Awkward meeting? Find what is common.

Whether you’re meeting someone you don’t know very well, or sitting across from someone very different from yourself, it can be difficult to think of something to say. It’s a common problem, one as old as…Aristotle.

Okay, so Aristotle probably wasn’t meeting strangers in a restaurant and trying to make small talk, but he did know that we all think in similar ways. He came up with several categories of thought that are common to us all, no matter what the subject matter. All good conversations center around these five common topics:



Let’s say you’re meeting someone for the first time, and he tells you he’s a dentist. Almost reflexively, your brain wants to define “dentist”. What is a dentist? (Maybe you know that one already.) What kind of dentist? What does that kind of dentist do? What kind of education or training do you need to become that kind of dentist?

Those kinds of thoughts and questions usually lead quite naturally into the next common topic…



Now your brain wants to find similarities and differences between what you already know and what you don’t yet know. Is a dentist the same as a hygienist? Do dentists and doctors require the same kind of education? How is a dentist different from an oral surgeon? I’ve heard of endodontics – is that a branch of dentistry or something altogether different?

You might start getting some of his backstory, which brings us to…



Picture your dentist friend in the center of a bullseye, with concentric circles around him. These are circumstance questions: What else was going on in your life when you decided to become a dentist? What was going on in my life at that same time? What was going on in the world and culture in general at that time? Was it before or after Y2K? Did we have internet? Was it during the last big recession?

This train of thought usually causes us to put some events in order, which is…



We like to think about cause and effect, especially “turning point” moments in our linear, time-bound lives. What led up to your decision to go to dental school? How might your life be different now if you hadn’t? Was there some other career you might have chosen? 

And you may have gotten there already, but the last common topic is…



You’ve sort of been hearing it all along, if someone is talking about themselves. But you can ask about other authorities, too: What do your parents think about your job? Does your dental office have a good reputation in town? Do the dental experts still agree that we should floss every day?


So, use common topics to forge a path through what could otherwise be an awkward conversation. For tips on getting a conversation started, see our other post.

Gina Tuck