Beyond The Watercooler: How Small Talk Shapes Our Work Lives

Small talk isn't about sharing ideas or information; it's about finding common ground and creating bonds with other human beings.

“How was the long weekend?”

“Have you lost weight?”

I am an extrovert who loves small talk. Over the years, I have eased into airy, inconsequential conversations with relatives, book club members, friends, cab drivers, dates, acquaintances, staff at stores and even people I met on a flight or at the dentist’s.

Yet, for the longest time, small talk at work filled me with dread

I found conversations at the workplace trite (“How are you? How’s it going?”). Part of my dread came from how easily sexism rears its casually ugly head for women in small talk (weight, marriage, outfit choices etc).

At other times, I found small talk had subtext I didn’t like (“Oh no plans for the weekend? Can you take this stretch project up?”). 

I also worried about just how much to give away that would not be unprofessional or Too-Much-Information (Oh, you are not married? How come you are single? Is something wrong?).

However, while walking around on conversational eggshells, I realized that my disdain for small talk may have made me come across as churlish.

So, why does trivial, polite chatter need discussion or reflection?

After all, HR team don’t necessarily monitor it. Watercooler talk has no lofty social ambitions like pay parity, no government mandate like POSH policies and no haters like office rangoli competitions.

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By its nature, small talk is conversation about unimportant things. Polite, trivial, immaterial.

Yet, attention is drifting towards how it’s becoming big.

It started with bestselling author and TED speaker Susain Cain verbally blazing a trail for introverts. Overnight, there were disgruntled introverts who were overjoyed that they could put their head down and work, and leave on time.

Then came the pandemic that led to a barrage of articles on how to make small talk with remote work, the impact of small talk on camaraderie, how executives (even at remote video conferencing software company, Zoom) wanted employees back at work for inspired water cooler conversations and so on.

S*, who is a Data Scientist and works in a MNC in Gurgaon, calls herself social but dislikes making conversation beyond what is necessary. She says, “I would just love to do my job and get out but post-COVID, our management has become even more forceful on creating interpersonal engagements. I just play along because it’s good for my career. Not that I care. My favourite days are when I can work from home.”

Topics of small talk and how it happens are evolving

Now that most of us are dealing with post-pandemic work lives of coming to terms with hybrid, remote and full-time roles. Our relationship with interpersonal exchange is also more diverse.

Apart from post-pandemic friction, the topics of small talk are also evolving. I instinctively knew not to discuss religion or politics at work previously. Controversies were for Twitter, not for office parties. Yet, openness around LGBTQIA inclusion, interest groups for minorities and burgeoning social media frankness has loosened conversational thresholds like never before.

A*, who works in a large Indian conglomerate tells me, “I am an introvert but it’s important to be able to make small talk to do well. I am able to execute many things faster than my peers because I have social capital and am able to build on relationships to get stuff done.” A is also part of her organization’s ‘fun committee’ and ‘Women in STEM chapter.’ She also found a mentor via chit chat at one work session.

Sarkari babus at government daftars have always known this and wrangled files or a lucrative bribe out of two rounds of conversations. So, it is not necessarily a white-collar phenomenon.

And, then there’s such a thing as “too much small talk”

Then, there is M* who is a business owner with about 150 employees, with a work from office mandate, who tells me, “I would much rather that my team have headphones on and eyes on the goal during the week. We do fun stuff together as a team from time to time but a culture of too much small talk can fast become unstructured or tardy. I want the team in the office to collaborate on tasks, not on gossip. Then things get nasty.”

M may not be wrong. Small talk for all its positive press, has found to be distracting.

So, should we all dive headfirst into the land of watercooler conversations?

There are a few caveats.

The first danger with making small talk at work, is coming across as insincere.

This may be due to the close correlation of small talk with gossip (Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people!) and the demands of ‘deep work’ and ‘productivity’.

The second challenge is that small talk is not siloed from organizational dynamics. A senior alumna commented to me. “Small talk can quickly become loose talk. I do my business and get out. It becomes difficult to treat employees objectively when you have to make hard decisions like putting them on a Performance Improvement Plan.” We all distrust someone who keeps talking to the boss about their vacation and kids. In a hierarchical workplace environment, easy conversational dynamics is looked at with disapproval.

Then, there is the danger that small talk will become significant. Be it, hushed whispers during smoke breaks about a merger gone wrong or rumours about someone’s out-of-office personal romance. What we may discuss in passing, may gain enough traction to destroy reputations or ruin someone’s hard-earned clout.

Despite all of these risks, people continue to make small talk. As colleagues, we often know more about each other on an ‘ongoing basis’ than our friends who get curated snapshots of our lives over brunch and through Instagram stories.

So, why do people make chit-chat?

Usually, because we are wired to.

Culturally, we live in a society where strangers casually ask us about our CTC break up at weddings. This is different from how Scandinavians or the British with their stiff upper lip would make frank conversations improbable.

There are also gender differences in how this plays out. Women are more likely to get away with complimenting each other’s appearance, for instance, at the workplace.

Then there are industry, sector and functional differences. There are differences in how small talk plays out at a client meeting versus an internal meeting.

Irrespective of agendas, to seek companionship is human. Psychological experiments consistently show that connecting with others, even if they are strangers, boosts happiness. In fact, studies also show that there is no demarcation between small talk and substantive conversation. While having substantive conversations (eg: a promotion, a new project) adds to happiness, small talk doesn’t reduce or take away well-being.

So, should we indulge in small talk or not?

Small talk has its uses. I, for one, no longer dismiss small talk as something the unambitious or unintelligent indulge in. In fact, the more senior I get, the more cleverly I see it as an instrument to build camaraderie, respect and grow together.

Setting some groundwork through small talk helps build rapport with seniors, juniors and clients. Executives have long been spurring return-to-office agendas using watercooler conversation on the pretext of serendipity and ideas. While remote workers argue that this is convenient for management, I am with the former on this one.

The pandemic may have spurred thoughts on how socializing is work but the purpose of small talk is hardly conversation, it is merely to engender trust.

There will always be people who loathe small talk. A workplace wellness coach who I spoke to for this article tells me that small talk isn’t about sharing ideas or information; it’s about finding common ground and creating bonds with other human beings. This annoys people who see the office as merely a transactional space.

However, just like a warm up before a workout is good, so is stretching conversational muscles to find common ground. To have conversations bloom into fondness, respect and a tolerance for conflicting professional perceptions.

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About the Author

Ayushi Mona

Ayushi Mona co-leads Broke Bibliophiles Bombay Chapter, India's first offline reader driven community. She is a poet and writer who evangelizes Indian writing in English at the India Booked podcast and has also read more...

27 Posts | 61,116 Views

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