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Mastering the awkward but essential art of office chitchat

We regret to inform you that you need to make small talk with your co-workers. Here’s how to master it.

Mastering the awkward but essential art of office chitchat

Avoiding small talk could cost you a promotion. (Illustration: Shannon Lin © The New York Times)

Every day around the world, an estimated three billion people go to work and 2.9 billion of them avoid making small talk with their colleagues once they get there.

Their avoidance strategies vary. Some will keep their headphones in and their eyes low. Others will pantomime receiving an urgent message that requires an immediate, brow-furrowing, life-or-death rapid response, which incapacitates them from doing pretty much anything else. 

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Other tactics are used when communally waiting for or riding in the office lift, heating up lunch in the pantry, walking from the entrance of the office building to the MRT station, or to literally anywhere, unless wait, you’re also going there? Because I actually meant to pop in this fine Persian rug wholesaler. See you tomorrow!

Do you avoid conversations with everyone at work, even when you run into colleagues outside the office? (Photo: Unsplash)

If these strategies sound familiar, if you’ve convinced yourself that avoiding small talk with colleagues is smart self-preservation, that the risk of saying something “dumb” or offensive or coming across as socially inept is not worth the reward of connecting with somebody (yes, even if that connection is a shared concern about it raining), then bad news: Your false logic could be costing you a promotion. Not to scare you or anything.

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Jamie Terran, a licensed career coach in New York City, said that small talk between colleagues and supervisors builds rapport, which in turn, builds trust. “Rapport is the feeling that allows you to extend a deadline, or overlook smaller mistakes, because it makes it easy for you to remember we’re only human. Right or wrong, building rapport through interaction with colleagues could be the thing that gets you the promotion or keeps you in the role you’re in.”

Building rapport applies when you’re interviewing, too. People hire people they want to work with, not necessarily who’s perfect for the job. Engaging in small talk with your interviewer helps make a positive impression.

Small talk between colleagues and supervisors builds rapport, which in turn, builds trust. (Photo: Pexels)

But, how? Small talk, while small and just talk, is intimidating. This is 2019 and we’re all anxious about something, including a 15-second chat with Janet from accounting about how freaking cold the A/C is in the conference room. The good news is that you can just go ahead and repurpose your anxiety about making small talk with your colleagues and worry instead about not making small talk with your colleagues. See? Easy switch.

You’re more likable than you think you are, so try not to judge yourself so harshly.

Because while small talk can be torture, the absence of it can also make us feel bad about ourselves, like we’re true failures at life for not being able to connect with a fellow member of the herd, worried deep down that we will be kicked out of society and left to rot alone on the plains, to pay for our own streaming services instead of sharing a login.

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Here are a few thoughts on how to avoid that feeling.

REMEMBER: YOU’RE MORE LIKABLE THAN YOU THINK

A 2018 study published in Psychological Science showed that people “systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company”.

Think about it: When you have an awkward small talk interaction with a colleague (it’s stunted, there were silences, neither of you could think of something to say) do you normally go back to your desk and think, “Wow, Alex is a terrible conversationalist”? No. You go back to your desk and think, “Wow, I’m a rotten garbage human being who should be shunned from society”. And Alex is thinking the same thing about him or herself.

People tend to underestimate how much their conversation partners like them, according to research. (Photo: Pexels)

Point is, you’re more likable than you think you are, so try not to judge yourself so harshly. According to Ellie Hearne, founder and CEO of the leadership communications agency Pencil or Ink, which, among other services, teaches companies and executives how to have better internal communications, “people don’t remember what you say – they remember how they felt when they were with you”.

A LITTLE PLANNING GOES A LONG WAY

If you’re generally anxious in social situations, that is, human, Terran suggested coming up with core questions or stories from which you can pull.

“Whether or not you share personal information about yourself is up to you, but discussing things you truly care about is always the best strategy,” she said. “Topics relating to your professional field, for example, an article you saw or book you read, is a great place to start.”

If you’re anxious in social situations, come up with core questions or stories from which you can pull. (Photo: Pexels)

Did something weird or interesting happen to you recently? Workshop (in your mind, at least) that story ahead of time to unveil at your next office outing. And definitely remember to ask questions. We’re all ultimately pretty narcissistic at heart.

ADVANCE THE DREADED “HOW ARE YOU?” LOOP

The ping-pong of “How are you? Good, how are you?” can feel like a waste of time and energy, but be the change you wish to see in the world and break the cycle. Go to your inner archive of topics and move the short conversation forward by replying why you’re “good”. As in, “I’m good. I just started a book/podcast/TV show and I’m really enjoying it. Have you heard of it?” Or mention something office-related, where there’s a shared common experience: “I’m good. They restocked the cold brew in the kitchen and it’s so strong. Have you tried it?”

Did something weird or interesting happen to you recently? Workshop that story ahead of time to unveil at your next office outing.

DON’T PANIC, IT’S ALMOST OVER

Small talk doesn’t last long. “If you’re a generally anxious person, you have an excuse – you’re at work! You’re not supposed to spend too much time chatting. After a few moments, you can reference a meeting or project you are supposed to work on,” Terran advised. A simple exchange of pleasantries followed by a concise but polite exit (“Have a good day!”) is perfectly acceptable.

Small talk doesn’t last long. You’re at work and you’re not supposed to spend too much time chatting anyway. (Photo: Unsplash)

YOU (OCCASIONALLY) HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT

If you’re having a bad day and don’t want to talk, that might be best for everyone involved. Enter headphones. “It’s fine to take a step back from engaging. Most people know the new workplace etiquette, a la earbuds in means ‘give me some space’,” Hearne said. A simple smile or nod to acknowledge your colleague will still go a long way.

I’ll leave you with a warning: There are very few ways to have successful small talk in the office bathroom. It should go without saying that attempting to chat with someone while they’re in the bathroom stall is totally off-limits.

That said, one of the more memorable (in a good way) office chitchats I’ve ever had happened at the bathroom sink. A colleague who was clearly excellent at storing away fun facts and sharing them appropriately told me about the “shake and fold” method of using a paper towel to decrease waste.

I have used the method, and used it as a small talk device ever since.

By Lindsay Mannering © The New York Times

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