You probably know by now that making small talk is an essential communication skill.
These brief, casual conversations are a great way to get to know new people, but they can be even more important in the workplace.
If you’re working in a traditional office where you get to see your coworkers every day, there are so many opportunities for you to interact: walking through the hallway, passing by their offices, stopping by their desks, in the kitchen, or the cafeteria.
Even if you work remotely and check in with your manager and your coworkers over video conference or even on the phone, you’ll probably spend a few minutes making small talk at the beginning.
In the American workplace, showing your ability to get along with your coworkers is an essential job skill.
Americans are known for being friendly and social, so being able to make small talk will help you show interest in your coworkers and build stronger work relationships.
It can even help you get access to more job opportunities because your coworkers will have a chance to get to know you.
If you’ve ever avoided a conversation with a colleague, or felt like you were strangely silent when your coworker tried to engage you in a conversation, this video will help.
In this video, you’ll learn how to start small talk in the office.
We’ll talk about both job-related and neutral conversation topics so that you’ll feel more confident asking polite, work-appropriate questions. Let’s get started!
Open the Conversation and Start Small Talk in the Office
First, let’s talk about how to open the conversation and get your coworker talking.
Naturally, the first thing you should do is greet your coworker with an enthusiastic “Hey Jim!” or “Hi Carrie!”
Try to use friendly, happy intonation so they feel like you’re actually glad to see them.
Starting the conversation with a positive attitude expressed through your tone of voice helps them feel more ready to engage with you.
While you can ask, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”, I suggest trying to get a little more specific.
You see this person every day, so you probably already know how they’re doing, without even asking the question.
Try these questions:
- How’s your morning going so far?
- How’s your day been?
- How’s your day been going?
- How’s your morning been going?
- How’s your afternoon been going?
- Has your day been busy so far?
- My afternoon’s been kind of slow. How’s yours going?
(Check out my video on “How’s your day been?” and all its variations for more ideas on what to ask and how to respond.)
By asking more specific questions about their day, their morning, or their afternoon, the person 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, or a project they’ve been focusing on all morning.
As you can imagine, the most common topic of small talk at work is work!
Responding to Questions about Work
Next, let’s talk about responding to questions about work.
If someone asks you about your day, try to focus on being positive and productive:
- This morning has been pretty, but I like it that way. It keeps me busy.
- 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 biggest client later this week. I’m really looking forward to it.
- Things are off to a good start!
These types of responses give you and your coworkers something in common to talk about, especially if you work on similar projects.
If your coworker’s interested in a longer conversation, they may ask you for some more details or volunteer some information about their own projects.
Be Careful When Discussing Work
I want to remind you to be careful when discussing work.
As I just mentioned, you should always try to be positive when discussing work.
You never know if a more senior colleague is listening to what you’re saying.
You absolutely want to avoid company gossip, or complaining about someone you work with, or a project you’re working on.
It’s natural to feel frustrated at work, but try to keep these conversations out of the office.
Continuing the Conversation with Neutral Small Talk Topics
After checking in with your coworker, the conversation may end as you both head back to your work.
If that’s the case, don’t forget to say, “Nice talking to you!” or “See you later.”
But if you’re both taking a longer break, preparing coffee or tea, or waiting for photocopies, you may have a little bit more time to talk.
In this case, you have two options for continuing the conversation:
- You can ask a more in-depth work-related question, or
- You can bring up a neutral, yet interesting topic of small talk.
Interesting Work-Related Questions to Ask When Making Small Talk with Coworkers
Let’s talk about some more engaging work-related questions first.
After you’ve started a conversation with your colleague, you may be interested in staying on the topic of work.
Try using one of the following work-related questions to show interest in your coworker’s responsibilities.
When you ask these questions, pay attention to your intonation.
With lighter intonation, the person will feel like you’re truly interested in their answer.
With flatter intonation, they may think you’re checking up on them. Pay attention to your tone of voice!
What projects are keeping you busy these days?
This question gives your coworker a chance to tell you about their different projects, as well as their specific role in them.
This may help you learn more about what they do.
This also opens up the conversation so that you can swap stories and share your own experience.
If someone asks you the question, you can respond with, “I’m working on…” and mention how things are going.
Once again, I encourage you to keep it positive, but you may be able to ask the other person for some help or some advice.
Here’s another work-related question:
Any exciting new projects/clients on the horizon?
This question enables you to show interest in what your coworker’s doing, but also what may be coming.
It helps you learn a little more about what’s going on in your office.
The expression “on the horizon” means something that’s approaching, or something that’s coming your way.
In the work context, it means projects that will begin shortly.
By asking a question like this, you give your coworker a chance to share any recent successes that have led to these new projects or these new clients.
If the answer is no, you can ask a different question or change topics to something more neutral and casual.
If someone asks you the question, you can start with, “Yes, I’m excited to share that I’ll soon be working on/with…”
If you’d like to take this opportunity to learn a little more about your coworker’s experience, try this question:
Tell me about your experience working with this client / on this project.
If you’re new to a team or department, you may want to find out more about your colleague’s experience working with a certain project or a certain client.
Otherwise, you may have heard about your coworker’s excellent work with a client or project, so this is your opportunity to find out more.
Once again, this shows your colleague that you’re interested in what they’re doing, and that you value their work.
It also shows that you value their opinion.
With a more senior colleague, you may want to use more polite language. You can slightly tweak the question:
Would you mind telling me about your experience working on this project? Would you mind sharing your experience working with this client?
When you’re asked a version of this question, simply say, “I’m happy to share!” and then give some details.
If you have a challenging client, situation, or problem in the office, this may be your opportunity to get some insight from your coworker.
How have you managed (this challenging situation or problem)?
Even though you’re talking about a challenge, you’re being proactive, and you’re trying to find a solution.
Using the word “manage” shows that you’re not complaining; you’re trying to adapt.
If you feel comfortable with your coworker, this question can help you get a valuable opinion from them.
At the same time, it enables them to show their wisdom from their past experiences, so once again, you show that you value their work.
If someone asks you this question, you can say, “I had a similar situation with that client. Here’s what I did.”
Here’s a slightly more positive sounding version of the same question:
What worked well when dealing with this client? What worked well when dealing with this challenge?
Similar to the previous question, this is a good one to ask when you want potential solutions to your problem.
If you happen to mention a challenging situation in response to their small talk questions, this gives you a chance to go a little bit deeper.
You can follow up by asking for advice.
Once again, it shows you’re forward thinking. You’re trying to find solutions!
Besides that, it gives you the opportunity to ask your colleague for advice, and helps ensure that the conversation is balanced between the two of you.
When someone asks you this question, start with, “When I was in that situation, I decided to…” and then share a few more details about what you did.
Here’s another question that’s good for seeking your coworker’s perspective.
How do you usually handle…?
Whether you’re asking about a challenge or you simply want to hear your coworker’s perspective on staying organized, managing their to-do list, scheduling meetings, or bookkeeping, this question shows that you’re interested in your coworker’s style of work.
It also shows that you value their opinion in the workplace.
If someone asks you this question, you can start with, “Generally, I like to…” and then share a few more details that can help.
Here’s another great question to ask at work.
What’s been inspiring you recently? Anything you’d like to share?
As you probably noticed, many of the previous questions were really focused on specific challenges or problems, but this question is a little more open-ended.
This question enables you to talk about something more creative, and not focus so much on work projects. However, it’s still related to work.
Asking your coworker what’s been inspiring them is great if you work in a more creative or artistic field, or in a field where new technologies and ideas are constantly being developed and discussed.
This gives you the chance to learn about new resources and gives your coworker the opportunity to share what interests them.
Let’s be honest: sometimes work can be repetitive or mundane, so asking about what inspires them is a little more interesting.
If someone asks you this question, you can respond enthusiastically, saying, “I’ve gotten into…” or “I love…”
Another great question that works really well in the workplace is:
What are you currently working on?
Here are some more variations:
- What are you currently reading?
- What are you currently writing?
- What are you currently programming?
You can use any verb that seems like it makes sense for your workplace.
This question is great when making small talk, because it enables you to talk about something that you’re engaged in right now.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be related to work. You could also ask:
- What are you currently watching on Netflix?
- What channels are you watching on YouTube?
- What are you currently listening to?
The question you choose will depend on your coworker and your work environment.
This can be a good transition question to more general conversation topics.
If someone asks you this question, you can say, “I’m currently working on…” or “Right now I’m…” and then share more details.
Say Thanks and End the Conversation About Work
After you’ve talked with your coworker for a few minutes, you probably want to return to your work.
In this case, make sure you thank them for their insight.
You can also show that you were listening by repeating something that they mentioned, along with a plan to put it into practice.
Let’s talk about a few examples:
- Thank you so much for sharing. I’m going to try that with my client.
- Your perspective was really helpful. I’m going to keep that in mind as I move forward on this project.
- Thanks for telling me about your new project. It sounds super interesting. I can’t wait to hear more the next time I see you.
- I appreciated hearing about your organizational system. I’m going to try some of these tips.
By ending the conversation in this way, you make your coworker feel like their time was well spent talking to you.
You got something out of the conversation! This also gives you something to talk about the next time you see each other.
Neutral Conversation Topics For Small Talk at Work
Even though you’re in the office, you may not feel like talking about work while you’re on your break or just interacting in this brief, casual conversation.
In this case, I encourage you to stick to neutral, yet engaging and interesting topics of conversation.
Make sure to choose a topic that seems relevant to your coworker’s interests if you’ve gotten to know them a little bit.
You don’t want to ask someone who hates sports if they saw last night’s game, or someone who doesn’t own a TV if they watched the latest episode of this year’s hot show.
Here are some neutral topics that you can use to make 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 NPR’s Strange News or the Some Good News YouTube channel
- Recent viral YouTube videos making the rounds
- Local sporting events, especially if the team is having a good season
- Major television or entertainment events, like the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the Grammys, but only if they’ve happened recently
- Popular TV programs, Netflix, and Amazon series
- Local tourist attractions, especially if you’re new to the area
- Weekend plans, if it’s Thursday or Friday
- Upcoming holiday plans, especially if a long weekend or a major holiday is approaching
- Upcoming vacation plans, if it’s a high travel season like the summer or school vacations
- Recent weekend trips or vacations, if you know they’ve come back from one
- Compliments on a new hairstyle, especially if it was a major change
- Compliments on an article of clothing or an accessory
- Questions about where to buy specialty items that you know your coworker is interested in, such as gourmet food, cool shoes or jewelry
- Food, especially if you’re at a meeting where food is provided or it’s breakfast or lunchtime
- Cool apps or useful websites, especially if they help you do work better.
As you can see, there are a lot of potential topics, they just take practice.
(For examples of questions to ask and how to answer, be sure to check out this article where I break it down.)
Don’t be afraid to ask your coworkers questions about themselves while interacting in the office or on Zoom!
Being friendly and showing interest in your coworkers can really help you in your career.
Topics to Avoid in the American Workplace
Of course, there are some topics that you should avoid in the American workplace, especially if you’re new and don’t know your coworkers well.
The first one is politics. Talking about politics can be controversial, as people have very different beliefs.
During election season, you will probably hear people mention their preferred candidates, but it’s usually best to avoid topics that can cause strong emotions, especially if you don’t know your coworkers very well.
You should also avoid talking about religion. Religion is a very personal belief for many people, and it’s considered to be part of your private life. Your private life is your life outside work.
Even if your religion is important to you, you should try to avoid talking about it at work.
Another topic to avoid is relationship status. In some countries, it’s pretty normal to ask someone if they’re married, but you should avoid asking this question in the American workplace.
It can make someone feel uncomfortable if they’re single, divorced, or widowed.
Your relationship status is considered part of your private life, and it’s completely normal not to mention anything about your relationships outside of work.
Once your coworker has volunteered information about their romantic partner, it’s okay to ask polite, work-appropriate questions about that person.
However, if you feel uncomfortable, or you’re not sure what to ask, don’t worry about it! It’s normal to avoid the topic.
Similarly, we often avoid talking about family. You should avoid talking about your coworker’s family, unless you’re 100% sure that they have children.
Once your coworker mentions that they have children, then you can ask some questions about the family.
Asking about their children’s interests or hobbies is a neutral conversation topic.
But please never ask a married coworker if they plan to have children! This question is considered extremely rude in American culture.
Another topic to avoid is health. Aside from talking about minor illnesses like colds and allergies, you should avoid asking any questions about your coworker’s health.
There are often legal protections around health issues, so it’s a topic we tend to avoid.
Remember that suggestions about diet or exercise can be offensive and unwelcome.
(Please note that during a global pandemic such as COVID-19, the way people feel about health-related questions will change. Try these thoughtful questions to check-in during a crisis.)
Now that you understand how to start a conversation in the office and how to make small talk with your coworkers and colleagues, it’s time to practice.
Leave a comment and let me know two questions that you think you’ll use with your coworkers and colleagues.
Remember, it’s very important to practice small talk – small talk is a skill, and all speaking skills take practice!