Small Talk Hacks in the Office

This is a fun one.

We’ve all been there, another person walks over to your desk to make some small talk. Before I became fully remote, I would estimate that well over an hour a week (if not more) was spent entertaining small talk (that’s at least 50 hours a year). In this article, I will break down the series of questions you can ask yourself when dealing with unwanted small talk and provide some tips on how to exit the conversation and save those hours!

This isn’t to discourage small talk completely, particularly if you actually enjoy it. It is important to remember that small talk can lead to some extremely beneficial networking so it should not be avoided entirely. The point of this article is to understand how to avoid / exit small talk to avoid the wasted time.

Here, I will list out job levels of people you may encounter and we will walk through this list of questions that we should run through when deciding if we can evade the small talk:

  • Do I like this person?

  • Will this conversation improve my network?

  • Do I have something more important I need to do?

  • How long will this take?

  • Is this person important in the corporate structure?

The list above is in sequential order for a reason, ask yourself these questions accordingly. The bold below is the thought process.

Let’s go over a few examples:

Peer Conversation:

  • Do I like this person? Easy yes or no here.

  • Will this conversation improve my network? Possibly, particularly if you both are lower on the chain. This person could be 3 or 4 levels higher up in a decade and might be good to know.

  • Do I have something more important I need to do? Circumstantial, important things almost always can take a back seat to networking in my opinion.

  • How long will this take? Is this person a talker? If so, might be worth avoiding the conversation (see below).

  • Is this person important in the corporate structure? Not really if we are the same level.

When faced with small talk from a peer, networking is often a make or break factor. It should be fairly intuitive whether or not this person will be moving up in the company over time, or could be a valuable resource for you to lean on with questions.

Exit strategies in a conversation with a peer:

  • Say your boss needs you to do something ASAP. Will work most of the time.

  • Be honest and say you have a lot going on (will not work if they are a talker (question 4))

  • Refrain from too many follow up questions & use body language that implies you don’t want to talk (rarely works)

Boss’s Level Conversation (not your direct boss, but their peer)

  • Do I like this person? Again yes or no, matters slightly less here.

  • Will this conversation improve my network? Probably, if you aren’t talking to your actual boss (below) this person could be the path to another job if they are above you.

  • Do I have something more important I need to do? This is more interesting, you can get away with more here. This person understands what it means to assign a task to someone below them, and they likely have no idea what exactly your boss has tasked you with. See exit opportunity below.

  • How long will this take? These people (and anyone above them) are less prone to being a talker as they usually have more on their plate.

  • Is this person important in the corporate structure? More important than you are.

When faced with small talk from someone at the same tier as your boss, it is extremely likely that you can get out of the conversation by saying your boss needs something done ASAP. They should respect this, if they don’t there are probably bigger problems at your company.

Exit strategies:

  • Again, say your boss needs you to do something ASAP. This person should respect that as they would hope someone on their team would do the same.

  • Bring up something important that impacts their team. May spur them to remember the amount of things they need to get done.

  • Refrain from too many follow up questions & use body language that implies you don’t want to talk. This is more likely to work with someone at this level as they have more experience.

Anyone Above Your Boss’s Head

It is extremely rare that you would want to avoid a conversation with someone higher up than your boss. Talk about an excellent networking opportunity here. Pull out all of the stops, remember important small details about them and let them talk about themselves. People love doing that. In the rare instance of wanting to avoid this conversation, simply stating that your boss needs you to do something should be more than enough for them to back off. They will almost always default to you working more.

Your Boss

Ah, the tricky one. There are boss’s would rather do anything than make small talk with you, and there are some that will keep you in their office from 4:55pm until past 6:00pm purely with small talk. Here we go.

  • Do I like this person? Irrelevant.

  • Will this conversation improve my network? Doubtful. Unless it is your first week or two, your boss has made up their mind with how they view you and it is hard to move out of this standing. That’s just how corporate America goes.

  • Do I have something more important I need to do? This is the one situation where you can’t lie here. They likely know if you have something important to do (which you can use as an exit strategy).

  • How long will this take? You know your boss.

  • Is this person important in the corporate structure? More important than you are.

When faced with small talk from your boss, there is tons of opportunity to build rapport. Remember, do your best to make the conversation all about them. Ask about things they love outside of work, let them do most of the talking, they’ll probably end up liking you.

Exit strategies:

  • The one time it is good to actually have something important to do. They should know, just mention it and you will likely be free to go do it.

  • Bring up something that they don’t want to talk about. This is an extremely fine line to walk, but it can work if used properly. Can even be tied in with the first one, discussing an upcoming deadline may spur them to end the conversation.

  • You should probably just let these ones happen, your boss’s opinion of you is important and can be dramatically improved here.

As with all things, it will not always be completely clear cut. Use your best judgement, don’t spend tons of time on small talk unless you want to. And if you are one of those talkers, please be mindful if the person you are talking to seems like they would rather get on with their day.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this! Never hesitate to email me at retirementcalcguy@gmail.com or DM me on Instagram (@retirementcalcguy) or on Twitter (@calc_guy)!

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– RCG