55

Related to my other question, sometimes, being the youngest employee in a multinational environment might be a headache. Or an advantage. Yesterday it's been one of the embarrassed moments I've been dealing with at the company I'm currently working for (been working here for almost 3 months now).

While on break, our department usually goes for a meal upstairs in the cafeteria. All of my colleagues are married, have kids (even nephews) and they're always talking things like:

I had that thing fixed in the garage.

or

My son/wife did that (...)

This kind of things. Which is totally fine. Other colleagues join the discussion and interactively give their opinion / advices regarding that topic. I don't.

Now, I'm an introvert person and I'd rather prefer listening to somebody than talking about personal stuff.

Long story short

Yesterday, in a moment of silence (ohh, it was that very moment), my manager asked me for any interesting subject which we can debate. Even if I'm an introvert, I'm always open to discussions about technology or anything related to science / books / movies etc. But in that moment, I was just thinking subconsciously that each time I was there, they weren't talking about the subjects I usually like to talk about so I thought they are not interested in this at all. So, I just didn't say a thing. Nor did anybody else. They were looking at me, waiting for that interesting subject. So I kindly excused and ran (I didn't really run) into the office.

How should I deal with this kind of situations ? I might overthink this a bit, but I really want some real-world examples from you guys. Due to the fact that there's one manager, my team-leader, seniors and other managers (sometimes) from other departments, I can't really afford to say anything wrong.

  • 42
    one way to avoid being put on the spot like this is to join in on the topics others are discussing. "That sounds exhausting!" or "when do you think the project will be finished!" or "I remember doing that with my parents a few years ago" are contributions that show you are listening and interested to the stories your coworkers are telling. You can also ask them questions like how they learned to do that, or how long it takes to get to some vacation place they went, and so on. This will keep the conversation moving without requiring you to choose the subject. – Kate Gregory Nov 28 '16 at 22:51
  • 19
    Whatever subject you choose, it's better to stay away from religion, politics, working out and diets. – Pieter B Nov 29 '16 at 8:37
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Dec 2 '16 at 0:38

15 Answers 15

106

I'm always open to discussions about technology or anything related to science / books / movies etc. But in that moment, I was just thinking subconsciously that each time I was there, they weren't talking about the subjects I usually like to talk about so I thought they are not interested in this at all. So, I just didn't say a thing. Nor did anybody else. They were looking at me, waiting for that interesting subject. So I kindly excused and ran (I didn't really run) into the office.

How should I deal with this kind of situations ?

So talk about science, books or movies (or anything else that interests you). Even some old people like me like to talk about those.

Next time don't run away. Just be friendly and talk. If you do it a few times, you'll find that it isn't all that difficult.

  • 21
    Yeah... Totally this. If they aren't talking about things that you want to talk about and then they ask you what they should talk about then answer honestly. Its not like science is a big taboo and if you say that they'll be shocked, horrified and think you are some kind of deviant. – Chris Nov 29 '16 at 1:48
  • 12
    There are certainly people for whom socializing in such situations requires significant effort (even if you've done it before), and you shouldn't dismiss that. But the main point is true. (I would guess that the function of the request wasn't actually to get a topic out of you, but to help you into the discussion. The actual topic is of secondary importance. They're making an effort to include you; try to work with them!) – alcedine Nov 29 '16 at 9:29
  • 13
    Waiting for workplace.stackexchange.com to change it's name to how-to-exhibit-basic-social-skills.stackexchange.com – SnakeDoc Nov 29 '16 at 18:44
  • 4
    @SnakeDoc you say that as if (a) social skills aren't important in the work environment, and/or (b) they are obvious to everyone. – alcedine Nov 30 '16 at 8:07
  • 3
    @alcedine Come on... this question is "if someone asks me a question, should I run away or respond?", and the answer is "respond, duh!". How is this workplace related? This would better fit in Parenting, or perhaps some other place where adults learn basic social skills... such as not running away when people talk to you. – SnakeDoc Nov 30 '16 at 18:12
32

Don't be afraid to be yourself. I strongly disagree with one of the other answers that said:

adapt and align your interests to the interests of your colleagues

Seriously, the strength of any team or workplace is that everyone is not the same. Try talking about something that interests you. The worst thing that is likely to happen is polite disinterest (which is hardly the end of the world). If you aren't sure whether others will be interested, keep your initial thoughts brief and be willing to let the topic move to something else if it doesn't seem that others are actively engaged in the discussion.

Just stay away from politics, religion, and anything controversial or potentially offensive.

Don't try to act like someone else. In the long run this will just stress you out. You will build stronger relationships at work when you know and accept each other for who you really are.

You said:

I'm always open to discussions about technology or anything related to science / books / movies etc

Any of these things are fine topics for casual conversation

  • 1
    I don't think @snowlockk 's answer should be interpreted as advice to be a blind conformist. For example, I don't know or care about football, but most of my colleagues do. So I make an effort to learn a bare minimum so that I'm at least a little sociable when they're all taking about it. They know that I'm not a fan. Most of my "contributions" are asking what must be dumb questions, but it makes them feel smart, makes me feel engaged, and all of us more socially connected. Sometimes I can even use it to segue into something I'm more interested in taking about. – Wes Sayeed Nov 30 '16 at 22:31
  • youtube.com/watch?v=6yN2H3--1aw – Wes Sayeed Nov 30 '16 at 22:44
9

From the sounds of it your manager has noticed that you don't participate in the conversations. I think he was trying to give you an 'in" and try to include you. You might find that even though you don't have a very interesting topic choose something you like, this will help your colleagues to get to know you better.

From there they will be able to include you in the group more and once this happens it will be easier to talk with them.

7

As an introvert you are probably used to carefully observing and listening. Use these (rare) skills to your advantage. Some strategies you might try:

  1. For the half hour you are doing the group lunch thing, adapt and align your interests to the interests of your colleagues. You don't have to pretend you are extremely engaged in these topics, all you need is to know something about them (having heard something yesterday which increased your knowledge of an issue by 100% also counts). This can (should) be mundane stuff like:

(a) which of your relatives you visited where and when over the past 6-12 months;

(b) which home improvement project you are considering (if you own) or (if you rent) recall someone doing with some unexpected result, or success;

(c) anything in the news except politics, or religion, or anything actually meaningful on which a radical opinion (i.e. a critical and thoughtful human opinion, such as your opinion) might touch a nerve. Usually local news is best, such as did you hear about that ___ (fire you saw driving home the other day, last weekend to do XYZ at local park/library, that construction project downtown that's behind schedule, that event organized by a charity you support (kind of))...etc.

Basically, be a team player, smile, and try to play along. Even if your colleagues will sense that you don't have much deep concern or knowledge about a topic, most likely they will appreciate the effort. And that's enough to be on their (and management's) good side. Good luck!

  • 8
    Socializing at work is one of the most productive things you can do. If you make connections to people, you will find them far more cooperative. If you make connections to people, they will far more likely to forgive a mistake. If you make connections to people you are FAR more likely to survive a layoff. You truly need to read some books on office politics, you can't afford to sit in a bubble all day. – HLGEM Nov 28 '16 at 23:12
  • @HLGEM, indeed. You're absolutely right. Especially with: "If you make connections to people, they will far more likely to forgive a mistake" – Grajdeanu Alex. Nov 30 '16 at 10:02
6

Welcome to the club

... of people chatting at lunch breaks.

Awkward silences happen, and it's not something to worry about. Also, not everybody needs to be a lightly chatting wonder of entertainment.

Relax

Really, the best way to handle this (and pretty much every other social "situation") is to relax. Don't think about possible topics before you go to lunch. Don't do your best to hunt around for ideas while eating. Speak when it feels natural, keep your silence when it does not.

If people cannot stand an introvert at the table, that's not your problem, really (unless you happen to work in a field where extroverts are required; say if it is your main job to go lobbying new customers, then being an introvert probably is a problem...).

Speak

If you are asked something and simply do not know any answer, then still relax. You can look at your partner for a few seconds (just slightly more than a normal answer would take), and if after that span you still cannot think of anything, then calmly, friendly, in an amused way, tell them "Good question, Sir, and you caught me cold here - I cannot think of anything at the moment." That's miles better than stammering around, and since such an admission is actually not too easy to make, it might quite improve your standing, in their eyes.

The trick is to convince you that such an answer is OK and not something that will hurt you. If you can do that (i.e., convince yourself), then you can also deliver such a line in a convincing way which doesn't let you appear as some kind of fool.

5

As the youngest employee in my workplace for about a year and a half, I can relate. However, as the youngest in most social groups I've participated in, I have a few survival strategies.

It is better to act (albeit naively) than to do nothing

In my experience, the older and (chances are, more mature) a person is, the more likely they will be accepting of someone else who is struggling to participate in a conversation. Especially, they will overlook a certain amount of naivete in someone else.

Although I wince at the idea of being considered naive by others, the reality is, as a young person, you cannot escape expressions like, "I remember when I was your age..." While this is inherently (although unintentionally) patronizing, it gives you an advantage, as well:

If I do something socially awkward, others find it unremarkable; their expectation of me is lower than their expectation of older folk; they expect me to be naive. As long as I'm not overtly disrespectful, and I'm quick to apologize whenever I blunder, chances are, they'll forget about it in an hour. (NB: Blunder in this case means that I offend or disrespect someone else; not that I say something they find uninteresting. In the latter case, look at my 3rd point.)

However, if I handle a situation with tact, it is remarkable to them, and they are impressed. Chances are, they'll remember that for a while. "Jonathan is only 25, but he handled that situation like a pro" Therefore, it is often more beneficial to act, than to be silent.

Rely on the wisdom of others

Everyone loves to give their opinion, and becoming older and more mature doesn't make this less true. If an older adult believes they have an opportunity to mentor you, or give you advice, they'll take it: and if you receive their advice gracefully (whether or not you actually take the advice!) makes them look smart — and makes you look smart, too!

Here's an example: your manager knows that successfully engaging with your colleagues socially is a big help toward being able to work with them effectively. He or she also can see how difficult it is for you to engage in the current conversation. (And that fact is not true because of your age, but in spite of it: a single person of any age would have difficulty entering into these types of discussions, without first changing the topic.)

With that assumption, chances are, your manager was simply trying to give you an opportunity to respectfully switch topics. Next time, take the opportunity. Even if you struggle, you're still following your boss's leadership: and if you follow him/her into an area that makes you seem (or be) uncomfortable, that only demonstrates your trust in his/her leadership. As a young person, you still come out ahead this way.

I should also note that, a young person who chooses not to interrupt an older person can indeed seem more mature; that, you did well; but refusing to engage at all does demonstrate your immaturity. Nevertheless, don't be discouraged by this, and don't give up: the only way to go from here is up!

If you seem immature now, it can work in your favor in a few months, when your co-workers see you growing (e.g. in this case, participating in the conversation.) There's a whole world of difference between someone who is naive and someone who is obstinate or lazy! It is much better to seem naive than lazy! This underscores my first point all the more: to a healthy limit, action is better than inaction.

Treat yourself as an equal to your colleagues

As counter-intuitive as this may sound, this is probably one of the most mature decisions I ever made, as a young adult. The reality is, you were hired. There were others who your boss could have hired; some of them were probably older than you. Your contribution to the company is already considered valuable. By extension, your contribution to your co-workers lives is valuable: when you do your job well, it helps them to do their own jobs; and if they see that you are attempting to do well, it behooves them to help you in every way that they can — for their own benefit, as well as yours.

To say it another way, Don't allow your age to become an excuse to do poorly (even by accident). You have the same expectations of yourself as they have of themselves, right? You expect yourself to do good work, so why wouldn't you expect yourself to be equal to them at the lunch table?

So what if they don't like the things that interest you? You have as much right to air your opinions as they have! (Just be respectful, and allow the conversation to drift away from your interests as quickly as it moved toward them.)

Relate to your co-workers, instead of wondering how they relate to you

The reality is, each of your co-workers has a different makeup: they have different strengths and weaknesses. How are you different from that?

In addition, their perception of their own strengths and weaknesses differs from reality, at least in some points. How are you different from that? You view your youth and inexperience as a weakness; but it can be a strength, with the right attitude. They may well view their age as a weakness.

They (may) see their lives as less exciting that yours: much of their lives is now focused around responsibilities (fixing something in the garage), which you do not have. They don't have as much time to study technology or science; they don't have the time to read books or watch shows anymore.

The adventures of a single person is often interesting to a married person. (Why else would soap operas be so popular?) Now, obviously, and unlike a soap opera: you don't want to talk about all of your adventures: like how often you date a new person, etc.

But, you can talk about, e.g. how you want to participate in bicycle marathon you've been training for, and how thrilling it is for you to ride from time to time. (I often commute by bicycle.)

So, what you contribute (even if nothing else) is a vibrancy that (they may believe) they lack.

3

An other possibility could be : take the opportunity to ask about former stories that happened in that very workplace you are now in.

I often had the best chats when I asked older co-workers some funny or interresting (or sometimes "mind boggling") story that happened before. That way you initiate an interresting conversation for everyone, and let the older co-worker compete on the best story (and you'll both have fun AND learn a lot in the process)

3

You need to understand the situation properly: If they are talking about their kids, about home improvements, etc., that's not because they are particularly interested in kids and home improvements, but because that is what they experienced during the week, so that is what they talk about.

It's most likely that they would be just as interested in whatever you would talk about, even if it is not part of their daily life. So don't worry about the subjects they bring up and don't feel excluded because of that.

(BTW. If there are subjects that you have little or no knowledge about because of young age, it may be an opportunity to learn without having to pay the price. For example learning what can go wrong with home improvements may be of huge value to you some time in the future. And asking intelligent questions usually goes down well. )

1

I was very introverted when I was younger, but I got over it. I could think of nothing about me that would be interesting to someone else. So I talked about things I read or stories about people I knew.

If you're a programmer, you could talk about new frameworks you heard about. Or you tell that funny story about your friend nobody would believe, but "I was there when it happened."

When you get used to it, you might link it back to you. "I used that Python framework, for my robot fighting project." And after some time you'll recognize that there are also interesting things to tell about yourself.

1

Do you respect your coworkers? Are they smart and successful? Here is your best ROI question: "What advice would you give the 22 year old version of you"? (Insert your actual age.) or "How can I become you when I grow up"?

The advantage here is:

  1. You remain to be introverted for a short sentence. People love to talk about themselves and their knowledge.
  2. You can learn stuff, some of it will be very valuable.
  3. They will like you for asking. It never hurts to get along with co-workers
  4. You are likely to get opposing views at the table so you might learn even more.
  5. Asking questions invites relationships. Its difficult for us introverts to create relationship and practicing asking questions is a good place to start.
  • 1
    "How can I become you when I grow up" - yikes that would be an awkward question. – WorkerDrone Nov 29 '16 at 20:20
1

Not just the workplace but generally: people would much rather talk about themselves. So ask this kind of thing:

What did you do at the weekend (and what are you planning for the next one)?

Ditto holidays

Tell me about your family...

Where do you come from? What's it like there compared to here?

What about this weather here? or that weather there? Road conditions, roadworks...

What transport devices do you use?

Once you get people to loosen up and chat, you'll find it's interesting. Take an interest. Next time, ask them how it went. They will repay your interest by asking you the same questions, so have non-boring answers ready.

0

Our company had colleagues come from Japan, who I worked with many years, and each had their own personalities. I believe Americans generally like others to feel accepted, and so try to include that person in the conversation. It sounds like this was the case for you. We learned so much from these co-workers; one could sing an opera, another cut pineapples into works of art, all liked to travel and shared their experiences.... You have something to offer them; dig deep and try to find a story you can offer them about yourself so they can know better who you are...but always "be yourself". I'm sure you will feel part of the group after this....

-1

This may seem to come 'out of the blue', but the advice I have received several times: when conversation stalls you can try What do you like about your life?
It is amazing what people answer and you generally leave the conversation with a very positive feeling.
Everybody can just answer one thing, then go round again.

If you want to have it more work-related, try What do you like about working here?

-1

What to talk about to ye olde perfonef ?

  • The weather
  • Aches and pains
  • Pension plans
  • Gardening
  • Walking X miles to school in the snow, barefoot
  • If in the UK, complain about the new money and reminisce about pounds, shillings and pence
  • Say that you are thinking about having a stairlift installed and ask for advice
  • Talk about fixing your car yourself.
  • Driving from A to B without using such and such aroad
  • How disrespectful young people are today (be sure to acknowledge Juvenal).
  • The list is endless.

However, you say "I'm an introvert person", so I doubt that it is an age thing. How would you react if the group were comprised of people who are your own age? Why should you act any differetnly when they are not?

You have two choices:

  • tell them what interests you. If it doesn't interest them, they won't shout at you, or even think less of you. They will just change the topic.

  • feign some interst ("how about our local sports team, then?"), or swat up on the very basics a few topics which inetrest them. Believe me, it is very to start a discussion with a single neutral statement or question, then just stand back and let others run with it (based on the principle that opinions are like a**holes; everyone has one, and they all stink, except mine).

-2

It is important to find out what people like. Listen to their convos. Do they like board games or video games or old westerns.

They know their kids, their kids have parents, you have parents. Talk about your relationship with them.

My family did x on thanksgiving, did yours? I just told my co-workers I ate like 15 kinds of pie Thursday, then reiterated, 15 KINDS!

protected by Jane S Nov 29 '16 at 20:48

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.