office culture: how to cope as an introvert

A friend shared (via Facebook) an interesting article from The Globe and Mail titled Giving introverts permission to be themselves. Jeff Glor speaks with Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

As an introvert, I identify with a lot of the what Susan said.  I wouldn’t say it’s anything new to me, but it affirms what I already know about introversion and specifically, about myself.

In particular, I wanted focus on introversion as it relates to the workplace.  In my experience, the average workplace is much easier for an extrovert to navigate.  I’ve seen my extroverted colleagues in action and I’m often impressed with their ability to respond to a question on the spot, generate out-of-the-box ideas from seemingly out of nowhere, and talk freely with just about anybody they come into contact with.  Generally speaking, society is more accepting of the extroverted personality, and I think this type of nurturing has been great for extroverts to continue being successful at work.

Having said that, there were many times when the same extroverted colleagues would get on my nerves.  They would constantly interrupt me and would often bounce around from topic to topic.  It was hard to get any airtime in between their rapid-fire words – by the time I would get my thoughts collected and be ready to speak, the collective group had already moved on to the next topic.  I would often get asked, “are you okay?”, “hey, why are you so quiet?”, simply because I preferred to work in relative peace and quiet.

So when I came across this passage, I could definitely relate:

Office culture is geared toward extroverts, you write. Introverts don’t exactly get “jazzed up” over open concept cubicles, lunchtime birthday parties or team-building exercises.
Introverts loathe those things. Extrovert managers will often stage these events to build morale and make everybody feel appreciated, but it may backfire.

INDEED.  I’ve struggled to explain (without sounding like I’m whining), why I don’t particularly enjoy the typical office culture as described in the passage:

  • Open-concept cubicles:  It’s overstimulating for an introvert.  Any type of noise, whether it’s people chatting on the phone, co-workers holding impromptu meetings in someone’s cube, or the clickety-clack of keyboard typing (or sometimes, nail-clipping at the desk – yes, it has happened to me), is exhausting to deal with.
  • Lunchtime birthday parties: Or for that matter, anytime birthday parties.  Unless I know the Birthday Guy/Gal well, it doesn’t seem right to be part of the celebrations.  Plus, it means more small talk and interaction with people, which equals to less energy for the rest of the day.
  • Team-building exercises:  At past team-building sessions, I would often get picked on for being quiet and be forced into roundtable discussions or situations where I had to speak in front of the group (eg. Boss: “I’m going around the table and EH-VER-REE-BUH-DEE (at this point, stares at me) has to contribute at least one thought”).  Awkward.

Over the years, I’ve learned how to cope in this type of set-up.  I mean, I had to learn to cope – I have no control over the office environment at any workplace.  It’s not exactly a topic to bring up during an interview, either.  “Oh, by the way, I’m an introvert so I need my own office to be able to concentrate.”  Can you say Prima Donna?

So, how have I learned to cope?

  • Headphones: Even better if they’re noise-cancelling.  Granted, how often I can use headphones largely depends on the office culture and how acceptable it is to be seen wearing them.  I only pop them on if I have a difficult task to complete that takes a lot of concentration.  It also sends the visual cue that I should only be disturbed if it’s urgent (although not all people abide by this – but it lessens the interruptions significantly).
  • Tune out:  I learned how to do this years ago in elementary school, during everybody’s favourite time, “each student gets to read a paragraph of a book”.  I always tuned out whoever was reading and read ahead.  This skill became invaluable later on when I worked in open-concept offices with non-stop chatter.  Sometimes cubemates would actually be directing a conversation to me, but I’d be completely zoned out, happily oblivious to what was going on around me.
  • Find a secret hiding place:  Once I get settled at a workplace, I either look for an empty office that is mostly used for storage, or try to find a meeting room that doesn’t see too much traffic during the day.  That way, if I really need a change of scenery, I can go hide in my secret hiding place for a few minutes to get refreshed.  A few years ago I worked in an office with meeting rooms that locked.  I would book a meeting room for an hour, lock myself in, and either read a book or have a nap during the lunch hour.  Perfect escape!
  • Walk away:  If I can’t seem to find that one special secret hiding place, I just take a few minutes to walk away completely.  I will either go down to the building lobby or step outside (weather permitting).  Sometimes completing removing myself for even just a couple of minutes really helps.
  • Be well-rested:  I tend to require a lot of sleep to function at a socially-acceptable level, so I find that being well-rested helps me to get through the day.  It’s really true that getting a good night’s sleep goes a long way in beating stress and giving me the energy I need to face whatever the day has in store for me.
  • Be understanding:  This sounds really corny, but I imagine myself in my coworker’s shoes and how I (an introvert) must baffle them (extroverts).  It’s not fair to want extroverts to understand me when I don’t extend them the same respect.  So I try not to get too “omg why does she keep going on and on about her dog” *inner eye-roll* with the extroverts I work with.

Since it appears that most workplaces are moving towards the open-concept cubicle environment, I’ve learned to accept it as the norm, not the exception.  That’s not to say I don’t have my bad days (the nail-clipping the other day just about did me in), but they’re less frequent than they used to be.

On a similar note, there exists another article about introversion that I’m sure a lot introverts know about –  Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch.  It’s a great piece to send to someone who is unfamiliar with introversion.

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