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Case Study: Be a Better Networker by Simply Talking Less About Work

Posted by Shivali Anand

April 6, 2022    |     4-minute read (626 words)

Backstory: Professor Sean Martin of the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business conducted research on the differences between how we discuss work topics and how we discuss nonwork topics. He also focused on identifying how our vocabulary choices affect listeners differently, based on the topic of conversation.

Objective: A primary objective of professor Martin’s study was to determine whether the subjects we speak about with new acquaintances are related to our new contact’s willingness to keep in touch with us after the initial meeting.

Key finding No. 1: According to the study, a driving factor that influenced a new acquaintance's desire for a second meeting was whether their conversational companion talked a lot about work or a lot about their personal lives outside of work.

Achievement-oriented language can turn listeners off

In Martin's study, researchers reviewed data from lab and field studies to determine potential reasons as to why certain new interpersonal relationships succeed while others do not.

The researchers found that when people talk about work, they tend to use more achievement-oriented and transactional terms – such as excel, winning, gain and success – than when they talk about nonwork related issues. In response, the speaker appears less engaged and attentive to their discussion partner.

Listeners tended to be less interested in future contact with people who talked a lot about their work, especially in transactional terms. According to the researchers, using transactional language causes listeners to see the speaker as cold and not interested in their companion’s opinions.

How to make more effective networking contacts

Companies in Silicon Valley are well-known for investing billions of dollars in constructing open workspaces that include cafes and casual gathering spaces, allowing employees who would otherwise never meet to mingle and develop new connections that spur creativity.

According to Martin’s research, such encounters would likely be more effective if participants spoke less about work in their first meeting. The latter generally involves transactional language that can turn off listeners and thus minimize the odds of a second meeting. Individuals who engage in conversation about nonwork issues are much more likely to have reciprocal interest from their new contact for a second interaction.

Martin emphasizes that it is how we talk about work when meeting new people that matters: "Some people successfully avoided using these [achievement-oriented, transactional] words very much when talking about work, and to the extent they did, we didn't observe the same penalty in terms of how their partners rated them."

"In other words, it may be less about the topic of work itself, and more about how the topic of work can trigger a vocabulary that makes people see us as being less interested in them," Martin adds.

What to say to start a conversation

Those who want to be more effective at business networking must be mindful of the language they use when talking about their jobs. Strive to employ conversation openers that express warmth and interest in other people to maximize the probability of forming a relationship that will last.

The researchers recommend that people focus on sharing information about their identities as a means of minimizing the urge to focus on achievement-oriented talk. Consequently, new acquaintances will have a more favorable impression, boosting the probability of developing a long-term connection.


A question such as "So, what do you do?" is generally not ideal to ask at a first encounter. In fact, it can be rather off-putting. While it may prompt an initial exchange of ideas, the achievement-oriented language that is likely to ensue may turn off listeners. A good listener or someone who communicates with warmth and interest are qualities that new discussion partners seek in a conversation partner, regardless of whether it is a professional networking situation.

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