September 23, 2019

Does making small talk at work make you anxious? Here are 5 ways to do it right.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Aug. 7, 2020.

    Making small talk with coworkers can be anxiety-inducing at times, but those who can do it effectively often are better positioned for success, Lindsay Mannering writes for the New York Times, offering five tips of how to do it right.

    Infographic: 7 must-have conversations between managers and employees

    Why small talk is important

    According to Jamie Terran, a licensed career coach in New York City, making small talk with coworkers and supervisors helps build rapport, which then builds trust. "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."

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    It also comes in handy when you are interviewing for a new position, according to Mannering. "People hire people they want to work with, not necessarily who's perfect for the job," Mannering writes. Making small talk before or after the formal interview, helps you make that positive impression.

    Small talk is also important for your own self-esteem, Mannering writes. Without it, we can often "feel bad about ourselves, like we're true failures at life for not being able to connect with a fellow member of the herd," Mannering writes.

    5 tips on doing small talk right

    It's normal for small talk to make you anxious, so Mannering offers five tips to keep in mind to make it feel more natural.

    1. People like you more than you think. People often think they're less likable than they actually are, Mannering writes. A 2018 study published in Psychological Science found that people "systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company."

    As a result, it's best not to judge yourself too harshly when making small talk. According to Ellie Hearne, founder and CEO of Pencil or Ink, a leadership communications agency, "people don't remember what you say—they remember how they felt when they were with you."

    2. Plan ahead of time. If small talk makes you anxious, Terran recommends coming up with anecdotes or questions to use ahead of time.

    "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."

    It's also important to ask questions, Mannering writes. Asking questions can be a form of flattery because it shows you care about the other person's opinion, and "[w]e're all ultimately pretty narcissistic at heart."

    3. Avoid the 'how are you?' loop. It's easy to get stuck in a loop of saying, "How are you? Good, how are you?" when making small talk, Mannering notes. To break that cycle, take a moment to explain why you're doing well. For example, you could say "I'm good. I just started a book/podcast/TV show and I'm really enjoying it. Have you heard of it?" Mannering writes.

    4. Don't worry, small talk doesn't last long. All told, small talk is generally a pretty short experience, and if you don't want to get involved in a long conversation, "you have an out—you're at work!" Terran said. "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."

    5. Sometimes it's OK to be silent. If you're having a bad day or just don't want to talk to people, it's OK for you not to talk, Mannering writes.

    "It's fine to take a step back from engaging," Hearne said. "Most people know the new workplace etiquette, à la earbuds in means 'give me some space.'"

    And there's one key place where it's better to be silent, according to Mannering: the bathroom.

    "There are very few ways to have successful small talk in the office bathroom," she writes. "It should go without saying that attempting to chat with someone while they're in the bathroom stall is totally off-limits" (Mannering, New York Times, 9/17).
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