A small but useful piece of advice for people who feel awkward at parties: If you can’t think of anything interesting to say about yourself, ask the other person a question instead. How do you know the host? Where are you from? Where did you get those chips, and are there any left? See, this is easy.
It sounds like obvious advice, and it is, but that doesn’t mean that people necessarily follow it. Research in social science has found many times over that people are generally pretty bad at guessing how to make a good first impression, and the most common mistakes can be grouped under a general “me, me, me” category. “[M]ost people spend the majority of their conversations sharing their own views rather than focusing on the other person,” write the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. But no one is as interested in you as you are, I’m afraid, and so if you’re worried about people liking you, something easy you can do is to flip your focus from yourself to the person in front of you.
In a series of experiments, Harvard Business School doctoral student Karen Huang and her colleagues assigned people to either ask a lot of questions (at least nine) or only a few questions (at most four). They then chatted with another study participant on an instant-message platform, and afterward, both people rated how much they liked their conversational partner. Would you believe that people liked those who asked lots of questions more than those who asked very few questions? Am I doing this right? Do you like me now?
The very best questions to ask, the researchers further found, were follow-up questions, no doubt because these serve as evidence that you’re listening. That’s the real point here: People like being heard. Any reply that demonstrates that you understand and respect what the other person is saying — the researchers called this “responsiveness” — should have the same effect. (Don’t make this weird by turning every conversation into an interrogation, in other words, though thoughtful follow-up questions should also help with that.) But the truth is that asking questions makes a conversation more fun for the asker, too. You don’t have to worry so much about what to say next, and you don’t have to worry about impressing the other person. You just have to listen.