has deep thoughts.
Assume they're intelligent and informed, and just as eager to have a meaningful conversation as you are.
6. Don't push people to see your perspective.
Very few people have had meaningful conversations by proving to someone else that they are right. Instead, ask the other person to explain their ideas and legitimately try to understand their perspective.
7. Reveal something slightly personal.
This doesn't have to be a massive secret, just something slightly personal. Tell something about yourself and discuss how it felt and what you learned from it. If you disclose something about yourself your guest is likely to do the same and form a stronger connection with you. (Just keep it under control. Think, "I just discovered my new favorite musical artist," not "I'm sleeping with my boss's sister."
8. Talk about something specific you're working on.
Go past what you do in general (ex. I run a hostel) and liven it up with things you have accomplished recently or that you're in the process of doing. [Note: if you're having a discussion while you're actually in the process of working on a project, then it's probably not going to be a very deep conversation anyway. You might be better off to ask them to give you a hand and bond over a shared activity instead.] Also, if they ask what you do for fun, talk about a recent experience you had while doing your hobby.
9. Ask for stories, not answers.
Instead of "How was your weekend?" or "What's up?" ask "What was the best part of your weekend?" or "What are you looking forward to this week?"
And yet another article offered 15 more helpful suggestions for getting better at striking up conversations with strangers.
15 ways to get better at small talk
1) Demonstrate interest in your conversation partner
Let the guy talk about himself. People love talking about themselves.
2) Ask open-ended questions
3) Allow your conversation partner to teach you
If you're not familiar with the subject, ask them to tell you about it. Asking to explain what they mean is another way to keep them talking about something that interests them.
4) Share anecdotes
You form a better bond when you find something you can both relate to. When you find common ground, share a story. It will probably prompt them to share something similar.
5) Practice the FORM technique:
Family: Do you have kids? Where is your family right now?
Occupation: What is that like? Have you always been a circus acrobat?
Recreation: What do you guys do for fun? How long have you been involved in that?
Money: What happened with the price of gas? How do you think the new liquor-store laws will shake out? Anybody you know lose their job lately?
6) Read the news
If the conversation slows you can drop, "Hey, did you hear about...?"
7) Boost your conversation partner's self-esteem
Try to make everyone feel a little better about themself after they have met and talked to you.
8) Practice with everyone you meet
Talk to everyone. In the hostel. On the street. On the Metro. You'll get comfortable striking up and maintaining interesting conversations.
9) Copy good conversationalists
Observe talk-show hosts. Listen to the kinds of questions they ask and how they follow up on the answers. Channel your inner Oprah.
10) Use the ARE format:
Anchor: Find something you two have in common right now. For example, "This cocktail is really fancy — what's in it?"
Reveal: Share something personal with the other person. For example, "I tried a similar cocktail at a beach bar in Malibu last year and it blew me away."
Encourage: Invite them to share something personal. For example: "I can see it in your eyes that you hate cocktails. You are more of a whiskey drinker, aren't you?"
11) Ask a better version of, 'What do you do?'
Instead try "What's keeping you busy these days?" It let's people choose their focus instead of getting stuck talking about their job (which as backpackers, they probably don't have right now anyway)
12) Talk about something that just happened to you
It doesn't put people on the spot, and you can ask them to add their opinion or what they know afterwards. Try starting a conversation with, "I just had the most amazing peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
13) Be honest
"You know, I hate small talk, so how about we talk about something big? What's something that scared you today? Are you happy with your current lifestyle? On a scale of one to amazing, just how fantastic does my butt make these jeans look?"
14) Bring up some of your past failures
Talking about your successes may get a "Congrats, Dude" in response. Telling them about one of the times you royally screwed up and nearly ruined everything will get you a laugh, and maybe even an interesting story of their own.
15) Know that other people feel weird, too
Chances are pretty good that they aren't sure what to say either. So go ahead and toss out any conversation starter you want.
And if all of this advice slips your mind and you just can't figure out what to talk about, grab the kettle and say, "I'm going to make some tea. Would you like a cup as well?"