So what kinds of questions can you ask strangers at a public gathering when networking? I would suggest that the biggest goal is not to offend anyone. So, steering away from any comments about clothing or weight or jobs is probably a good idea. Why? Because you could insult someone by talking about those things if you make a mistake. Classic in American culture is asking a woman who looks pregnant if she’s having a boy or a girl. She may be overweight and not pregnant (very embarrassing). She may not want to disclose the gender of her child or believe in not finding on in advance. Or she may not want to share this information with a stranger. You never know, so don’t bring it up.
You have to careful with clothing. If you compliment someone, the person may think you are “coming on to them” … that is, looking for a date or a hook-up. Especially if you aren’t sure about your “delivery” or how to say things in English well, definitely steer clear of these traps. Asking about someone’s job could send any one of many negative messages: you want their job, you are making fun of them for not having a good job, you are prying into their business for your own gain, maybe to sell something to them. None of this is good. Steer clear!
Instead, ask questions about: the event you are both attending (something you have in common). Talk about the parking situation. Ask what’s for lunch. Pose a problem like: “I’m a vegetarian. I wonder if there will be something I can eat at break time. What do they usually have?”
Notice how I’m providing context in the questions. You don’t just a question out of the blue like: “What’s this event on p.6 of the brochure?” Not unless you are asking an employee there. If you are making small talk with another attendee, make it more personal like this, “Last time I was here, I missed the presentation on advanced problem solving techniques. I see they are offering in the green room at 2 pm. What do you think of the topic?”
As you can tell, you can have a lot of fun with this if you do a little preparation on topics before you attend!