Game on: How to talk about sport without driving your colleagues crazy

Are you watching the Six Nations this weekend? Liverpool got some fright the other day. What did you think of Dublin and Kerry? I see Eriksen has left for Italy. Nobody’s going to stop Limerick this year. Poor old Kobe – best since Magic Johnson, for my money.

If most of this means little or nothing to you, you’re probably not a sports fan. Which is bad news if you work in an office, as sport is one of those standard “go to” topics of conversation while waiting for the lift or queuing at the canteen.

No surprise, really; too many other things are fraught with potential danger. Politics stirs the blood too much. Social issues like abortion or violent crime are upsetting or depressing. Not everyone watches Netflix or listens to music. We’re all bored of discussing Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent, Donald Trump’s weird hair.

As for talking about your personal life and problems, oh God, please no – as the saying goes, save it for your priest or your therapist.

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Sport, though, is almost-perfect conversational fodder. It means just enough to hold our interest, but ultimately doesn’t really mean anything much, so you don’t get that terrifying “end of the world” feeling which surrounds a disease epidemic or Middle East sabre-rattling.

It’s also easy to join in. Really, you only need to know the barest details to offer a plausible-sounding opinion on sport. I know nothing about rugby and care even less, but could blather on about “the Scots”, “Johnny’s form” and “playing a more expansive game post-Joe” just from a cursory glance at the headlines.

However, there is a problem. For non-devotees, the endless prattle of sports-loving workmates – usually, though not exclusively, men – has a deleterious effect on their emotional state, ranging from boredom to irritation.

And sometimes, at least according to one Ann Francke, worse than that. The head of the UK’s Chartered Management Institute said that “sports banter” in the workplace can leave “a lot of women, in particular, feeling left out”. Ubiquitous analysis of Joey Carbery’s injury or the FAI upheavals can even be “a gateway to more laddish behaviour”.

Ms Francke restrained herself from calling for an outright ban on talking about sport in the office, but feels it should be moderated. (I would say “refereed”, just to make a semi-clever sporting reference, but don’t want to exclude anyone.)

Is she over-reacting? Ah, yeah. Ms Francke says that non-sports fans “don’t like being forced to talk about them”, which is silly. Who, in reality, is ever actually “forced” to join in on some nonsensical waffle about Roger Federer’s Aussie Open chances, or whatever? “Give me an opinion on how his backhand isn’t working as smoothly as at Flushing Meadows last December, or I swear to God, you’ll be sorry!”

She also claims “it’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk and chat, to slapping each other on the back and talking about their (sexual) conquests at the weekend”. This moves us from silly to ludicrous: has Ms Francke ever actually met a sports fan?

They’re the biggest nerds in the world. Sure, that’s one of the main reasons why they mainly talk about sport: they’re too bashful and easily embarrassed to go near anything else.

Can you imagine it? You voice mild praise of Jurgen Klopp by the watercooler, and before you know it that specky nerd from marketing has launched into a torrid litany of his sordid adventures on an Amsterdam stag weekend. The bloodcurdling mortification. You’d want the earth to swallow you up.

That said, Ms Francke has a point, in that unending banter about sport does exclude people who, well, aren’t interested in sport. The same way as incessant discussion of, say, Love Island excludes everyone who hates Love Island, ie normal adults.

Droning on and on about any passion, not shared by your audience, is ill-mannered, socially maladroit, counterproductive – and very, very boring. It’s not a male/female thing – women can be every bit as dreary and lacking in self-awareness as fellas – and it’s not a sport/non-sport thing. It’s a human nature thing.

But there are ways to circumvent this unpleasantness. According to experts, these are the kind of things you should be doing to uphold social etiquette, prevent yourself becoming hated by colleagues, and making the world a nicer, less tedious place:

– Avoid contentious issues in office chat. You all know what they are.

– The weather is always safe ground. Not contentious at all; everyone moans about it constantly, thus inculcating a deep esprit-de-corps in the troops.

– Same with parking and/or traffic and/or commuting. We’re all in this together!

– Food is okay as a topic too. Ask someone what they had for lunch. Tell them what you had. Compare and contrast.

– Do not open conversations with a joke. Especially dirty ones. In fact, avoid dirty jokes altogether.

– Ask questions rather than making declarative statements. For instance, instead of bellowing “Yeah-haaah some feckin’ win yesterday am I right!?”, consider enquiring of your listener, “Do you follow lawn bowls at all yourself?”

– Dermot Bannon, Dermot Bannon, Dermot Bannon.

– Discuss non-political current events, eg some mildly interesting social trend, a stupid online meme that people won’t shut up about (such as The Dress in 2015), or an amusing celebrity catfight being played out in the tabloids.

– You can’t beat a bit of shop-talk. But for God’s sake don’t badmouth a third party, unless you know for sure that your conversational partner isn’t their friend/wife/father/old army buddy etc.

– Give out about “the young people” for a while. Unless you’re talking to a young person. In which case, give out about “my own generation”.

– Praise the other person for something they recently did. Or give them a compliment – but be scrupulously neutral, with not the teensiest hint of a sliver of an intimation of anything untoward being suggested. I usually go for, “Your car has a nice colour. But that’s just my opinion.”

– Talk hobbies (so long as they’re normal hobbies).

– Talk about the kids – but in a brisk, entertaining way. They don’t need to hear all the details, just a general overview of how cute and funny the ankle-biters are.

– Discuss holiday plans. Even better, share holiday horror stories. Great for team-bonding.

– Body language is important. Don’t cross your arms: apparently this is subconsciously processed by others as a “closed-off” attitude. Lean towards them slightly – it shows interest. Make eye contact. Don’t talk to her chest/his crotch. And smile, but not too much.

– Quote from Shakespeare, or the great philosophers. Who could react badly to someone suddenly breaking off from a conversation about Dancing with the Stars to stare into space and intone, “I had a dream…and ’twas past the wit of man to say what dream it was”?

– Perhaps most importantly of all, listen more and talk less. As we tell small children: two ears, one mouth.

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