If you’ve ever lived in a flat, you’ll know that your relationship with your flatmates can leave you either energised or miserable. Stay on good terms, and the house feels like home – but if the relationship sours, your room can feel more like a jail.
Most of us spend as much time with our workmates as we do with our flatmates. But in postgrad offices and labs, the main focus is work. That means that the social atmosphere can vary a lot – some workspaces are friendly, collaborative environments with lots of productive discussion; while some are awkward and silent. The awkward ones can be difficult, especially if you have to spend years in that space.
If you find your workspace socially uncomfortable, the good news is that your co-postgrads probably aren’t evil or stand-offish. It’s easy for a culture of silence to develop, especially in workspaces where everyone works independently. With each newcomer, the culture persists, because it’s tough for a new person to change the tone of a shared workspace.
But creating a friendly culture can pay off big-time, particularly because co-postgrads can become lifelong friends and professional contacts. If you do want to get to know your office or labmates, here are some ideas for how to break the ice.
This is a total no-brainer. Sharing food has been a social ritual since forever – hence the term “breaking bread.”
Best case scenario: You make a homemade cake and share it around. You get chatting about favourite cake flavours, and everybody bonds over a shared love of peanut butter frosting.
Unlikely worst case scenario: You forget that Dave is allergic to peanuts, and he goes into anaphylactic shock. Try instead…
Chatting about the weather / current events
General water-cooler stuff. This is a reasonably safe strategy because everybody experiences the weather, and most people follow current events to some degree.
Best case scenario: You mourn the end of summer, and everyone shares stories of their summer holidays.
Unlikely worst case scenario: You bring up the craziness of the US presidential primaries, and then realise that those two new labmates are Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton. Try instead…
Inviting everyone to a casual research discussion group
What could be better than a chat about your research over pizza at lunchtime? If you don’t know what your workmates are researching, this is a good chance to see whether any of them have crossover with your own research.
Best case scenario: You meet everyone, learn about their research, and find someone with similar interests who becomes your sounding board and informal peer reviewer.
Unlikely worst case scenario: You get cheese burns from the pizza and can’t focus on the discussion. Try instead…
Connecting via social media
This is great for introverts who don’t want to make the first move in person.
Best case scenario: You friend your officemates on Facebook, find other friends or interests in common, and that gives you an opening topic for chatting in person.
Unlikely worst case scenario: You friend your officemates on Facebook, but they’re so all about Snapchat and Instagram now. Try instead…
Changing your workspace
If all else fails and you feel uncomfortable in your allocated workspace, try requesting a new one. Depending on your department & campus, you may have a choice between a departmental office and a postgraduate study room. Plus, if you just need a desk for the day, there are always the libraries.
Good luck and happy bonding!