I’ve always hated the word ‘introvert’. As soon as I was old enough to learn of its existence and its overly simplistic inadequacy, I learnt also of our fondness for putting both ourselves and other people into neat categories.
Back in 2012, author Susan Cain published her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In it, she argued that Western culture has traditionally idealised extroversion, and that introversion is often devalued.
Almost overnight, Instagram selfies paired with captions describing one’s need for solitude and introspection became a thing. Today, listicles on things you should know about introverts abound, shared repeatedly by those eager to appear more complex, interesting, or different. All of a sudden, it’s fashionable to be an introvert.
The irony, however, is that individuals with genuine tendencies towards introversion still struggle in social spaces that demand enthusiastic participation. Of these, the most consequential remains the workplace.
as much as we ‘introverts’ like to think that we live in our own bubbles, we don’t
On my first day, I was invited by a colleague to take an available seat at a communal desk where many of them already were. But because I’m easily distracted, I opted for a separate, empty desk.
“Oh,” went her reply, followed by puzzled hesitation which may in fact have been disappointment or the sound of her feelings being hurt. Then, “Okay.”
Over the next few weeks, these invitations repeated themselves in the daily trips my colleagues would make to nearby spots for lunch. Always, I would decline to join them. I rationalised that because I was only going to be there for 3 months, there was no need to build relationships that wouldn’t last anyway.
“I’m rushing a project for another client,” I would lie with a clear conscience. I was a freelancer after all, which they knew. I ended up always eating lunch at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Soon enough, these invitations to lunch stopped.
At the same time, I’ve realised over the years that as much as we ‘introverts’ like to think that we live in our own bubbles, we don’t. We forget that while it’s painful for us to make small talk, it’s just as painful for colleagues to be around us when we refuse or are unable to engage them on that level.
Work in most places requires at least some sort of teamwork or collaboration. And unfortunately, we live in a world of company D&Ds and tagging each other in work-related memes, where not being super sociable is frowned upon, and being considered a good team player entails more than just being good at your job. You also have to actually care about the people you work with, and want to know them.
there will come a time when you’ll need help, and realise you should’ve tried a little harder to fit in
For instance, when colleagues ask you to join them for lunch, feel free to say no. But next time, head out early, and offer to do takeaways for everyone (Compensate). If you know that every other Thursday is company drinks night, invent a timeless excuse such as how that’s always been the day you spend with your grandmother.
However, “surprisingly” be able to make it every once in awhile when you “re-scheduled with grandma because you want to hang out with them”. Your colleagues will appreciate this, and note that you’re making an effort (Compromise).
You’ll notice during these rare appearances of yours that people might start asking you all sorts of strange questions. This is happening because no one knows anything about you.
Bear with it. Answer all their questions (more Compromise). Try to see where they’re coming from. Say lots of things that don’t really mean anything (more Compensation). Crack jokes. Laugh. All this stuff will go a long way. People will start to like you.
“But I don’t need people to like me!” you might protest.
Fair enough. But there will come a time when you will need to get a particularly unpleasant piece of criticism across to a colleague. There will come a time when you will need a favour, or just some help. It’s in times like these that you’ll realise you should’ve tried a little harder to fit in.
Like it or not, most people are ruled by their emotions. For them, it is not possible to dislike you yet appreciate your work.
So while you might not need to be liked, most people want to like the colleagues they work with. They don’t want to feel like you’re a stranger.
A lot of this stuff sounds manipulative and, in a way, insincere. But as I left the above-mentioned startup to work for other companies, it became obvious to me how important it is to keep the peace. Maintaining good relationships is essential to getting good work done, and sure, my approach seems inauthentic, but it ensured that doing my job well remained the priority.
These days, there’s a whole range of behavioural tendencies that passes for introversion: maybe you truly hate social interaction, or you’re just not very good at it; maybe you take time to warm up to people, or you believe in separating work from your social life.
Whatever it is that you are, most people are social creatures who love and need office camaraderie—something you might see as pretentious, unnecessary, or occasionally political bullshit.
But if you like the work you’re doing, and want to do it well, you’ve got to learn to compensate and compromise.