How to have more engaging conversations in everyday life

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Ask people in the working world what they miss most about college, and many will say something similar: They’ll mention the intellectual stimulation of living near hundreds or thousands of potential friends, studying physics, psychology and literature, with the time to talk over a meal or some drinks late into the night.

But our panel of experts, excellent conversationalists all, say there are some ways to keep that spirit alive after college.

The Experts

Dana Trader, 41, is the director of community experience at Meetup, an app with 28 million members that brings strangers together around a common interest.

Noah Rinsky, 27, frequents coffee shops during the day while working on a novel about jazz. At night, he tends bar at a Manhattan jazz club called Zinc Bar. (I should disclose that Noah is a friend of mine. I decided to interview him because it seems like every time I visit him at a coffee shop or at the club, he’s talking to someone interesting whom I’ve never seen before.)

Ava Coleman, 23, lives in Los Angeles and works in the music industry, on the management side. She graduated from the University of Southern California last year.

Joshua Somers, 33, is the founder of Indoor Hoops, a pickup basketball network. He splits time between Boca Raton, Fla., and New York City.

Their advice for finding engaging conversations

1. Unite around a common interest

“What we’ve seen at Meetup is that it really helps for people to come together around a shared interest or something they know they have in common,” Dana said. “Going for a run with a group of people isn’t so threatening. But then over the course of that run, you get to know people, you get talking.”

Noah noted that it doesn’t take participation in an organized networking group to understand why people might find themselves in the same environment.

“It’s easy to engage somebody when they’re at a place that you’re enthusiastic about and know what’s going on,” he said. “For example, if they come in the club, they’re obviously in the club because they want to hear about jazz. I can immediately engage them about jazz and we can have a conversation about that.”

Ava, who described herself as an introvert, agreed that having common interests was helpful, but said she used other points of commonality to jump-start conversations.

“If I’m in a room and there’s no way to gauge what they might do for their profession, or anything about them other than what they look like, I usually gravitate toward people who look like me — other people of color, other women — or are closer to my age,” she said. “We can have a nice convo.”

And Joshua echoed the idea that conversation comes naturally when people are participating in the same activity, noting that the effect is particularly obvious at one of the locations in Williamsburg where Indoor Hoops members meet.

“These guys have become so close just from playing together for the last five years,” he said. “Everybody knows each other’s name and each other’s game and how they play. You walk into this feeling like I might not know anyone at first, but after a while there’s a real sense of community.”

“On any particular Monday or Wednesday night, you walk in there and it’s almost like a fraternity,” he added.

2. Be friendly, open and polite

Manners may seem like a weird thing to emphasize, but Dana pointed out that they’re a social construct that exists for a reason. She recalled a conversation on the same topic she’d had with her 15-year-old daughter.

“I’ll talk to her about manners and she’ll say, ‘Social construct!’” she said, laughing. “And I’ll say, ‘Absolutely. We need those understandings of how to treat each other with respect and dignity to be able to navigate the complexities of interacting with all these thousands of people every single day.’”

Related: The 8 health habits experts say you need in your 20s

3. Don’t overthink it

When I asked Josh how to get from basketball to conversation, he said it often came naturally.

Breaking the ice with basketball helps, he said, because members can talk about “the Knicks, or bring up any sort of any relevant N.B.A. or college basketball pop culture,” he said.

“And then kind of segueing from there into feeling out, ‘Are you guys doing anything after the game?’ A lot of the guys might go out for a beer afterward. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.”

When asked whether he worried that he might be bothering people by starting conversations with them, Noah was similarly nonchalant.

“Generally, people are always bored,” he said. “I think that rule pretty much applies to bars and coffee shops. You can pretty much rest assured that most people are willing to risk losing a moment or even 30 minutes of work to engage in a conversation with somebody who will listen to them.”

And he pointed out if they weren’t interested in speaking, or if you started a conversation with someone you decided you weren’t that interested in, there was always an “easy out.”

“In the coffee shop you probably have your computer or a book,” he said. “You never want to give anyone the cold shoulder, but hopefully they’re hip to social cues and understand body language.”

Ava said that a lot of the time, she doesn’t do the work of starting a conversation herself.

“I kind of go with the flow, which usually leaves me in a pretty anxious mood when I’m in those social situations,” she said. “But other people tend to be far more outgoing than I am, so I can rely on them to pick up my slack when it comes to keeping a conversation going, or even starting one.”

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