4 Non-Typical Conversation Starters for the Dinner Table

Are you one of those families that finds sitting down for a meal together awkward enough as it is, but throw in making conversation, and you’ve met your own proverbial Mt. Everest?

Or maybe, it’s not family at all that’s the problem. Conversation can sometimes be difficult, and often it feels manufactured, or shallow, or even pointless. I’ve spent hours of my career conversing with pseudo-strangers at work dinners and I can’t really pinpoint one conversation that was worth remembering. With the exception of the time a business acquaintance and I discussed the idea of giving up bread for Lent. That was memorable not so much for the company it inspired, but the sheer terror of the upcoming Lent season.

Typical conversation starters are easy to come by, even if you’re only 5% creative. Where do you work? Where did you grow up? How’s the weather? And so on. But creative or non-typical conversation starters can make for a much more interesting and potentially memorable dinner conversation. Whether it’s your family, friends, acquaintances, or strangers, try out some of these conversation starters when you’re looking for something that isn’t as run of the mill as the most recent snowstorm and rainstorm.

1. Literature

Not everyone is a reader, but pretty much everyone has read. Even the non-literary bent individual will have an opinion on the written word. Of course, if you start the conversation with a close-ended question like, “do you read?” the conversation may shut down before it begins, especially if the others at the table respond with a vehement “no.” Try using an open-ended question and give room for all types of reader responses.

“Tell me about the best or worst book you’ve read recently. . .”

“What was the best book you were ever required to read, and why was it the best?”

An avid reader will be all over this conversation like a bee to honey. A non-reader will probably quirk an eyebrow and very possibly respond with an “I don’t read.” Don’t let that stop you! A good follow-up to this is, “Oh? Tell me why you’re not interested in literature?” There are always unique answers to that question that can quickly spawn off into other avenues of interest to discuss.

2. Ancestry

This is a remarkably popular topic, but oddly, it isn’t often brought up in conversation. Perhaps because it can be associated with DNA which then implies medical history, it seems too private. But in reality, so many enter into the DNA test merely to find out the origins of where they’re from or who they’re from. Even if your cohort at dinner hasn’t had a DNA test, odds are they have family stories as to what famous person is in their family tree. So go for it!

“So, I’m always interested in people’s histories. Have you ever done a DNA test to find out your ancestry, or do you have family legacies of famous relations?”

“Tell me about the most famous person in your family tree?"

You’ll discover your acquaintances have roots from all over the world. Your family may surprise you with some of your own unknown relatives. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll discover you’re related to just about every American dissenter and traitor in the early American history books. You may need extra dessert if that’s the case.

happy family having dinner grateful

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/pondsaksit

3. Spiritual Journey

Okay. So I realize that conversations often to be avoided are politics and religion. But consider this. Everyone has a spiritual journey. You may not share root beliefs, you may not relate to theirs, etc., but it is an excellent subject to bring up if you can maintain curiosity and encouragement to learn about the person across the table versus intentions to prove them and their belief systems wrong. This is why this is a non-typical conversation starter—because most people avoid it for fear of attack. I, on the other hand, love this. I have had so many doors opened to discuss faith and life with people from vastly different backgrounds. It helps me learn their reasoning, ask questions, and dive into areas previously unfamiliar to me.

“So, tell me a little about your spiritual journey in life. What motivates or drives you?”

“What has been a poignant spiritual experience that has helped shape your life?”

Granted, there are some dinner tables this might be going a bit too deep too fast, but then there are others where you’ve probably earned enough trust to venture forth and be bold.

4. Childhood

If spiritual journeys are a bit too deep or touchy for you, you can deviate a bit and inquire about a person’s upbringing, or more specifically, their childhood. It’s not necessarily uncommon to discuss someone’s college career, educational background, etc. But being more specific and finding out who they were as a child really will give you a lot of info about who they are as an adult.

“Tell me about some of the best memories you have as a kid . . .”

“When you were a kid, what were some of your favorite pastimes and why?”

You may be surprised what they open up and tell you. And, if you’re at a family dinner table with your kids, this can be especially engaging. Just adjust the questions a bit.

“Tell me some of the best things you like about our family . . .”

“If you could change anything about your life right now, what would it be?”

Finding the answers to these questions can make for some lively dinner conversation or some in-depth discussion. It depends on where the answerer is willing to go. But surface or deep, it will definitely get a conversation started and moving forward. Don’t be afraid to branch out into the uncommon areas of conversation. Other conversation starters might include:

- Tell me about your favorite vacation spot.

- What is one thing you remember about your grandparents that impacted your life?

- Who was your mentor or who pushed you the most in life?

- Tell me about something you collect and why you collect it?

- If you could be a professional in any career, what would it be and why?

The world seems to be slowly losing the art of conversation. Good conversation - that truly meaningful and memorable conversation - comes with the courage to ask the more inquiring questions. Digging deeper to get to know someone and allowing them to talk about themselves or their interest will help keep the dinner table from falling into that awkward silence of non-chatter and chewing.

Remember, conversation shouldn’t be centered around you unless you were asked a question. Look at the others at the table and shift the focus onto them. Most people enjoy sharing experiences, thoughts, memories, even feelings, but if you’re waxing prolific about your life in order to fill the silence, they might avoid a repeat dinner.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Deagreez

Jaime Jo Wright is an ECPA and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author. Her novel “The House on Foster Hill” won the prestigious Christy Award and she continues to publish Gothic thrillers for the inspirational market. Jaime Jo resides in the woods of Wisconsin, lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at jaimewrightbooks.com and at her podcast madlitmusings.com where she discusses the deeper issues of story and faith with fellow authors.

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