There’s no way to avoid the truth: making small talk is an essential conversation skill.
Although many non-native speakers practice making conversations with strangers, they often forget how important everyday small talk is when you’re in the workplace.
If you are working in a traditional office where you see your coworkers every day, there are many opportunities for you to interact with them: walking through the hallway, passing by their offices, visiting their desks, in the kitchen, at the cafeteria, in the elevator, even in the bathroom! 😉
In the American workplace, demonstrating your ability to get along with coworkers is considered an important job skill.
Americans are known for being friendly and social, and being able to make small talk is one way to show interest in your coworkers and build stronger work relationships.
If you’ve ever avoided avoided a conversation with a colleague or felt like you were strangely silent when your coworker was trying to engage you in a conversation, these suggestions will help you.
Knowing what to expect will help you feel more confident and preparing neutral topics will ensure you sound more professional when making small talk with your colleagues.
How to Start Small Talk in the Office
Of course, the first thing you should do is greet your coworker with “Hey Jim!” or “Hi Carrie!”
Make sure to show emotion in your voice so that they feel like you are actually happy to see them.
While you can ask, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” I suggest making the question a little more specific.
You see this person every day, so you probably already know how they are doing, even without asking!
Try these questions:
- “How are you doing today?”
- “How’s your morning going so far?”
- “How’s your day been?”
- “Has your day been busy so far?”
- “My afternoon’s been kinda slow. How’s yours going?”
If they have had a cold or minor illness recently, you can ask, “Are you feeling better?” or “Are you doing better today?”
This shows concern without getting too personal.
By asking more specific questions, your colleague can give you a more interesting response than “Pretty good.”
They can tell you about a meeting they had or a client they worked with. Naturally, the most common topic of small talk at the office is work!
Responding to Questions about Work
If someone asks you about your day, try to focus on being positive – and show that you are a productive person.
- “This morning has been pretty busy, but I like it that way.”
- “Things are slower than usual, so I’ve been able to work through my to-do list.”
- “I’ve been focused on the presentation for my client later this week. I’m looking forward to it.”
- “Things are off to a good start!”
These types of responses give you and your coworker a chance to find something in common to talk about, especially if you work on similar projects.
Be Careful When Discussing Work
As mentioned above, you should always try to be positive when mentioning your work.
You never know if a more senior colleague is listening to what you are saying.
You absolutely want to avoid company gossip or complaining about someone you work with.
Continuing the Conversation with Neutral Small Talk Topics
After checking in with your coworker, the conversation may end as you both return to your work.
(Don’t forget to say, “Nice talking with you!” or “See you later.”)
But if you are taking a longer break, preparing coffee, or waiting for photocopies, you may have more a bit more time to talk.
In that case, you can ask questions about neutral, yet engaging, topics of conversation.
Make sure to choose a topic that seems relevant to your coworker’s interests; don’t ask someone who hates sports if they watched the baseball game last night, or someone who has repeatedly said they don’t own a TV if they watched the latest episode of House of Cards.
Neutral Topics for Small Talk in the Workplace:
- Recent weather over the past few days
- Traffic or the daily commute, especially in major cities
- Funny or unusual news, like Yahoo’s Odd News
- Recent viral YouTube videos, such as a racoon stealing a donut
- Local sporting events, especially if the team is having a good season
- Major television/entertainment events like the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and the Grammys, if they have happened recently
- Popular television programs
- Recent movies, especially blockbusters
- Local tourist attractions
- Weekend plans, if it’s Thursday or Friday
- Upcoming holiday plans, if a long weekend or major holiday is approaching
- Upcoming vacation plans, if it is a high travel season like summer
- Recent vacations, if you know they have recently come back from one
- Compliments on a new hairstyle, especially for women
- Compliments on an article of clothing
- Questions about where to buy specialty items that you know your coworker is interested in, such as gourmet teas, cool shoes, or jewelry
- Food, especially if you are at a meeting where food is provided or it is breakfast or lunch time
- Cool apps or useful websites, especially if they help you do work better
As you can see, there are a lot of possible topics! They just take practice.
Topics to Avoid in the Workplace
There are some topics that you should avoid bringing up in the American workplace, especially if you are new and don’t know your colleagues very well.
Talking about politics can be controversial, as people have very different beliefs.
During the election season in the United States, you will probably hear some people mention their preferred candidates, but it’s usually best to avoid topics that may cause strong emotions with people you don’t know well.
Similar to politics, religion can be a very controversial topic. Religion is also a very personal belief for many people, and is considered to be part of your private life, or your life outside of work.
Even if your religion is important to you, you should try to avoid talking about it when you are at the office.
In many countries, it is normal to ask someone if they are married, but this is generally avoided in the American workplace. It can make people feel uncomfortable if they are single.
Your relationship status is considered part of your private life and it is completely normal not to mention anything about your romantic relationships in the office.
That said, if someone mentions their husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner, you can ask additional questions about their partner, but keep the conversation neutral and work-appropriate, using the topics mentioned above.
As mentioned above, Americans usually avoid asking directly about family until they are 100% sure that their coworker has children.
Once your colleague mentions his or her children, you can ask additional questions, especially about their children’s hobbies or interests.
Never ask a married coworker if they plan to have children – this is considered very rude in the United States!
Aside from talking about minor illnesses like colds and allergies, you should avoid asking any questions about your coworkers’ health.
This is private information, and any suggestions about diet or exercise can be offensive unless you know the person well.
Small Talk Guide
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Practice Small Talk
Do you feel better about making small talk in the office? I hope so! Remember, it’s very important to practice small talk – small talk is a skill, and all speaking skills take practice!
Do not be afraid to ask your coworkers questions about themselves while interacting in the office; being friendly and showing interest in your coworkers can really help you in your career.
Want more practice? Leave a comment below starting a conversation pretending I am your co-worker and using one of the expressions you learned. I’ll respond and we’ll make small talk!