Business Today
Appropriate office conversation that can help your career
Understanding what makes for appropriate office conversation can help you in your career.
Office Speak
Devashish ChakravartyThe better part of our waking hours as an adult is spent in offices. Many make friends and forge relationships that last a career or even a lifetime. In an increasingly connected world, success is now dependent on communication.

But too much of a good thing is as bad as too little. Lack of restraint while communicating can be disastrous. Unlike family and friends, the workplace is unforgiving and you can jeopardise your career. There are certain topics that be best kept apart from the workplace.

POLITICS:
Along with money, sex and religion, politics quickly fires up people and disputes and the result is seldom positive. Beware of the recruiter's question about opinions on the new minister or who will win the next elections.

Too emotional a reply, at the expense of logic, conveys an impression of intemperance. A canny interviewer will avoid recruiting such candidates. In office teams, as individual opinions are diverse and polarised, political discussions rarely lead to better bonding.

Unlike a casual debate on cricket, food or movies, political opinions tend to colour people's judgements of you.

RELIGION:
This is probably worse than politics as a topic for office conversation. In the modern multi-cultural, multi-ethnic workplace, religious diversity is a way of life.

Most people are extremely sensitive about their personal beliefs. An opinion can be construed as less than flattering to a belief system. From an organisation's perspective, employees who engage in such discussions are labelled as insensitive troublemakers who are unable to get along in teams and are fired before their incompetent colleagues.

THE GRAPEVINE:
Before social networking sites were born, water-cooler conversations were popular and criticising the management was the favourite topic. (Of course, integrating the two has been a bad idea as trashing management or your boss on Facebook is one way of losing a job.) A survey found that employees spend over 10 hours a month complaining or listening to complaints about employers and seniors.

Chances are that your workplace is no different. But remember that your boss will eventually overhear such a conversation or learn about it from someone. This is unlikely to improve career prospects. Find a more productive use for your time and move away if you see yourself being drawn into conversations.

Gossip unrelated to such criticism is more insidious and widespread. A Spanish proverb puts it well-'whoever gossips to you will gossip about you'. It has a detrimental effect on morale and relationships.

Low self-esteem, jealousy or a need to sound important triggers most office rumours. The consequences may not be apparent in the short term but being overly critical of someone not present marks one out as a person without integrity. Avoiding gossip will save you time and keep your relationships positive. Be tactful in your attempts to avoid gossipmongers, lest you be a target.

PROFANITY AND LEWD COMMENTS:
Some conversations in an office may be profane. But not lewd. There is a world of difference. Sending explicit mails to a colleague or sharing inappropriate content is unacceptable. It can get you jail time as you leave an electronic trail.

Section 292 of the IPC deals with content that is 'lascivious or prurient' in nature while conversations describing sexual functions would come under IPC Section 294. A male worker can also be booked under the new Sexual Harassment Act. Such complaints are rarely tolerated in the organised sector as companies loathe publicity of this nature.

Profanity is different. Using four-letter expletives will not cost you your job, even if it sounds like you still have a college hangover. Even so, it is wise to temper the tang in your speech. As long as your words do not insult a co-worker, your conversations will often be forgotten by the next time your team gets together.

Finally, though you can choose what to say and where, you may not always be able to choose what you are privy to. To avoid being part of controversial discussions, review the groups that you spend time with.

Whether you like it or not, you are judged on the basis of the company you keep. So seek out people who have high personal standards and are focussed on work. Not only will you be perceived as a key contributor at the workplace but each day will be far more cheerful and filled with the right kind of challenges.

MORE TOPICS TO AVOID


Money:
Asking colleagues about their income and personal wealth is rude and disclosing one's own can sound boastful. Comparing bonuses with co-workers can even sour relationships.

Private life:
It is called private for good reason. Bringing one's bedroom matters to the office is disrespectful to one's partner and can embarrass the listener. Taken to an extreme, such conversations at the workplace could be classified as sexual harassment.

Family:
A worker who constantly discusses family issues in the office, whether involving parents, spouse or children, comes across as weak and unsuitable for team leadership or positions of authority. The boss also has a right to question if those very problems are affecting the employee's output at work.

Health:
An employee who perennially complains about health problems is a bore and the team might wonder if he is doing his share of work. However, if health issues are serious and require leave or special consideration, make sure that the boss knows it well in advance.

Career plans:
Discussing your ambitions at the workplace is bound to hinder rather than help your efforts. Your ambitions of moving up within the firm might sound pretentious and discussions about a desire to seek a new job will sound disloyal to the firm.


The writer is CEO, Quetzal Verify, an HR solutions company started by four IIM-Ahmedabad graduates.
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