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Lunchtimes and Supermarkets

By Sam Ross

Love island. Babies. The World Cup.
    
These are just some of the things I've spoken about with colleagues over the past few weeks, amidst terrible jokes that for some reason have made my sides split. These topics characterise absolutely normal work conversation, which many people look forward to, and many more, thrive on. That chatty lunchtime in the sun, or the quick chat you have in the break room, even the small hello you share in the corridor - these parts of working life can break up the apparent monotony of work, and introduce a much needed friendship culture.

So that's the introduction done. But why am I writing this? Well, I've been struggling to write for Populus for the past few months, often getting distracted by other things or being overly critical of my own work. But as is often the case in my experience with this charity, being honest is a good starting point. So when I was prompted by my life saving co-director Ruxy to write about conversations at work, I thought I'd better get to it.

The truth is, my summer last year was radically different to this year. In part it is because this year I am generally louder, and far more laid back. These developments, though they are largely down to lifestyle changes at University, have had huge implications for my lunchtimes.

Last summer I spent most of my lunches out of the office. Going for walks, sitting on picnic benches, browsing the shops - the kind of stuff that gets you out of the office for a much wanted 'switch off' at 1pm every day. Part of the issue with doing this is that the time where you aren't chewing or walking is spent scrolling on social media, and that's just not how we should be aiming to 'switch off' (a separate issue, which you are welcome to pick my brains on should you feel so inclined).

Instead, this summer I've spent each lunchtime with colleagues. Sat just outside our office, chatting about their holidays or sharing small anecdotes to fill the break. It might not seem like it, but this is a huge accomplishment for me.

When you feel social anxiety, it can make even the smallest hello feel huge. This can be huge in terms of barriers to saying hello, or huge in terms of the rewards you reap after you've said it. Like in Ruxy's article last week, saying hello can often have huge benefits for others, particularly the elderly - it can make someones day, and is often what keeps people going.

For me, the barrier to sitting with colleagues at lunch time was a collection of small fears: 'Who will be there?', 'What will we talk about?'. Most prominently perhaps, was the question of 'I'm still a teenager, what on earth do I have in common with these other people?', or 'What if there are no more seats?' Ironically, I used to think the latter whenever I entered the canteen in primary school, too.

Well, I've certainly proved my previous self wrong, and in writing this, I hope that I can convince other people to take small steps in socialising too - whether you want to say hello to someone you vaguely know from Uni, or take a seat at the lunch table. Rather unsurprisingly, my colleagues have introduced me to a new side of work. Each of them is charming in their own way and brings a new perspective to the conversation, as well as a well needed break from the computer screen.

Conversations at work don’t just have to be with your colleagues, either. It can really make a customers day if you crack a bad joke, take a genuine interest or just say something to break the silence. Picture this: my mum and I were recently in Lidl (or Aldi, I can never remember), and upon our attempts to say hello, how are you, what time are you on till (the usual), we were consistently met with a frosty response, or just brutal silence.

If you suffer from social anxiety, or maybe feel nervous when you try to make small talk, receiving silence can be awfully disheartening. I've watched an interaction at the supermarket play out where the customer service assistant was more interested in getting items scanned through than saying hello, without remote consideration of the day the customer was having.

I know what you're thinking - those service assistants are under excessive pressure to perform and achieve goals! Well, given that this is an opinion piece, my opinion is that a small hello or a bit of small talk isn't detrimental to someones work performance. If anything, it makes life more enjoyable for everyone. It's good to talk. (Side note: if a supermarkets goals for their employees reduce any opportunity to have conversation or engage with customers, their priorities are categorically wrong. At the very least, it’s a demonstration of poor customer service. Another enthralling topic you are welcome to pick my brains on).

I do understand that not everyone likes or necessarily wants to engage in supermarket conversation. For example, as I'm editing this I'm sat on a train, baffled by a woman who seems to want to have a conversation with the entire carriage - she absolutely has my vote for human sacrifice in an emergency situation. When I'm not hangry however, I feel like supermarket chat, and equally, lunch time conversation, puts a positive spin on mine and other people's days.

Maybe it will be a little more positive because you make someone laugh, maybe because you'll receive a restaurant suggestion, or maybe it gives you a chance to forget the stresses you're feeling at the moment. Regardless of why it makes you feel positive, it’s a big deal. We rely on these conversations when we have terrible days, or when we are feeling low. They make us feel strong, bold and outgoing when we need it most, or equally, wanted, appreciated and a part of the team.

Whether it gives you someone new to talk to over lunchtime, or just helps your workday pass a little quicker, small conversations keep us going, and can be a huge accomplishment in their own way. From the first time my Grandan encouraged me to say hello to people in my student halls corridors, to today, when I end up talking to a checkout operator for 10 minutes (much to my dad's dismay), I'm taking small steps towards overcoming fragments of social anxiety that used to keep me out of the office at lunch time.

Saying hello can help.

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