How To Keep Small Talk Comfortable At Work

Small talk helps you build professional relationships. People do business with people they enjoy being around, and those who make good conversation fall into that category.

Nevertheless, actually making small talk can be intimidating. You don’t want to babble or dominate the conversation, but you also don’t want to be boring.

But most importantly, you don’t want to put your foot in your mouth. Say the wrong thing and you’re looking at a very awkward lunch break or meeting with your colleagues.

Not sure what you should and shouldn’t bring up during small talk? Play it safe by avoiding the following topics.

Your Love Life & Family Planning

Keep conversations about the intimate details of your life to a minimum. It can make people uncomfortable. In fact, it might even make you uncomfortable or self-conscious if you regret sharing certain details.  

On the flip side, keep questions about a colleague’s love life or family planning to a minimum as well.

This is a tricky one for lots of people. In many cultures it’s typical to openly talk about relationships, ask someone when they’re getting married, or encourage someone to start having kids.

It’s best to keep conversations like this to a minimum, especially in American workplaces.

Avoid saying stuff like:

“You don’t want to have kids? You don’t mean that. Having kids changes your life – you’ll see.”

“You should settle down soon, so you can start a family.”

“Why don’t you two get married? You’ve been together for years.”

Religion

You don’t have to hide your religious beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with saying you go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or that you’re spending Eid with your sister’s family.

That said, religion is very personal, and it’s easy for a conversation about religion to grow tense. And because it involves someone’s closely held beliefs, it’s hard for people to tell when they’re coming off as intense or judgemental. Religion is very rarely relevant to daily business operations, so it’s better to be safe than sorry and avoid it altogether during casual conversation.

Avoid:

  • Proselytizing (trying to convert others)
  • Pushing religious materials on colleagues
  • Being judgemental about someone’s belief system (or lack of belief system)

Even well-meaning attempts can make people uncomfortable, especially when they’re unsolicited.

Examples of what not to say:

“What are you doing on Saturday afternoon? You can come by and just listen. No pressure.”

“No offence, but I don’t know how anyone can believe in all that stuff.”

“I’m going to bring you some books about it. Take your time. You can return them whenever you like.”

Politics

This one is harder to avoid than religion, especially in professional settings. People often bring up current events during small talk because most of us skim the headlines or turn on the news while getting ready in the morning, and current events often involve politics.

Avoid:

  • Talking about who you voted for or who you will vote for
  • Discussing policy decisions that don’t directly relate to your work (For example, if you work in a regulated industry like healthcare or finance, there will be times when you have to discuss legislation in the context of your work.)
  • Engaging in political debates in the workplace

This is easier said than done. At times, everything can feel political, especially if policy decisions affect people you know.

That said, you’ll find that getting into heated debates with the person in the cubicle next to you does little to advance your cause. Most of the time, we argue to feel better. Channel your frustrations into volunteering your time and donating money outside of work.

If politics comes up, find a polite way to change the subject. If things get tense, respectfully but firmly end the conversation.

Examples of how to handle political conversations:

“We don’t have a lot of time, so let’s get back to writing this brief.”

“A lot of people feel strongly about this, but this isn’t the time or place to discuss it, so let’s get back to the task at hand.”

If you work in an environment where talking politics is part of your job (i.e. a university, a media organization) check out this guide for talking politics at work.

Your Medical Condition

Unless you work in a hospital, your colleagues are not doctors. And even if you do work in a hospital, your colleagues aren’t your doctors.

Casually bringing up your medical issues makes people uncomfortable, often because they don’t know what the appropriate thing to say is. Aside from getting the accommodations you need through HR, it’s best to keep medical discussions during small talk to a minimum.

Alternatively, don’t invade the privacy of others. If you inadvertently learn about someone’s medical condition (i.e. a colleague lets it slip, there’s an incident at work) don’t assume the person in question wants to talk about it or be treated any differently.

What not to say:

“I’ve been eating this with all of my meals because I get really bad rashes all over my back and I heard it helps. Here, I’ll show you one of them. The redness has gone down a bit.”

“Margaret told me about your diagnosis. I’m so sorry to hear. My mom’s friend had the same thing. How bad is the nausea? It was awful for my mom’s friend.”

Salary

Don’t ask people what they make. There’s a difference between transparency and putting your colleagues on the spot.

People don’t like talking about money for a variety of reasons, and it usually has nothing to do with protecting the company or their boss. Oftentimes, people just value their privacy or they don’t want judgements about their lifestyle choices or spending habits.

If you’re curious because you want to negotiate a raise, consider what you think you’re worth and research what the role pays at comparable organizations. The amount you demand shouldn’t depend on what your colleagues are making. (They might be making less than what you want!) It should be based on what you think you deserve.

Keep Small Talk Small

Of course, it isn’t always easy to avoid these conversations. If you do wade into uncomfortable territory, remember to:

  • Practice mutual respect and avoid launching into personal attacks
  • Give people an out by letting them know they don’t have to discuss this if they don’t want to
  • Apologize if you learn later that you unintentionally made someone uncomfortable

Remember: The operative word in small talk is “small”. You’re not having a panel discussion.

Keep it light. Keep it short. And then get back to work.