When Small Talk Isn’t Enough

Have you ever attended a work outing (holiday party, going away lunch, happy hour, etc.) only to be stricken with a compete lack of conversation starters?

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You recognize that you should make an effort to be friendly and get to know the coworker sitting next to you who’s twice your age/half your age. But aside from work, you have nothing in common. Maybe he’s a vegan and you like meat. Especially bad-for-you meat like bacon and sausage. Or she’s a fashionista and you’re hopelessly wardrobe-challenged. Moving next to someone you do know and like would be too rude . . . especially if you’re trapped in the middle of several tables that have been shoved together at the bar.

Small talk is easy. Weather and sports are perennial favorites, but weather can be dissected to the point of boredom in less than five minutes. Sports talk can be stretched to last 10 minutes, or 15 minutes—tops—if you filibuster about your favorite team’s merits and shortcomings. But then what? It’s time for ‘medium talk’—conversation about a moderately interesting but inoffensive topic that can fill the next 15 minutes. Not politics. No controversial current events. Nothing you care deeply about.

If you’re both parents, you can ask about your coworker’s children. If you ask enough questions, that could be good for 15 minutes, as long as you avoid the advice giving or getting landmines.

Vacation plans might be a topic, unless you’re talking to the youngest person on the team who gets paid so little that he can’t afford to go anywhere.

If there’s a big difference in your ages, weekend plans are a nonstarter. Middle-aged people are likely to be going to their kids’ games and mulching the back yard. Yawn. Young parents are usually chasing toddlers, catching up on laundry, and hoping to have one grown-up moment alone together. Been there, done that. Or not ready for that world. Single twenty-somethings are probably hitting the bars or doing a gaming marathon. Snore.

Pets are a good topic, if both of you love and own animals. After you’ve covered the particulars of his or her pet (Dog? Cat? Breed?), ask what’s the best or worst thing their pet does. That leads to storytelling and you may not even have to talk—just nod and laugh.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why am I torturing myself with these tedious conversations? Next time I’ll be sick or have some vague ‘appointment.’” While some conversations with coworkers will never be fascinating, people can surprise you. I recently discovered that a coworker likes craft beer as much as I do and he told me about a new brewpub. Someone else had been to a city I’m hoping to visit. Maybe you’ll find someone who’s as geeky as you are about vintage clothes, gardens, music or whatever you’re interested in.

Take heart. Next time there’s an office event, you might find that medium talk will lead to a genuine connection.

Have you ever faced this dilemma? How did you handle it?