“Nice to meet you! What do you do for work?”

If this is your opening line at networking events, it may be time for a new conversation starter.

Darden Professor Sean Martin, along with colleagues Spencer Harrison, Charlotte Hoopes, Juliana Schroeder and Peter Belmi, explored how the things we talk about when meeting new people relates to their wanting to stay in touch after our initial meeting. One aspect related to the desire for a second encounter was whether one’s new conversational companion chatted a lot about work or their life outside of work.

Networking and Meaningful Connections

First impressions matter, to relationships and to productivity. Companies want their people to mingle, to be inspired by each other and to have the sort of “creative collisions” that lead to innovation. Over the past two decades, Silicon Valley has famously invested billions in building open-plan workplaces with cafes and other casual spaces so that people from different parts of the organization can bump into each other and forge new relationships that hopefully lead to ongoing collaboration and innovation.

The insights from Martin and his colleagues suggest that this could work, but it may be most effective when, paradoxically, people at work talk about non-work stuff. They found that people who talked about non-work topics spoke differently than those who chatted about work, and those differences led them to be seen by their new connections as being better listeners — which subsequently increased the likelihood of follow-up interactions.

Unconscious Cues

It wasn’t simply whether people talked shop — the scholars found that it was more about how talking about work caused people to speak. That is, talking about work isn’t necessarily objectionable in and of itself; instead, it’s the language that the topic of work seems to unconsciously cue that sends signals to conversation partners. When people talked about work, they used more achievement-oriented, transactional words — “excel,” “win,” “gain” and “success” — compared to the vocabulary they used when they spoke about non-work topics. It turns out that using these words can be a turnoff, subtly signaling that the person using these words might not be particularly warm and may not be a very good listener. “Increased use of these words coincides with being seen as a less supportive conversation partner, which, understandably, makes people less likely to want to keep in touch,” Martin says.

Martin notes that the results of the studies were all indirect, and that this suggests important insights for how we talk about our work when meeting people for the first time. “It’s interesting, some people successfully avoided using these words very much when talking about work, and to the extent they did, we didn’t observe the same penalty in terms of how their partners rated them,” Martin notes. “In other words, it may be less about the topic of work itself, and more about how the topic of work can trigger a vocabulary that makes people see us as being less interested in them.”

The authors’ findings held across two settings, both a lab experiment and a field experiment in a real tech organization. In both settings, people’s conversations were taped and the transcripts later analyzed with language processing software.

Better Conversation Starters

If we know how achievement words color an initial impression and are aware that we might unconsciously default to them when talking about work, then we can look for conversation starters that signal warmth and curiosity about others outside of the world of work.

We know that people gravitate toward those who are attentive and authentic, who share part of their own lives and ask thoughtful questions (and really listen to the answers!). Martin and his colleagues propose trying to share information about one’s identity in a way that de-emphasizes achievement-oriented concerns. Doing so could lead people to view us more positively and increase the likelihood of creating and sustaining ongoing relationships.  

There are, of course, mitigating factors here for future investigation. These studies were done in the United States, and there may be societies in which it’s awkward or inappropriate to lead with a personal question. There may also be individuals who feel unsafe sharing their non-work identities or who may benefit from focusing on their achievements. Yet it’s still important to know that the question “So, what do you do?” might not be the optimal default as a conversation starter. As the researchers note, their findings “suggest that this question, while inviting a conversation, might also impair it.”

Sean R. Martin co-authored “Talking Shop: An Exploration of How Talking About Work Affects Our Initial Interactions,” forthcoming in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, with Spencer H. Harrison of INSEAD; Charlotte Hoopes of the UVA McIntire School of Commerce; Juliana Schroeder of the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business; and Peter R. Belmi of the UVA Darden School of Business.

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About the Expert

Sean Martin

Donald and Lauren Morel Associate Professor of Business Administration

An expert in leadership, social class and ethics, Martin’s research addresses how organizational and societal contexts impart values and beliefs onto leaders and followers, and how those values influence their behaviors and experiences. His work has been featured in top academic journals, including Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Business Ethics and Organizational Psychology Review, as well as mainstream media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Harvard Business Review and Comedy Central. 

Prior to joining the Darden faculty, Martin taught at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. 

B.A., University of California, Santa Barbara; MBA, California Polytechnic State University; Ph.D., Cornell University Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management