Business English: how to make small talk at the coffee machine

Found yourself in a work situation whilst you are still learning the English you need to get by? Or maybe you have an English-speaking colleague that you would like to get closer to.

Whatever your work situation, here’s the EF English Live guide to casual chatting in the office.

At the coffee machine, latte in hand, spreadsheets on hold: these are a few English phrases you are more than likely to hear amongst your work colleagues as you relax. They’re easy to pick up and use, too.

1. (to) play catch up – to be late starting something so you make a big effort to overcome it; it doesn’t mean you have been lazy (!) – more often it refers to when something comes in last minute, or you are working to a tight deadline

e.g. “We’re playing catch-up on that commission from France”
Meaning: we’re working overtime to get everything ready for the commission from France.

When might you use it? To express being a bit stressed out or under pressure to deliver a project; to express the effort required to overcome something for which you are currently behind schedule. You might also use the phrase to motivate or drive your own team to complete something – “we’re playing catch-up here, guys” – as it can add an air of competition.

2. (to) pay a premium – meaning you pay a higher price for something because the quality or reputation is better

“We’re paying a premium for the plug from X Box, but it’s worth it”

When might you use it? This can be used in coffee machine conversation very easily – it just refers to a deal you’ve made where the company (or yourself) has paid a price that is above the normal market price. You might use it to gain a bit of prestige/boast about your purchase.

3. an uphill struggle/battle – meaning it’s a big obstacle to overcome

If you’re in an American business you are more likely to hear ‘uphill battle’; ‘uphill struggle’ is the UK equivalent.

e.g. “Getting this new construction under budget is an uphill struggle, but we have to make it happen.”

When might you use it? When talking about a project that is particularly difficult – or if you want to make something sound difficult (!). It would also work very nicely alongside ‘playing catch-up’ – i.e. “we’re playing catch-up on the construction project and it’s going to be an uphill struggle.”

4. (to) go upmarket – to sell the brand to a wealthier audience/to begin appealing to high-end markets

e.g. “We’ve decided to go upmarket and sell our scarves at Liberty/Macy’s/smart department store…”

When might you use it? To describe an ‘upgrade’ in your business plan/a decision to increase the price and quality of a product and sell it to higher-income consumers. This is going to be very useful if you work in retail. But you can also use it in a more casual way to talk about yourself and your possessions – i.e. “We’re looking to get a new car…thinking of going upmarket and getting something sporty”

5. (to) buy into – to support/endorse or agree with

This doesn’t usually get used to mean actually purchasing something – it has become a business metaphor mostly used for when someone supports or seconds an action of a colleague/the company.

e.g. “David in finance says there are pay rises on the way. I’m definitely buying into that!”

When might you use it? When you are interested or intrigued by something which you think could be a good prospect for you/the business. You can use it for potential clients too, to indicate a level of interest in their offer – i.e. “the plan you’re offering is definitely something we would consider buying into”.

And here are some phrases to avoid…

These phrases were all included in Forbes magazine’s Most Annoying Business Jargon poll. We’ve picked out our favourite three – some of the cheesiest, most overused and weird. So use them at your peril…

Open the kimono

According to Forbes this can sometimes be used to refer to ‘revealing information’ or to give access/useful information to a client. i.e. “Head office want to know about this new deal we’ve got brewing. I told them we would open the kimono once we have it settled.”

To make hay

This is short for the well-known proverb ‘to make hay while the sun shines’, which means to make the most of a good spell and reap as much reward as you can. Now it’s used in business terms to just mean being productive in a short period of time – or to do something very lucrative very quickly.

Thinking outside the box

This has to be one of business English’s most overused phrases – something that has seeped into many other cultures as well. Thinking outside the box means to think in an unconventional way – to do something out of the ordinary, or work to find an inventive solution to a common problem. You’ll probably end up saying this at some point in your business life. Sorry.