Sometimes to start a conversation or to bring up a subject I ask a question. I ask it in hopes that they know the answer, I'm not seeking knowledge or an explanation, but instead I'm looking to create a context for the conversation.

An example question might be something as simple as "Remember yesterday when we talked about [something we talked about yesterday]?" Obviously I don't expect them to just say "yes, I remember" and that's that. I'm bringing that conversation into mind as the context for this conversation. I imagine it's a question and not a command or a statement because 1) they may not actually remember the the conversation from yesterday and 2) courtesy.

Is there a name or phrase for this kind of question?

  • You might call it a prompt.
    – Robusto
    Mar 28, 2013 at 16:07
  • It's a rhetorical question (according to the more general definition The rhetorical question is usually defined as any question asked for a purpose other than to obtain the information the question asks. at rhetoric.byu.edu/figures/r/rhetorical%20questions.htm , but not the narrower definition at say Wikipedia). It's also a pragmatic marker, subclass 'relationships between speaker and hearer', intersecting subclass 'framing subject matter of utterances and relationships among (parts of) utterances' (though Jim's answer works too). Mar 28, 2013 at 17:16
  • @EdwinAshworth, roughly that sounds about right. I had expected a more specific term to exist, like those in the Related Figures where the rhetorical questions had purposes. Maybe it's a lexical gap, I don't know for sure that a specific word/phrase for this exists. Mar 28, 2013 at 19:06

2 Answers 2


You can call it a

lead in : something that leads in or introduces; an introduction to a subject


Initially I thought about the expression, breaking the ice; although it's usually used in those embarrassing situations where nobody knows anybody and a deathly silence ensues, a friendly question as an opener can certainly be used as a pretext for a conversation or exchange of information.

It's secondary meaning as defined by The Free Dictionary is:

Break the ice idiom
2. Fig. to initiate social interchanges and conversation; to get something started.
It's hard to break the ice at formal events.

Opener n. A remark used as an excuse to initiate a conversation:
My store of conversational openers seems thoroughly inadequate to the task.
Sitting down beside him, Brenna wracked her brain for a conversation opener.

Conversation opener
A conversation opener is an introduction used to begin a conversation. They are frequently the subject of guides and seminars on how to make friends and/or meet people. Different situations may call for different openers [...]

An opener often takes the form of an open-ended question, which can lead to further comments or conversation as well as creating topics for future conversations (e.g. "How's your mandrill doing?").

A closed-ended question (e.g. "Nice weather today, isn't it?") is regarded as potentially less effective because it can be answered with a simple "Mm-hmm," which is essentially a conversational dead end, requiring the initiater of the conversation to start from scratch.

Consequently, according to Wikipedia, the question "Remember yesterday when we talked about [X]?" would be termed as a close-ended question. As the OP rightly observed when speaking with friends a simple "yes" or "no" response is not expected, but a question is just one of many informal "tactics" that people employ everyday in order to introduce a topic or start a conversation.

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