How to Create an Inclusive Working Environment - A Guide to Welcoming a New Member

Introduction

In this Constructive Talk at Work course we created a A Guide to Welcoming a New Member. We all agreed that small talk and body language are important aspects in work environment and welcoming a new member is something everyone will do at some point. Sometimes even you can be the new member. 

This course lasted for six weeks and we worked in smaller groups to create three different topics and in the end combined them as one complete article. The topics are small talk, body language and joining a new group. We read different articles about the topics and conducted a survey concerning them. In addition, we created videos and pictures. There were 17 students contributing to this article and it was interesting to see all the different perspectives on the topics, since most of us study different fields.

At first, we discuss the importance of small talk and how to succeed in it. We continue the discussion with how to join a new groupLastly, we talk about body language and show some informative videos.

What Is Small Talk? 

Oxford English Dictionary defines small talk to belight talk or conversation, especially polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, as engaged in on social occasions. The dictionary defines small talk also to befigurative. This directs us to think that the substance of the conversation is not the main point of small talk at all. More so, the aim seems to be connecting people in everyday life. Rather than expressing thought, small talk is often about breaking the silence 

The expression itself is not completely unproblematic. When something is labeledsmall”, it implies there is somethingfuller”, “seriousoruseful”. Despite this image, there is no question of the social significance of small talk. Small talk can be seen as a way of acknowledging others without having to engage in a deeper, more substantial and perhaps more than anything, personal conversation. Ron Scollon has described human communication through a machine metaphor. Scollon suggest that the machine must behumming”. Unless, there must be something wrong with the machine. Thinking about a workplace as a machine might not be the most fruitful metaphor in the context of a workplace but in a way there is some truth to it. Just imagine a completely silent workplace. The only conversations you hear are about substantial matters, no light-hearted chit-chat. This kind of setting would surely make you think there is something wrong in the social atmosphere.

We conducted a survey about small talk, body language and joining a new group. 15 members of Dialogue: Constructive Talk at Work answered. The Finns are known to be quiet and not so comfortable using small talk and expressive body language. The purpose of this survey was to find out the general opinion about these topics and do they match the stereotype.  

We asked about the last time the students used small talk and apparently, they use it quite often. Most of the respondents used small talk in the last week or the last few days. It was mostly used in occasions such as school and work. There was also a point about whether small talk is voluntary or are we obligated to use it. The respondents didn’t have strong opinions about using small talk, most think it is a daily activity. Despite this, many (66,7%) felt uncomfortable using small talk in different situations. 


Tips for Good Small Talk  

To make small talk less uncomfortable we have gathered some useful tips on how to start the light conversation and how to keep it going. 

  • If you feel uncomfortable taking center stage, ask questions to help the other person open and talk. 
  • Ask open questions that are easy to answer with a longer sentence versus a closed yes-or-no-question. Listen to the other person talking and have follow-up questions but do not interrogate. Show that you are listening. 
  • Reflect the discussion.
  • Be polite to other people.
  • Remember that often the nervousness and anxiety are from within yourself and not from the small talk situation.
  • When answering questions, you are given the ability to lead the conversation to a topic that is comfortable for you.  

One question we asked about small talk in the survey was What are some good small talk topics? The most popular answer was the weather with 8 answers. People also pointed out that the topic depends on who they are with. For example, they use different topics at school and at work. Sports and other common interests were also mentioned. The general opinion was that small talk shouldn’t be anything too deep and more like an everyday light conversation. 

Many of us have been in the situations when good small talk topic is needed. But which are often seen as good topics for small talk and which topics you should definitely not use until you know the person you’re talking to better? 

Good topics 

  • Work: this works especially well if you’re “the new member” in a work environment. Talking about work is easy since it is the thing that connects you with the others.  
    • How long have you been working here? 
    • How did you become (the title)? 
    • Have you always wanted to be (the title)? 
    • If you had to do something else, what would you do? 
    • Remember, this topic might not work in all the places!
  • Weather: as dull it may sound, it is always safe to talk about the weather. If you have for example foreign colleagues, the conversations about the weather may even surprise you!
    • Today is such a beautiful day! This winter, sun has rarely shone in Finland. What kind of winter you have had in your country?
    • This summer has been so hot, I can barely remember summer like this! It is typical that in midsummer it rains.
  • Entertainment: it is usually safe to discuss about books, sports, music and movies. You may even find someone who shares your passion about something!
    • Do you follow any sports? I follow/ don’t follow…
    • I red a really good book about something. Have you read it? / Have you read any interesting books lately?
    • Next weekend, I was planning to go to this gig/to opera/to movies. I am going to see… Last week I saw the Joker which has been really popular. Have you seen it?
  • News: the news of the world. What has happened? The strike is going on, corona virus is spreading.
  • Family: people like to talk about their families.
    • Do you have children?
  • But remember, even though these are good topics, they can quite easy become too personal! They can even become bad topics, such as these:
  • Financial: when you talk to your colleagues about work, do not talk about how much they are making!
  • Politics: if you talk about the news of the world, avoid the politics. It is difficult to say if you are offending someone by telling your strong opinions about something!
    • “All the voters of Perussuomalaiset are stupid hillbillies” Keep this to yourself.
  • Religion: same as politics. Religions are personal and some people do not want to discuss it with strangers.
  • Sex or sexuality: again, too personal topic for small talk. Listening about strangers’ sex life is awkward for the listener, too.
  • Age or appearance: you do not want to comment other people looks and age if you don’t know them.
    • do not ask a woman if she’s pregnant, or if someone has lost some weight
  • Gossiping: don’t gossip your old workplace or your old colleagues!
    • there is always someone who might know them, or you just give a negative impression on yourself!
  • Offensive jokes: leave the jokes about racism or other sensitive subject out of the conversations!

The best small talk topics are those to which everyone can relate and that have no potential to offend. On the other hand, the worst small talk topics alienate, create discomfort, and quickly end conversations.

One to One 

Many people feel that small talk is easier when it is one to one-situation than a group. You are alone with the other person and you don’t have to compete with anyone when you can talk. The other person is listening only to you and even though you are a shy person it is easier to talk in a situation like this to a new person.  

Group conversation might also be more casual than when you are talking alone to someone. Then it can be easier to make that conversation deeper. There are studies that show how people are happier when they are having less small talk. So, let’s have deeper conversations with each other and be happier! 

Group 

Rehearse some things that you could say. For example, if somebody ask something about yourself you could rehearse some simple phrases that you could say. This might help when you know that you are meeting new people at work. Usually, when you go to a new workplace you must introduce yourself. It helps a lot when you have some simple phrases that you can use.

Be an active listener and ask open-minded questions. You don’t have to talk all the time but you need to follow the discussion so you could take part in it. Open-minded questions help you to be active and it shows that you are listening and interested.

Joining a New Group 

In our survey one topic was about joining a group as a new member. Joining a new group is rarely the most pleasant thing to do. We often start to think more about our behavior and surroundings than we usually do, and this can be very stressful. We believe that by showing the extent of this phenomenon, people can feel better when they are the “new member”. Therefore, we wanted to know if people have ever felt uncomfortable being a new member in a group.  53 % answered that they almost always felt uncomfortable when joining a new group. 20 % answered that they have always felt uncomfortable, when joining a new group. Only few people assessed that they rarely or never have felt uncomfortable. People’s answers about involving a new member in a discussion were more scattered, but no one answered that they have never tried to involve a new member in a group discussion.  

We also asked for the best tips for the new member. Answers were a sum of encouraging tips about being positive and asking questions. Some answers reminded about finding the balance of trying too little and trying too hard. In the end, joining as a new member is about putting yourself out there and being yourself. It is normal and okay to be the outsider at first. Most of us have felt that way.  

When person joins a group as a new member, the responsibility of making the atmosphere as nice as possible falls also on the shoulders of the group itself. Therefore, we also asked for tips for the group, when a new member joins them. One answer sums all answers quite nicely: “Be inclusive, make an effort to talk to the new member and include them in your conversations and inside jokes. Ask questions but also give space.

Body language 

Body language is an essential part of any face-to-face dialogue, for over half of all communication is body language. Good or bad body language may very well make or break the integration of a new guy into a new group.

A good team player should be able to interpret the facial and body expressions of others. In this video we show good and bad body language examples.

In the bad example you can see how the group fails to make the new guy feel welcomed. Their body language is closed off and disinterested, signaling the new guy that they are not welcomed. Even subtle negative facial expressions can show the new guy that they are not a part of the group.

In the good example you can see how the groups body language is inviting and positive. They notice the new guy and acknowledge her with inviting body language. This shows that the new guy is welcomed and accepted as a new member of the group.

If you want to improve your body language communication skills, focus on these following things.

Eye contactEye contact is important: a lack of eye contact may indicate meekness, but too much eye contact may even come off as hostile. When you are having a conversation with others, having eye contact shows that you are interested and listening. However, be aware that some people may feel uncomfortable with too much eye contact.

Facial expressions. Facial expressions are extremely important in face-to-face interactions. People have evolved for millions of years to interpret facial expressions, which means that even the most subtle facial expressions will be noticed. Facial expressions showing anger or cringing are seen as obviously negative, whereas smiling and other positive facial expressions are welcoming and encouraging for dialogue.

Body gestures. Hands can tell a lot about what a person is thinking. A clenched fist is rarely positive, and crossed legs may indicate that the person feels closed off. Resting your head in your hands shows boredom or tiredness. Rubbing your chin shows interest.

Posture. How we hold our bodies may also indicate different kinds of emotions. An open posture, where the trunk of the body is open and exposed, is naturally more inviting and possibly authority imposing, and a closed posture, where the trunk of the body is covered, may indicate anxiety, hostility or unfriendliness.

Personal space. Be respectful of physical boundaries. What is appropriate for one situation may not work in another. Don’t stand too close to your discussion partner for it might come off as intrusive.

Conclusions

According to our survey, most people have felt uncomfortable when joining a group as a new member. The best tips for the new member who is joining a new group centralized around being active and asking questions. Some tips reminded people that it is okay to be the new guy. The inclusive atmosphere of the group was found important.  The weather was the most common small talk topic among the students. We believe the popularity of the topic is due to its unpredictability here in Finland; the weather is never what it is supposed to be. Our survey ensured that fact as every single answer said that they use body language in their daily chatting.

Small talk skills are needed to make new hires feel welcome, yet they are only a starting point. For new hires to truly feel welcome in the workplace they are joining, they need to learn about its organisational culture. Any organisation will develop its own way of doing things and its own informal lingo over time. Often, new hires will only be provided with an abstract list of corporate values and possibly a dictionary for the terms and abbreviations used in formal communication within the company.

Some important but often hidden aspects of organisational culture are for example how decisions are made, how disputes are moderated, how and when new ideas should be expressed and what is the background behind the words and phrases used in casual conversation. The onus is on the company to make as much of this information available to the new hire as possible. Forcing everyone to learn the organisational culture by trial and error is ineffective and likely to alienate the new hires.

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