Whatever happened to the watercooler? Some of my fondest memories from the early days of my career include those conversations around the water cooler in the company break room. Whether it was laughing about the newest episode of “Friends,” or talking about the latest movie, those short, quick conversations were a great way of easily creating and forming friendships that still exist today. There was no pressure to impress or critical information to be discovered, it was simple chit-chat.
Fast forward to 2023 and many Americans don’t go into the office, let alone engage in conversations around the watercooler, coffee bar or company cafeteria. Due to the prevalence of social media, we’ve become an insular society where conversation happens in the virtual world. If we do go into the office and encounter another human in the hallway or in line at Starbucks, our immediate reaction is to pull out our phone or simply look away. Today, many people are comfortable posting every detail about their personal life on social media or liking the details of others posts, yet are either incapable or uncomfortable talking to someone face-to-case.
Not only do face-to-face in-person conversations make many people nervous, it also makes them defensive. It used to be socially acceptable to ask someone a question about their life or react to something they said but today we have become a society of the superficial. Once we get beyond the weather and current events, many of us get stuck and flustered when asked something that forces us to share an opinion or a slightly personal detail. This makes conversation in the workplace hard, to say the least.
If chatting with someone makes you nervous or scared, especially someone new, it is important to remember that you control your side of the conversation. All of the details you share and information you exchange is your decision. Most of us don’t Google someone before we meet them, especially in casual or social settings, so whatever details you choose to share about your life are completely in your control. Think of it this way: You decide what you want to say and how you want to say it — whether you will stick with safe and easy topics such as the most recent show you binge-watched, a movie you downloaded or a podcast that you listened to or go a bit deeper talking about why you liked a movie or podcast or how it impacted you.
Instead of worrying about what the other person is going to ask or react to what you say, try to be present and listen to the information being shared. By listening, instead of just hearing, you will be able to engage more genuinely in the conversation, which is likely to make it less nerve-racking.
If you find it tough to start a conversation, begin by asking the other person a few questions. You can ask them where they are from, about their career or why they chose to attend an event or conference (if applicable). Don’t interrogate them or go rapid-fire; listen to their responses and use that information to advance the conversation. If you are struggling to connect with the person, it is perfectly acceptable to politely end it. You can’t just turn and walk away, but create a reason. If you are at an event, you could say that you are looking for colleagues or the host and if you are in the office, that you can say you have to get back to work. If you see that person again, don’t ignore them but just politely smile.
Over time, the art of conversation does get easier, even for those who greatly struggle. What’s the best way to start one? A simple word: “Hi!” And, then, just take it from there. Don’t stress. Just be yourself and see where the conversation leads you. And, if you still have a watercooler in your office, consider yourself lucky and while you are refilling your water bottle speak with the person waiting behind you. Who knows where it may lead?
Kathryn Lancioni is a communication expert and the founder of Presenting Perfection.
Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful language, including topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness. Our AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps (and successes) in video meetings in real-time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.