How to master the awkward but essential art of office small talk
Chit-chat helps build trust and avoiding it could cost you a promotion
While small talk can be torture, the absence of it can also make us feel bad about ourselves.
Every day around the world, an estimated three billion people go to work: many of them avoid making small talk with their co-workers once they get there.
Avoidance strategies vary. Some will keep their headphones on 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.
If these strategies sound familiar, if you’ve convinced yourself that avoiding small talk with co-workers 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 (even over something as mundane as the weather), then bad news: Your false logic could be costing you a promotion.
Jamie Terran, a career coach, says 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,” he says. “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 those who are perfect for the job. Engaging in small talk with your interviewer helps make a positive impression.
But, how? Small talk can be intimidating. This is 2019 and we’re all anxious about something, including a 15-second chat with Janet from accounting about how cold the air conditioning 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 co-workers and worry instead about not making small talk with your co-workers. Because while small talk can be torture, the absence of it can also make us feel bad about ourselves.
Here are a few thoughts on how to avoid that feeling.
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 time making small talk with a co-worker (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 blame your own perceived shortcomings. And Alex is thinking the same thing about him or herself.
The 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, Terran suggests 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.”
Did something weird or interesting happen to you recently? Workshop (in your mind, at least) that story ahead of time for when you need something to keep an office chat going.
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 has the potential to break the cycle. Go to your inner Rolodex of topics (see: planning ahead) 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?”
Don’t panic, it’s almost over
Small talk doesn’t last long. “If you’re a generally anxious person, you have an out – 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 is perfectly acceptable.
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, à la earbuds in means ‘give me some space’,” Hearne said. A simple smile or nod to acknowledge your co-worker 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 co-worker 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. – New York Times