Office Small Talk: An Illustrated Typology

“I’m not sure I like California,” my mom said the last time she was out here to visit me. “You can’t order coffee here without them asking you how your day is going.” She’s a New Yorker. She insisted that her barista didn’t really care how she’s doing, and that this polite inquiry was just wasting her time.

“They are called pleasantries, mom,” I tried to explain. She wasn’t convinced.

My mom’s complaint is not unreasonable. Pleasantries are trite and routine, and, especially in the office environment, they can stress me out. I want a deeper connection with my co-workers, one that goes beyond small talk, yet conversation about the weather or how busy everyone is tends to prevail and is hard to get beyond. I’ve had to recognize that this type of banal exchange is not about the content, but the idea that you are two people that can relate and see each other as individuals.

Catherine Blyth writes in The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure that “anthropologists liken small talk to grooming among primates, largely because it stimulates the snug sense of belonging that makes socializing a joy.” Although anyone can see that it’s a lovely day, “idle comments about weather,” for example, signal that you’re on friendly terms.

I’ve found that categorizing types of small talk helps me let these interactions be what they are, without worrying too much about awkward pauses or lack of depth.

Kitchen Confusion

1

This is a near daily occurrence: I sneak past the office kitchen holding my empty water glass. I’d intended to go in, but the someone I want to avoid is pouring himself coffee and it’s too early in the morning to try a conversation. Instead, I bide my time in the bathroom, avoiding.

In the kitchen, conversation tends to be very basic (“Good morning, how are you?” or “It’s Friday!”), sometimes getting into food choices (“Your soup looks delicious!”) and the occasional fashion advice or compliment (“Great shoes! So practical!”). I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that the kitchen as a functional space. The mission is to refill coffee mugs or heat up lunch; the socializing is purely a bonus and nothing to let stress me out.

The Phone Call Stall

2

In a previous job, I had to facilitate monthly board conference calls. They all started in the same awkward way: I would call in and find one or two people on the line, and then we’d compare weather for a few agonizing minutes. Filling in the time before the real meat of the call can start is a skill I don’t have. I always felt relieved when whoever else was expected got on the line and we could finally move on from gems about the weather and start in on the actual agenda.

I’ve realized that one key purpose of this type of small talk is to just try to keep people on the line. I’ve found that chatting prior to the official start of the call keeps others engaged and generally makes for a more productive experience (as anyone who has been on a conference call knows, it’ll all too easy to mute your line and check email or leave to refill coffee while others talk). This can also be a good time to check in about other issues that aren’t on the agenda, or give someone a heads up about an item coming later. I’ve relaxed my standards about filling the time and feel better about weather, work gripes, and even a bit a silence, while we wait.

Pre-Meeting Greeting

3

Small talk is a preamble to a meeting that affirms that we are people, not just workers. If you have an in-person meeting with someone you’ve never met before, it can be awkward to try to get to know each other before jumping in. Thankfully, being able to see them often means you have much more to work with: vacations, kids, how you broke your wrist on vacation (a recent real life example).

Pre-meeting small talk needs to hit the right balance between acknowledging each other as people and being friendly, without wasting time. If conversation is easy, I enjoy it and it does make me feel more connected to my meeting partners; if not, and I can’t take it anymore, then I just decide it’s time to say, “Ok, let’s get started.”

The Sidewalk Stumble

4

When escaping my office building to grab lunch or just talk a short walk, I frequently pass a co-worker coming in the opposite direction. This is my most dreaded small talk experience: there is too much time between when you’ve seen the person coming at you and when you actually pass to just say hello. I often end up shouting out inane things like “Such a nice day!” or “Great to get outside!” For me, this is followed immediately by a short internal monologue about how stupid I sound.

The lesson here is that “hello” plus avoiding eye contact is just fine.

Those who are really good at small talk are about pull in interesting, but not overly personal facts, about the people they’re speaking to. I am still an awkward small talker, but having these labels helps me remember that purpose of small talk and to just appreciate it for the pleasantry that it is, rather that scrutinizing the content. I’m still searching for more interesting topics of conversation, but in the meantime, when I say “mmm, coffee!” in the kitchen, I can just shrug to myself and think “kitchen confusion.”

How do you deal with small talk at work?

 

The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

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17 Comments / Post A Comment

Cerasi (#4,234)

I’m not sure if it’s common to truly want a deeper connection with one’s coworkers! But that’s why happy hours exist, for tipsy discussion of deep and personal topics. Small talk is great for filling small amounts of time, and at least for me, it only starts to feel awkward when it’s filling a longer space (I feel this article on the conference calls, oh my goodness).

stephstern (#4,149)

@Cerasi very true! I find happy hours awkward too, and still difficult to get to deeper connections.

gyip (#4,192)

I freak out and run away.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

I have a small group of coworkers I’m pretty friendly with, as well as a small group of ‘work girlfriends’ that we hang out frequently outside work, have been invited to the non-work bridal/baby showers, etc. As for everyone else in the office, I think I’ve mastered the office small talk – I honed this working in high-end retail where you have to relationship build with potential/existing clients, etc and come up with lots of small talk. and I do talk to a lot of brokers on the phone and have to do this as well.

There’s this one girl in my department – we have shared interests (hiking and National Parks) and I will want to tell her a little interesting so and such from my life (the last one was – my cousin just posted a picture of him hiking Half Dome!)but then I (or whoever she is talking to) will just get STUCK in a conversation with her for 30 minutes. Her voice lacks affect (is that it?) and she doesn’t pick up on social cues so I just usually have to walk away slowly.

@ceereelyo Do you work with me? I also have a coworker I talk to about national parks and hiking, too! But I am pretty sure I’m not a long-talker with flat affect, and that I pick up on social cues. But there is another coworker of mine who is kind of a long talker and is a little, uh… angry? But she and I share crafty interests so she ends up talking with me for longer than I am really comfortable with, so end up doing a lot of smile and nod.

stephstern (#4,149)

@ceereelyo Any tips from when you worked in retail? Sounds like you have some great experience.

joyballz (#2,000)

@ceereelyo It’s a lot of current events/sports for me. “Did you see x?” or “are you going to y game?” I live in Chicago and work near the United Center so lots of talk about the Hawks and Bulls. You get used to having the same conversation over and over again with customers throughout the day. The coworker conversations are mostly about TV with me. I’ve found at least one show/interest in common with everyone and check in about that if I have nothing else to say. It’s easy to ask a question and let them run with it even if you don’t have a lot to say on the topic.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

@Punk-assBookJockey – hahaha, your post alone definitely differentiates you from said co-worker. Her latest venture is buying a house which I find somewhat infuriating – evidence of her lack of social cues is repeating the amount of money her parents are giving her to buy a house and also how if you buy a condo/townhouse you are basically throwing money away.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

@stephstern – thanks! It was a little tricky at first – the clientele I used to work with were pretty well off, and honestly I could not imagine what we would have in common, but in the end I found that asking about their children, making them feel comfortable, and just sounding genuine. Also, it sounds a bit superficial but it worked because it was clothing/fashion retail, I would compliment them on their outfit and ask them about it. Where I live and worked – Princeton – it’s very community-ish. Our employer encouraged us to look up info to see if any of our clients did charity events, and that kind of stuff was always in the paper, so it was easy to bring it up or other community kind of things – Did you go to the farmer’s market today? Stuff like that. I also worked with several natural conversationalists and charming women so we kind of put our powers toward the greater good, haha. In my current job – insurance UW – I am on the phone a lot, which I find somewhat to my disadvantage (as opposed to meeting with people in person) because I find that it’s easier to interact in person because I can take into account their body language, their appearance, etc. I work with people based in Boston, so I usually talk about baseball or ask them where abouts they are from and I try to remember the details and follow up with them on our next phone call to try to relationship build. It works with some, not all, and most often it’s more that I ask questions and listen and try to learn about them.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

@joyballz – sports I find are a fall back, and I am not really into sports, other than baseball, but usually you can find a common ground – been easy peasy lately, what with the World Cup. I try to remember what people are in to – or if they mention a vacation coming up and will ask them about that.

andnowlights (#2,902)

I’ve truly been gifted with the skill of word vomiting EVERYWHERE thanks to a little bit of social anxiety and a lot of being my mother’s daughter. I will talk for DAYS about everything and anything that comes to mind. Great for talking to people in the grocery store, bad for super focused things like job interviews. It’s a little bit insane and my bosses frequently tell me how annoyingly quiet it is on the days I’m not around.

guenna77 (#856)

i definitley sigh internally over this kid of thing. there’s a guy from the mailroom who calls out my name every single solitary time he walks by my cube, even when i am clearly focused and typing or have headphones on, etc. he does this with everyone else down the line too. but i can deal with that. what really kills me is when people make their pleasantries into a question instead of just stating something banal. every time this other guy passes me in the hallway he says “hey – how’s it going?” (and he sits two cubes away so this can happen 10 times in a day). i feel like a heel for ignoring someone who asks me about my day directly, however insincere, so i feel obligated to ask him too. but he’s basically passing me by the time i get out fine, and well behind me by the time i get out “how are you?”. i’m not even asking for him (and everyone) to stop the hallway acknowledgement, even though i’d love it. but could we all just agree to leave it at ‘hey’ unless there is an actual reason to ask someone how their day is? it’s different when it’s a barista or someone you rarely interact with than when it’s someone who just asked you about your day an hour ago.

@guenna77 Yes! The question-asker! Feeling obligated to return the question is always the worst part about the question-asker.

joyballz (#2,000)

@guenna77 If he’s walking by could you try a smile and a thumbs up? or instead of returning the question just add something pleasant on the end as he walks by, “all fine here, have a good one!”

I enjoy the conference call weather comparisons! Mostly because my calls are generally international so they end up being local updates on London or Prague. Then during the call, I’m in the proper mindset to daydream about taking a trip to Prague.

stephstern (#4,149)

@forget it i quit what a nice way to think about it!

BornSecular (#2,245)

I hate small talk. I am not good at it and I actually try to avoid it. Feels too disingenuous to me. But then, I’m a misanthrope. I know I don’t actually care about my co-workers’ weekends, and I doubt they really want to know much about mine in passing either.

ETA: I am actually that horrible person who shuts small talk down, stat. Someone will ask how I’m doing, and I’ll replay with a single word answer (plus “thanks”), and I rarely ask “How ’bout you?”

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