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?