How to Negotiate Conversation Topics

How to Steer Professional Conversations to Topics You Like | CorporetteReader K has a question about conversations…

I am the newest associate in a department that is dominated by women. As someone who often laments the number of female partners and senior associates in private practice, I was initially thrilled by this fact. But my excitement turned to disappointment on the first day. At a department luncheon that was supposedly held in my honor (to welcome me to the team, etc.), the conversation consisted solely of weddings, babies and spouses. There was no discussion about work. I sat there feeling so out of place and unwelcome – as if being the only newbie isn’t awkward enough! Is it just me, or is this kind of behavior just a tad bit unprofessional? We are in the ‘burbs (the firm is in New Jersey) and there are hardly any single and/or childless people in the building, but I do not think that is an excuse. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can steer the conversation to a more neutral subject in the future while not alienating myself from my new colleagues?

I think everyone occasionally finds themselves in a conversation where they have nothing to contribute. Personally, I hate sports (and consider myself amazingly lucky to have married a man who also doesn’t like them) — but I’ve sat in so many office conversations about them that I’ve often wished I followed the games or had an interesting tidbit or two to pull out of my hat. Same with politics — I’m not a very political person, but I’ve sat at many a working lunch where that’s the primary topic before we get down to business. Yes, it stinks to sit there and not be able to contribute. And yes, some career advisers will tell you that, if you work with people who talk about these things often — politics, sports, Saturday Night Live, whatever — that you are well-advised to start following those topics if only so you can contribute to the workplace conversations. (For my own $.02, then, the weddings/babies/spouses conversation sounds like an absolutely welcome one — even if I weren’t married, I’ve a) been to weddings, b) have friends with kiddos, and c) am interested in getting to know about my colleagues’ lives and families.)  The fact is that not every workplace conversation is going to be about work. (Pictured: conversating, originally uploaded to Flickr by alhadley.)

If you find yourself in this kind of “I have no idea what they’re talking about” conversation, however, you can do a few things:

a) be interested — a friend reminded me of this old piece of advice: you’re interesting if you’re interested. So true! Ask questions! Get to know the person who started the conversation in the first place.  If they’re talking about their family, ask questions about the family members.  If it’s about politics, ask why they like person X so much.  Although they say there are no “dumb” questions, and I would posit that isn’t entirely true in this kind of conversation — e.g., I would avoid saying something like “so there’s a QUARTERBACK? What does he do, like, kick the ball?”  At the very least, by asking questions you look engaged in the conversation and interested in your fellow workers — and you may get the chance to steer the conversation elsewhere.  Which leads to Point B…

b) follow the conversation down a side street — where it’s still related to the main conversation, but is a more interesting conversation to you. For example (and this is entirely personal), today people might be talking about how a sports columnist’s Tweet broke news of a sports trade.  If I were to find myself in a conversation about that, you can bet I’d try to move the conversation away from sports and onto Twitter as a platform/business model/etc, or onto the area of news scoops in general, because I’m more interested in what people think about the latter two topics.

c) change the topic entirely. Safe topics tend to be things like restaurants, weather, and travel — and if there’s a lull in a conversation at a table it’s a great way to learn more about people by asking “So, has anyone been on any amazing vacations lately?” Or — for the newbie in the group — ask what the decent lunch spots are near the office.

Of course, if you’re at a cocktail party and free to move about, you can always just leave a conversation.

Readers, what are your best tips for awkward conversations?

Comments

  1. I don’t really get this-did you want them to talk about work during a luncheon? What exactly was so offensive about people talking about their lives?

    • I agree. I am not fond of constantly hearing about weddings/babies, etc., but I also generally don’t want to talk about work during a social function. Also, while you might get bored with all the talk about domestic stuff, you had better learn to tolerate at least some of it, because people will catch on and be offended if you consistently try to change the subject whenever they mention their kids. Knowing at least the basics about your coworkers’ families (and especially their children) is part of forming good relationships with them.

      That being said, if the talk about domestic topics goes on and on and on, I would try to steer the conversation towards something else that you would rather talk about, but nothing too controversial (think last night’s Project Runway, not religion or politics).

      (Kat, I think you must mean that you have friends with babies, not “have kids with babies”)

      • lol — whoopsies, hafta change that.

      • Agree — As someone w/ a strikingly similar work life – lots of female co-workers who are married w/ kids, while I am single and do not have kids – the best thing to do is to ask questions, or just plain listen – It’s amazing how much you can learn when you shut up!

        • I figured out how to buy a house from my co-workers and received many good tips on dealing with real estate agents and home loans.

          We spend a lot of time at work, you might as well mine other people’s experiences to learn about your own life.

          If you are new you can switch the subject to – where did you live when you first came here. Everyone had their first days and they’re usually happy to tell you about them.

    • Agree. It’s not awkward for people to talk about their lives (which, if you are in the burbs, usually consists of kids, families, spouses, weddings, etc). In fact, I would go out on a limb and HOPE that the people I worked with talked about their lives, as to show that work/life balance is important, and that they are human!

      It sounds a little bit like the person asking this question has a chip on her shoulder about being single or not having kids or something else. Sometimes you have to listen to conversations that are not your first choice of topic, but if you want to be the type of person that is not completely self-absorbed, then you listen and contribute, even though it’s not your chosen topic of conversation.

      Don’t get me wrong — I’m single and have no kids — and I know it can be annoying if someone goes into excessive detail about little Johnny’s first time eating solid food, but I don’t really mind hearing about my boss’s family and her kids from time to time. It humanizes her and clues me in to the other stresses she has in her life, which can be very helpful in reading what she’s thinking at a particular moment at work.

      I think we all should support each other as women in the workplace, whether or not we have a family and kids, and not be so put off by people talking about their lives. Just sayin’.

      • i'm nobody :

        “It sounds a little bit like the person asking this question has a chip on her shoulder about being single or not having kids or something else.”

        wow, this is really veering dangerously toward judgmental. not at all, i always thought, what this site or commenting community are about.

        not to take issue with others’ points, which are mostly well-taken, let me just say for diversity of opinion that i am a woman who has zero interest in weddings and nothing but ambivalence about children. there are many other ways to connect and engage and take an interest in others’ lives than to compare engagement rocks, opine on your baby’s sleep schedule, and discuss your wedding colors. it gets tiresome.

      • anon - chi :

        I actually got the same sort of feeling about the commenter’s question as M did (and I don’t think she’s out of line to point it out – it is one thing to volunteer your thoughts in a comment, and another to put your issue out there as the topic of conversation, where you are obviously soliciting other’s opinions). I don’t know if it’s a chip about babies/weddings, but it did sort of sound like the OP is negatively judging the lunch conversation as being disappointingly domestic/traditionally feminine as opposed to just plain boring. But, since she’s new, it could be that there is plenty of discussion about work ordinarily but not on every single social occasion.

    • agree. I’m not sure what K was expecting from a lunch “in her honor,” but it seems in most workplaces such events are an excuse to take a longer lunch as a group, chitchat and catch up. The work learning takes place “on the clock.” I’m confident that I would dread an actual lunch “in my honor” which sounds like it would involve a speech and being peppered with questions about my interests / experience as I try to take bites of food.

      While domestic stuff may be boring to you, hopefully it will be more interesting to hear people’s home news as you get to know your coworkers. Sounds to me like they were trying to treat K as one of the team.

      • Anonymous :

        I agree. Poster, I know you felt left out, and I hear you, but you do not want to come across as entitled or self-centered. Just because the conversation does not have to do with your interests does not mean it should not happen. It could be different if they were talking for 3 hours about modern art and you had nothing to say, but people’s family lives is a topic that we all should be interested in in the workplace,whether or not the people share our specific lifestyle. This was a way for the attorneys to bond and get to know each other on a personal level, and you should welcome that.

  2. A comment about the situation, then a suggestion.

    I think this demonstrates what is nice about working with women, and what we bring to a corporate environment – a focus on life outside of work. You may not have or think you want children now, but that may not always be true, and when it’s your time, you will be far better off with these senior women in your workplace who know what that struggle is like.

    The suggestion: don’t sit there pouting because the attention is not on you. Especially don’t come across as one of those 20-somethings who “hates” children. If you really want to make points with some of these senior women, ask to see photos. Talk about friends or relatives with children. Then perhaps ask what some of their friends who don’t have children do in their free time. This can lead the conversation away from baby talk in a positive way.

    • This.

    • i'm nobody :

      i agree with you to a point; it’s fine to be a 20-something and hate children. seriously.

      • Anonymous :

        I’m not trying to come across as judgmental but rather inquisitive – can someone who “hates” children please explain to me why they hate them?

        I don’t have any children yet but I love children and plan to have them someday. I imagine there will be days when my children drive me up the wall, and there are days when other people’s children drive me up the wall, but I love them nonetheless. I completely understand not wanting children, I think having children is a very personal choice and shouldn’t be subject to anyone’s scrutiny. So I get it when people say they don’t want children, doesn’t fit into their life plans, etc. etc. myriad of reasons for not wanting them – but I can’t wrap my head around what people mean when they say they “hate” children to the point that they can’t even stomach hearing about someone else’s children. Can someone please educate me?

        I’m not looking to attack anyone for why they “hate” children – it is your choice :) I am just really curious as to what people mean when they say this, and why.

        • i'm nobody :

          i can’t enlighten you because i don’t hate them; i just think it’s perfectly fine if you do.

          • Anonymous :

            To i’m nobody – I apologize if it seemed like I was directing the question at you (I wasn’t) – it was just a general request for enlightenment for whomever could weigh in…

        • Anonymous Poser :

          I wouldn’t say that I *hate* children so mine may not be the answer you’re looking for.

          However:
          1. Thank you for being accepting that some people/women do not want to have any children. Most people I have run into in my life with whom this topic came up (appropriately or not: I’m learning to deal with this better and it’s a different topic) are not so accepting of that decision, and many have spent time arguing with me about why I should want them or how I would change my mind when I got older/when I got married/whatever (has not happened–the changing my mind part).

          2. Being defensive about #1 has probably contributed some to #2, in terms of feeling less comfortable showing interest in interacting with any child. I’m not interested in children in any general sort of way; I don’t coo over babies or toddlers or pictures of babies or older children. I don’t find find the topic of children interesting, generally speaking. I have met some children whom I find interesting and fun to talk with or play with, but otherwise, I’ve had to learn how to demonstrate a reasonable amount of interest in someone’s new baby, etc.

          I also want to chime in and add that weddings also do not interest me.

          • This–“I don’t find the topic of children interesting, generally speaking.” Well said; women attorneys’ lunches in my offices when people go on and on about child-related issues are kind of a snooze that must, nevertheless, be tolerated. Although, now that I think about it, hearing about people’s semi-dysfunctional teenagers can be pretty entertaining . . .

        • Anonymous :

          I used to hate children; now I have some more tolerance, somewhat out of necessity as I now have a young nephew (who I find hilarious). But I can try to explain how I felt (and still do, to a certain extent).

          Say I didn’t like dogs (not the case for me, but let’s just say), and that I found them needy, disruptive, messy, and totally uninteresting. It’s the same thing for children. Just as I might not enjoy hearing a dog owner’s stories about the adorable things Poochy did yesterday, I don’t really enjoy listening to parents relate stories about the adorable things their kid did yesterday.

          You know that squelchy feeling you get in your heart when you see a baby in a carriage smiling up at you, or a kid laughing delightedly at mom or dad? The unintended but automatic smile you find on your face as you walk past that scene? I don’t feel that. (I actually feel that about dogs.)

        • I’m often classified as a “hater” of children, so I’m happy to clarify. (Mind you I would never refer to myself that way.)

          I probably “hate” certain styles of parenting such that certain children/parents in certain situations make me very happy that I don’t have my own. For instance – airplanes, or nice restaurants, or the gym. (Scratch that, no matter what the parenting style or how well-behaved the child, I don’t want children at my gym. I’m willing to negotiate on airplanes and restaurants/bars for the right kid.) I also don’t ooh and ah over babies, nor do I know the slightest thing about strollers, or nursing, or other baby-gear (enough to get you labeled a “baby-hater” in some circles.)

          I’ve never had an interest in having my own, and am therefore irritated when people label my decision as “a phase” or as an indication I’ve given up or that I’m just bitter of friends who “have it all.” Probably another reason I’ve been labeled a baby-hater (although I guess as of this month I’m now a 30-something-baby-hater, so maybe we are looked upon more favorably.)

          Pardon the rambling, this is apparently too loaded a question to answer in a concise manner.

          • Anonymous Poser :

            I’m in my 40’s and I *still* get asked about having children. I hope your 30’s are better in terms of receiving unasked-for opinions on this topic than mine were. I’ve even had a healthcare professional share with me her opinion that I “should” have children!

            I am with Anonymous who likes dogs, though I was too chicken to use them in my illustration. I think most dogs are cute, and I’ve got too many pictures of mine.

          • Anonymous Poser – not yet! The best I have so far is that I definitely feel the calling to become a phenomenal Aunt to my sibling’s kids, but I’ve never felt the same way about having my own.

        • I don’t hate children, but I do hate the assumption that bringing children into the world is the highest possible calling and that those of us who choose to remain child-free are missing out on life’s greatest event or otherwise deficient. And believe me, that sentiment is out there, sometimes explicitly stated. I also hate the way some adults choose to behave when it comes to their children (or the way they allow their children to behave). In my family’s home, children were not treated as adults, they were not included in all events, and they were not permitted to disrupt adults’ conversations and activities. That is not always the case among my friends and associates who have kids. Many of my friends have managed to retain their personalities, relationships with spouses and significant others, friendships, and lives despite having children. Others have allowed their children to basically rule their worlds. The parents are unable to carry on conversations with other adults when the kids are around, and they really don’t do anything that doesn’t involve the kids. That’s what I hate to see. Anyway, I don’t mean to rant, but this is what I think some people might mean when they say they “hate” children.

          • I like children, but I’m totally with you on this:
            “I do hate the assumption that bringing children into the world is the highest possible calling and that those of us who choose to remain child-free are missing out on life’s greatest event or otherwise deficient. And believe me, that sentiment is out there, sometimes explicitly stated.”

            Agree with much that you said.
            I don’t think that one should lose her identity in parenthood, just as I don’t think that when a woman gets married she should lose her identity as an individual. She should continue to maintain her interests and the things that defined her. It’s not good for your marriage to expect your husband to be responsible for your happiness, and it isn’t good if you define your life as “XYZ’s mom” and expect them to fulfill and complete you. Accept them and love them, but remember that you’re the parent, and an individual in your own right.

        • I have a child whom I love & adore, but apart from him, I am pretty indifferent to kids in general. That’s just who I am.

          I used to get bored by kiddie stories before, and I don’t inflict mine on others. It’s not about hating kids, rather it’s about not caring enough to be interested…same as I don’t really care about sports.

          And for those who do hate kids, that’s fine too. Just another dislike.

      • Not sure it’s “fine” to hate any group of human beings, really…

        • I also don’t think it’s OK to “hate” children. They are human beings, and if you’re a 20-something just starting a career, you are not so far removed from being a child yourself. Additionally, a child can’t help being a child. You can “hate” bigots, because they can choose not to be bigoted, but hating a person for something they can’t control (like their sex, age, or race?) – that’s bigotry.

          That said, my advice was in the vein of what is best for your career, not who you are as a human being. Outing yourself as a child hater would definitely not be wise in a roomful of parents who are your superiors at work.

          • Anonymous :

            Interesting point. You and M made me think about what it is I “hate”. I suppose I don’t hate children across the board. I hate ill-behaved children, children who are at adult gatherings where there are no accommodations for them, children who are loud, obnoxious or otherwise disruptive. It’s usually not the child’s fault, in any of these situations. And I have met well-behaved, inquisitive, interesting children whom I liked. So it’s probably the behavior I hate, not the class of human being. Thanks for making me think about this!

      • Anonymous :

        It’s fine to feel that way. Expressing it is going to make you seem like a bitter, harpy b*tch. And if you decide later you do want kids, or end up having one you didn’t anticipate, the gleeful snark at your expense will make your head spin. I strongly urge those of you who “hate” children to keep your opinion to yourselves around people who have kids. Hatred of children is not a new, original, novel or unique idea and people who have kids are neither cowed by the fact you hate children, nor do they find it funny. You’ll end up making a lot of enemies you can’t afford to have.

        • I think most of us who “hate” children are very well aware of the repercussions of expressing our feelings. I’m expressing mine here anonymously for that very reason. I hope you have not run into many people who openly express their hatred to you, knowing that you have kids — it sounds like you have, which is terrible. I would really wonder at anyone who wanted to “cow” you by expressing their feelings — what would be their point?

          I am glad you know that not all people are kid-lovers and think it’s fine, as long as the haters keep it to themselves. On the flip side, I know very well that lots of people ARE kid-lovers and think that’s fine too. I know too that I would be ostracized if I asked those folks to keep it to themselves.

          • I don’t understand what it means to “hate” children. Everyone on this planet was once a child themselves, and we all have an inner child. In fact, I think that when you have lost touch with your inner child (even if you’re 70), that’s when you have become a robot, evil or utterly devoid of personality. That said, I also don’t like being around children running amok, who does? That doesn’t mean you “hate” children, just poor parenting.

            Additionally, I don’t think that people need to be patted on the head for choosing to have children. To be crude and quote Bill Maher – “[sarcastic] …You made a baby!…Something a dog can do.” I want to have children one day, but I don’t need a slap on the back for that. Pat me on the head when I’m a mother AND make partner/ceo/huge career accomplishment, not just because I had a baby like a billion other women do.

            Sorry if you disagree, but I also don’t feel the need to stand behind a shroud of anonymity to express my opinion. I respect all the viewpoints that have been provided on this topic, and have been supportive of my friends through their pregnancies as well.

          • Anonymous :

            Yeah, I think the “hate” is really more about behavior than really hating all children across the board. Or, as someone suggested upstream, it’s not so much hate as disinterest, which can be interpreted as hate by some. I don’t think it has anything to do with not being in touch with your inner child.

            I’m not a regular commenter here, so I am not standing behind a shroud of anonymity to disguise my “identity,” just sharing opinions and thoughts without saying who I am in real life, just like most people here. The idea that a woman isn’t interested in kids is a hard pill to swallow for many people, and it would be rude as well as impolitic to declare my disinterest in kids to people I work with and rely on.

          • I wasn’t referring to any Anonymous commenter in particular, just stating why I still choose to keep my tagname even tho I am a regular commenter and don’t mind if my opinion is an unpopular one.

  3. I also don’t get it. Not talking about work isn’t unique to women. A group of men would also be talking about things other than work, although they would probably be discussing something other than weddings and babies

  4. The women in my office do this a lot too. It’s an office in which almost all the associates and all the staff are women, and all the partners are men, as it happens. When conversation turns to “girly things” (as it often does), the men are visible uncomfortable. And I HATE it. Yes, I care about their families and kids and all, but I covet the occasional lunch we eat together to swap stories about cases and trial strategy. It’s just more my thing. You can imagine how much worse it got when I got pregnant! Every lunch turned into nonstop conversation about pregnancy, babies, etc. And I was the only one not participating! I didn’t even WANT to be pregnant, much less talk about it all the time!

    All I can offer is to find a lull in the conversation, turn to someone, and ask a questions about [topic you want to talk about]. Usually at the least it results in a parallel conversation, even if it doesn’t stop the one you don’t want to participate in.

    • Maybe the men should learn to hide their discomfort, as women often do.

      I hide mine when my male colleagues yammer on about sports.

      • How about hormone problems? It strikes me as the equivalent of complaining about a prostate exam.

        • Talking about your kids or your wedding is the equivalent of talking about your prostate?

          • No, silly. Talking about your hormone problems is the equivalent of talking about your prostate. Kids, wedding = okay. PMS, tampon brand choice, sex drive = maybe TMI for office lunch. Yes?

  5. At my “welcome to the department” lunch on my first day of work after law school, I and the female of counsel were the only women at the table, with about 8 old white male partners. The conversation consisted of (1) golf and (2) boats. I think I said about 10 words the whole time! Perhaps that was the first clue that that firm was not for me. :)

    Definitely seem interested in what other people are talking about, even if you’re not. You could also try to steer the conversation to current TV shows, sports (if there are any sporty women there), cooking/recipes (eg how do you think they make this aioli? what herbs do they put in it? or whatever), vacation plans/holiday plans, etc. People always like to talk about themselves, so anything you can ask them that is personal will be welcomed. If they are saying, “little Susie had such a great time playing in the sand on our Cape vacation, bless her heart” or whatever, then ask them where they went on the Cape, where they stayed, how the weather was, whether they would recommend the hotel/beach cottage rental/etc, where they plan to go next year. Etc.

    I would also suggest bringing up hobbies, but with a caveat – if the women you work with have small kids, chances are they don’t really have time to indulge their hobbies and MAY (not always, but sometimes) resent your having time for them.

    • Anonymous :

      Another caveat – if your hobbies involve anything that others may deem to be aggressive (such as boxing, or shooting), you may want to keep those mentions to a minimum.

      • How about pole dancing? One of my associates has recently taken up trapeze, which we love to hear about! I say bring it–the more interesting the better!

        • Anonymous :

          Yeah I think that might have gone over better – I just remember hearing nothing but crickets when my coworkers realized that I wasn’t talking about cardio kickboxing, I was talking about climbing into the ring and trying to knock people out…

          Awkward.

          • Lol. That’s too bad. I think you’re cool for doing it.

          • Anonymous :

            Aww thanks :)

          • I do karate. It amuses me to occasionally bring it up at work, as I look extremely un-intimidating and it always surprises people.

            The best moment I had with it was during an informational interview with a man in his sixties, who literally could not believe that a small girl like me would be capable of hitting anyone, or being hit. We had quite a discussion about it.

    • usually women with young children cook and watch TV. They may not watch the same shows as you but it’s a start.

      In fact, it can be good politics to watch the shows they watch just so you have something to talk about with them!

  6. Lunch is supposed to be an opportunity to give you a break from work. I certainly do not want to be taking about my cases at a social event.

  7. I agree with anon–I’m not quite sure why this seemed unprofessional. I think a conversation like that is a great opportunity to learn about your co-workers lives outside of work. Along those lines, one of the things I have always tried to do is know the name(s) of family members of coworkers. I think there’s a huge difference between asking “how is your husband?” and “how is John?”
    Bottom line: they may have different priorities than you do, but that doesn’t mean that theirs are any better or worse than yours.

  8. Not sure if anyone has posted this yet, but talbots has an extra 25% off all sale items today. I also found a coupon code on retailmenot that got me free shipping and an extra 20% off. I just bought a work dress, 3 tops, and a pair of ballet flats for $135 including shipping!

    • Nice! I need some more flats.

    • Anonymous :

      amazing. since i’m not familiar with their sizing I got lots of stuff to try on, and the sale even applies to clearance merch so I got a couple of cashmere sweaters and a couple pairs of shoes, too!

  9. I am the reader who submitted this inquiry. Since a few people questioned why I was complaining, I thought it best to provide some more context. My rationale was twofold: First, I am in my early 30s, single and childless, and while I have friends with children, I find it very irritating when all people do is talk about their children, regardless of whether the setting is social or professional. I realize, however, that this is my problem and I have to learn to deal with it. Kat’s comment about sports really helped to put this into perspective; I would’ve been thrilled if the conversation was about sports or politics.

    Second, while I realize that a department-wide lunch is an invitation for free food and drinks on the firm’s dime, I was hoping that my new colleagues would truly want to get to know me. Instead I felt like a mid-year transfer student in the middle school cafeteria. I tried to ask questions and participate, but it was more awkward than it had to be because of the topics of conversation. I did not expect or desire to be the center of the conversation, but I didn’t expect to feel alienated either.

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments, and thanks to Kat for taking my question.

    • North Shore :

      I guess each office has its own bit of family awkwardness. This reminds me of the Awkward Family Photos web page, and their section on awkward offices. Some of those pictures were so awkward I wanted to cry for the poor co-workers. Hang in there; I guess they want to get to know you on their own time.

      • Anonymous :

        Link? I can’t find the office section.

        • North Shore :

          http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/2010/09/15/office-winner/

          Oh, so awkward!

          • Anonymous :

            This one is incredible: http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/contests/awkward-office-family-photo-contest/blind-faith/

        • Anonymous :

          Ooh, found it. http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/contests/awkward-office-family-photo-contest/submissions

          This one is incredible: http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/contests/awkward-office-family-photo-contest/blind-faith/

    • It always – without fail – sucks to be the new kid – no matter where you are or how old you are.

      I think you would have had that experience regardless of where you are (I’m another single woman in the NJ ‘burbs – so you have my sympathy!)

    • Big Firm Lawyer :

      I would have been very uncomfortable too. I think at a firm luncheon to welcome you, the focus should have been on helping you acclimate with the firm, the neighborhood, etc. Were there no men at this lunch?

    • Anonymous :

      You’re being self-centered. The best way to make sure people will get a negative impression of you is to take an “It’s all about MEEEEE!!!!” attitude with your new coworkers. Also, just because you do not have children doesn’t mean others made the same choice. Try to look at the other side: people who are not single and childless probably don’t want to talk about work at a social function, even though that seems to be the main focus of your life.

      “Getting to know someone” happens over time. I am sure your new coworkers are not uninterested in you; they are just feeling you out to see what you’re like before getting emotionally invested in really “knowing” you. And to be completely, bluntly honest – I feel uncomfortable around, and uninterested in women who aren’t married and don’t have children and make it obvious that they aren’t interested in hearing about my family life. And I just have to ask – did you even try to introduce different topics of conversation (movies, books, TV shows, local events are all good neutral topics)? Or did you just sit there, with a giant chip on your shoulder and overdeveloped sense of entitlement, pouting because people weren’t lavishing you with attention?

  10. I can’t help but wonder if the reader’s discomfort stemmed from her co-workers’ failure to treat the “welcome lunch” as an opportunity to find out more about her and make her feel welcome in her new work environment, as opposed to the specific topics being discussed. And this is understandable. At my old firm, I recall being annoyed when the office head treated “welcome lunches” as an opportunity to cut up and tell lengthy personal stories, full of inside jokes and references to people our new colleague would have no reason to know. I remember that everyone else tried to talk with the new person and ask questions about their background and interests, in an effort to show that at least some of us cared about making them feel welcome. That said, I agree with everyone else’s advice about how to make the best of the situtation and get involved in the conversation. Soon the reader will be a vet, and perhaps she can help make the welcome lunch more pleasant for the next new hire.

    • sittininla :

      Wow, this comment made me feel better on slightly different issue. I am currently at my first job out of law school at a small law firm (5 female attorneys).

      It is my second month here and I still feel akward with everyone. I don’t feel that welcome to be honest. No one, not one person has ever asked me about myself or my family or law school experience. I put out pictures of my daughter in my office and only one person commented on them or asked about her. At lunch everyone talks over me as if I am not sitting there discussing their cases or inside jokes. Once they even all went out to lunch and left me alone in my office, forgetting to ask me to come. It feels kind of lonely and akward all the time. It has been making me question my every move. And I try, hard, to talk to people, to ask questions about their work/family/hobbies. When they talk about cases I ask them about paticular motions and legal tactics that they used to become part of the conversation. I smile a lot. I finish tasks on time. I think I am a fairly likeable person and have made friendships at all my internships during law school with fellow interns and attorneys alike.

      I guess to say this comment makes me feel like, maybe it is kind of THEM that is creating this akward relationship. Other people get a welcome lunch? I wish I got a welcome 5 minute meeting. I realize that in this economic climate I should be grateful to have a job, and I am, but I spend a lot of time in this office so it would be nice to feel welcome.

      Has anyone else experienced this or is this the norm?

      • Legally Brunette :

        This hasn’t happened to me in the workplace but just wanted to give you a (virtual) hug! That sounds awful. I’m new at my job too and I honestly think that some people are just not as curious about finding about you and your family and hobbies and such. I find it odd because I always try to find out more about my cow0rkers, but not everyone is the same way. I would just say that you shouldn’t take it personally because perhaps that’s the way that they are. You could also try befriending one person so that at least you have one person in your court. It sounds like none of them are particularly friendly, but maybe there is one person who is a tad better than the rest?

        • sittininla :

          thanks for the support ladies! :) Feeling a little better when I know it isn’t something wrong with me per se. I am guessing that different firms have different cultures and hopefully I will find one that works later. Meanwhile I will try to make the best of this one.

      • I think that especially in an office where other people have been working together for a long time, it can take time to feel like part of the team. Yes, it would be nice if they made an effort to speed that along, but not everyone is that self-aware. My suggestion: try to pick one person who you think you have the most in common with/is the easiest to talk to/is the most friendly. Ask HER to go to lunch some day. Try for some one on one conversation, and try to break in that way.

  11. No, this is not unprofessional, and the art of making/engaging in small talk will be a valuable skill throughout your career. These types of occassions are the perfect opportunity to work on that skill. Not to mention it is good to be interested in your colleagues as people, which includes knowing a little bit about their spouses and children, not as just work-units.

  12. I can relate, to an extent. I work in a department that is largely married women with young children. I am in my early twenties, single, and childless (and unsure if I even WANT children in the future). When I first started working here, I was nervous because it didn’t seem like I had much in common with anyone.

    It’s not unusual for lunchtime conversations to turn to children/family/spouses. I find that the best strategy, particularly when I don’t have much to contribute personally to the topic, is to ask questions. People LOVE talking about their kids/families, and often have pretty entertaining stories to share.

    Now that I’ve been in this department for two years, I feel like I ‘know’ some of their children/spouses through their stories (and have actually met quite a few of them). When I interact with these coworkers socially, I make a note to ask if their child is playing any sports this fall or how their kids are getting along with their new puppy. People seem genuinely pleased that I remembered and asked, and are usually delighted to talk about it.

    The caveat, however, is that you have to actually BE genuinely interested. I feel like people can tell when it’s fake and that’s a turn-off. Sure, I was feigning it initially out of politeness, but once I actually got to know some of these women, I enjoy hearing about their lives (plus, it makes me appreciate my single, child-less existence even more!).

    Another bonus is that if people notice you making an effort to ask about their lives, they will start to ask you about yours, giving you the chance to change the topic to something that’s more personal or fun for you to discuss. I’ve had great conversations with my coworkers about current events, my hobbies, my plans to go to graduate school, etc.

    • Totally true – and I’ve benefitted from the information I’ve gleaned from co-workers – info on topics as far flung as grad school, plumbers, and the dirt on other departments… active listening is an uber important skill.

  13. Lana Lang :

    This is a pretty difficult issue. I’m one of those 20-somethings who doesn’t like children and it also isn’t my favourite thing when people only talk about their children. That said, I don’t pass this information on to anyone at work in order to avoid alienating the family types and growing a reputation as heartless female dog (although, incidentally, I don’t agree that not liking children makes one ‘heartless’ but that is a different argument).

    The trouble is that when you are in the minority, then in a professional setting you sometimes need to just suck it up and feign interest in something you really don’t care about in order to get on with people in a professional setting. You cannot choose your colleagues (to a point) and unless you are never likely to need their help or chat to them, you have to play the game sometimes.

    I totally agree with the questions thing – people, generally, love to talk about themselves and asking questions not only warms them to you but enables you to learn things about them and grow a relationship. Learn their kids names, what their hobbies are, where they are going on vacation – it doesn’t take much time or effort from you, but means the world to most people. Just think about it the other way around. It is always nice when someone has actually paid attention to what you are saying and remembers something about it.

    As for advice to you Kate, I completely sympathise. Maybe the answer is to approach people individually and start to build a rapport that way. It is hard in a big group where everyone already knows each other, but people individually are usually more approachable. If you can get a relationship going with one or two people, then the next time you go to something like the lunch, you already have an ‘ally’ or two to go up to and strike up a conversation. Don’t be disheartened – it is hard to fit into a whole new place and (unfortunately) it usually takes a lot more effort from the newbie than the established set! Good luck!

  14. I don’t think it was “unprofessional” at all and I think it’s really odd to suggest so. It’s very common for women in these positions to talk about their kids, etc. while at lunch. Just be glad they invited you. Smile and maybe you will have more to talk about next time.

    • Be glad they invited her? To her own “welcome lunch”? I think her disappointment was justified. This wasn’t just any lunch where the “in clique” wouldn’t let the new girl in. It was a lunch meant to welcome her. It sounds like they did it wrong.

      • It does sound like they did it wrong, but in Heather’s defense, I think what she wrote could be read as – be glad they cared enough to HAVE a welcome lunch. In my workplace, we don’t do welcome lunches. In fact, I haven’t spoken one word to the new guy who started last week (though I’ve been meaning to drop by his office to say hello).

        • Ok, fair enough. On my first day, no one explained lunch procedures to me either (bring your own lunch and eat it at your desk while soldering on). I was a bit taken aback–silly me, I thought people would take a break and be social during lunch. So I guess having a welcome lunch at all is a step up from that, even if it’s done badly.

        • I agree with this.

          The more they perceive you as a friend, the more chips you will have to cash in when you need them (i.e. when a deadline is looming, when you need time off for a family event or funeral, etc.). I’ve found, as a single and childless (and happy with it) woman, that if I respond with something along the lines of, “You know, that’s exactly what my mom/dad/grandmother/uncle/sister always used to say! That sounds fun/stressful/exciting/busy!” Usually, responding to their baby stories with niece/kids-i-babysat stories politely highlights that (a) we’re on a topic that’s excluding me, (b) I’m being polite by trying to participate, (c) just as you’re not fascinated by stories about my niece, I’m not particularly excited by stories about junior’s explosive diaper incident. And it slows the conversation enough for me to re-route it into something more inclusive for everyone. I wouldn’t be offended or hurt by the baby/spouse/family conversation, though – we all like to talk about us and what we know, and what they know is kids and hubbies. What I know is hobbies, travel plans, and dating. There are ways to find common ground 50% of the time, and be gracious to them – as they are to you – in listening to each other talk about your own lives where they don’t overlap with commonalities the other 50 percent. Besides, most people you’ll meet will have even less in common with you than these ladies, and you’ll have more riding on how you get along with them. Think of it as practice and work on becoming a black belt in social skills.

      • pjbhawaii :

        This isn’t a sorority, it’s a law firm. I think it’s nice that that these ladies acknowledged the poster with a lunch, and its normal that they progressed into familiar office talk. I think your and OP’s expectations are . . . odd. And young.

        Over time OP will learn her co-workers stories, and they will learn her stories. Acceptance and familiarity don’t happen instantly. Everything has its own pace.

  15. Alternatively, I worked in a small office with people who ONLY wanted to talk work over the lunch hour. I found it exhausting. So I started making plans outside the office 2-3 days a week and only joined the workaholics a couple times a week. Enough to get in the lunch hour “face-time,” but still keep my sanity and make it through the week.

  16. Blonde Lawyer :

    I think I feel where the OP is coming from. Rightly or wrongly, women are still behind men in a lot of professions. A big reason why is that we make the babies. We have debated at length on here if this is fair or not. I’m not trying to open that can of worms. When any woman starts a job somewhere, she wants to be seen as an equal to the guys, if not better. OP probably doesn’t want to get lumped in with all the other women for fear of being put on the mommy track. Maybe it is a super family friendly firm. Either way, if OP isn’t ready or ever going to have kids, she probably doesn’t want to see be seen is just another one of the women during her welcome lunch. Guys have kids too and they talk about them at work but I think they talk about them in a completely different way than the mom’s do. It also blurs the line between professional and staff. You want to care and know about their lives but not exaclty be “friends,” right? She was probably hoping to hear more about the culture of the work place and what each person has done professionaly. Not just how many kids they have.

    • surrounded by lawyers :

      I agree, fair or not.

    • Yep. I think you’re spot on here. As stated, fair or not.

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      And the other issue is this sort of conversation will inevitably lead to the OP being asked – so, do you have kids? When do you think you will have them? All stuff you don’t want to discuss your first day on the job (unless you do already have kids.)

      • This. Exactly.

        It could be worse. A family friend has 3 kids and is divorced from their dad. When she relocated from this area with her new spouse, her children stayed here as the custody agreement specified they had a say at age 13. (2 of the 3 were at this point and she didn’t break them up) As a substitute teacher she said the most awkward ‘poor you’ conversations of her life occurred in break rooms when asked “do you have kids?” and the follow-on question of “what school are they in?”…

  17. I feel your pain, Reader K! I just started at a law firm and am 1 of 2 unmarried, childless people … in my department of 26! It gets OLD talking about other people’s kids.

    Hang in there and when in doubt, smile and tune out ;)

  18. I will second, or third, or fourth, the idea that talking about stuff that has nothing to do with you and doesn’t interest you is part of the game. I can’t tell you how many lunches I’ve spent debating which 100K luxury car the senior partner should buy, or discussing sporting events I don’t care for, or hearing criticisms of presidential candidates that I support. Learning to participate well in those conversations is a real skill, and frankly, part of becoming a good lawyer. Your clients will NOT want to talk about the stuff generally of interest to you, I guarantee. Practice dealing with that on your colleagues. I get the issue about women hurting themselves by always talking about families though I am never quite sure why that is worse than cars or sports. Still, it is what it is, and I try to keep it to a minimum in my male-dominated workplace. These women probably don’t have to in yours, because they have critical mass. Lucky them.

    • “I get the issue about women hurting themselves by always talking about families though I am never quite sure why that is worse than cars or sports.”

      I think, perhaps, that that is due to talking about families is personal, whereas talking about cars or sports is not personal or is less personal than families. I think all of the above are appropriate and safe topics at work generally but a woman talking about her family could remind people of stereotypical gender roles and tinge their professional perception of said woman. Not that this is ok but it’s possible.

      • Well, and if someone I spend time with talks about sports, I can go research sports (zzzzzzz….) and come back and hold my own in the future. If its luxury cars, I can research those, pretend that my goal is to have one (by succeeding with the company and making it lots of money = good for my career), etc. So while it might exclude me, I can get in the game and keep up with those guys.

        A woman wanting to discuss kids/families puts me in an awkward position as a single, childless person because I can’t say that I don’t want kids without highlighting our differences. Short of running out tomorrow and getting knocked up, I can’t come back and be “part of the group.” And should I come back in with a kid tomorrow, OR talk about how much I want to have kids, I’ve just highlighted myself – fairly or not – as someone who is going likely to be taking time off in the future for childbirth/rearing. If I say, “I don’t like kids / I don’t want kids”, I come across as judgmental of her choices and/or play into the perception of non-child-loving people as selfish and cold-hearted. So sports/cars and families are not the same thing. Plus, I’ve worked at places where people were judged by what their parents did. Daddy a CEO? You’re going to fit in well here! Daddy a mechanic? It seems like you’re not quite grasping how we do business here. (And the work product/demeanor of the people was strikingly uniform, so that wasn’t it.) Talking about family is very personal.

        I don’t know that men would respond the same way – I’ve told male coworkers and bosses before, all of whom had kids, that I didn’t want kids, and none of them took it personally, most didn’t care, and it never affected work relationships. (It’s not true – I do want kids someday. But that’s none of their business, and I’ll worry about that day when it rolls around. Not gonna’ start paying mommy dues early.)

        • I guarantee, if I say “I would never buy a 100K luxury car” (which I wouldn’t), I would come off equivalently judgmental. So I don’t. I just ask lots of questions about the car and its features, as if I care. Personal talk is always tricky, whether it’s about family or not.

  19. I am an attorney working for a company of almost entirely engineers, so I still find after two years that conversations are very awkward at times. I also think the best approach is to ask people about themselves first.

    If you want to keep the topics work related, I would ask about that person’s job – how long he/she has been with the firm/company, what type of work he/she does, biggest cases, etc. You could even ask for work-related advice or (as someone else suggested) advice about good lunch spots, alternate commutes, etc.

    The bottom line is that if you really want to get to know people and have a good relationship with your coworkers, you will need to be flexible as far as conversation topics. I think Lana’s advice (above) is good, though – start with individual relationships and build from there. It’s more difficult in a group setting and no one wants lunch conversation to feel like a group interview.

  20. I work in a department full of men, and I would lovelovelove to have a lunch where they talked about their families – because it would make me feel better about wanting and having a family at some point. Instead, I get the impression that home life and individual personality is “off limits” at work, which is really sad to me.

    Having said that, I remember how awkward it was to be the “new girl” at work (or school!), and everyone else knew the stories and the people in the stories, and I couldn’t follow any of it. Some of that may just be part of being the new girl; over time, you’ll get to know people individually, and then you’ll know the stories too. But a group luncheon with a bunch of women who know each other well might not be the most conducive environment to feeling included as the new kid. I’d say, don’t read too much into it now, keep an open mind, and try to schedule some smaller lunches with just one or two colleagues at a time.

  21. Another thing to keep in mind: For Kate it was a big deal, first time lunch with this group, hoping to get to know them better. For everyone else, it was just another lunch with coworkers they see every single day. Yes, they could have done a better job welcoming her, but let’s face it: having a new coworker just isn’t that exciting. (No offense to Kate, who I am sure is a nice person.)

    It is very easy to simply continue the conversation with Jane from yesterday about some detail of her wedding planning (“So, did you finally choose your bridesmaids dresses?”) especially if Jane is sitting right next to me and Kate is three chairs down. And 2-3 weeks from now, Kate will know all the names and all the players and all the inside dish and will be right in the thick of it, whether she prefers these conversations or not. Because that’s what happens in a normal office environment.

    Take away lessons from this? For the established crowd: be a bit more aware of the newbie. For the newbie: don’t take it personally as you won’t be new for long.

    • And just to be clear: I HATE discussing people’s weddings. Booooooring. But if that’s what floats Janes boat right now and I want to build/maintain a pleasant relationship with Jane, I will ask about her dress.

  22. govvie girl :

    I have to say, even if my extremely male-dominated office, much of the conversation revolves around….family and kid activities. That is simply the common thread a lot of adults have, and even though I’m not there (yet, at least w/”the husband;” kids are doubtful at this point), I join in and then talk about my dog a little. Then we make fun of “upper management antics” just because it’s entertaining. :)

  23. Like others, I work in a mostly male office. We also skew younger and few of us have kids. Our lunchtime conversations revolve around home life (weekend plans, weddings, pets, tv, whatever), not work. Totally normal and not the least bit unprofessional. I agree it would have been nice if a few of the women had made more of an effort to engage you, but I wouldn’t give this another thought if I were you.

  24. T.V. Talk :

    Generally, when people ONLY talk about one thing, it is annoying and borderline rude, no matter what the topic is, their kids, sports, cat…etc.

    My best conversation starter of late is reality t.v. I myself am a reality t.v. junkie! Give me some real housewives and bachelorette any day…or everyday. There are those who are on the same page…and those who are not. I find that comments like, “well, did you see x,y,z because….” are such a great way to get things going (no matter of gender or age…). Try it!

    The point: t.v. is an example of a “neutral” topic (not religion, not politics) that is fun to discuss and people are passionate about! Just don’t ONLY talk about reality t.v…or anything else.

    • Yes please don’t only talk about reality TV! I didn’t own a TV until I was 25, and even now I almost never turn it on, and I find pretty much nothing more inane than reality TV! Whatever floats your boat, for sure, but give equal time. Oh, and maybe be aware that some snots will be tempted to judge? I try not to, I really do (some of my best friends love reality TV, really!), but it’s hard sometimes.

      • T.V. Talk :

        Haha Midori, yes, this is my point! See what the topic brings out in you? People have all sorts of reactions. I promise I do not only talk about reality T.V.! I just think its a good topic if you are stuck on a long car ride with a partner…or at lunch when there is dead silence…FYI I grew up with about three chanels and pretty much lived off of PBS, as an adult now, if I feel like watching a juicy catfight, I’m going to do it and I don’t care who knows it!

        • It’s okay. We all have our moments. This week I watched an entire episode of America’s Next Top Model one night after a long day. I guess I just needed something mindless, and boy, I got it!

  25. Ballerina girl :

    I think I’m repeating a lot of what others have said and maybe I’m just “single with a chip on my shoulder” but as someone who is single and in her early thirties (never married, no kids), it can feel like a bit of a judgment when people talk exclusively about their spouses and/or kids–as if there is nothing else in life.

    I wholeheartedly agree that this sort of talk is par for the course, and I enjoy it, but I do sometimes feel like there’s a hint of the “poor you” if you aren’t part of the husband and kid club.

    On another point, I find this type of conversation embarrassing when it’s in front of men. Fair or not (to quote my friends above), women are judged by this stuff and I hate to look like it’s all we can talk about.

    • Lana Lang :

      This. Totally feel your pain on the ‘poor you’ part. Because I am female, I must automatically be thinking about kids and the whole ‘hang in there, it’ll happen’ is why I would rather just not discuss that part of my life with co-workers, as often people with kids find it very difficult to understand why someone, particularly a woman, does not want to have any of her own.

    • Amen. I don’t think the OP has a chip on her shoulder. I think that she was not welcomed at her “welcome lunch”. I don’t care what the conversational topic is, sticking to that topic and that topic only is rude when there is a person or persons present who do not share in the interest.

      As to that particular topic, I find that the females who have no other chit-chat type conversation other than spouses/children are, in my experience, the same ones who judge me as not mature, lacking their judgment, not quite a whole person, etc etc etc because I have not had children. (I’m 46 and have been getting this for a good decade). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate these people – a treasured co-worker and also a very good friend fit in this category. Co-worker once suggested, in a group meeting, that I needed a jury full of mothers on a case that involved horrific abuse of a child. I adore the man who spoke up and said that no, we needed a jury full of human beings.

    • Agreed. It is sad that in my office, the “family” talk is perceived completely differently for men as for women.

      Men can use “family” as a get-out-of-jail free card. I have a colleague who regularly uses the “my wife will kill me if I miss another family dinner” card to get out of late nights with the rest of the team. Because family commitments are seen as another “obligation” for men, it is presumed that they would rather be working and therefore commendable that they are showing devotion to their family.

      I’ve never seen a similar response by my co-workers to a married female leaving for family obligations.

      Le sigh.

  26. We talk about two things in my office at work: sports and politics. I now know more about sports than I ever thought imaginable. I ask questions about things I’m not sure about as they come up (ex: So if x team wins, what does that do to y team’s odds in z bowl?) Even though my questions are obvious “duh” things if you follow sports regularly, I think they appreciate that I’m listening to the conversation as opposed to tuning them out…

    I would recommend a similar tactic in this situation. (ex: “Oh you’re using x color for your flowers. Is it a seasonal thing?” “What a pretty name. I have a niece named x as well.” “So where can one get a nice wedding gift for a couple that doesn’t have a registry?” etc. ) Even if you don’t care about the topic, they’ll appreciate the fact that you’re not tuning them out.

  27. I find Reader K’s comment to be strange and perhaps a little elitist. You are the newbie in the office and after one lunch, you would like to dictate what everyone discusses? I’m sure if you give your co-workers a chance, as they get to know you, they will engage you in conversation about some of your interests. Until then, be glad it is a friendly and welcoming office, and not an office where partners rudely ignore you or act as if they don’t know you even though you’ve done two research projects for them! After all, it’s not all about you….

  28. One of my favorite questions to ask colleagues is “what are you working on?” It’s a very direct way to bring the conversation around to work subjects and learn what else is going on at the firm. Can also be a helpful segue into talking about what you are working on or open doors if you are looking for new work.

  29. As a female partner, quite frankly, at a lunch of other female partners and associates, I don’t want to talk about what people are working on. I want to talk about what’s going on in their lives, get to know their interests, find out what they are doing in the community, and by extension, what’s going on in the community I don’t know about. I don’t mind conversation about dealing with work/life balance and office politics, but old boys networks are not based on discussing business all the time. They are based on personal interaction, and that’s where I think women often miss the boat.

    • I completely agree.

    • Absolutely agree. To echo what a commenter said yesterday on another post: Men will hang out with, and develop better co-worker relationships with, people that they enjoy to be around. You don’t build relationships like that by only talking about work.

  30. It’s so funny how we have so much contempt for women for talking about families at work as if women are the only ones that talk about their personal lives. What the hell do you think men talk about at work? WORK? No, they are talking about their families too. If not that, they are talking about sports, hobbies, etc. Why is it annoying and unacceptable when women do it? Would Kate have felt the same way if her colleagues were male and they were talking about sports? Or would she have brushed it off as guy talk.

    Sometimes I feel like instead of looking outward at the institutional and social discrimination that holds women back, we tear each other down. All of the childless and spouseless professional women who roll there eyes every time other women talk about their families do so because they believe that those women are an embarassment because as successful, intelligent and accomplished as they are, still only care about husbands and babies.

    Many of the self-help books for career women teach us how to roll with the big boys, how to survive in a male-dominated environment. We have internalized the notion that whatever men do or say at work, no matter how inappropriate it is, is alright, so long at it isn’t sexual harassment, in large part because we have accepted that we are playing in their field. Instead of demanding satisfaction (better maternity leave policies, work-life balance, etc.), we are bending over backward to accomodate them by making our presence as unintrusive as possible.

    As women, we have made great strides in all facets of society, but we still have ways to go to achieve true equality. I don’t understand this double standard that we have imposed on ourselves.

    • This.

    • Anonymous :

      Wow:

      “All of the childless and spouseless professional women who roll there eyes every time other women talk about their families do so because they believe that those women are an embarassment because as successful, intelligent and accomplished as they are, still only care about husbands and babies.”

      This seems like a rather sweeping, and unfounded, generalization…

    • sittininla :

      love this!

    • Eme – I had the same thought. The OP’s impression that discussing life/family/children matters was “unprofessional” really rubbed me the wrong way. Would someone say that if men were talking about the finish of last night’s football game?

      Be interested in your fellow womens’ lives. Talk about yours too. The others are interested, even if you aren’t yet married and don’t have children. If you ever find yourself married, or trying to balance work and family, these women will remember you fondly and serve as excellent mentors.

      • Anonymous :

        Kate needs to grow up. Even women without children and husbands often have parents and other family members. Some of us even help take care of those parents.

    • This is interesting to think about. I think I read the OP’s question in a slightly different way than many people. I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about your families at a work social event, like a lunch. But I am disappointed when I get together with a bunch of professional women and they end up talking about celebrity gossip. I want and expect more from a gathering of women who are my peers! That is sort of where I thought the OP’s question was going…that she finally has more female co-workers and she was disappointed that when they got together they just wanted to talk about weddings. Yes, all that small talk is important for all the reasons people have mentioned, but it is okay to also want more substantive conversations from time to time (although they probably won’t happen at the first lunch where you meet everyone).

    • I think you’re right up to a point. I have both male and female coworkers who talk about their families, so I agree that it isn’t confined to females. I have no problem talking to coworkers about their families, but I do get frustrated when people act like my childless/single lifestyle is just a passing phase I will grow out of. I do look much younger than I am, but I am happy with my choice to not have children.

      I might try to change the topic by asking about people’s hobbies/interests outside of work. I think it’s only fair to complain about other people’s conversations so much. At some point you have to try to speak up yourself or nothing is ever going to change. Perhaps then the OP will find she does have common interests with her coworkers, even though they do have families already.

    • Eme,

      I could not agree more. Before returning to school to pursue a law degree, I was the director of a figure skating program. Obviously, figure skating is a sport where the majority of athletes, and therefore coaches, are female. I cannot believe how often other women would complain about men and the male-dominated society we live in, but then turn around and gripe about “the catty women”, “stupid girls”, or the “weak-minded women”, or any other derogatory description, to the few male employees and coaches. Now, because of my general interests I do tend to relate more to guys than girls, but maybe that’s because of the double-standard you mentioned. I hate dealing with women because I feel like I’m constantly being judged! “Her hair’s too plain”, “her hair’s too sexy”, “her suit makes her look fat”, “her shoes make her look like a hooker”, “she’s not wearing any makeup”, “she’s wearing too much makeup”…. really? We say things need to change, but then play right into the game and continue the vicious circle, getting nowhere.

      I feel like I could babble on about this forever and not say anything meaningful so I will cut it short. I love this blog because it’s women helping and looking out for other women; they way our society should operate. I am not a man-hater, but I think female thoughts and strengths are seriously underrated and need to be honored, not cut down by other women.

      Maybe Eme read into the story in a way much different than others (who cares if the reader isn’t in to such “feminine” conversation topics, the point was awkward conversation in general, and maybe the reader doesn’t like discussing those things- I know I don’t), but a great point was made and I think it would do every woman good to consider her take on it.

      Thanks for the post and the insight, Eme.

    • I have lunch with my male and female colleagues all the time. If we have to talk about work we do but mostly we talk about our interests which can be sports, family, politics… Point being you have to be well versed in a lot of different areas in order to become part of the conversation. I do have to admit that it does seem that when women get together they do talk about babies and diapers and whatnot, which I also find annoying. It’s like they forgot who they were before they had children. However, it’s important to remember that this is work, not play and you need to find out what the political situation is in the office before you can make a sound judgement.

  31. This is so true! Drives me crazy. I have always hated comments about fathers “babysitting” their children (no one ever says that about mothers) for this reason.

    • Sorry this was supposed to be a reply to M at 4:02 pm. Not sure why it showed up here!

  32. Backtowork :

    I really like the suggestion about asking questions. People love to talk about themselves, and a person who seems genuinely interested in the people around her, and asks questions about what they are talking about and what they are interested in, is going to be a popular person and a great conversationalist. Another thing to remember: a good conversationalist is a good listener, as well. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to have facts or knowledge about the topic being discussed in order to add to the conversation; instead, you need to have the skill to draw other people out, and find out what is interesting to them and about them.

  33. Agree with the commenters who said they prefer not to be badgered about their work over lunch. Very much agree.

    • Absolutely! In my office we (small group working in different functions/businesses) make it a point NOT to invite folks who only talk shop at lunch. We get enough of that during the day. Lunchtime is the only time we can get to know a bit more about our colleagues!

  34. These ladies probably didn’t mean to make her feel alienated, that’s just what’s going on in their lives and their frames of references. If you aren’t into it, just use vague, postitive statements and questions. No need to reveal your own opinions/dreams etc. eg “do you want kids” = “don’t know, we’ll see- how old is yours? sounds like such a smartie!” It is very important to take genuine interest and learn these things. You might even learn something relevant to you in other ways. I like to let the more senior people drive the topics lots of the time. It’s still business, lunchtime or not.

    No offense to the new people but sometimes I just don’t have time to get to know them right awayEventually I might but if you haven’t had a super busy job/time/project, you might not understand- every minute is precious. And the ones you ‘waste’ you might want to do with people you already know in a way that’s comfortable. Might sound harsh but is true at times. Was just new myself this year and liked getting to know some people very much, but appreciate that not everyone is dying to ask my life story- I am now super busy and wouldn’t have time to invest with all of them.

  35. I think reader K should have done a better job of managing her expectations. A “lunch in your honor” does not literally translate into her sitting at the head of the table holding court. You’re not a summer associate anymore – nobody is there to woo you. Show some interest in your coworkers’ lives and they will reciprocate, trust me.

  36. “and if there’s a lull in a conversation at a table it’s a great way to learn more about people by asking ‘So, has anyone been on any amazing vacations lately?'”

    Unless you are the newest associate on the team, in which case this might come off as a not-terribly-subtle attempt to feel out attitudes towards vacation.

    This single, childless woman heartily agrees with the many comments above: married ladies with kids, unless you are actively disparaging my lifestyle or assuming I couldn’t possibly know anything about either topic (hint: I wasn’t raised in and don’t live in a Biodome for childless unmarrieds), talk on.

    • Anonymous :

      “unless you are actively disparaging my lifestyle or assuming I couldn’t possibly know anything about either topic (hint: I wasn’t raised in and don’t live in a Biodome for childless unmarrieds)”

      This made me laugh, but is also a great point.

  37. You were at a work luncheon, you can’t talk about work all the time!

  38. In my office people talk nonstop about family and sports. I am single and, like Kat, hate sports. I absolutely do not mind talk about family stuff – everyone has a family, even if you don’t have kids of your own. For example, I have a much younger sister an can relate to the things my bosses talk about as I witnessed her grow up and do cute stuff too. The same applies if you have little nieces, cousins, etc.

    As for sports, this is the pain in my arse, as it never ends and I am utterly clueless. So far, the thing that has worked for me is that everyone is loyal to the team of their college town or hometown. For example, my boss is obsessed with Texas teams because he is from there and went to college there. So I divert the conversation by asking about the city, the new stadium there, the people, cool places to go there, etc. It’s worked well.

    • This!

      Thanks fresh jd – I am pretty sure we are twin daughters of different mothers (with different birth dates :)!

      I like hearing about other peoples’ kids b/c I have my own and I also have a big fam, including much younger sibs (and now their kids).

      I find the whole sports thing just *tedious* and I will never, ever get away from it b/c (a) my dad was a sports doc with a big SEC university (and even though he does not/did not, I am supposed to care more about their team than the different SEC school I graduated from – I don’t and never will care about either); (b) my son plays rec league football, soccer, etc (cool to go to Friday nite games; highly doubtful that Stanford will recruit him 10 years from now, at least for his sporting skills) ; (c) my daughter plays tournament level softball and wants to go higher (anyone who’s lived through a pigtail level softball tourney in May in the mosquito swamp please weigh in here – who cares about that third base play when it”s 8th inning, 90+ degrees, 100% humidity, really? ); (d) I live in a secondary, southern city where university sports and pro leagues (we have all but basketball – and that is only 60 miles away ) are just the be-all and end-all.

      I have no problem w/that, I just don’t wanna go or pay to go to the games but the chatter on it is ENDLESS, and frankly boring. Like my description of my kids’ sports……………….

      • Haha Suze. You are way ahead of me….the only SEC I know is a government regulator ;) No clue otherwise about what you were even talking about!

  39. Yeah, but if you’ve ever been stuck in a two to three hour dinner with colleagues who happened to be married moms with young kids, then you know how much situations like this suck. Once the slightest opening in what was a variety filled conversation turns to the kids, then it’s all over. And, try as you might to contribute based on your nieces and nephews or friends’ kids, it’s not the same and you’re quickly (QUICKLY) forgotten. I’ve even had this happen when a vendor took me and a co-worker to a fancy celebratory dinner for an award my company had won. I was the client (and of the two of us, I was the one spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with them and spending millions in their industry — print media) and the kid talk completely dominated 75% of the evening. I felt so awkward, and then bored, and then stuck and then irritated. It’s just rude. It really is.

    • mothers of young children are often cooking a lot and staying home and watching TV in their off hours. If you tire of listening to talk about their children sometimes you can get them going on food or TV!

  40. I am childless, but come from an enormous family, so I know a lot about babies and kids and generally don’t mind the kid talk. The problem is when the kid talk is completely self-centered and ego-centric. There are some colleagues that just go on and on about their kids as if the rest of us are as in love with their children as they are.

    I think maybe some of these posts are reflecting that uncomfortable situation when colleagues are talking about their kids so much that it excludes others and makes for an uncomfortable situation. The same can be said about conversations that get way too deep into politics, sports, or whatever.

    I do not think the original question was anti-family talk or anti-kid talk. Just looking for some balance between professional and personal when at a networking event or luncheon.

  41. To the OP – how about finding an opening where you can bring in something like “did you read about Stephen Colbert’s new rally in D.C.? It’s really funny…” or “I heard this interesting program on NPR today about….”.

    My problem is that I like to talk about more general news or discuss current events whereas I sometimes get stuck in conversations with a couple of colleagues who read NO news and don’t talk about anything except themselves (what they did that weekend/what they’re planning to do, what work they’re busy with or occasionally something that happened at the office) – they don’t have the most basic idea about even events in their immediate vicinity as long as it hasn’t directly affected their lives.
    I used to bemoan the boring conversations until I realized that I could influence their course and now bring up interesting titbits (they seem interested to hear, but it often takes the course of me explaining the whole article/news item and them asking questions so it’s one-sided – never gets to an interesting discussion.)

  42. I would imagine that working mothers miss their children while they are at work each day. I would also imagine that their children bring extreme pride and happiness to them. Even if the OP finds it annoying, certainly she can see why these women talk nonstop about their families. The OP should also keep in mind that mothers are experts on certain topics that may be interesting to her. Working moms are great at time management, know everything about stain removal, are experts at finding indestructible or time-saving products, and can easily navigate any attraction that draws children. When in a similar lunch conversation, I have brought up topics such as scrapbooking, cameras, portable DVD players, stain resistant carpet, the latest kid movie, Disney World, and finding a gym or salon with hours that work for a busy life. If any of these topics can be brought up using a complement, then it goes even farther. For example, “Mary, I noticed the snapshots of your beautiful children on your desk. What kind of camera are you using?”

  43. i'm nobody :

    it saddens me that the conversation has degraded into the Offended Working Moms versus the Bitter, Childless Dried-out Uterus Club.

    Kat’s spin on the OP’s question, how to negotiate conversation topics, is good. finessing conversations, making small talk, and at times faking interest in the subject matter is something almost all of us need to work on. how did we get so far off topic?

    • I am childless, but only because I am in my mid 20’s and have decided to get a career off the ground first. Does this mean I’m in the “Dried-out Uterus Club”? I sure hope not, I can’t wait to have kids. Because I can’t wait, I do like hearing about other mothers (and fathers) and their kids.

      However, I can relate to the women without children. Get a mom talking about her children and it’s hard to shut the momma bear up. This is how it should be! Isn’t that what a mother’s love it all about? But some women can’t have kids, either because of genetics, age, or otherwise, and it hurts to talk about. Some women aren’t offended by the topic, they just have other interests and feel awkward trying to contribute to something “un-relatable”.

      Your post was to get back to the main point of the post, but in doing so you wrote a derogatory comment about a large number of the other readers. This “Mom vs Non-Mom” is just one example of the women hating women Eme was talking about above.

      Here’s an idea: we are all women trying to balance life and work. Whether life includes kids or not, the point of this blog was to bring us ladies together, not further divide the sects. Let’s ALL try to be understanding of where the others are coming from. Stop bickering back and forth about the moms you can’t shut up or about the members of the “Dried-out Uterus Club”. If something hurtful is said, be the stronger woman and lead by example (like a good mother would do, maybe?). Let’s use our female ability to empathize to make our society more female-friendly, rather than constantly dragging each other back down.

      I’m sorry about my long spiels today. I just can’t stand the idea of living in (and raising my daughter(s) in) a world where the female potential is something yet to be realized.

      That’s my last rant for the day, I promise. ;)

    • officially offended……

      • i'm nobody :

        i didn’t mean to offend you and i’m sorry my choice of words fell flat. i was trying to use sarcasm to illustrate the judgment and bias that a lot of commenters are slinging around.

        as a childless (by choice, without bitterness) woman i’m deeply offended by a lot of the cruelty and judgment upthread. there is a lot of “well if you don’t want to hear me talk about my wedding it’s probably because you’re jealous you can’t get a man.” i didn’t mean to contribute to the ugly.

  44. I had a different take on the OP’s story. Thought maybe she just felt left out because they were all talking about events (weddings, etc.) that she hadn’t been invited to and/or people (finance/husband/kids) whom she didn’t know.

    I think if that was the slant, the advice about being interested and trying to find something to contribute and also developing a thick skin about established relationships helps.

    I’m in an office of very friendly women who are nice to me but are all very good friends. It’s a balance — being friendly but professional and understanding that they have existing, deep friendships and my relationships will grow with time and friendliness.

    I think it’s a little harder if you’re not super-outgoing (not sure if the OP is). If so, it can require a pep talk to be friendly/interested in others/have a thick skin about existing relationships.

  45. What an interesting thread!

    I’m not sure exactly where the OP is coming from, but I think Eme is right that ambitious women –in general– seem to have a lot of internalized misogyny. It’s understandable, because many of our work environments are sexist — e.g., typical guy talk is felt to be ‘normal,’ while typical women’s talk is considered silly or frivolous. It’s also true that when a workplace is made up of senior men and junior women (like in one of the examples from a commenter earlier), an ambitious, successful woman might rationally want to avoid getting associated with the junior women, and might therefore develop a special distaste for girl talk. If so, you can’t really blame the woman for responding to her environment: she didn’t design the game; she is just playing in it.

    But I will also confess that I sometimes find myself despairing/disappointed about how my female colleagues navigate the ‘work social’ situations they find themselves in — particularly, very junior or less ambitious/successful women. For example, once at a conference dinner I did some table-hopping, and I was struck by how every male-dominated table was status-gossiping (who got fired, who was rivalrous, who was getting promoted), while the two female-dominated tables were both talking about TV programs! It’s just an anecdote, but still. Those women’s tables were just killing time, while the men’s tables were actually learning useful stuff. I also hate it when young women dress like princesses at work parties, instead of in business outfits. They’re undermining themselves, and I assume that if they knew that, they would stop.

    Back on topic: I don’t enjoy talking about sports _or_ babies. I always try to switch the conversation to gender-neutral topics. Two that always work: 1) how to make business travel better: tips and tactics for flights, airports, hotels, combating jet-lag, useful gadgets, where to eat, etc. And 2) personal technology use: what good cellphone is coming out next, how you handle your e-mail, do you like the iPad, do you use an e-reader. Practically everybody can find bonding terrain somewhere in there :-)

  46. Women don’t really need to carry a conversation. I don’t see anyone mention the hair throw, the furtive smile, and checking the smart phone.

  47. Is this lunch out of the office? Be VERY careful of discussing work at a restaurant. Most cities (even New York) are quite small – and opposing counsel may be at the next table (or their partners, associates, etc).

  48. Another good tip is to think of yourself as a facilitative mediator when your stuck in an sticky social situation. Never fails me, as this blogger has described the potential results in a post: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/04/02/alternative-dispute-resolution-%e2%80%93-it%e2%80%99s-like-the-new-coke-just-not-awful-and-unnecessary/

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