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The question

I recently completed my PhD and started working on another project immediately afterward. I was able to get a workspace at an organization a few days during the week (I have another job on the other days). The people at the office are warm and welcoming, but my issue is about socializing with a larger group. I'm not used to office culture. One on one I'm fine, but I find it hard to join in conversations that go around in the cubicles, or when people congregate in the kitchen. I can hold my own at parties. Here, though, I feel awkward. I would like to join in and add to the conversation, but I haven't been in this kind of work setting before. I also spent the past year focused on my thesis and was writing in relative isolation. My social group was small and consisted of family and close friends.

Now, I'm realizing how out of practice I am at making small talk. I'm worried I'm giving the impression that I don't want to engage socially or that perhaps I'm aloof, which isn't true. Actually, I'd like to grow my network, meet cool people and become more social. Any advice?

The answer

You've come to the right place. All my life, I've alternated between office work and writing in splendid isolation in my home office. At the risk of stating the obvious: You say you're good at parties but find it difficult to socialize at work. The reason is because seeing people socially and socializing with them at work are two distinct animals/entities.

When we see people socially, it tends to be for short periods and not that often – say a few hours every few weeks – and there's not a lot at stake. So people are able to present their best face to you, the "greatest hits" of their personality.

But when you're cheek-to-jowl, cubicle-to-cubicle, all day, day in, day out with someone, you get a more three-dimensional picture of a person's character. On the few occasions I've worked with someone I'd previously only known socially, even someone I'd known a long time, it was a revelation: I've only really known the tip of the iceberg of this person.

Then there's the food-on-table aspect of work. Non-work socializing is all, "Ha-ha-ha, pass the chardonnay, let me tell you about my trip to Curacao, you look great in that shirt by the way …"

At work, it's all about keeping that same shirt on your back, as well as groceries in the fridge and diapers on the baby. People are willing to go to the mattress for that sort of thing. Suddenly, there are stakes.

People at work are socializing, yes, but with more of an agenda: covering their asses, trying to get ahead, maybe glean some information about you to rat you out, curry favour with the boss, and so on.

(At least if the places I've worked are anything to go by.)

So they tend to behave in a more Machiavellian fashion, backstabbing and double-crossing, playing cards closer to the vest than they do at, say, a dinner party.

But you're in a unique position in that you have no real skin in the game when it comes to the politics of the office in which you occupy a cubicle.

You're a renter, an interloper, an outsider. On the one hand, it means you are missing out on a key avenue to making friendships – working on a shared enterprise – but on the other, it means you can lend an impartial ear to whatever whining, complaining and kvetching people need to unburden themselves.

(And if the office you work in is anything like any office I've ever worked in, they have plenty to grouse and grumble about.)

Exploit that fact. You say you're good one on one. Exploit that also. Why not offer to take people out for intimate little tête-à-têtes? Assure them of confidentiality/your impartiality and encourage them to vent and unburden themselves to whatever extent they feel comfortable.

Don't worry about cross-cubicle chit-chat or impromptu all-office kitchen klatches. One on one is always the best way to build friendships.

Then make sure that whatever they tell you is sealed in a vault of secrecy and don't blab.

Do that and I predict the trick (as Shrek says about Donkey in Shrek) will be to get them to shut up. Soon, you'll have more office besties than you know what to do with.

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