Water-cooler Wisdom

One day. It only took one day for me to recognize that office work is just not my cup of coffee. And never will be. The decision to be penned up from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. every day in a tiny cubicle in a brown office building, right after I'd stopped working as a flight attendant, turned out to be a particularly bad one. Although the grayish felt carpet that covered the cubicle I shared with two other women (doomed, like me, to deadly boredom) was similar to the ugly interior of a plane, it did not make me feel at home, not even at the heights of the ninth floor.

For three months in the mid-1990s, my two cellmates and I - desperate women who always had a bright future waiting for them on the other side of the perpetual pile of paperwork - were the beating heart of the company. We had a boss, with a shiny pate, somewhere on the floor, but we truly spearheaded the department. We were in charge of salaries, holiday gifts and the employees' morale, but spent most of the day with our noses to the grindstone.

I soon uncovered the behind-the-scenes action in the work space. Before the days of the Internet, the secret lives of employees didn't take place between the computers and file cabinets, but in the coffee corners, near the back exit or in the stairwells. Under the radar of bosses who worked in a world of their own, the employees, three to four at a time, shed the cloak of anonymity and the sound of happy chatter prevailed - until pangs of conscience, or a secret informer, brought them back to reality.

Those conversations were the high point of the day. Not the balance sheets, or the filing or the boring meetings, but those conversations - intimacy mingled with a shared fate - conducted as the office spaceship sailed along in an unknown direction. When I finally left and emerged into the daylight, I found myself missing the stolen exchanges conducted in the alienated reality, of which we were just a small cog. Our minor rebellion against the index of efficiency and productivity.

But what did we actually talk about? The question as to the subject of the conversations taking place in coffee corners and next to the water cooler is one which anyone seeking to influence public opinion - whether a marketing strategist, advertiser, trend consultant or politician - is eager to know the answer. This is because whoever deciphers the psychology of water-cooler conversations, and understands what makes them tick, can also control them. Water-cooler conversations are the underside of public opinion, a miniature version of the talk of the town. The problem is it's impossible to guess their content in advance. Who would have thought that the leading subject of water-cooler conversations in 2010 would be the reality TV show "Big Brother"? Or that in 2007 they'd be talking about Facebook ("Have you opened a profile yet?"), or that the Eurovision song contest would become the classic water-cooler topic of the '80s?

In a survey conducted this week by C.I. Marketing Research, 60 percent of those polled said they customarily talk to their colleagues at work. The survey indicated that on average the employees talk for an hour a day. Almost a quarter of the talkers spend about half an hour to an hour in conversation, one-third of them spend between a quarter of an hour and half an hour talking, and the rest over an hour. The conversation topics are varied: 27 percent of the phone survey participants said they speak to their colleagues about family and friends, 18 percent about current events, and a similar percentage about work matters. The remainder talk about this and that: movies, TV shows, sports, gossip, et al.

The survey found that employees' gender and age influence the nature and subjects of conversations. As expected, men spoke more than women about current events, economics and sports; women, meanwhile, spoke more than men about family and friends. It also turned out that young people up to the age of 29 speak more about sports, films and television, while beyond that age there is more talk connected to family and children.

What won't they talk about? While 60 percent of respondents said they draw a line when it comes to their private lives, the rest couldn't point to any subjects that were considered taboo.

What do they talk about related to the television industry? About television of course, says one employee of Channel 2 franchisee Reshet. "There's something unifying in the fact that everyone is creating one product and we're behind it. A kind of team spirit. We talk about our programs the most. When you enter the offices, you're expected to be up to date. It's not cool if there was a beauty pageant on Reshet and I have no idea who won. The conversations also depend on ratings: If we one of our programs had a high rating, there's a feeling of shared success. We definitely talk about our competitors' programs as well. For example, people talked about 'Big Brother' here endlessly. We talk about everything, but not about children, this is a young place."

A back stairwell, which hangs above a big and busy thoroughfare, is the usual spot for a cigarette break. In the Neve Ilan studios the Channel 2 news staff smoke on old benches, and in the large advertising agency McCann Erickson the employees go up to the roof. "Beyond the content, their location is interesting," says psychologist Amram Sharvit. "These conversations take place in the kitchenette, in the corridor, at the entrance to the staircase. Always in narrow, neglected places. There's intimacy in such places, because the things that are said there require intimacy."

There is no question that these conversations stem from the natural need to share with other people, to find a listening ear, to voice your opinions. But these exchanges also have a somewhat secret aspect to them, continues Sharvit, something you've kept to yourself and can't keep a secret any longer.

"Whether specifically or indirectly, they are accompanied by a statement: 'This is between us,'" he says. "With these comments you sometimes tie the person who hears what you have to say to you: You've entrusted him with a secret without his agreement. You've dragged him to your side, but you don't ask him if he was interested in hearing it in the first place."

That is why these chats, says Sharvit, can lead to alliances and inter-office politics, as well as private conversations that deepen employees' familiarity with each other.

Eyal Gur, until recently a vice president at McCann Erickson, says there are conversations that clearly cannot be held in the open space of the office. "This request: 'Let's go outside for a moment for a cigarette' has as a subtext 'I have something important to tell or to share that I can't afford to let others hear,'" he says. "Very soon you find yourself having intimate conversations with colleagues from work."

There are organizations in which the pressure is great, for example in a hospital, where everyone knows everything about everyone and the conversations flow, says Dr. Orenia Yaffe-Yanai, an organizational psychologist. "This is a work environment without boundaries - there are no offices, and the work is done under pressure," she says. Another such bustling area, she says, is a teachers' room. "Everyone there knows about everyone else. I knew a teacher who left the profession because she couldn't stand the teachers' room."

Water-cooler conversations are undoubtedly status symbols as well. Those who go to the areas where they take place are always the junior employees. "People who are subordinates in the workplace feel their status erases their selfhood, and therefore these conversations allow them to meet a very strong need to express themselves," says social psychologist Prof. Ariella Friedman of Tel Aviv University. "It's a discourse of connectedness in which talking is the aim, and therefore what is actually said is less important. Women need such private, personal exchanges much more, whereas for men the conversations are more public-oriented."

It's no wonder water-cooler conversations in most workplaces are looked upon disparagingly. "This talk is chatter, gossip," says Friedman. "But in fact it isn't idle talk - it's of great importance. Gossip releases aggression that cannot be expressed directly at a person you can't stand - sometimes the boss - without paying a price. It's also a way to channel rebelliousness. But the system doesn't like these conversations. The fear is that the chatter will divert people from work, but on a more profound level what the companies fear is subversion. It's like the fear of the unionization of employees."

Hilla Dotan, a lecturer in the Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration at Tel Aviv University and at UCLA, advises companies to adopt a positive attitude toward conversations between employees and even to nurture the coffee corners. "People who have at least one good friend in the organization are more satisfied at their job and are more motivated to work hard. Their performance at work is better. In other words, the social issue is positive both for the employee and for the organization," she says.

But companies don't always think about the welfare of the employee. Dotan teaches the executives in the Executive MBA Program at the Tel Aviv University business school how to understand these informal conversations in order to use them to help achieve the needs of the company. "If you really want to know what's happening in the organization, who's friendly with whom and what kinds of relationships exist in the social network of the company," she tells them, "look at who decides to go together to the coffee corner, or to lunch, or who stays together to talk after a meeting."

There will always be covert tension between the system and the employees when it comes to conversations at the workplace, and it seems each side examines the boundaries. "The water-cooler conversations are used here as a communication channel to share ideas for a start-up, or to hold spontaneous meetings with the boss who happened to enter the kitchenette - and in that way you don't have to wait for days to hold a meeting," says a secretary in a large high-tech firm. "But for the most part, the administration looks askance at employees sitting together, they see it as a waste of time." She and a colleague, with whom she used to go for coffee breaks, were recently reprimanded. "It's not that we went out a lot, but it was presented as though we gossip about people in the firm," she explains. "But they don't say anything to the engineers - they're above us."

These days you won't see the two women in the coffee corner anymore, but that doesn't mean they have parted ways. For lack of options, the secretary and her girlfriend have gone underground and transferred their activity to an Internet chat room. Is this the future trend? Yarden Levinsky, a psychiatrist and an expert on digital environments, believes the chat room will never replace human conversations.

"It's not instead of, it's in addition to," he says. "People have a need to feel they are part of a group. And that's what organizations don't understand, because their perspective is that people come to the office in order to work, and they're robots. The problem is that we live in a high-pressured society, in which everything is measured by output. Capitalism at its best. But people are looking for places to get some air, to reduce the tension and the pressure, and the role of these conversations is to divert your mind from what you're supposed to be doing."