STARTING a new job can make us feel like the new kid on the first day of school –
nervous yet eager to fit in.
The social component is an important part of any job. Research shows that building
camaraderie with colleagues and making small talk with supervisors can promote
harmony and good health.
The first 90 days are crucial. A 2013 study found that new employees were more
likely to receive support during this period.
“Social support has been widely demonstrated as one of the greatest drivers of
happiness and success,” said Michael Woodward, a workplace psychologist.
“The stronger the support system you have around you, the more likely you are to feel
comfortable, confident and able to succeed.”
Getting there, however, often means answering questions from many new people in
your life. These are likely to range from the moderately professional to the intimately
personal, including queries about your age, relationship status, employment history
and social habits.
Since research suggests that first impressions last for months how you respond, even
to seemingly harmless ice breakers, can have an impact on how your colleagues
Instead of stumbling over your words, here’s how to answer tricky questions with
“How do you feel aboutSo-and-so?”
Gossip at work is common, Woodward said, as is the desire to be part of a group. In a
new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you end up with
colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting production time.
While complaining with colleagues can turn some of these colleagues into friends, Jill
Jacinto, a millennial career expert, said it is best to avoid gossip altogether.
“If someone asks, ‘What do you think of Mark? Have you worked with him yet?’, just
focus on the professional,” she advised. “‘He’s great to work with. He seems to know
technology really well.’”
While your response should be professional, you also should be honest, said Maggie
Mistal, a career and executive coach.
“If you sugarcoat too much or evade, people are going to read that, too,” she said.
“You want to err on the side of kindness or giving another person the benefit of the
Instead of voicing frustrations with a colleague, Mistal suggested rephrasing the
response. For example, you might say, “I think she’s a professional and doing the job
the way she thinks it needs to be done.” It is an authentic, balanced approach, without
“Do you want to join us for happy hour?”
Chatting over lunch is a great way to get to know your colleagues and learn about the
“Those invitations will inevitably dry up,” Jacinto said. “Even though you’re
exhausted after your first week, you want to make sure you do go to those types of
things and get to know your co-workers.”
Keep the conversation light, she advised. Pop culture, weekend plans and the best
lunch spots are safe topics.
However, feel free to ask about your new colleagues’ roles, duties and history with
the company as long as you let your peers do most of the talking.
If you don’t drink alcohol, experts suggest that you consider making an effort to
attend anyway, if that is something you feel comfortable with.
Use it as an opportunity to let your new co-workers know that you’d rather get to
know them over coffee instead of cocktails next time, she said.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
Questions about relationship status can be tricky to decipher because you don’t know
the person’s intention, Mistal said.
Get to the root of the question by asking another question in response, she added. It
could be a light-hearted quip, such as: “Why, do you know anybody?” or “Are you?”
“You haven’t revealed anything about yourself, and you put it back on them,” she
said. “But you understand the ‘why’ before you answer.”
This line of questioning can quickly lead to even more personal territory. Are you
planning on getting married? Having children? Why or why not?
Even if you feel like your lifestyle is being criticised, it is best not to get
defensive and to answer politely, said Sherry Sims, the founder of the Black Career
While you don’t need to defend your choices, by simply saying that you prefer not to
talk about personal issues in the workplace you will in effect convey the message to
your new colleagues not to broach this topic again, Sims said. If you’re comfortable,
you can offer a compliment like “I see you’re a parent and I’m sure that’s an amazing
experience for you.”
“When did you graduate?”
Asking when someone graduated from college a subtle way of sussing out her
experience and age.
If this happens to you, you can play it to your advantage. Finding a subtle way to put a
time stamp on aspects of your career is an effective way of hinting at your experience
without showing your hand, said Amy Cooper Hakim, an industrial psychology
practitioner and workplace expert.
Hakim said she has done this herself. “I’m in my 40s and people think I’m a lot
younger,” she said. If you find your expertise questioned, she finds adding careerrelated context to be effective, saying, “When I was in a corporate office 15 years
Of course, letting your actions, accomplishments and work ethic speak for themselves
does more to build credibility than words alone, Hakim said.
Ultimately, think about your career big-picture, Sims said, and professional
connections are essential.
“The best thing you can do is be who you are and let your talent show,” she said. “It’s
so tricky when it comes to relationships in the workplace, but you have to make sure
you’re building them.”
This article first appeared in The New York Times.