THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Sports talk: Win by faking it like a pro

For those of you who cannot shut up about the Super Bowl, think about your impact on the workplace: A study of Harvard Business School graduates found that in 85 percent of the cases– drum roll, please– men initiated sports talk.

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.

Those who initiate sports talk at work alienate people who do not follow sports. Of course, many common work topics are alienating to some groups. Talk of skiing, for example, alienates those non-skier, but non-skiers, as a group, do not struggle with minority status at the workplace the way women do. So if you feel you must make non-inclusive chatter, give workplace minorities a break. Try excluding people who otherwise fit really well in corporate life (like white, upper-middle class men who lived in a fraternity in college).

Problems with sports talk get even worse when business leaders use sports-based metaphors. When the sales manager says, "We're using a long-pass strategy," the sports-ignorant may continue to go after small accounts, which not only defeats the new strategy but goes on to underme the entire concept of– well– teamwork.

In my mind, there's little difference between watching soap operas and sports. Both are ways to escape from reality. But if you want to buddy up with your boss and other workplace leaders and be viewed as a staunch team player, you must learn to talk sports, too.

Luckily for all you non-sports types, you don't have to play the sport to understand it.

• Exhibit A: the beer-bellied couch potatoes who pontificate on football.

• Exhibit B: me.

I play basketball well and have never played football. However, when it comes to making analogies to both, I feel equally competent because I taught myself the basic rules of football by watching two games and asking tons of questions. 

Another step that helps me to talk sports is to follow the soap-opera behavior of sports figures. This is not difficult to do because: 

1. Many of these stories start out on the front page of the newspaper, so I don't have to scour the sports pages. 

2. Sports drama satisfies my need for intrigue, which would otherwise require hours with the National Enquirer. 

3. Personal stories are much easier to remember than personal statistics. 

4. Most of the stories are good for more than a few years of workplace chatter (e.g., Tiger Woods off-course escapades). 

If you can't stand reading about sports, go to a gym. Learn a lot about weight training; people love to talk about their workouts at work. If you can chat for a while about squat techniques, you won't have to talk about other sports-related trivia. 

Co-workers who like to discuss sports topics like the Super Bowl are simply looking for an easy, non-threatening way to connect that's not as mundane or obvious as talking about the weather. Most of those people aren't going to change; but you can, and it will serve you well at every level of your career.

For more help with faking it in a sports-talking office, check out Talk Sports Like a Pro, by Jean McCormick (Perigree, 1999). Otherwise, keep your eye out for a sports story that reads like a soap opera.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.