Be honest, now — what is it that scares you most about crawling out of your COVID-19 hidey-hole and going back to your workplace?
Is it the fact that you probably won’t be able to work in your pajamas? Is it the ridicule you’ll surely face bringing your best friend and collaborator, Stuffy J. Bear, Esq. into the office with you?
Of course it isn’t.
The real fear of going back to work is having to once again deal with people — people you can’t make go away by clicking on Zoom’s “Leave Meeting” button. People with whom you’ll have to rub elbows, or, depending on the level of familiarity allowed in your company, rub noses, for years to come.
Worst of all, people with whom you’ll have to talk.
It’s true! You’re facing a blizzard of banter, hour after hour, day after day. It’s enough to make you send off resumes for lighthouse-keeper positions in the Inner Hebrides (all the positions in the Outer Hebrides have already been filled. Sorry.) It’s an overreaction, possibly, but what alternate do you have?
Which brings us to Nicholas Epley, Michael Kardas and Amit Kumar, the trio behind “Small talk is boring. Our research shows how you can do better,” a recent article in The Washington Post.
The research that informs Epley, Kardas and Kumar’s discussion could make life at the office almost bearable. Basically, the three amigos recommend replacing the trivial conversations that make up 99.99% of mindless workplace chitchat with “deep and intimate conversations” that will leave the participants feeling “happier and more connected.”
According to social scientists, there’s a reason co-workers default to meaningless persiflage, like responding to a rainy day by saying, “Nice day for ducks, isn’t it?” or instigating a spate of mindless nattering with a friendly, “Excuse me, but are you the moron who spilled kombucha on my keyboard?”
Basically, you opt for low-level chitchat in the mistaken belief that other people are not interested in your deep and intimate thoughts. (Not your thoughts, of course. Everyone wants to know what’s going on in your awesome brain, no matter how twisted and disturbing those thoughts might be.)
Research suggests the opposite is true. Whether studying discussions with friends or strangers, “the pleasure deeper conversations provided was quite robust.” Which leaves the question: How exactly do you start a deep conversation?
Preparing a number of deep questions is definitely the way to go. The test questions used in the research studies cited above “come from a procedure designed by psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues used to create more intimate conversations among strangers.”
And who could be stranger than your co-workers?
Here’s a few Q’s to try out upon your return to office life, along with the A’s you’re likely to receive.
Q: For what in your life do you feel the most grateful?
A: I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend eight hours a day with people I basically can’t stand and certainly will never see again if I am lucky enough to lose this job.
Q: What do you love doing?
A: I love wasting time with nosy co-workers who are trying to pry into my personal life.
Q: What do you regret most in your life?
A: That’s an easy one. What I regret most is starting this conversation.
Q: Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?
A: No, I can’t, but if you’ll hold off the questions for half a minute, I think the waterworks are about to begin.
Unfortunately, there is one area of the deep-chat dynamic the scientists did not explore. When it comes to conversation starters, Epley, Kardas and Kumar are right on top of it, but when it comes to ending a deep and meaningful conversation, they offer no assistance at all.
My recommendation is to throw open a window, look outside and say, “Nice day for ducks, isn’t it?” Whether it’s sunny or rainy, your fellow conversationalists will be so relieved they’ll quickly shift the convo back to minor matters, like “where are you going for lunch?” or “yeah, I’m the moron that spilled kombucha on your laptop, and I think I’ll do it again.”
If your co-workers insist on talking about weighty issues of massive importance, you can always crawl under your desk and continue your conversation with Stuffy J. Bear, Esq.
For a toy bear, Stuffy has a lot to say, but no one could ever accuse him of being deep.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at [email protected] To find out more about Bob Goldman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.