How to Answer Tricky Personal Questions at a New Job

Author: Allie Volpe Source: New York Times

Starting a new job can make us feel like the new kid on the first day of school: nervous, yet eager to fit in and make a good first impression.

The social component is an important part of any job. Research shows that building camaraderie with co-workers and chit-chatting with supervisors can promote harmony and good health. And the first 90 days are crucial: A 2013 study found that new employees are more likely to receive support during this period.

“Social support has been widely demonstrated as one of the greatest drivers of happiness and success,” said Michael Woodward, a workplace psychologist who is known as Dr. Woody. “The stronger the support system you have around you, the more likely you are to feel comfortable, confident and able to succeed.”

Getting there, however, often means navigating a gauntlet of questions from all of these new people in your life. These are likely to range from the moderately professional to the intimately personal, including queries about your age, relationship status, employment history and social habits.

Since research suggests that first impressions last for months, how you respond, even to seemingly innocuous icebreakers, can have an impact on how your colleagues perceive you.

Instead of stumbling over your words, here’s how to answer these tricky questions with confidence.

‘How do you feel about so-and-so?’

Gossip at work is common, Dr. Woodward said, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time.

While complaining with co-workers can turn some of these colleagues into friends, Jill Jacinto, a millennial career expert, said it’s best to avoid gossip altogether.

“If someone asks, ‘What do you think of Mark? Have you worked with him yet?’ just focus on the professional,” she said. “‘He’s great to work with. He seems to know technology really well.’”

While your response should be professional, you should be honest, too, said Maggie Mistal, a career and executive coach.

“If you sugarcoat too much or evade, people are going to read that, too,” she said. “You want to err on the side of kindness or giving another person the benefit of the doubt.”

Instead of voicing frustrations with a colleague, Ms. Mistal suggests reframing the critique. For example, you might say, “I think she’s a professional and doing the job the way she thinks it needs to be done.” It’s an authentic, balanced approach, without being catty.

‘Do you want to join us for happy hour?’

Chatting over lunch or at a post-work happy hour is a great way to get to know your colleagues and learn about the office ecosystem.

“Those invitations will inevitably dry up,” Ms. Jacinto said. “Even though you’re exhausted after your first week, you want to make sure you do go to those types of things and get to know your co-workers.”

Keep the conversation light, Ms. Jacinto said; pop culture, weekend plans and the best lunch spots are safe topics. However, feel free to inquire about your new colleagues’ roles, duties and history with the company, so long as you let your peers do most of the talking.

If you don’t drink alcohol, experts suggest considering making an effort to attend anyway, if that is something you feel comfortable with. Use it as an opportunity to let your new co-workers know that you’d rather get to know them over coffee instead of cocktails next time — if you’re comfortable disclosing such information, Ms. Jacinto said.

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