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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Water Cooler Fail: How to Avoid 3 Sticky Office Conversations

Ever leave a conversation thinking “I can’t believe I said that!”? There’s nothing like a water cooler chat gone terribly wrong to make you want to spend the rest of the day hiding under your desk. But, we know, slip-ups happen—and the best way to recover from those conversational mishaps is to just move on. Or, well, not make them in the first place. Here’s your guide some all-too-common conversation faux pas and how to avoid them.

1. The Awkward Pause

You know it when it’s happening: You find yourself in the middle of a conversation with a co-worker, only to realize that the topic is quickly running out of steam. The result is the dreaded awkward pause as you try to excuse yourself or grapple for something—anything—to keep the chit-chat going.


Always have a back-up question ready and waiting. Whether you find yourself chatting up the cute new guy in the break room or riding in the elevator with the CEO, you can end an uncomfortable silence by touching on a few fail-safe topics: Inquire about their weekend plans, comment on the weather, or ask “so, what projects do you have on tap this month?” Be sure to frame your questions in a way that requires more than just a “yes” or “no” answer, which will help keep the conversation flowing. If all else fails, bow out gracefully by saying you need to get back to your desk or make a run to the supply room.

2. Over-apologizing

Have you ever said, “I’m sorry” when someone bumped into you on the sidewalk? Do you find yourself apologizing at work, only to realize that the issue at hand had nothing to do with you? Many women automatically apologize to ease tense situations or avoid conflict, even when they’re not at fault. For the worst offenders, saying “sorry” becomes almost unconscious, like saying “like,” “um,” or “you know.”


The first step to stopping any bad habit is to identify the trigger. Do you tend to automatically apologize when faced with an uncomfortable situation? If so, try this: The next time someone brings up a problem at work, pause, and try to resist the urge to blurt out “I’m sorry.” Instead, say something like, “Thanks for bringing that to my attention. Let me look into that a little more and get back to you.” This gives you time to get to the root of the issue and then determine if an apology is needed or not. Or, try replacing it with another phrase. “That’s too bad, how can I help?” will leave you sounding much more confident and capable than “sorry!”

3. TMI

With many of us documenting our every move via social media, oversharing has become a way of life. It seems (almost) normal to tweet about your strange skin condition or post a picture of a half-eaten meal on Facebook, and it’s all too easy to let your constant stream of updates come out to your co-workers, especially when someone asks “how was your weekend?” But unfortunately, sharing too many personal details at work can be a problem and damage your credibility as a responsible employee.


Pretend your co-workers are on the same level as, say, your aunt or uncle—no need to talk about excessive drinking, illegal behavior, or even relationship drama. Save the juicy details of your weekend fling or crazy Vegas vacation for your BFF, and keep it professional around your co-workers. (We promise, they’ll still think you’re cool.) You’ve worked hard to create an image as a mature employee worthy of raises and promotions—don’t ruin it by talking about how the cops broke up your epic backyard bash.

All this said, at the end of the day, remember that office conversation isn’t a science—it’s an art that takes time to perfect. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find that you're still occasionally lost for words or have an awkward water cooler moment every now and then. It happens to the best of us.

Photo courtesy of Bruno Cordioli.