Small talk makes a big difference to your career

If you don’t chat, people don’t like you much. So if women keep quiet at work, it matters

“Inga Beale said what holds women back is not a lack of ambition or too many domestic responsibilities. It is that they don’t engage in enough aimless chatter with their colleagues.” Photograph posed by models.

“Inga Beale said what holds women back is not a lack of ambition or too many domestic responsibilities. It is that they don’t engage in enough aimless chatter with their colleagues.” Photograph posed by models.

 

A young woman I know who works for a media company has just been taken to one side by her boss and told that although her work is entirely satisfactory, there is a problem. She doesn’t chat enough.

My acquaintance was vaguely outraged to be marked down for getting on with her job rather than debating the coolest place for brunch in Shoreditch, and whether it is possible to put too many pine nuts in pesto.

When she told me about this, I was reminded of reading something I thought: what utter nonsense. First, everyone knows that women talk all the time at work. I, for one, am entering my fourth decade of dedicated chatting in the office. Second, chatting is surely not a route to the top. If I have had any success at work, it has been despite, not because of, my tendency to hold forth on the difficulty of finding a handbag that looks smart but works on a bike.


Chatting record
However, having been burnt before by drawing generalisations based on a sample group of one, I have been trying to find out if my chatting record is typical. This has proved quite hard. There was a much quoted book, The Female Mind, in 2006 by Louann Brizendine, which claimed women utter 20,000 words a day while men spit out only a taciturn 7,000. But there are other studies suggesting this is wrong and that both sexes speak about 12,000 words a day.

Even if this is right, it doesn’t tell us how much men and women talk when they are in the contrived environment of the workplace. To find out, I have spent the past few weeks prowling around offices – both my own and other people’s – keeping my ears open. My findings suggest Ms Beale could be on to something.

The first thing that struck me was how little chatting out loud there is – possibly because of the rival charms of Twitter, Facebook, etc, or possibly because everyone is under more pressure than they used to be. But when I did spot people chatting they tended to be men. The women were generally head-down, working.


Possible explanations
If women are quieter at work, there are lots of possible explanations. You could say it is because most conversations are started by men. If the topic is the Arsenal v Man Utd nil-nil draw, I run out of things to contribute after about five seconds. But I don’t think this is the answer. My young acquaintance works surrounded by metropolitan men who like talking about brunch and pesto, subjects she could easily weigh in on. She simply chooses not to.

It might also be because women prefer talking to other women, and in most professional offices men still predominate. But even this isn’t the reason. It doesn’t explain my experience recently visiting the offices of Mumsnet. A large open-plan office was filled with several dozen women, each of whom was hunched over a screen. It was the quietest and most diligent office I’d ever been to.


Real friends
This suggests a truer answer. Women with children want to get their work done efficiently because they need to go home. When my children were younger, I needed to leave the office on the stroke of 5.55pm to relieve the nanny, and even I stopped chatting in order to work instead. Women without children may also rather do their chatting with their real friends after work, rather than waste time on lower-grade workplace chat.

Anxiety may come into it, too. I suspect most women feel squeamish about being seen to be trivial at work, while men do not. One male colleague of mine talks about cricket all day long and sometimes plays golf with a stress ball and an umbrella around his desk. No one judges him a waster; everyone seems to think him a thoroughly good sort.

To see if the same thing applies to more feminine pursuits, I brought my knitting into the office last week to see what conversations it would trigger. It was a flop. A couple of people looked at me doubtfully, and one asked suspiciously: “Is this another stunt for a column?”

If women do talk less at work, does it matter? I fear it does. If you don’t talk, people don’t like you much. My young acquaintance tells me she is now putting aside small amounts of time every day for dedicated chatter. She now treats talk as a type of work, and does it with the same conscientiousness she does everything. Early days, but she says it’s working.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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