Career & Education / Essays & Confessions

In Defense Of Water-Cooler Talk

By Friday, February 28, 2020

Up until recently, I worked remotely as a full-time freelancer. It was as glamorous as it sounds, as long as your definition of glamour is sitting around in your smelly workout clothes, talking to your pets.

When I first started working at The Financial Diet office earlier this year, I wasn’t used to talking very much during the day — at least not with, you know, people. This isn’t to say my coworkers are particularly chatty, but unlike my pets, they ask questions. “What did you do this weekend?” “What’s for lunch?” or simply, “How’s it going?” Having spent the better part of the last decade working in silence, it took a while to get used to chatting, but office small talk has once again become one of my favorite little daily joys.

When I was freelancing, I always said the thing I missed most about working in an office was water-cooler talk — just chatting about random stuff with my coworkers. It’s an underappreciated feature of workplace dynamics. Small talk helps you get to know your coworkers better and helps them get to know you, too. It can also help you work better. In our office, sometimes a story idea will emerge from small talk — like this one on how to combat aspirational home decor spending —  and I wonder if we would have stumbled upon that idea otherwise. Small talk can even improve cognitive function. In a 2010 study, subjects performed better on certain tasks after they had a brief, benign conversation with a peer.

On a personal note, office small talk also revealed just how much of a workaholic I’d become and has helped me build better habits. Before, without a set end to my day, I would simply work nonstop, rarely taking breaks and often skipping lunch. The occasional five-minute breaks to chat with my colleagues have forced me to squash some of those bad habits.

Workaholism has been on my mind all month long, as some of my favorite pieces published on the site this month touched on the drawbacks of workaholism. For example, Grace Dada wrote, PSA: Your Career Is Not Your Self-Worth. The headline alone hits close to home. But in this essay, Grace explains how it’s particularly crucial for Black women, who face a number of structural barriers in their careers, to separate their identity from their work. This is an important message for all of us, but if you’re in a group that’s marginalized in the workplace, the message is even more relevant.

Rosebelle Easthom wrote about her experience as a low-income worker in a culture that defines a person’s success and value in terms of work and money. And Rebecca Blanc shared her story about dating in between jobs, writing, “Gradually, I’m learning to accept reality and starting to understand that I’m just as worthy of a date as any full-time employed person.” If you’re an ambitious person, it’s particularly hard to separate what you do from who you are.

But it’s one thing to enjoy the work you do and another to allow it to define you. My work ethic is partly built on the fact that I get to do something fun for a living but it’s also partly built on an unconscious attempt to prove myself as a human being. For better or worse, my mom helped shape my work ethic — as an immigrant, she had to work hard to prove herself to be valuable and viable in this country. Maybe it’s up to me to turn this idea on its head and work hard for the sake of doing something I love, rather than proving my value as a person. Maybe the best way I can honor her work ethic is by building a healthier relationship with my own. And as simple as it seems, small talk is helping me get there.

Speaking of small joys, Sunday is March (!!!) and that means we’re thinking about spring and spring cleaning. In the spirit of that, we have some fun guides lined up for the month that will help you organize everything from your pantry to your wardrobe to your budget. As always, we also have compelling essays lined up on topics like burnout, negotiating, and emotional spending — so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to chat about pasta and morning commutes and cat videos in the TFD office, and we hope your workplace chatter is just as enjoyable.

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