Thursday, September 3, 2015

Does anyone do small talk well?

I really enjoy sharing a meal as a way of getting to know people, but it always seems like work lunches (the celebration of a work milestone, the celebration of the last day of a retiring employee and the like) are incredibly awkward.

There are the people who cannot stand the awkward silences of a group of people; they will fill those silences with their own talking. Introverts who are not prone to interrupting folks will find themselves listening to a monologuer, monologuing.

I am bad at finding things to talk about; I'm not interested in the weather, I figure most folks don't want to talk shop and I really don't want to talk about my family or my hobbies (I'm not super private, I just figure people are bored by that stuff.) I find that most people wisely avoid conversations about politics and religion, especially if the boss is present and or the group is large enough that it's no longer "a group of trusted work friends", but "a group of coworkers, one of whom may find offense."

Readers, do you have a suggestion for how to conquer the awkward work lunch? Good, perennially safe topics? Or are we stuck going to Olive Garden and listening to the boss' description of their bowling league? 

31 comments:

  1. I hear you. At my brief stint in a start up company we were strongly encouraged to eat lunch together, which for me was difficult. The problem is, people can be very judgmental if you don't smile in just the right way and say exactly the right things, and cliques can develop. Since I didn't like that aspect of high school I now always eat lunch alone.

    I guess how I deal with my boss at lunch is to "set him off" and say one little thing to get him yammering about a subject that he loves to talk (more like lecture) about, then I just sit back and enjoy the ride, which means I have to just listen, nod my head (at the appropriate times of course) For him, its politics. Say "Nixon"

    What can you talk about? Something everybody can agree upon that has nothing to do with politics and religion. Hmmm...Like how smart Phil Baran is, how deserving of the MacArthur award he is, but he's not perfect...he's losing his hair faster than the pain from the lash from a whip from an ISIS clown?

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  2. I prefer to skip those things altogether. My tolerance for noise has been declining with age.

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  3. NMH is on to something: "set him off." Listen to the monologue for open-ended follow-up questions you can ask. If you can keep someone talking, you avoid the problem of having to generate topics yourself.

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    1. I guess what I've learned is that we live in a politically-correct society, where just about everybody is easily insulted. So if the boss and makes a verbal faux-paux (or gaffe), its fine. If its you, the employee, you could pay for it later ("he's a little offensive, so we shouldn't promote him"). Better to keep the boss talking then for you to talk and take a chance.

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  4. I ask people about vacations, children and pets, depending on the person. I think family and hobbies are better than nothing. I try to make other people talk about themselves. Especially with people from not the USA, I talk about food. I live in a small place with a large chemical company, so good restaurants, especially "ethnic" ones are hard to find and my coworkers and I either cook a lot and/or travel far for good food, and it's something to talk about. The "group lunch" size is 20-40 people, though, so you can have a small conversation in that size group.

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  5. Kids or houses work pretty well where I am, and pets if they have them. I can run on about my children, and probably shouldn't. I don't seem to have as much tolerance for noise as I used to - if something interests me, I'm OK, but I'd rather be alone than listen to lots of talk.

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  6. My group has a pretty good feel for each other (its about 8 people). We do sometimes talk about the "red" topics like politics or religion, but I make sure I'm never the one bringing it up. Mostly people just talk about whats going on in their lives. Some talk more than others, but thats ok. You never know how much being a good listener can mean to someone on a personal level.

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  7. discussing the noticeable signs of pregnancy of an attractive-looking colleague, arguing who the father might be

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  8. This topic reminds me of why I'm so glad to be working in a plant lab after jobs at big chemical company R&D centers. People are so paranoid about running afoul of HR harassment / political correctness policies that they're afraid to socialize with co-workers. My parents met at work in the late 1960s and have been married for almost 45 years, and my dad's best friend of over 30 years is a former coworker; today nobody dates or socializes with co-workers anymore because they're too paranoid about getting in trouble with HR.

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  9. I like to follow a couple sports teams. Don't even really have to be local. Ask can x make it all the way or how about team y? Sports are relatively inoffensive.

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    1. Dang!, I thought I was going to be the first.

      As thewonkychemist suggests however, you don't even really have to know anything about sports to play. Asking the sports fan about his sports/team/favorite players will ensure that there will not be silence, especially if they are in a fantasy football league or such. There is always something in the news off the field that you can comment on too. Some football player in trouble with the law or deflating footballs, some baseball player or cyclist caught doing PED's (that's Pee-E-Dees, short for performance enhancing drugs), some swimmer smoking pot...

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  10. The latest celebrity sandwich pitchman taken down on kiddie porn charges? That's always good for 10 minutes of banter.

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  11. I have to take issue with this one: "I figure most folks don't want to talk shop..."

    Shop talk is by definition one of the things you have in common with coworkers whom you may have very little in common with outside of work. Shop talk can be useful and informative if guided in the right direction. Overcoming project difficulties, changing work culture, effectively interfacing with different departments, etc. have all been topics I've heard informal yet effective conversations about over lunch which would not otherwise happen in a formal setting.

    If everyone is a chemist with an advanced degree, then old grad school stories can also be common ground for discussion and commiseration.

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    1. OK, fair enough, that's a good point.

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  12. "I am bad at finding things to talk about; I'm not interested in the weather, I figure most folks don't want to talk shop and I really don't want to talk about my family or my hobbies (I'm not super private, I just figure people are bored by that stuff.)"

    That sums up pretty well why I tend to clam up in most social situations (I'll also add "I'm not really interested in hearing about other people's families or hobbies."). I have the added bonus of not even really liking to talk about things that interest me, even with those who share my interests. Perfect storm of antisocial awkwardness!

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  13. Part of building relationships with your coworkers is listening to what they have to say, even when you dont care one bit about what they are saying. If you don't like to listen and dont like to talk either, that will eventually get you labelled as antisocial and I would think could (albiet unfairly) bias your superiors against you when it comes time for promotions, raises, layoffs, etc.

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    1. This is an interesting perspective and one that I had not considered.

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  14. I am going to put my two cents in here. I recently went on to a dinner prior to my interview. I am quite often a very quiet person myself. It was almost impossible to engage my hosts in any type of talk. It left a very unfavorable impression. I should mention that I was from a different generation than the hosts (probably at least 10 years difference). I have, I am sure, lost a job by not engaging in small talk after a full-day interview. You have to at least try.

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    1. Well personality and fitting in with the team is about 50% of the reason someone gets hired

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    2. "Well personality and fitting in with the team is about 50% of the reason someone gets hired"

      I'd suggest higher, maybe up to 80%. The smartest person at any given company is usually not the CEO, or other exec, unless they founded the company (which, at least in biotech, means they're likely to get fired after new investors come in).

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    3. Some easy fodder for post/pre interview dinners is to look up who your hosts earned their doctorates or did their post-docs with. Then, look up who they earned their doctorates with, and so forth. Bonus points if you can trace them to a Nobel Laureate or otherwise famous chemist. Once you have that info, you probably know where they physically went to grad school, opening up easy conversations about how someone from X wound up at Y school and then a job at Z, what X/Y/Z are like, or what experiences you may have had the one time you visited them, etc.

      Interviewers already have this kind of info on you, and it is perfectly fair to turn it around on them and let them talk about themselves for a while.

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  15. One item that always seems to generate a lot of useless but relatable banter is traffic/routes, at the risk of alienating visiting coworkers. My current group is global and based in another office (out of country); almost every time I call into a team meeting, the pre-meeting small-talk and opening safety moment is some new traffic pattern or construction zone. That's okay with me - gives me time to go get coffee...

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  16. Hmmm... I usually stick to fairly safe topics, too. My go to question to get someone else talking is to ask them if they've always lived in the city we're in. I'm in San Diego now. If the other person is a lifelong San Diegan, we can talk about how great San Diego is. I've learned a lot of interesting local history that way. If they moved in from somewhere else, I can hear about the great things about that other place (or perhaps terrible things- depending on the personality of the person). This has only gone south once, when I found myself listening to a borderline racist rant from someone I didn't know well. Usually, it is safe and I get to hear about other places I might want to visit.

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  17. Family
    Occupation
    Recreation
    Dreams

    That's the acronym I try and remember. I've tried my best to dump some skill points into my diplomacy stat, but it doesn't always work.

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    1. I like this suggestion a lot - it is appreciated.

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  18. Comment on Ke$ha's bowling skills in her "Blah Blah Blah" video. She is really terrible.

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  19. In our lab group, we talk about food *a lot* - the good restaurants in the area, the good gelato places, etc. Not in a snobby-foodie kind of way, but just sharing our experiences with different cuisine, notably desserts. It's fun, and it's something to which everyone seems to relate.

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  20. I too wasn't interested in discussing the weather, until I read Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise".

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  21. "Back in the day..." there were four topics that were off-limits in the Wardroom (the Officer's Mess on board a ship):

    1. Work (better, work suckage. Solving work-related technical problems while frowned on were an overlooked breech of etiquette among the techies)
    2. Politics
    3. Religion
    4. Your wife (or any other officer's wife; if you were single, talking about the hotness of your girlfriend was also taboo).

    I've found that this is, in general, good advice for any conversation.

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    1. There's even a great (?) country song about this by Sammy Kershaw: "Politics, Religion and Her."

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