Sports talk stinks: Learn to do it anyway

For those of you who cannot shut up about the Super Bowl game, 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. This is because the female population does not have nearly the same fervor about spectator sports as the male population.

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 all-inclusive. 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 who do not ski, 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 defeats the new strategy. So those of you who begin strategy meetings with sports talk should realize that by eliminating the sports-ignorant from the discussion, you're undermining the entire concept of working as a team.

In my mind, watching soap operas during the week is the same as watching sports on weekends: Both are ways to escape from reality. But people who like to be in charge also usually enjoy competing, so it's natural that they want to talk sports. And so it follows that 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 (Sylvester Croom is the first African American coach to lead a Southeastern Conference football team) are much easier to remember than personal statistics (number of games he won in past coaching positions).

4. Most of the stories are good for more than a few years of workplace chatter (e.g., Darryl Strawberry's drug problems, or the rise and fall of Jennifer Capriati).

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.