Dinner with Perfect Strangers: Topics and Techniques to Break the Ice

We've all experienced that moment (usually at a wedding, or other formal event) when you find yourself seated at a table for a multi-course dinner surrounded by complete strangers. You may stumble into this situation unexpectedly, but how one chooses to react can make or break the night. What do you do? What do you talk about? How do the heck do you get out of there alive?

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I found myself in this very situation last week while attending a Google chef series dinner (at Parkside) here in Austin. The Google chef series (through Google Offers) is basically a discounted multi-course meal at a local restaurant that offers the chance to meet the chef and (apparently) sit with strangers! I should have expected this since the tickets are sold individually with limited seating, but it was a good thing I didn't. Had I known I probably would have arrived suited in a layer or two of social introvert armor, and that rarely turns out well.

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As it goes, I simply munched on some of the hors d'oeuvres (I always have to spell check that word) and drank a couple Palomas. My wife and I picked a random table (number seven always looks good) and sat. Slowly couples arrived one by one, and we introduced ourselves.

Where do you go from here? We could have played it safe and just held conversations with our significant others but instead we searched for common ground with the other couples. I typically start with the where are you from? routine, but you can do that one better if you consider your environment. Everyone here had gone online and bought a limited ticket to a meal at a nice restaurant in a foodie town. So it's likely everyone else here has a few common bonds, starting with being pretty well-versed with the internet and a lover of great food.

We steered the conversation in that direction —Have you been here before? What did you like? What are your favorite restaurants? I could talk about food and Austin for hours, so the key is finding some commonality with topics and interests you are all passionate about.

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Our table began to fill up and one particular guest was even more nervous than us, as she'd arrived to the event all by herself. She could have just sat there in the corner, iPhone in hand, enjoyed the meal and wine and left. But no, she just came out with it. She introduced herself and said she was there alone because she couldn't get her friend to buy a ticket with her. This opened the table's ears to her attention, and we collectively tried to make her feel welcome.

Which brings to light another point: be open and honest if you're nervous and people will be more receptive to you and you'll have that 'what-are-these-people-thinking-about-me' feeling off your chest.

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We each talked about restaurants, the types of food we enjoyed, and even a little bit about what we do (it's hard to hide behind this camera). The topic of conversation that made the night, though, was when we started sharing embarrassing things our parents have done in public. I'm pretty sure the person who arrived by herself guided us to this topic, and she along with another couple basically entertained the whole table with their stories. Case in point, telling humorous stories about our parents and childhood is always a win. We all have them, we all can relate, and it gives us a chance to reflect on a time when we were so impressionable, and vulnerable. It also allows us to appreciate those very parents that helped us through life and molded us somehow into grown adults who can now manage to hold their own at a table full of strangers.

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The night was fantastic and memorable and we were the last table to leave by a good 30 minutes. It can be tough to go out and be social. It's far too easy to fall back into our personal comfort zones (especially if you're married) but if you dare to get out and open yourself up you can have one of your better and more memorable meals.

What are some of your favorite ice breaker topics when you find yourself seated next to a stranger?

Related: Dinner Parties: How Do You Create Good Conversation?

(Images: Chris Perez)