Mar 10 2019

How to Navigate ‘Nonversations’ in the Workplace

It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? The awkward, lukewarm small talk that 40 something manager (world weary and back hunched with the weight of responsibility) dishes out with consummate ease as you grab your morning coffee is often so artfully delivered that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that is about as genuine as Boris Johnson’s participation in the Leave Campaign. Nonversations, I’ve heard them called. Pointless, unfulfilling, small talk that serves no true purpose but to fill the silence so you don’t sit there awkwardly for 8 hours (or 12 in busy periods).

I work a corporate job. A corporate job where people are driven to sell their souls in search of that £100k per year salary that most of them will never get. Selling your soul, it turns out, has an impact on your willingness and ability to create an enjoyable working atmosphere. Stress doesn’t sit like an obedient canine; it runs all around your house tearing up your sofa cushions, before escaping through the unlocked door and terrorising your neighbour’s cat (whom you love dearly). Conversation usually goes one of 2 ways: 1) “Argh, this is so stressful! The pressure is turning up! I hate the world! I hate this job! But it will be worth it in a year when I get that massive pay rise… could you take a look at that Excel for me and revert back before you leave.” (Said at 6:17pm) or 2) “How was your weekend? Oh, that sounds fun. *Insert adjective here* weather we’re having. Honestly, typical Britain, amirite? Ha ha”. The saddest thing is, the inability to connect to your co-workers probably leads you to engage in one of those 2 lines of interaction. Even worse still, option 1) often rears its ugly head in your otherwise happy outside life (guilty as charged).

Now how does one survive, let alone thrive, in such an environment of under-stimulating social interactions and conversations devoid of any real social value?

The best tool to try and overcome this phenomenon is to try and find common ground that doesn’t involve work and its pick ‘n’ mix bag selection of stresses. This requires an investment, and also for some degree of commonality to exist in the first place – which is hard to tell heading into the endeavour. Ultimately, though, the reward could be worth it in the long run owing to the fact that you never know who might surprise you by having a lot in common with you. Best case, you make new genuine connections with someone or some people you thought you had nothing in common with and those dark days in Canary Wharf become that little by less dark. In the end, though, if your office culture is the problem, then you could easily end up disappointed that their interests don’t extend to anything you can relate to or learn to enjoy. A bit dead, but you’ll probably be no worse off than before – besides James from work nagging you incessantly about when you’re going to go to the Rugby with “the lads” and start listening to Taylor Swift (nothing wrong with either, just not to everyone’s taste).

Another coping mechanism is to embrace it and beat insincerity at its own game – adopt an “if you can’t beat them, join them” mantra, if you will. Put that bounce back in your step and nonversate like it is the reason you were put on this Earth. When you ask a co-worker what they did last night, ask it like you mean it; ask it like you care. Fake it, is basically the advice here – dish out that small talk and those insincere compliments like Jim Carey in Liar Liar. Who knows, you might even start to connect with people and real conversations will develop after a period of masking your tears at the vapidness of those around you with smiles and 12A rated jokes. The problem with faking it is that, if done poorly, it can be very obvious and while people may stop talking to you so much, they’ll also likely stop helping you and will be much more reserved about fighting your corner (nobody likes a phoney). On the flip side, fake it too well and James might be even more persistent.

If you’ve tried the above and failed, are convinced it won’t work, are too far gone to motivate yourself or simply don’t want to have to fake it – all perfectly acceptable in their own way – then there are other tools in the disgruntled employee toolkit to help you. Another popular one is avoidance. Any opportunity you have to isolate yourself from those dull conversations that bring you down, you take. From lunch on your own with whatever music you normally use to lift your spirits, to making sure you time your exit at the end of a long day perfectly so that you’re out and free with no more than a “see you tomorrow, people” required. Time your tea and coffee breaks. Time your toilet breaks too. Heck, block out an hour as often as possible for “meetings” and take yourself and your work somewhere where you can complete it without the added pressure of trying to devise some innovative angle to discuss the weather. If done expertly, your colleagues won’t even know they’re being avoided. This technique is, however, unsustainable and should be approached with caution. You’re basically accepting your fate and refusing to engage; doing your due for your company in exchange for pesos and scurrying out of there to the “real world” and your real friends. Who needs meaningful conversation? You’re getting paid and the work’s alright, after all.

If the third option is the most attractive option, or the one you find yourself employing most often to navigate the feeling of emptiness that one can often feel when socialising lacks content, then one thing has become increasingly clear to me. It’s probably time to cut your losses and move on. You spend too much of your time at work to not seek out an environment where you feel fulfilled, and, seeing as we’re social animals, being able to connect with those in that environment is vital. I’d like to believe that the right situation for everyone is out there, and your 20s are the perfect time to take risks finding it. Worry about the rewards later.

Words by Daniel Nkwocha