Getting Heated at the Water-Cooler

The Casey Anthony trial and verdict is one of those “Where Were You When” moments in pop-culture history. I was at work and got the news from my Twitter feed. Shortly after, I walked over to the mailroom to send out a couple of packages and stumbled on two employees in a heated discussion about the trial and verdict with a few others peeking out of their cubicles to watch the spectacle. I was immediately uncomfortable — but I hung out for a few extra moments, figuring they would stop in the presence of the dreaded HR lady. Surely they knew it was an inappropriate discussion and that they were causing a scene …

Yeah. Um. Not so much.

Either they didn’t notice me or they just didn’t care. They went right on arguing! And now I was trapped because they were in the doorway from the mailroom to the hallway. I finally just interrupted and said “Well, it sounds like the jury was just as confused as you two. It’s really an unfortunate thing for that entire family.” That seemed to snap them out of it and everyone went back to work.

Reflecting on what I just witnessed, I was reminded of an article by Nicole Williams that I’d read awhile back called “What Not to Talk About at Work.” If there ever was a perfect article for me to give honey in a mid-week post, it was this one!

The article encourages readers to avoid emotional and contentious topics during casual conversations with co-workers. It declares anything relating to politics, sex, religion and excessive personal drama as off-limits at the water-cooler. No matter how long you’ve worked with a person, unless you have built a friendship beyond the walls of the office, these topics just aren’t appropriate.

Today, I would add pop-culture news to the list. Our society has changed so much that what used to be merely tabloid fodder is now the lead story on the morning, afternoon and evening news on every reputable program. And everyone has a passionate opinion about this stuff!

But when you’re at work, talking to people who you don’t know very well and who don’t know much about you beyond your office reputation, KEEP YOUR OPINION TO YOURSELF!!! If you get stumble into a conversation like I did in the mailroom and/or have to say something, make it something neutral and unprovocative.

Why?

Because the things we say form our workplace reputation, even and especially the things that have nothing to do with work. Our opinions are a reflection of our character, integrity, trustworthiness and professionalism. When people get into inappropriate discussion topics at work, it impacts others’ level of comfort with them and others’ level of cooperation. You go from being an efficient and dependable team player to being the chick that defended Tot Mom or the Kardashian hater dude. Not good.

In all workplace things, seek to find common threads and positive angles versus inflammatory words and aggressive actions. Focus on your work, preserve your professional reputation — and save the drama for your momma!

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4 Comments

  1. Great post and very timely for changes going on in my workplace.

    • Buzz Rooney

      July 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM

      Thanks, Kim!

      Once upon a time, workplaces got flack for being too politically correct — but now it feels like the pendulum has swung back too far. Everything has the potential to turn into a bad reality drama. There needs to be better balance.

      I’m glad the post is useful for you. If there’s anything else I can do, let me know!

      • Heated debates can be expected when politics and religion rear their heads, but it gets really weird when it also applies to exchanges about who got kicked off American Idol or Dancing With the Stars.

        In situations like this I expect the immediate supervisor to step up and suggest a change in topic. Words once spoken can not be taken back, and can cause considerable long lasting harm. To quote one of my favorite sayings, the fish would not have been caught if he just kept his mouth shut.

        Mutual respect and consideration often seems to be fading attribute.

        • Buzz Rooney

          July 10, 2011 at 1:02 AM

          I love that saying about the fish! I will definitely use that in the future.

          I agree that it is up to someone in a supervisory role to step up and diffuse the situation. In this case, I was that person. Initially, I was admittedly afraid of making an awkward situation more awkward and possibly alienating someone in the process. But I knew the conversation had to be stopped before it got really out of hand.

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