9 to 5 Culture

Office Small Talk (Part 2)

Click Here for Office Small Talk: Part 1

The Problem

We’ve all experienced this at work. A co-worker drones on and on about his or her latest “adventure”, oblivious to your tiredness, business or need for space. I’ve noticed that most “office small talk” isn’t even “real” conversation, like true small talk can be. It’s a step beneath this, actually. Small talk has a certain sort of “give and take” to it. See the following example:

Mike: “How is the weather where you are?”

Jane: “It’s sunny, about 75. Great day for golfing. How about you?”

Mike: “It’s about 50 here, getting colder you know. But, makes you appreciate summer more!”

Jane: “You can say that again!”

652768_2_women_having_a_chatThis is small-talk. Pointless, yes. Boring, certainly. But, it does have a give and take quality to it. Mike and Jane are exchanging information which, while pretty silly, shows some sort of back-and-forth effort.

The difference between this kind of conversation and office small talk is that the latter is all about bragging, comparing, complaining and is a direct result of boredom.

When you approach a co-worker and initiate conversation JUST FOR THE SAKE of talking about your own life, this is intrusive, and it’s wasted conversation. There is no give and take. It’s all just take. See this example:

Kim: “How was your weekend?”

Mike: “Rotten.”

Kim: “Well last night I went to eat at Dave’s and they played the worst music. I almost wanted to say something to the manager. But guess what! You’ll never believe this! We won one of those contests at the end of the meal that lets you fill out a survey for a gift certificate! So I went to their website and filled it out, and now we get our next meal for $20 off! Isn’t that amazing?” (Note – Kim doesn’t really care about your answer. She just wants an excuse to start comparing and complaining)

Mike: “No.”

Kim: “Oh, and guess what? (ignoring your answer) I saw Peg there too! She was with her husband I think. He was so weird, like they didn’t say a word to each other the whole dinner. They probably have things going on at home. Shhh, don’t tell Peg that I saw her though.

768503_high_school_hallThis is so highschool. Seriously, this is what happens to some people who graduate from high school and go directly on to a life of mediocrity. They bring high school with them. This is also where office politics comes from. It’s like being back in 10th grade.

My Experiment

On Friday of last week I was out to lunch with my boss and a co-worker. About five minutes into our 3-way conversation I noticed many of the above behaviors between the two of them. My boss would talk about something in her life. My co-worker would then talk about the same thing, but in the context of her life, with a vague sense of “one-upping.” Back and forth it would go, leading to the same dead-end conclusion. This is where the comparing comes into play. Conversation that is all take and no give. I don’t know why it’s so common in the workplace, but there is no mistaking it’s presence when one stops and examines a typical office conversation.

Anyway, for my experiment, I decided to shut up and not say anything about myself at all. I asked them things about their lives only, but never brought myself up once. I only listened (hard to do, as their conversations were about superficial things like work accounts, discounts and shopping) and tried to give input.

Something very enlightening and scary eventually happened. In the 1 hour and 10 minutes I spent at the restaurant with them, they did not ask me ONE question about my own life. Not one. Guess how many I asked each of them. At least 15 total. Easily. And it wasn’t like I was grilling them or anything. I might as well not have existed. They also didn’t ask each other any questions either, except the occasional (oh really?)

460449_shopping_mallThe second thing I noticed is that they seemed scared to talk about any subject in great depth. They would just skim over things. When I was too probing (Like asking them what they thought about how shopping addiction might be a personality trait) they stopped and tried to keep it on a more “business level.”

“Oh, maybe. But my mother LOVES to shop! Must be because she likes to browse and find deals.”

I’ve worked in more than a few office environments and found this to be a phenomenon that exists mostly with co-workers while at work. I’ll bet that if you take these two people out of work and into a different setting, you might get a different result. I don’t know what it is, but something about the workplace encourages comparing, complaining and self-promotion. Try this experiment at your own job if you feel so inclined. See if the conversation changes if you never mention yourself once (which can be difficult!) The results of your experiment will probably be far more enlightening to you than anything they are talking about!

Obviously not all conversation can be deep. But I’d really like it if there were less of this unhealthy dialogue going on while I’m suffering through work. I’d rather just be left alone than to be force-fed someone’s personal information in a thinly-veiled attempt at self-promotion and induced jealously.


1 Comment

  • Wendy October 2, 2007 at 5:28 am

    I liked your piece about office smalltalk. Here’s what I think: If you’re looking for lifelong friends — that is, people who will stick around after one or both of you leave the job — you won’t find them at work. That’s because it’s the commonality of the experience that creates any kind of bond, — like complaining about the boss or the work environment, etc. Once that goes, the relationship goes with it. It’s been tough for me, but I’ve finally learned that the best thing to do at work is nod, smile, be friendly, and make “colleagues,” not friends. This is especially tough for folks who thrive on deep connections. But just keep this in mind: Your work is not your life. Or something like that.


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