Friendly questions for your con conversations

As we started to arrange for our convention memberships for the summer, one of my friends asked me about striking up conversations with strangers at conventions. What sorts of friendly questions can make this easier? friend wanted to know. Do you have a post somewhere? she wanted to know. Please note: this is not meant to dictate conversation for anybody! If you feel comfortable with what you’ve got, by all means, sally forth! But this was a requested post from someone who wanted some ideas, so if that’s also you, here we are.

So. Let’s start with the basic three, that work for people you are just meeting, and they (mostly) work for people you’ve known for twenty years, because you can answer them in any level of depth and detail:
Early con: How was your travel? Alternate: How has it been living here/what do you like about it here?
Middle of the con: Been to any good programming? (This continues through the end but you can segue to:)
Late con: So when are you heading out? How has your con been?

The convention is the basic thing you have in common. If you start with that first, you’re less likely to frustrate people with questions like, “Have you finished a novel?” that have SO MANY ways to go wrong if you don’t have background on the person. So:

Is this your first time at this con?
How did you find out about this con?
Do you go to others? What do you like about them/this one?

Depending on what con it is, the theme may give you clues for a place to start. Is there a specific theme for this year, and do you have a comment on that, one on which you can base questions to appeal to other people’s thoughts? Any comparisons to last year’s theme? Does this convention have the kind of focus where you can ask “what’s your favorite [category thing] lately?” Lately is a pretty broad term–keeping it at “lately” instead of “this month” or even “this year” means that you’re not putting people on the spot who love the focus of the convention but might feel a little overwhelmed about whether they love it exactly as informedly as the most intensely informed person in the room. “Hello, how is your imposter syndrome” is not the question we want, although sometimes it’s unavoidable.

So…sometimes “what was formative for you” or “do you remember an early favorite” can be a good icebreaker question with a new person, because while a lot of people are filled with anxiety about whether they’ve caught up on the latest and greatest, or on enough total from the checklist, what is some of your personal heart, what brought you in and feels best, is something that almost anybody can answer. And can often answer in a way that sparks more conversation, that is not just a single word answer…unless they’re petrified and literally any question is going to bring single word answers.

I don’t know, there’s a bit of a centipede problem here, because I’m trying to help my friend do something that I’ve learned to do fairly naturally. I think what I’m trying to do is give examples of approaches–think about what we already know we have in common from being at the conference, how we can find interesting points of difference and commonality to spark conversation…without making too many assumptions, without leaning on areas I’ve learned are sensitive for several people. When you’re in the audience waiting for a panel or just coming out of it, hopes and fears for the panel and/or things you liked best! Places you’ve had a good meal around the con and what was nice there! Little stories about This One Time At World Fantasy that will make people laugh and say, “oh nooooo” and set them at their ease!

There’s no perfect icebreaker question. But I think it’s important to remember that there isn’t. That a lot of times if you’re at a convention, a place to converse about a topic of mutual interest, and you turn to a stranger and make a reasonable attempt to converse on the topic at hand…sometimes there’s nothing you could have done. And if they appear to be cold and distant, maybe they’re dealing with their own stuff, maybe they’ve just had a major shock of some sort, maybe they’re overloaded from all the thoughts the convention has brought…maybe a thousand different things that having the perfect icebreaker question and the perfect conversational charm and all could not have changed, because it’s not about you at that point. But. You start with a handful of touchstones readily at hand, something brought us here and you can take that literally and ask about Delta Airlines or the other person’s Prius to warm yourself up, or you can dive right into literary influences of adolescent angst, or somewhere in between. It’ll be a collaborative effort. We’ll all get there together.

6 thoughts on “Friendly questions for your con conversations

  1. These are good suggestions. I am not your friend who asked for them but I thank you for them.

    When you ask “what was formative for you?”, what kind of response are you expecting? If someone asked me that, I would think I was being asked to think of a socially acceptable childhood anecdote to share and I’m not sure I could think of any on the spot, but I think I’m just misunderstanding the prompt.

    [After thinking for 20 minutes, in which time the question asker has probably wandered off:] One of my earliest memories is about the texture of the ground beneath my feet when I was new to walking: so smooth! so joyful! so empty! so flat! I don’t know that it was formative rather than evidence that I just started this way, but to this day, my mental map of my city is anchored in place by the texture of the pavement. Each pothole is a stitch in the fabric that reminds me where I am. The sidewalk on the bridge towards ____ is dark and wrinkly. When it rains, tiger stripes form of tan mud and clean black pavement. When someone sees the photograph, they ask if my camera went off by mistake.

    This isn’t the right answer to the question because it’s the kind of response people don’t know what to do with even though it’s the happiest thing I can think of.

    • Ah, what we have run into is my attempt to be general about kinds of convention, and therefore the question got more generally phrased than I would put it in person.

      What I mean is: I was trying to phrase it generally enough that you could tailor it for an anime convention, a mystery convention, a fantasy convention, a fantasy mystery anime convention, etc. So that you would say something like, “What was your first really formative mystery novel? I was a Trixie Belden kid,” or, “Do you remember what your first really grown-up mystery was? People tried to get me to read Agatha Christie when I was a kid but it didn’t really take for me until I got to Sayers and then Kate Wilhelm.”

      Your answer is interesting–I am definitely formed, for example, by having been a childhood tree climber who mostly lived places with fairly few climbing trees, by being the only child of an only child, and a dozen other things–but I would intend the question to be more narrowly phrased to the situation than that when deployed in real conversation.

      • Oh, that makes sense! Thank you for taking the time to explain it. It’s easier to think of answers now.

        I could talk about spending weeks of lunch recesses (unsuccessfully) practicing kything after I read a Wind in the Door or something. I remember reading the Nancy Drew books, as many of them as I could find, but I don’t remember any of the plots anymore — though if I were attending a mystery convention I would probably have at least one mystery that I was really into and that would be easy to talk about.

        Thanks for replying!

  2. “What brought you to the con? Was there any specific person or programming item you wanted to see?” This is really more of a follow-on question for one of the “early in the con” openers.

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