When the water cooler disappears, what happens to office chatter?
Written by Flora McKaig
Chattering. Yakking. Chewing each other’s ear off. A chinwag. Whatever you call it, speaking to one another, whether it’s about the latest TikTok dance, or more serious matters like the US election, is a fundamental aspect of the human condition.
The relative importance of the subject matter, naturally, varies from chat to chat, and from yak to yak… But any conversation, however small, allows us to build meaning for ourselves, understand those around us and perhaps, even if for one small moment, change the way we see the world.
Even gossip, anthropologists and psychologists have found, is an extremely common way in which people make sense of things; of what-to-do’s and what-not-to-do’s. Indeed, gossip doesn’t always have to involve the salacious subjects it tends to be associated with… Research illustrates this.
In a 2019 meta-analysis, Megan Robbins, an assistant professor of psychology at The University of California, found that of the 52 minutes a day on average the 467 subjects spent gossiping, three-quarters of that gossip was actually neutral.
In other words, it was not what was spoken about that was important, but rather that people had the opportunity to speak.
British office chat in particular consists of some of the most beautifully mundane conversation I’ve ever heard. The tired smiles and sarcastic remarks you might share over a fresh brew at 9am, and the, “Do you think it’s going to rain later?” questions, are what make going into our workplaces so valuable. They ground us.
It MIGHT sound like I’m writing a Dettol ad… but I’m being totally genuine. These instances make us realise that however stressful or overwhelmed we might feel in our working lives, that at least Dave is always there seeing if you want another one of his too-milky teas (thanks, but no thanks Dave), and your boss is there to tell you you’re doing a good job (but aesthetically, your decks could do with a bit of work).
We are brought back down to earth by the inherently benign nature of daily human interaction.
That conversation is a fundamental need of humans is not a contested point of view. In fact, and although it’s a bit gloomy, a study at Harvard University discovered that a lack of strong relationships in life had “an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity”.
But, when the water cooler disappears, where does this office chatter go? What happens to our 52 precious minutes of talking about nothing at all?
We have what feels like abundance of social platforms now. Miro, Slack, Linkedin, Zoom, emails… These are all sold as transformative ways to connect with one another when there’s no office.
But, I wonder, are we really are afforded the same benefits via digitally-mediated conversation as we are when we are speaking to someone face to face? Probably not.
Thankfully if you, like me, have brilliantly welcoming and supportive colleagues, you’ll see Slack messages replacing taps on the shoulder and smile emojis peppered through emails instead of a “do you want a cup of tea too?”
All these tiny moments can bring us closer to the feeling of chatting in person. Each effort to include and to bring in can give us all a feeling of togetherness – even if it does come in the form of smile emoji.
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