Coworkers like to complain while socializing - help?!
January 4, 2017 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I have an interesting and reasonably well-paying job. So do my coworkers. There are some annoyances, mainly with upper management, but honestly, things are going quite well. But: whenever my colleagues get together for coffee, the conversation quickly turns into a complete complain-fest. This brings me down. How do I change this - either the complaining, or my emotional reaction to it?

Example: today's coffee break. To get a conversation going, I mention that I like to get my coffee from place X. Colleague tells me they prefer tea, but tea is bad at place X. Also, they tell me, tea is bad when they make it at work, because the taste of the tap water here is bad. Oh and did I know, tap water tastes bad in most neighborhoods of our city? Other colleagues join, we switch to talking about some job-related things. Conversation immediately focuses on a somewhat annoying decision made by upper management several months ago. Colleagues discuss examples, effects, and their personal grievances with this in elaborate detail. Half an hour later I go back to my office, mentally exhausted.

I get that people want to vent from time to time. But I guess what brings me down is that my coworkers seem to genuinely enjoy talking about the negative stuff, and not much else. I find it hard to get any kind of conversation going that doesn't immediately lead to negativity, see coffee example.

There might also be some cultural component to this - I am a European who worked in the US for a long time, and I am now in the UK. Let me know if this rings a bell for anyone.

Note, I do want to socialize with my colleagues, and the coffee break is the most suitable tool for that. Not going to the coffee breaks at all isn't an option for me, I actually tried that for a while and I felt isolated then.

So, what should I do?
posted by CompanionCube to Work & Money (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
People may be talking about work because it is what everyone has in common, and picking things apart can be easier than just saying how smoothly things are going.

Maybe try asking people specific questions (about TV shows they watch, hobbies, books, weekend activities) or just start talking about something you did.

You could also go the direct route, and say (in a non-blaming way) "All this talk of work is bringing me down! Did anyone watch (X TV show, etc) last night? (or other example)?"
posted by bearette at 12:19 PM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Offer a challenge to everyone to not speak about work. You could even add a rule that the first person who talks about work has to buy coffee for everyone next time.
posted by ShooBoo at 12:30 PM on January 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This might just be a case of cultural differences that you'll have to learn to adapt to. Check out this previous AskMe about complaining as bonding -- it's from someone with the opposite perspective to yours (they come from a complaining culture and have landed in the US, where they're having a hard time making conversation). This specific comment may also cast some light on the phenomenon for you: I'm English, and complaining is also very much part of our culture. We don't even see it as a negative thing...It's just a way of making conversation, or bonding.
posted by ourobouros at 12:46 PM on January 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is just how some people are, and if it's an established pattern there's not much you can do to change. You can model the behavior you'd like to see, but if you try too hard to change the dynamic they'll probably just complain about you behind your back. (Not that you should care about that; it's just a case of haters-gonna-hate.)

Do you have regular friends/social groups outside of work? Focus on them, and get your positive conversations there. We all need the kind of socializing that lifts us up; you're just not likely to get it from your coworkers. Maybe if you reframe your coffee breaks as just casually being part of the group, while getting your meaningful interactions from a different group altogether, it might help you keep some mental distance.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:47 PM on January 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The US vs European culture doesn't make much of a difference. My US office is exactly like this. There's a couple things at work here. We have a wide variety in age, so people are in different stages of their lives. It's not the case that everyone just got married or just had a kid or is getting ready to retire. So they don't have much there to talk about in a big group. This became really starkly apparent with the Trump election. So to avoid mine fields we stick to the conversational currency we have - bitching about management. I sympathize with you - I just want to shoot the breeze but it always seems to come around to someone bitching about something then the floodgates are opened.
posted by fixedgear at 12:55 PM on January 4, 2017

Could you try to shift the conversation to complaining about something which you have no opinion on and do not care about, like some kind of spectator sport?
posted by XMLicious at 12:57 PM on January 4, 2017

Best answer: I'm British. I've worked in the US, Europe and the UK. This is a bonding thing to an extent in all of them, but it's definitely most prominent and most important in the UK. Any attempt to stop it will be ignored or come across as extremely weird to most Brits.

Geoff Dyer (a Brit) comparing California and the UK:
I love the daily interactions with the people, the landscape and the way that that general American urge — how can I make my life better? — receives its most extreme expression in California. A surprising number of people in Britain wake up and tacitly think: How can I slightly fuck up someone’s day, including my own? Plus, in California there’s the weather and the ready availability of tennis courts. At some level my life is a complete failure (see that question above) because I’ve ended up living in London and not California.
posted by caek at 1:02 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

In the case you mentioned, I'd ask "So where do you like to get tea? What's the best kind?" and try to get them to describe good things about it. Keep asking positive questions. Might not work, though, sorry.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 1:26 PM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nthing attempts to interject a positive conversation or subject. You can only account for how you carry yourself and others will catch on to how you operate. It's their choice to join the negative conversations. This reminds me of the idiom; misery loves company.
posted by mountainblue at 3:23 PM on January 4, 2017

A group of coworkers are naturally going to talk about work; it's what you all have in common. A "no work talk" rule or something like that is fighting human nature, which never works for long.

So given that you're going to talk about work, you want to talk about the positive things. See if you can get a conversation going about something people DO like. Talk about the future, not the past. I mean, people can be cynical about the future, but at least it's unknown. What do you want to happen? How can you make it happen? Bat some ideas around.
posted by ctmf at 5:56 PM on January 4, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks folks. I think there is definitely an element of work being the easiest common denominator to a group of people from different demographics going on here, and it also helps to know that this is just *a thing* here. I think I'll go with the flow and treat the complaining as a sort of social bonding exercise and see how that goes.
posted by CompanionCube at 4:12 AM on January 5, 2017

Best answer: Eye-rolling, grousing and then saying 'mustn't grumble' etc afterwards is a stress-reliever and bonding ritual in British workplaces. It really helps if you're not mentally trying to actually solve the problems as people are talking about them. Just let it wash over you, rather than seeing it as genuine problems that need an answer.

That said, I've realised in past jobs that participating in this can really feed into my own feelings about the job I do and cast a negative light on everything, so I quietly opt-out (I don't take coffee breaks with colleagues and rarely eat lunch with them etc). I spend my lunch/coffee breaks actually having a break, from the work, the colleagues and the office environment if I can. It's much nicer, I promise.

It's very easy to fall into as it is the default in many British companies, but you basically have two options - join in or ignoring it. If you try to change the dynamic, you will be regarded as an oddball or someone ruining the 'fun'. I have seen many an American (or, oddly, cheerful Germans) trip up on this.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:46 AM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

I find for myself that complaints about trivial or joking matters -- or, best of all, kind-of-fake issues obviously exaggerated for effect -- make me happy or at least mildly amused and bonded with the other people. However, complaints about actual issues that actually bother me, no matter how trivial (like problems with upper management) keep me in a funk the rest of the day.

If this is the same for you, you might be able to get pretty far by steering the topic of conversation -- not away from complaining (which might be hard to do and come off weirdly) but rather away from topics that you actually want to complain about. Get in a joking one-up-manship with a colleague about a local sports team, and complain about their favoured team. Or talk about how awful the tea is or silly the colour scheme is (if you truly don't care about how awful or silly they are). Just find things that don't actually bother you and complain about them. You'll still be able to take part in the bonding, but it probably won't leave you in a bad mood afterward.
posted by forza at 8:40 PM on January 5, 2017

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