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Today, one of my coworkers "tasked" me to eat with the new trainee (so that she won't eat alone since my colleague wasn't available for lunch).

I wanted this person to feel comfortable so I started to ask questions about her studies (what are you studying, how long will your internship be, what do you want to do after that, etc...). She seemed open to the conversation and was giving some details not asked for when answering.

Other coworkers were starting to arrive for lunch and the conversation slowly moved away. I noticed that the new trainee wasn't taking part in the conversation and I assumed she needed more time to feel comfortable around us.

Question

Assuming it's possible, how could I have made her more comfortable around us? Maybe even comfortable enough that she would have joined the conversation?

Notes and clarifications

  • This new trainee was in the center of the tables, where all the conversations happened, so that wouldn't have been an issue.

  • We were talking about food and other subjects where everyone can participate (no specific knowledge needed).

  • The trainee was given a tour the first day (today was her second) and people said their name to her (and a brief description of what their work is) but she probably didn't remember most of them (unless she has a very good memory for this kind of things).

11

I can definitely relate to how the trainee feels. I too get very quiet when I'm in a larger group that I'm fairly new to. There are a few reasons for this:

  • There's an inherent discomfort around new people until you get to know them. The more people you don't know, the greater the discomfort.
  • Even if you know some of the people, there's still discomfort due to the people you don't know
  • More people means that the conversation will usually flow faster and it is harder to find a good spot to jump in and contribute.

On my first day at my current job, one of my co-workers was assigned to take me to lunch. Instead of taking just me and then having others joined in, he formed a small group to go get lunch. Each of them knew that it was my first day and all of us went through the "getting to know you" stuff (like the questions you asked her when it was just the two of you) together. By going through all of those questions with a group of 4 or 5 people, I was able to get acclimated to all of them at once instead of having to get comfortable over and over as each new person joined.

Next time you are having lunch with someone new to the company, invite a small group (3-4 others) to go with you. Explain to them that the person you are eating with is new. The conversation will still start off the way it did when it was just the two of you (with the getting to know you type of questions), but now there will be a group of people who have that shared conversational context. This will allow her to be comfortable with the whole group instead of a single person (you).

  • The given three bullets are the first thoughts I had also, before reading this answer :-) My fourth thought was the "small instead of large group". I know situations when people are deep in their subject, talking so fast that you can't join in without interrupting anyone. – puck Mar 16 at 7:42
  • 3
    I think you implied something that would be good to specify explicitly: when taking a new person to lunch, it's good to not just bring a few other people to meet (preferably different each day), but also ensure as much as feasible that the group stays small. Possibly go out to a nearby restaurant, where neighboring groups aren't likely to join in with your conversation. Maybe head for a corner of the cafeteria, where your intern won't be surrounded. I'm not putting this as a separate answer because it sounds like you already intended this, just didn't say it. – Ed Grimm Mar 16 at 18:33
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When you have a chance to talk to her alone, try to find what she's interested in. Is it video games? Sports? Maybe she has a crazy passion for horseback riding? Or perhaps she's a hardcore fan of that one popular TV show1?

Regardless of what it is, most people I've met usually have some subject that they absolutely love and can talk for hours about. If you can find hers and move the lunch conversation to that topic, it would be a lot easier for her to join in. And if she's still shy, you could even ask her opinion in front of everyone. Taking the TV show as an example, if you get a conversation going about it but the trainee still stays quiet, you could say something like:

Trainee, didn't you say you liked this show? Who's your favorite character? Oh him? What makes you say that??

If there's anyone else at the table who's even a little interested in the same thing, they'll be jumping in too!

Of course, if after you try to bring her into the conversation she fades back into silence, don't force it. I'm speaking from experience when I tell you that there's nothing you can do to make someone more uncomfortable than putting the spotlight on them when they deliberately don't want it.


1. THAT'S FINALLY GETTING AN 8TH SEASON ahem I mean, it could be any TV show, right?

2

One more thing that isn't mentioned for now: Don't only focus on lunch time.

The first contacts are made at work, I'm sure work allows a little chitchat.
This is a more subtle environment where you don't feel like you were fighting verbally against numerous unknown people, squeezing into conversations you aren't part of, talking about subjects you never heard of.
At work there is one or maybe two persons which make it much easier to find something to talk about.

If you enable this as a first step and make her have lunch with these colleagues then she will have a much better basis to feel well. She is no longer "the only alien among lots of friends", she will feel equal. Perhaps a previously started conversation goes on at lunch, which feels better than an extended questioning time about her.
If now another one or two colleagues join the lunch group and also join her conversation, this is a much more comfortable situation.

1

I just feel the same your trainee does. When there are many unknown people around me, it is easier (read: more comfortable) to converse with one stranger than many.

If the group consists solely of people who are new here it is easier to connect.

It is quite likely that new group at a new place will want to explore same places, try same things. They will learn and grow together, which which will boost their confidence and make them less hesitant in new surroundings

So send her with people who are new to the place like she is and if that is not an option make sure there are few people (a small group) with her for lunch so that it is easy for her to open up.

Once she gets to know a few of them, interacting with the others wouldn't be difficult.

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