Small talk can often feel like an unavoidable, superficial formality, and most people will try to end it as quickly as possible. Often, the most annoying part of small talk is the expected yet dreaded question: “How are you?”

In theory, asking that question is nice — you’re demonstrating to another person that you care about what’s going on in their life and their well-being. Except you usually don’t. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your small talk game, and use those conversations to communicate more meaningfully and mindfully — and better yet, they’re backed by science.

According to researchers at Harvard University, the key to successful small talk is asking meaningful follow-up questions in a conversation. (In other words, not just asking “how are you?” or “what do you do?”) After analyzing more than 300 conversations, they found that people who asked thoughtful questions were perceived as being more likeable than those who spent most of their time during conversations expressing their opinions and self-promoting.

Instead of leaning on the “how are you?” conversational crutch, try these other suggestions.

Open with a statement.

For many people, the question “how are you?” has become a pleasantry that has lost all intrinsic meaning, notes Kira Nurieli, M.A., an organizational psychologist. Instead, try a statement.

Saying “Hi, nice to see you,” or “Hey, good morning” are equally pleasant, but reflect their inherent meaning much more than simply asking someone how they’re doing, she tells Thrive Global. That’s a better segue to a more meaningful conversation.

Be specific.

As the Harvard researchers point out, there’s nothing wrong with asking questions during small talk — you just want to make sure they’re specific. For example, Scott Hoye, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago, suggests establishing a conversation by asking a question about what brings a person to the event, situation, or place, or asking about what they love and do well, like hobbies, interests, or about their family.

Ask about something interesting.

We all have countless experiences throughout the day, but most of them are pretty boring. So when starting a conversation, why not just get straight to the good part and ask a person to share the most interesting experience they have had that day.

“I love this question because you truly get to hear more about the person’s day, and it evokes emotions. It deepens the connection between us as we share interesting moments that occurred that day,” Alisha Griffith, Au.D., author and professional coach tells Thrive Global.

Be observant.

Rather than starting off with a generic question, Michael Pirson, Ph.D., a psychologist and expert in humanistic management at the Fordham University Gabelli School of Business suggests bringing up something you notice on or about the person.

He tells Thrive Global that we should reframe the way we think about small talk, and treat it instead as an opportunity to connect with other people in authentic ways. This could include noticing things like the shoes they’re wearing or books they’re carrying, or asking what was good about their day so far.  

Small talk is going to happen whether we like it or not — but done right, it can lead to a more valuable networking experience, as well as a much more personally fulfilling exercise.

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  • Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.

    Bioethicist and writer

    Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. Previously she was the health and sex editor at SheKnows. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneSalon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.