It’s a universal understanding that water cooler chat, while necessary, is rarely not awkward. You can only talk about all the rain you’ve been getting or the heat or how much you hate Mondays so many times before you sound like a broken record. Everyone once in a while someone takes it to the next level, exposing those around you to conversations so awkward and uncomfortable that you can’t help but cringe. Here are some examples of situations so painful that you can feel your skin prickling and face becoming flush just reading them.

In marketing, it’s always important to put yourself in the consumer’s shoes in order to best understand how and why they buy certain products. But sometimes thinking like the consumer when you don’t really relate can put everyone involved in a compromising situation. The representative for a lingerie store, who is a middle-aged male, is constantly (read: four times) asking a twenty-something female her preferences for Googling “panties.” The conversation typically goes something like this: “What words do you use when you want to buy new panties online? Do you search panties, underwear, lingerie, thongs? What about bras?” No, just no.

Have you ever been asked about your relationship status at work? I know I have. You think it’s totally innocent to ask how someone’s significant other is doing. However, when the person is single and/or went through a break up, the awkwardness of the conversation quickly goes from zero to 60. It reaches its peak when the statement comes from an executive board member and the conversation has been repeated three times in 30 days. “No, my relationship status hasn’t changed in the five days since you last asked me. I’m not out soliciting girlfriends during my free time.” Sometimes all you want to reply with is “I actually think I got a girl pregnant this weekend so there’s that… I just wish I could remember her name” just to make the questioner so uncomfortable they never inquire about your status again.

As we all know, it’s entirely too easy to turn essentially any innocent saying or comment into something sexual. Why else would “that’s what she said” be a completely acceptable response to 85% of my conversations? However, inserting comments like that into conversations with friends and conversations with co-workers are two different things. Your co-workers have most likely never Facebook graph searched you and seen all of your embarrassing keg stand photos from your college days that you thought you’d untagged years ago, so it’s doubtful that they’ll grasp your sarcasm or understand your humor. Referring to someone’s cubicle as their box and then discussing how large it is or how many things fit inside your box might not be the best way to make friends with new co-workers. Hilarious with friends or co-workers you know won’t be offended, but toeing the line on inappropriate with others. Sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry and other times you should just throw caution to the wind and hope your team finds your sexual innuendos as hilarious as you do and they don’t consider it sexual harassment.

Other uncomfortable topics to avoid when possible:

  • Discussing whether or not you’ve ever been to prison
  • Asking if a person’s children have the same father/mother
  • Mispronouncing common words as sexual acts (i.e. pronouncing “wrap” as “rape”)
  • Asking co-workers how to spell words with sexual meanings

Next time you find yourself embarrassed with co-workers, just think back on these situations and realize that it could have been worse.

Add your own #awkwardofficeconversations in the comments below!


Heather Burnett is a recent graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism where she studied public relations. She currently works in local search marketing in Columbus, OH during the day and pretends to still be 21 and a Bobcat at night. In her spare time, she enjoys happier hours (extending well beyond acceptable happy hour times), obsessing over pop culture, drinking too much coffee, fantasizing about a world where Harry Potter truly exists and embracing her puppy fever. (Seriously. She watches “Too Cute” every single time it’s on TV and finds herself “awe-ing” to her heart’s desire.) You can follow her @heather_burnett

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