For those of you who cannot shut up about this weekend's Super Bowl, think about your impact on the workplace atmosphere: A study of Harvard Business School graduates found that in 85 percent of the cases — drum roll, please — men initiated sports talk. This is because female population does not care about spectator sports with nearly the fervor of the male population.
Of course, small talk should be easy, inclusive, and non-offensive. The weather comes to mind as a safe topic — unless someone's mother just died in a hurricane. The price of gas is safe — just don't start placing blame. Commenting on the new furniture in the office is a good tactic because it affects everyone.
Sports talk is not like the weather. Those who initiate sports talk at work alienate people who do not follow sports. And when sports-talk gets to the metaphor stage, the whole company is in trouble. When the sales manager says, “We’re using a long-pass strategy,” the sports-ignorant may continue to go after small accounts, and then there is no strategy at all. So those of you who initiate team-building meetings with talk about sports should consider the fact that you might be undermining teamwork by talking about other people’s teams.
I do not differentiate watching soap operas during the week from watching sports on the weekend: both strike me as a vapid escape from ones own reality. But people who want to be in charge are the people most likely to enjoy competing, so it’s natural that the leaders of the workplace talk sports. And it makes sense that if you want to be friendly with the leaders of the workplace, you need to be able to talk sports.
Luckily, you don’t actually need to be capable of playing the sport to understand it. Exhibit A: the beer-bellied couch potatoes who pontificate on football. Exhibit B: me. I play basketball very well and have never played football, and when it comes to analogies, I feel equally competent in both arenas.
Another step I’ve taken to fit in at work is to follow the soap-opera aspect of sports. This is not difficult to do because:
1. It satisfies my need for intrigue, which would otherwise require hours with the National Enquirer.
2. Personal problems (Mike Tyson has a temper) are much easier to remember than personal statistics (Mike Tyson had X knockouts in X number of years).
3. The New York Times Magazine (registration required) does an amazing job of covering sports as if it were drama. (My favorite — a recent article about a grade school aged skateboarder who won sponsorship from Nike. Now I can talk for hours on the perils of corporate sponsorship for athletes.)
The great thing about the drama of sports is that once you read a story, it’s good for more than a few years of workplace chatter (e.g., Venus's stint at fashion school or Michael Jordan’s family life).
If you can’t stand the idea of reading about sports, try this: Go to a gym. Learn a lot about weight training; people love to talk about their workouts at work. You can impress someone with your knowledge of squat techniques to the point where you will get out of having to talk about other sports-related trivia. Because, after all, people who talk about sports at work are just looking for an easy, non-threatening way to connect with people that is not as obvious as talking about the weather.
So okay, sports talk is workplace behavior that is non-inclusive of women, but so are a lot of other things, like, impromptu meetings in the men's room and posters of naked women in cubicles. So battle the latter when you can and capitulate to the sports talk. If you can't figure out how to fake it in a sports talking office, check out the book Talk Sports Like a Pro, by Jean McCormick. If you are one of the sports talk promoters in your office try reading a section of the newspaper that is not sports. It'll give you something else to talk about even when the Super Bowl looms large.