How to Ace Water Cooler Chat with Coworkers of Any Age

May 30, 2012 -
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If you work in any sort of office environment, it's something you can’t avoid: having to make small talk with coworkers you probably would never chat with outside of work. Whether it's a random break room run-in, waiting in line for the copier or the dreaded holiday party, there's no getting away from the fact that you can't just show up, do your work and leave. Part of being an employee means having to socialize with the people around you. And how you do it can make it either incredibly awkward or moderately enjoyable. (I won’t pretend that it’s fascinating and exciting, because really, it’s still small talk with people you have little in common with.) Here are some basic tips to make even the most shy, antisocial person capable of pulling off basic office chitchat, whether your coworkers are 25 or 65:

Office small talk dos

Ask questions. It’s often said that the key to being a good conversationalist is being a good listener. People love talking about themselves—so get them talking. Ask them about their family, their hobbies, their pets... then be (or at least act) genuinely interested in their answers. Ask them follow up questions. (“So, how do you manage to write a novel in your spare time?” or “Mary’s a senior? How’s her college hunt going?”) When people can walk away from a conversation feeling they were incredibly interesting, they'll think you were the best conversationalist ever. Collect tidbits about your coworkers. If the receptionist has pictures of her cat all over her desk, there's a conversation topic made to order. If the guy the next cube over is always talking about the movie he saw that weekend, ask him his thoughts on current releases. Every person you work with has two or three go-to subjects they’re always happy to talk about, so make mental notes as you interact with them. If you can find a go-to subject you both enjoy, you get double points for the bonding potential. Compliments are always welcome. If someone’s wearing an interesting necklace, ask them where they got it (and hope it leads to an interesting story!). If you love someone's hair, ask them where they get it done. You brighten their day, plus get them talking about themselves as recommended in tip number one. Double win. (Even a triple win from a networking standpoint.) Current events. (With the exception of religion and politics. See below.) You don't need to read the newspaper from cover to cover. Just watch 20 minutes of Good Morning, America as you eat your breakfast or check out the MSN home page before you sign into your Hotmail account, and you’ll have a handful of topics to discuss with people. TV, movies, books. Chatting about pop culture can be one of the easiest ways to click with someone if you can find something you both enjoy. Just make sure to steer clear of controversial books like Fifty Shades of Grey or the show Sister Wives. Local topics. Is an art festival or concert coming up? Are you looking for recommendations for a new restaurant to try out? Talking about things going on in the community around you is another easy way to find common discussion ground. Sports, sports, sports. If you follow a sport, any sport, and can find someone who does the same, you are set for conversational topics for the rest of your time at your company. I have gleaned this from listening to my sportaholic husband dissect the nuances of fantasy football trades (and fantasy baseball trades, and real-life football drafts) with his friends until my eyes glaze over.

Office Small talk do-not-evers

Religion or politics. Think it goes without saying? It doesn't. There's always someone who goes there. Don't let it be you. Please, for the love of whatever it is you personally believe in, just don't. Bonding over bitching. While you can create some camaraderie empathizing over how awful that big deadline was, stay away from too much complaining, gossiping,or otherwise dwelling in the unpleasantries of your workplace. It can be tempting, because everyone loves a good bitch-a-thon about the boss that they hate. But bonding over negativity only makes you go back to work more P.O.’ed than ever. Try to keep it cheerful. Letting work make you angry when you’re not actually working is an awful habit. Relationship therapy sessions. If you’ve just had a fight with your boyfriend, if your teen has been getting into trouble with the law, or if you’re cradling any other form of dirty laundry, this is neither the time nor the place to air it. Personal life TMI only makes your coworkers incredibly uncomfortable. (Plus, do you really want your casual coworkers to know about Jimmy’s new rap sheet?) Health issues. I don’t care how harrowing your trip to the gastroenterologist was; we really (really) don’t want to hear about it. A quick update on how you’re doing if someone asks? That’s perfectly fine. But a blow by blow of all your aches and pains and medical procedures? No. Just no. Money talk. Whether it’s salaries, bonuses or simply how much you paid for that pair of shoes your coworker complimented, keep it to yourself. It’s impossible to talk money without at least one member of the conversation walking away feeling envious or guilty. Kids, kids, kids! You’re more than welcome to share Billy’s latest softball triumph or the fact that Katie made honor roll. But if your conversation is all kids, all the time, you’ll find your audience rapidly diminishing. Branch out into other areas of your life—or, better yet, turn the conversation to your partner now and then and ask them some things about their life. Kelly Gurnett runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.