Workplace Small Talk

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February 18, 2016
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February 18, 2016
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Workplace Small Talk

How do you enter the workplace social inner sanctum? That place where people share a joke, a coffee, lunch, Friday arvo drinks and really connect with each other.

It’s hard enough for any newcomer to the workplace, but when you’re operating outside your first culture, it can be even more stressful. Your ability to ‘fit it’ can have a major influence on your career progression or whether you win that job interview. You will make mistakes; we all do.

Silence can be awkward, whether it’s in the lunch room or during a job interview. We should all have techniques to break the ice, so everyone can feel relaxed and be themselves. Ice-breakers need to feel natural and unforced. A forced attempt to sustain conversation can create an even more uncomfortable environment than silence. This topic is fraught with danger, as it is impossible to know exactly the context in which you will be attempting these ice-breakers. Proceed with caution! But proceed with courage.

The Office

  1. Pick up the thread of the conversation

If you enter the room and a conversation is already underway, try to add something to the conversation, or ask a question. Of course, make sure it’s not a private conversation between two people. The volume of the conversation will usually indicate how ‘open’ it is for interjections. Also, be sensitive to the nature of the conversation. If you feel uncomfortable with the subject matter, it’s probably a good idea to wait until the topic changes.

Once you start to get to know people better, you don’t have as much need for small talk. Your intention should be to get to know your colleagues so you can have meaningful conversations about common interests. After a colleague volunteers information about their family, this is usually an indication that it is a safe topic and one they probably like talking about.

‘My son is doing Year 12 this year and you wouldn’t believe how much homework he gets.’

‘Really. What subjects is he doing?’

Sport and television are usually fairly safe topics of conversation.

‘Did anyone watch My Kitchen Rules last night?’

‘How were those Pies on Saturday?’ (Reference to the Magpies – Collingwood football team, a southern states reference only. In Sydney they might say, the ‘Roosters’, for example.)

Hopefully, your conversations at work will progress beyond the trivial so that you can communicate at a deeper level about things that really interest you. These are just suggested ice-breakers that may help you develop more meaningful collegial relationships. I would rather kill myself than talk about My Kitchen Rules at work every day (This is an example of exaggeration – also commonly used in Australia. Of course, I wouldn’t rather kill myself).

For those of you from the sub-continent, cricket is an excellent conversation topic. Use it if it is your interest.

Humour can be good, if it comes easily for you. It does require an awareness of cultural nuance that you may not have, and often humour doesn’t translate well between languages and culture. Irony and sarcasm are common in Australia, which can occasionally offend someone who is not familiar with this aspect of the culture.

 

Frank walks into the staffroom as Cheryl takes a biscuit from the table and eats it.

Frank: ‘My God, Cheryl! How many biscuits have you had?’

Cheryl: (Laughing) ‘I’m not the one who needs to be watching their weight, chubby.’

(Frank is a tall thin man – irony)

Now, such a conversation would only take place between people who are close and probably good friends. So, don’t try something like this until you get to know a person very well.

  1. Ask a question about a topic in which the person has some expertise. Everyone loves to feel like an expert.
  • Has anyone been to Lorne? I’m thinking of going this weekend.
  • What’s the best way to get to…?
  • Did anyone see the Collingwood – St. Kilda game? What was that free kick for in the last 30 seconds?
  • What did you think of the State of Origin game last night? (QLD & NSW only)

 The Interview

Ice-breakers at the interview are even more difficult because most often it is the first time you’ve met the interviewers. However, the same principles apply – the conversation should be a series of natural extensions. Generally, the interviewer will try to break the ice; it’s your job to keep the conversation flowing.

‘So, did you find the place OK?’

‘Yeah, no problems. I know this area quite well. It’s on route to my sister’s house.

‘OK, where does she live?’

‘Just past Epping, but I normally go via the ring road. That is when they aren’t doing road work (laughing).

The interviewer, commenting on some renovations being done in the adjacent office, says…

‘Sorry about the noise. Hopefully, it won’t be a problem for the interview.’

‘That’s OK. What are they building?’

‘I think they’re doing a completely new fit out.’

‘Ok, is it a medical centre?’

‘It was, but apparently an orthodontist is moving in.’

‘Don’t mention orthodontists. My son has just got braces, but I’m the one feeling the pain’ (humorous reference to the cost of braces).

Many people suggest that footy talk is a good option at an interview, which is probably true. However, it can be a little unnatural if you try to introduce it into the conversation. If the interviewer raises the topic, it’s good to have something to say in return. A little bit of knowledge can be helpful as long as you don’t pretend to be an expert when you’re not.

Preparation

So how can you prepare for ice-breakers when the best thing to do is to pick up on the thread? Instead of preparing a list of ‘killer ice-breakers’ to use at the interview:

  • put yourself into more social situations
  • observe what others do, especially those that seem socially adroit
  • practise some ice-breakers in a non-threatening environment where there is nothing at stake
  • join a club or special interest forum and mingle

Don’t use humour unless you’re confident it will be taken in the right way. Practise and observe your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to reveal a little about yourself; if you open up, others will too. Learning what is appropriate to say in certain situations will come with time, but you need to work at it and challenge yourself by stepping out of your social comfort zone.

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