How Small Talk at Work Is Bad for Anxiety

a visual representation of anxiety: a man gripping his head with a stressed expression and words like anxious showing in the background

Because it’s something I deal with on a regular basis, I want to talk a little about how small talk at work is bad for anxiety – how trying to be polite and interested in another person’s life can send them in a small meltdown of fears and doubts.

Here’s the setup: You get a message or get called to someone’s desk to talk to them. Either it’s someone who doesn’t normally talk to you unless you’ve done something wrong or they need something specific. Or if it’s someone you speak to regularly, they say straight out, “I need to talk to you for a minute,” or something that implies this isn’t one of your everyday conversations.

Right there – right at the start of the conversation – there’s enough strange or unusual to spark the anxiety. Because a big part of anxiety is catastrophic thinking. Your brain whirls with all the possible things you’ve done wrong or could be in trouble for. Did I screw up that last assignment? Did I offend someone and not realize it?

Your heart starts to pound. Your breathing gets shallow. You try to take deep, calming breaths. You go into their office or acknowledge their chat. Then, they finally talk.

“How are you?”

Your mind still whirling, the pressure in your chest increasing, you try to answer normally. You follow the rules of polite society all the while thinking, “Tell me why you called me in here!!!”

But instead of getting a quick reassurance that it’s only to catch up on this project or to ask you if you’re interested in doing this task, you’re left wondering and cycling through awful possibilities for however long the small talk takes. And the longer you’re cycling through, the worse the possibilities get, and the higher the anxiety climbs.

It doesn’t matter that you know anxiety is usually wrong. It doesn’t matter how many times you try to reassure yourself that the conversation is probably business as usual. That you’re probably not in trouble.

Anxiety doesn’t listen to that. Maybe, over many years of therapy and work to defeat the thinking pattern, you can avoid it, but it’s not going to be fast or easy. It’s not going to happen now.

And while all that pressure and worry will happen regardless, they’re significantly worse because of the period of small talk. Because of that period of not knowing why you’re in the room. Or why they’ve messaged you. That simple, supposedly-polite behavior is what gives the anxiety time to grow.

The ironic part is that the person who caused it may never know. Anxiety isn’t visible until it’s grown so strong that you can’t control it. For most people, that can take a long time or extreme circumstances. For the scenario I’ve described, despite all the energy and pressure going on inside, on the outside, you probably look normal or maybe a little tense. If it’s a chat, there will be nothing to indicate the anxiety whatsoever.

So if you’re the one initiating the conversation, you may not know the person you’re talking to has anxiety at all. That’s especially true since our culture tells us not so share “weaknesses” like that in the workplace.

There is something you can do, however. You can tell the person why you need to talk to them when you call them over or when you send the message. It doesn’t need to be full details. It could just be “I need to talk to you about a potential project for you” instead of “I need to talk to you.” Or “I’m touching base with everyone in your group. Got a minute to chat?” instead of “Got a minute to chat?”

Anxiety will make the vague worrisome, so by giving even that small bit of detail, you can head off a plethora of negative scenarios. It’s the not knowing, the wondering that makes things bad for anxiety. And if the person in question doesn’t have anxiety, the added information doesn’t hurt anything. You’re not losing anything by adding it.

And after you give the general topic and reassurance, you can always go back to the small talk. Since the person now knows the purpose of the meeting, the small talk will no longer be bad for anxiety.

At least not for that reason.


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