Whether you enjoy it or dread it, office small talk is an essential skill that helps you build better relationships with colleagues. At the very least, it can make you feel a bit better about your day.
Research has found that even politely formulaic small talk can put people in a better mood. Chatting with co-workers about topics beyond deadlines and to-do lists is a healthy reminder that everyone is more than their output.
During the pandemic, more of this low-stakes conversation is happening online. Engaging in chitchat through a screen can add a whole new awkward element to this social ritual. And if you’re feeling anxious, it may seem daunting to initiate a Slack or Gchat exchange with a co-worker, especially if it’s not something you usually do.
Here are tips for how to make quality small talk online while still being yourself:
Don’t overanalyze response time.
Just because you’re chatting on an instant messaging platform doesn’t mean communication has to be instant.
In face-to-face conversations, we get clear body language cues that tell us when a person is listening to and interested in what we’re saying. Without this context, we may read too much meaning into people’s response times and wrongfully interpret them as commentary on us, said Lawrese Brown, founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company.
“You’re going to cause yourself anxiety if you believe success in a conversation is based on how rapidly someone responds to you, especially when it’s small talk and open-ended things,” Brown said. “That’s not fair to the other party, who has different things they’re balancing. But it’s also not fair to you, because then you are going to become further reclusive, because you are going to assume failure.”
For your own peace of mind, head into chats with the expectation that the others involved do not need to respond immediately.
Find common ground and get specific.
To move beyond the “How are you?”/“Fine” conversation-killing combo, ask more focused questions. “One of the better things to ask is ‘Hey, what’s changed in the past week? What’s new in the past week?’” said Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.”
“When you’re asking them very specific details, it takes the pressure off of them to try to interpret what it is you’re really asking,” Headlee said. “They don’t have that information because they’re not hearing the tone of your voice or seeing your face.”
“The key to making it enjoyable is to have the topics be something you care about.”
It’s a mistake to have expectations of what small talk needs to address, said career coach Jamie Terran. “The key to making it enjoyable is to have the topics be something you care about,” she said. Maybe you want to chat about the latest episode of that reality TV show or share stories about your pets or swap recipes. Whatever you pick, choose conversation starters that match your actual interests.
One word of caution, though: Don’t make your common ground the mutual dislike of a job or co-worker. Terran said that building rapport with people through complaints and negative gossip may seem tempting, but your conversation may leave a record. Online messages in platforms like Slack can be easily accessed by bosses, and your comments could be used against you later. Gossiping about colleagues behind their back can also contribute to a toxic workplace culture.
Don’t pair small talk with asking for favors.
The pleasantry of small talk sours when “How are you?” is followed by “Can you do this for me?” Be careful not to use small talk as a front for work requests. When that happens, “you feel like, oh, you’re being set up,” Brown said. “It’s OK to lead with what you want.”
To make small talk less transactional, be sure to do it when you don’t need something from your colleague, Terran said. “Make a little bit of time to communicate with the people that you want to have that connection with when you don’t have any reason to, when you just want to connect with another person,” she said.
One of the advantages of online small talk is that you aren’t reliant on words alone ― you can strike up a conversation by sharing a funny meme or gif with your colleague.
“When you’re in person, you feel like everything has to come from you. You have to hold up the entire conversation, every pause. You have to pull out every joke,” Brown said. “But one of the smooth things about online [communication] is that we do have more tools.”
Remember that face-to-face video is an option, too.
Small talk does not only happen in chat formats. You can also move it to video. As someone who has had video chats with co-workers over lunch, I can endorse this as a pleasant way to take a break and talk about nothing serious.
Bring up the idea casually, like “I saw on the internet that a lot of people are starting doing Zoom lunch,” Terran suggested. “Any interest in having Zoom lunch this week?”
Let the conversation fizzle out naturally ― or end it decisively.
Depending on your relationship with your co-worker, letting online chatter end without a definitive goodbye can be fine. “Messaging with people we’re comfortable with ... does have an off-and-on cadence,” Brown said.
But when small talk drags too long, it’s OK to call it quits without being rude. Let the other person know upfront if you have to get going at a particular time, Brown said.
And if you’re chatting with someone you don’t know well, Brown said it’s fine to formally end the conversation. “It’s usually great etiquette to say, ‘I’m glad you and I could connect. Thank you,’ or ‘Let’s stay in touch,’” she advised. If you have no intention of staying in touch, Brown noted you can also simply say, “I appreciate your time.”