Tim Truzy is a rehabilitation counselor, educator, and former dispatcher from North Carolina.
Defining Casual Conversations at Work
When we arrive on the job, we may be uncertain about what conversations we should engage in at work during breaks. We don’t want to be unsociable. We want to have pleasant interactions with our co-workers at these times. Many people fear that what they say could have negative consequences in the work environment from engaging in casual chats. However, here are some tips to help you at those moments.
Casual conversations at work can be thought of as any discussion not related to the manufacturing, distribution, or production of goods and/or services provided by a business or organization. We may talk about some things with one person at work while never mentioning those same things to another person who is employed at the same site. As a rehabilitation counselor, I spoke with employers, personnel departments, and workers to gather information about how work conversations influenced performance on the job. Below I've noted conversations these professionals pointed out which can cause tension at work. I've also indicated ways to deal with these uncomfortable "talks," and offered some reasons why we even have casual conversations on the job.
7 Conversations to Avoid at Work
There are some subjects which should be avoided at the job site, regardless of the workers’ knowledge of each other. These topics can have legal consequences or result in an employee being fired. In some cases, merely mentioning the topics below can also lead to increased tensions in the workplace. However, this is not a complete list of conversations to be avoided or limited. For this reason, when in doubt about what is an appropriate conversation on the job, communicate with your supervisor or contact your personnel staff.
- Schedules: Discussing when someone else works with a peer in the workplace does not change anything. Share your concerns with your boss and other superiors if necessary.
- Personal Identity: Individuals with Disabilities, Sexual Orientation, Race, Etc. Consult your personnel department or any work manuals about these subjects. These topics are very charged politically, socially, and can have legal consequences when not handled appropriately.
- Salary or Wages: Payment for work is always a topic. However, if you feel you are not receiving equal compensation for your job, speak with your boss or the human resource department. There could be reasons for the differences in pay, such as variations in duties or time performing a job. these are talks you should save for people who can give you more information.
- Religion: Depending on the relationship of the workers involved, religion can be a source of strength or confusion at the work site. Talking about religion could have dire consequences when handled inappropriately. Try to avoid such casual conversations during breaks.
- Politics. Discussing politics can be a quagmire of problems. Views on political ideology can be diverse and a source of conflict. Keep these discussions to a minimum.
- Office Gossip: Try to stay away from discussing who is involved with whom romantically at work. Such gossip can be detrimental to everyone in the business.
- Personality Conflicts: Chatting about conflicts with peers can lead to disharmony at work. Talk with your immediate supervisor or the human resource staff to address these issues.
Factors Which Influence Our Casual Conversations at Work
Many people are aware of the “water cooler effect.” In essence, research from several studies over the years showed that when workers gather around a water cooler or coffee pot, discussions normally ensue. But the water cooler is symbolic – the effect happens in parking lots, break rooms, dining halls, etc. Studies have demonstrated such casual meetings in the workplace are not always negative. In fact, cohesion can be enhanced among employees, and productivity can increase under certain conditions. Below are some factors, and there are many more, which play a role in what employees may talk about when the water cooler effect is at work:
- Day of the Week - Conversations between employees can be influenced by the day of the week. For example, at the start of the work week, coworkers may discuss projects which must be finished by the end of the work week. Conceivably, people talk about what they may do over the weekend at the end of the work week as well.
- Personal Associations – People at work may also be neighbors. Some employees may participate in civic groups together. Of course, family is a constant topic among workers – This all depends on how well the workers know each other and what details they have decided to share.
- The Culture of the Work Site – Some companies encourage a more open environment with employees feeling comfortable enough to talk about almost any subject. By contrast, some companies may be more restrictive. For instance, a business focused on security may discourage any type of casual conversations.
- Life Events – This could include special holiday occasions. Retirement and graduations may be a subject during brief breaks, too. Births, awards, and anniversaries can come up when employees speak casually during the workday.
Which Topics Are Okay to Discuss at Work
Although there are certain subjects which can cause stress on a job, other topics may be discussed with ease. As mentioned above, different factors can influence how even these topics are approached. These are just a few examples of subjects which normally do not create problems for workers in casual conversations. They include:
- Weather – Talking about the weather seldom creates problems. Even in the agricultural field, discussing the weather can be comfortable.
- Sports – Depending on how intense the interest is in certain sports-related activities, having chats about sporting events tends to be great for bonding and keeping a friendly atmosphere at work.
- Traffic Conditions – Chatting about your commute to and from work can be a cohesion building situation. Construction of new roads or bridges can also keep a conversation from turning negative.
- Food and Restaurants – Discussing various types of meals or restaurants in an area can be positive for employees during break time.
- Music, Books, and Art – Talking about plays, music, movies, and other artistic interests can keep break time an enjoyable part of the workday.
How to Steer Away From Troublesome People
Sometimes during your break, you cannot help running into people who will bring up subjects better left alone. What should you do? First, you may suggest they take the subject up with a boss or the human resource department. In addition, you may inform the person you are too busy to talk. Finally, when all else fails, you can plan to take your breaks in another location or seek other employment if the problem does not cease after you have tried everything else. Chit-chatting shouldn’t make your workplace or you unhappy.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on September 23, 2018:
Great advice. Why bother those who can't fix the problem if a person isn't sure if it exists? Your comment reads much like one of my professors' thoughts. But that's not surprising coming from a person such as yourself who has a wealth of experience and knowledge.
Thanks for dropping by and commenting.
Tamara Wilhite from Fort Worth, Texas on September 22, 2018:
A good rule of thumb is only to discuss issues with someone who can actually fix it or confirm the issue before you take it to a problem solver.
Robert Sacchi on July 28, 2018:
Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on July 28, 2018:
That's so true. I would sometimes remind my clients that they should always consider the walls might have ears. I appreciate your thoughtful comment.
Robert Sacchi on July 28, 2018:
These are a good set of tips. I think in the office people should realize often more people hear what you are saying than the person with whom you are talking.
Tim Truzy (author) from U.S.A. on September 19, 2017:
Thank you, Sonia. We do value the freedom of speech in our democracies, but in the workplace, one has to exercise that freedom with caution and awareness.
Sonia Sylart from UK on September 18, 2017:
It's right to think about the consequences of conversations in the workplace and the thoughtful pointers on this page will help those who want to strike the right balance between light friendly banter and crossing the line into potentially contentious areas.