Regarding professions and names:
- If you are in a college or university setting, asking someone what their major is is considered an acceptable small talk question, and it can lead to actual conversation.
- Asking someone what they do (for work) is socially acceptable in some crowds, but not others. It’s acceptable if it’s perceived as similar to asking about a major, and rude if it’s perceived as an attempt to determine how much money someone has or how much social status they have
- Making jokes or disparaging comments about someone’s job or major is considered boorish unless you have the same job/major and it is also self-mockery. It’s not nice to insult people you just met.
- Similarly, don’t make jokes about people’s names upon being introduced. They’ve heard them all before.Regarding sports:
- A lot of people like to talk about sports as a primary form of small talk. I don’t really understand this. Maybe some of y’all can chime in?
- In the US, outside of New York, people are likely to dislike the Yankees, and some people find Yankees fans annoying, and some get really angry about Yankees fans. (This is especially true in Boston).
- Many areas, particularly college towns, have intense and scary sports fandoms. If you don’t understand the sports fandom in your area, it’s probably better to avoid wearing sports logo clothing, and this is especially true if there is a game on.
I’m pretty sure the sports-as-small-talk thing is because it’s a fairly common interest, and you can at least guess some of the other person’s opinions by the region they live in and how the local teams are commonly seen. Popular TV shows are sort of similar, but less common, because it can get awkward if you express enthusiasm or distaste for a show the other person turns out to feel the opposite about. The current weather is an even more universal topic, and thus the most stereotypical subject of small talk.
The stuff about professions and names is all totally spot-on, so far as my experience goes.
With shows it can work to say “hey, did you see last night’s/last week’s episode of x?”, and then judge from their reaction whether this is a good line of conversation to continue.
It doesn’t commit you to the extent that saying a show is awesome/horrible does; you can find out what they think before saying anything emphatically.