We regret to inform you that you need to make small talk with your colleagues.
Every day around the world, an estimated 3 billion people go to work and 2.9bn of them avoid making small talk with their co-workers once they get there.
Their avoidance strategies vary. Some will keep their headphones in and their eyes low. Others will feign receiving an urgent message that requires an immediate, brow-furrowing, life-or-death rapid response, which incapacitates them from doing pretty much anything else.
If these strategies sound familiar, if you’ve convinced yourself that avoiding small talk with colleagues is smart self-preservation, that the risk of saying something dumb or offensive or coming across as socially inept is not worth the reward of connecting with somebody, then your reasoning could be costing you a promotion.
Jamie Terran, a career coach, said that small talk between colleagues and supervisors builds rapport, which in turn builds trust.
“Rapport is the feeling that allows you to extend a deadline or overlook smaller mistakes because it makes it easy for you to remember we’re only human. Right or wrong, building rapport through interaction with colleagues could be the thing that gets you the promotion or keeps you in the role you’re in.”
Building rapport applies when you’re interviewing, too. People hire people they want to work with, not necessarily who’s perfect for the job. Engaging in small talk with your interviewer helps make a positive impression.
But, how? Small talk, while small and just talk, is intimidating. This is 2019 and we’re all anxious about something, including a 15-second chat with Janet from accounting about how cold the aircon is in the conference room.
The good news is that you can just go ahead and repurpose your anxiety about making small talk with your colleagues and worry instead about not making small talk with your co-workers.
Because while small talk can be torture, the absence of it can also make us feel bad about ourselves, like we’re true failures at life for not being able to connect with a fellow member of the team, worried deep down that we will be kicked out of the community.
Here are a few thoughts on how to avoid that feeling.
You’re more likeable than you think
A 2018 study published in Psychological Science showed that people “systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company”.
Think about it: when you have an awkward small talk interaction with a colleague, such as stunted, silences or neither of you could think of something to say, do you normally go back to your desk and think: “Wow, Alex is a terrible conversationalist”?
No. You go back to your desk and think: “Wow, I’m a rotten garbage human being who should be shunned from society.” But Alex is thinking the same thing about him or herself.
The point is you’re more likeable than you think you are, so try not to judge yourself so harshly.
According to Ellie Hearne, the CEO of the leadership communications agency Pencil or Ink, “People don’t remember what you say. They remember how they felt when they were with you.”
A little planning goes a long way
If you are generally anxious in social situations, that is human, Terran suggested coming up with core questions or stories from which you can pull.
“Whether or not you share personal information about yourself is up to you, but discussing things you truly care about is always the best strategy,” she said. “Topics relating to your professional field, for example, an article you saw or book you read, is a great place to start.”
Did something weird or interesting happen to you recently? Workshop in your mind, at least, the story ahead of time to share at your next office outing.
Remember to ask questions. We’re all ultimately pretty narcissistic at heart.
Don’t panic, It’s almost over
Small talk doesn’t last long. “If you’re a generally anxious person, you have an out – you’re at work. You’re not supposed to spend too much time chatting. After a few moments you can reference a meeting or project you are supposed to work on,” she said.
A simple exchange of pleasantries, followed by a concise but polite exit, such as “Have a good day.”, is perfectly acceptable.
You (occasionally) have the right to remain silent
If you’re having a bad day and don’t want to talk, that might be best for everyone involved. Enter headphones. “It’s fine to take a step back from engaging. Most people know the new workplace etiquette, à la earbuds in means ‘give me some space,’” said Hearne.
A simple smile or nod to acknowledge your colleague will still go a long way.
Warning: there are few ways to have successful small talk in the office bathroom. It should go without saying that trying to chat with someone while they’re in the bathroom stall is off-limits.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.