office workers small talk
Workers at their cubicles in an office building working late at night.

It’s been a little over twelve months since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Wuhan, China, marking the beginning of the pandemic, the beginning of the word ‘iso’ and, most crucially for those who loathe small talk, the beginning of working from home.

Since then daily upheaval has become a part of everyday life, but as we cruise past this odd milestone, one year since everything changed forever, some factions of life are going back to normal.

In Australia, there has been a concerted Government push for employees to return to the office and rising occupancy rates in most major cities reflect a quiet embrace of that demand.

The reality is that with two major pharmaceutical companies on the brink of an effective vaccine – Love you, Pfizer and Moderna – soon we will all be called back to our natural habitats.

Someone in Human Resources will disperse a company-wide email, and before you know it, you’re slumped at the cubicle, the only light in your life coming from the halogen globe that burns above you.

While you might be able to slip back seamlessly into most of your 9-to-5 routine; showering in a hurry, eating on the commute, the hardest part will be remembering how to talk to people.

Working from home greatly reduced the need for mindless chit chat. Suddenly there were no elevator rides to fill with made up plans, no waiting for the microwave while racking your brains for your colleague’s name: Is it Susan? Is it Sally? Ah, of course, Sarah.

But now Sarah is back at her desk, and so too are you. The time has come to brush up on your small talk.

Push Past ‘How Are You?’

Walk into any office around the world and ‘How are you?’ is the lifeline that colleagues offer one another when engaging in small talk. As an opener, it’s a classic, but the pitfall comes after both parties have answered. “Not bad, you?” followed by “Yeah, good thanks,” followed by excruciating silence.

To survive a return to the office and the subsequent return of chitchat, you must push past this surface-level small talk with a follow-up question. If required, use their response as a jumping-off point. “Tell you what else is not bad, The Last Dance, that Jordan doco, have you seen it?”

Not only will this move the conversation along, but it can also make you more popular at work. A 2017 Harvard Study, It Doesn’t Hurt To Ask: Question-asking Increases Liking found that when people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, understanding, validation, and care.

Avoid Discussing Holiday Plans

As we slide towards the end of the year, you may have noticed the hallmarks of Christmas popping up in the workplace. Tinsel strangling the front desk, Mariah playing on company Spotify.

Typically, the festive season is a gold mine for small talk as the entire office prepares to go their separate ways. You can get a month’s worth of mileage out of: “Any plans to go away over Christmas?”

But with COVID-19 continuing to wreak havoc on travel plans, and borders firmly shut around the world, falling back on holiday chat is a risky move. One innocent question could trigger an emotional meltdown from a colleague who hasn’t seen their ailing mother in over a year.

Avoid rolling the dice and instead opt for something safer. “How many COVID tests have you had this year?”

If You’re Bad At Small Talk, Do Some Research

Technology has made stalking people easier than ever, and if you’re worried about sourcing small talk topics, your colleagues’ social media accounts are a great place to start. Before heading back into the office, pay a digital visit to their feeds and take notes.

  • Chris. Accounts. Has started baking his own sourdough.
  • Emma. Digital team (?) Recently adopted a rescue puppy.

You are now armed with the necessary intel required to both begin and maintain small talk should the situation arise (and it will).

When In Doubt, Use Your Airpods 

While the jury is still out on how working from home impacts productivity, there’s no denying that small talk can be a big distraction. Whether you’re an active participant or an unwilling bystander, the chorus of inane chatter can be incredibly hard to ignore.

A recent study by the State University of New Jersey tested the concentration of employees forced to partake in small talk. The results found that ‘the polite, ritualistic, and formulaic nature of small talk is often uplifting yet also distracting.’

So if you’re finding it hard to focus, while also dreading another discussion about the weekend or weather, then pop your AirPods in and pretend you’re on a call.

It’s socially acceptable in 2020 to wear AirPods non-stop and that way no one can ever be sure if you’re free to chat. The minute someone approaches you looking like they’re about to launch into a conversation, just point to your headphones and mouth the word ‘sorry.’

This tactic can work all day long, all the way up until you glide through the exit at 5:30 pm and out into the real world where you can concentrate on the next task—ignoring total strangers.