Conversations with unfamiliar people are easier if you can identify common interests as quickly as possible.
In college social environments, there are certain questions it’s almost always socially acceptable to ask that can be helpful:
- What year are you?
- Where are you from?
- What’s your major?
Asking someone’s major can be a good way of detecting mutual interests.
- Bob: Hey. I’m Bob.
- Brenda: I’m Brenda.
- Bob: Nice to meet you. What’s your major?
- Brenda: I’m not sure yet, but I’m leaning towards physics.
- Bob: Cool. I was considering that for a while, but decided to go with engineering. Did you ever have a class with Dr Physics?
- Brenda: Not yet – is he really as hard a grader as everyone says? I’m really interested in optics but he kind of scares me.
- (They then figure out that they’re both fascinated by optics, which they discuss at length).
Sometimes this works in other social settings in which you can reasonably assume that most people went to college. But in those settings, it’s generally considered more polite to ask where someone went to school before you asked what they studied. I’m not sure why.
You can also sometimes detect common interests by asking someone about their work. That can backfire though, since sometimes it’s used as a way of gauging someone’s social standing relative to the asker. Even if you don’t mean it that way, it might sound like you’re doing that.
Sometimes you can get away with directly asking “So, what do you like to think about?”. This question is considered a bit awkwardly direct, but most people are willing to answer it, and the awkwardness often goes away quickly once you identify a common interest.
You can also see if someone has buttons or pins or something else that indicates what they might be interested in. For instance: someone with a Batman pin is likely to be interested in talking about superheroes. Someone with a political pin is likely to be interested in talking about politics.