If you’re over the age of 30, you probably remember those clunky flip phones from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
When I bought my first one, I burst into my apartment and waved it in front of my roommate — I had reached the upper-echelon of coolness.
These days, we think of those phones as quaint relics of a simpler time.
Still, if you owned one of those clunkers, the mention of the words flip phone probably triggered a smile and unlocked a fond memory from your past.
That’s what nostalgia does for us. It triggers pleasant thoughts of a forgotten but sanitized view of your past, heightening the positive memories while stripping away the negative.
Think of it like that feeling you get when you look at an old photo from college. It shows you drunk at some random ass place hugging your friends. You might laugh and think to yourself, good times.
But that’s selective memory.
You filter out the throngs of people bumping against you, the assholes trying to pick a fight with you, and your roommates making fun of you while you puked over the toilet.
But that same selective memory makes it the perfect tool to use strategically in conversations.
It’s ideal for those moments of awkward silence or tension. It lets everyone forget the unease — resetting the conversation.
To accomplish that, you can’t make a blunt statement like, tell me about a happy time in childhood. That’s too direct, if not a bit creepy tbh.
Nostalgia is most potent when we deploy it, not by accident and not by intrusiveness, but with intention and nuance.
When used sparingly and delivered in the right format, nostalgia offers you an opportunity to not only reset a conversation but do so in a way that triggers misty-eyed delight in the people with whom you converse.
# The two-word phrase that triggers nostalgia
To trigger a nostalgic memory or discussion, use this two-word phrase:
Oh, remember when…
It sounds unremarkable, right? Yet, it’s deceptively powerful.
This phrase primes your conversation partners to search their memory banks.
When you tap into a deep enough memory, something that feels nostalgic, they lose themselves in the fond memory of their idealized past.
Read these examples and see if they trigger a forgotten memory.
- Remember when you thought flip phones were so deadly?
- Remember when we obsessed over the X-factor at the end of every year?
- Remember when we obsessed over Britain got talent every Friday?
- Remember when we went in the woods for drinking cans and smoking blunts?
Here’s a variation on the phrase, replacing “when” with “what” and “how” respectively.
- Remember what blind dates were like before the internet?
- Remember how grandma’s house always smelled like freshly baked cookies?
To use nostalgia effectively, choose a reference that will resonate with the people involved in your conversation. The drinking cans and blunts example would click with a 45-year-old, but probably not a 25-year-old.
It’s also helpful if your reference creates a visual image in the other person’s mind. Let’s look at an earlier example.
- Remember what blind dates were like before the internet?
We can improve that.
- Remember what blind dates were like before the internet? Walking into a bar/restaurant/coffee shop and not knowing what your date looked like.
The second half of that phrase clues your mind to think of a similar experience.
If you’re old enough to have endured a blind date, you may have pictured one of your own experiences, perhaps even recreated that feeling of anticipation during the moments leading up to that first meeting.
Awkward situations where nostalgia works
Like all conversational or speaking techniques, it works best when used sparingly. These three situations offer ideal opportunities.
The extended pause
Have you ever been in a conversation where you found yourself in awkward silence?
The “remember when” phrase works well when you’re facing a lull in a conversation. In this situation, choose something nostalgic but related to what you last spoke about.
Let’s suppose we were talking about relationships and the struggle to find a partner. The conversation faces a lull, so I chime in with, “Remember when we had to find dates without the internet?”
We discuss the terror of asking someone out and how we couldn’t research people before meeting them for a drink. As the reminiscing wraps up, I’d transition to something like this:
“it’s nothing like dating today. Nowadays, we get a full dossier on every person we date. How do you feel about that?”
Notice the “open-ended question” at the end?
It allows the conversation to flow back to the present and queues my partner to continue the discussion.
The ultimate ice-breaker
Have you ever been to a party or an informal get-together and found yourself with a group of people who share nothing in common? In almost every situation, someone will open the conversation with, so what does everyone do for a living?
Blah, blah, blah…
This technique works well when there’s a prop that relates to your nostalgic opener.
Imagine you’re at a party, and you join a group of strangers. There’s a stage in front of the room, and you’re drinking beer.
“Ah, that stage reminds me of my auditorium when I was in school. Remember how you’d kill to drink beer back in school?”
The moments you wish you could escape
- Do you ever go to family dinners you wish you could avoid?
- How about those get-togethers with old friends who’s views have diverged from yours?
Let’s not forget those contrived social outings after work.
You can almost guarantee they’ll be a tense moment where an insensitive uncle or drunk friend says something that upsets everyone.
Everyone silences themselves and looks at each other, hoping someone will break the tension.
In these moments, chiming in with a nostalgic interruption can ease the discomfort. Sure, it can seem contrived to just break-in with a “remember when”.
But keep in mind, in a tense situation, nobody will care.
“Remember when” — it’s a handy phrase when used at the right time, guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s face and make you the hero of resetting the conversation.