Tips for Introverts on Surviving Small Talk
It’s not that you dislike your coworkers, even the kindest people can drain you.
Even when I genuinely enjoy conversations and interactions with my colleagues, I need time to recharge afterward. I’m an introvert and my coworkers are a mix of very different people from very different backgrounds. Thus, I want to share a few tips on how I get through my week.
In your work environment, there will hopefully be people who you quickly find common ground with. Then there are the people who you seem to have absolutely nothing in common to discuss. Thus, when you run into those coworkers by the water cooler or coffee machine, you’re going to be stuck making awkward small talk.
The dilemma I always find myself in is that I don’t want to be quiet and come off as unfriendly. Thus, I always smile and say hello, because I do want to be nice to my coworkers, even if we’re about as similar as fire and ice. Generally, if you have a blank slate with a person, they’ll probably want to smile and politely greet you back. We’re all just trying to get along, right?
This leaves you stuck with a generic “How are you?”
“Good, how are you?”
Or worse, the most painful topic of small talk...discussing the weather.
Personally, I will have days when I’m overtaxed, can’t handle any more repetitive, trivial small talk, and thus hide in my office until I hear that the kitchen is empty. Then I go in and make my coffee. This was a rather terrible habit of mine, and after doing this for a while, I found better solutions.
If typical small talk drives you nuts, start asking different questions.
Abandon things as generic as the dreaded “how-are-you” or “great-weather-today.” Instead, dig a little deeper. Ask what your colleague has planned for the weekend. Ask if they have any vacations coming up. Mention you have a pet and ask if they perhaps have any.
It’s tricky to escalate your “weather-sure-is-nice-today” office relationships. Especially if you’ve been somewhere for a while and frequently regurgitate this dull, exhausting small talk with someone for many months.
It may seem odd at first, but it’s never too late to escalate an office acquaintanceship. According to Knapp’s Relationship Model, relationships have five phases: initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding. That might sound pretty complicated all laced together like that, but the key here is that it’s never too late to experiment with finding common interests and intensifying your acquaintanceship—maybe it’ll even become an office friendship.
Crack the door open and reveal a little something about yourself.
Sometimes, you end up trapped in an endless cycle of repeating the same dull greetings because you don’t know where to start asking questions. Guess what, here’s the plot twist—neither does your colleague. Can’t very well inquire about the person’s child, pet, or significant other if you don’t know who the person has in their life.
There’s also the possibility that you’re dealing with another introvert, or perhaps someone who is just rather private about personal information. Volunteering something about yourself in a subtle way, such as “I’m getting some new toys for my cat this weekend,” or “I’m taking my dog to this particular park tomorrow,” can be a good way to crack open the door, reveal a little something about you, but also not initiate an unwanted information dump on your coworker. This can help coax them to reveal something about themselves.
If you really can’t find any common ground but still want to have more meaningful conversations, try looking for events or new things happening in your workplace.
Is there a community walk coming up? Try recruiting some colleagues. Is your employer perhaps planning an event? Bring it up to people.
Sometimes, perhaps quite often, you’re going to end up with a colleague who you genuinely don’t have anything in common with. If they’re friendly, try to bond over work matters. This will often lead to venting about each person’s trials and difficulties at work. If you want more than a vent buddy, try turning the conversation to a more optimistic note with something good that recently happened in your workplace.
Food. Just food.
Talk about food. We all eat.
Talk about nearby restaurants if your coworker is the sort to go out, it gives you something to discuss and you might even get a good recommendation on a place to try out. If your colleague is more the sort to bring their lunch every day, maybe ask what they brought, perhaps bring up something that you’re planning on making in the near future. Might be able to strike up some interesting conversation on recipes—it beats the weather.
Food has another handy purpose in the workplace too. Alternatively, if you’re feeling a little desperate and may not be on the best terms with your coworkers, bring some treats in. It’s a little silly and frankly, workplaces shouldn’t be this way, but it’s amazing how some good homemade cookies can make people like you ten times more.
If you walk in somewhere in your early twenties and all of your coworkers are a few decades older than you, there’s a chance someone is going to have an attitude that you don’t deserve to be there. While the best way to work against this is showing that you’re capable and good at your job, there are still going to be some people who might not warm up to you.
I ran into this a few times in different workplaces. I started working off the books for a family cleaning business when I was twelve, began freelance writing at sixteen, and started working in offices by eighteen. When I was twenty-one, I already had a solid three years of professional experience, six years if you count the freelancing too. We’ll leave the manual labor out of those calculations.
And that’s where that warm, delicious plate of fresh baked cookies can help. It’s something I’ve fallen back on. Some might say it’s feminine to cook and bring things in, but at thirty-four, a male friend of mine started baking and wooing his stubborn coworkers over with delicious baked goods. I’m pretty sure he put Jack Daniels in them, but that’s neither here nor there.
Food can seem like a silly strategy, but it helps. Whether you use it for conversation or for becoming everyone’s favorite baker, it’s still a win-win.