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How to Ace Water Cooler Chat with Coworkers of Any Age

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chatting at the water cooler
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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.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Jrandom42

    Here’s my problem with the so-called water cooler chat: Everyone wants to freaking talk, not get any work done! Just shut up and get your deliverables to the customer on time! Save the talk when you’re finished!

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      Good point. These tips are meant to get you through the inevitable social interactions of a job, not to enable you to draw out those interactions to avoid your work. Please use said tips for good, not evil. :P

    • http://www.facebook.com/tina.graves18 Artina Graves

      That my problem too. A lot of people have water cooler chit chat to get out doing work. So my question would be when enough is enough. How much social chit chatting at work do you need to do to seem like a team player. I think getting work done should be sufficient.

      • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

        It’s not about chatting more than working so that you can win social points. It’s about knowing how to chat when you find yourself in social situations at work. Of course you should do your work first. That goes without saying.

  • http://twitter.com/JillComm Jill Scheyk

    I think I do the opposite of the money thing. People compliment my shoes and I’m like “Thanks they were $5!!!” Reverse bragging?

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      Yeah, I do that too! I think bragging over a steal you’ve found is perfectly acceptable (unless it’s “I got this Prada bag at the outlet store for $800 instead of $1,200″!). :P

  • http://eemusings.wordpress.com/ eemusings

    I find I’m a lot better at the asking questions of others, but not so good at sharing details about my own life. I know a lot more about my colleagues than they do about me.

    Also – Bonding over bitching is so easy sometimes!

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      Isn’t it, though? A little “oh my god, how crazy was that?” is acceptable (people do need to vent). But when you start wallowing in negativity, that’s when it gets bad. I have certain coworkers I can count on to only offer complaints every time we have a conversation. Not only does it frustrate me and bring me down, but I can’t help but think that they myst obsessing over everything that’s gone wrong, since it’s all they ever talk about. When you’re not actually working, let go of it! Otherwise work wins.

      Being a good asker is a great talent. Sounds like you’re not so much a bad sharer as your coworkers could take a lesson from you and ask you some interesting questions in return!

  • http://matthewcantwell.com/ Matthew Cantwell

    Keeping these things in mind is extremely important if we depend on others to achieve our goals. No one is an island unto themselves. Between us and our customer is often a list of co-workers whose involvement can make or break our delivery. Of course we should keep conversations brief, but the conversations themselves are very very necessary.

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      Exactly! Such an important point. Developing rapport with your coworkers can make projects easier, create lines of support for issues that may arise in the future, and may even help you network in new directions.

      Simple friendly chit chat establishes you as someone who is approachable and easy to get along with–and how much do we need and appreciate coworkers with those qualities!

      • http://matthewcantwell.com/ Matthew Cantwell

        “…approachable and easy to get along with…” is better than “my boss, my co-worker” or worse yet “someone I HAVE to respond to in my own sweet time…” Avoiding chit chat at all costs will cost you later… We just need to be smart about it!

  • digitaltechograp

    I like this one .this is more inresting topic:)

  • dileepadayan

    i like this, thanks for post

  • http://www.phiferindia.com/ Sharan

    I hope this is one topic employers wouldn’t like! Who would want their staffs to waste time at water coolers? But these tips could be used at places of meet after work hours.

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