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Introverts and social events in the workplace

Before we get into discussing introverts and social events in the workplace, I wanted to say that I am blessed to be here, safe, and healthy. I wish the same for my readers. 2020 was a hell of a year, and while things have improved somewhat, the pandemic is still a very real thing that we’re still juggling. Not everyone took up yoga, learned a new language or baked new recipes since the pandemic started, and that’s okay.

My last post here was literally right before the pandemic kicked in full swing and all of NY went on lockdown. My social media presence and writing pretty much stopped as a result. It was what I needed at the time, and I encourage everyone to also take time to do what’s best for you and yours. This pandemic is still not over regardless of all the “back to normalcy” things happening, and so it’s okay to focus on self care. 🌻 This post is also my way of practicing self care.

Now that I’m finally here to write though, I thought there was no better way to start than with a mental health post. I want to talk about introverts and social events in the workplace. It’s a topic that is near and dear to my heart. This perspective still feels taboo to share because it doesn’t currently fit the mold of most workplaces in a positive light. However, workplaces have shifted, and are becoming more flexible as well as open-minded. It seemed like the right time to bring up the topic.

(Note: This is a very long post. It’s over a decade’s worth of feelings that are finally out in the world, hence the mini-novel. But I understand if you want to skip straight to the point. You can read my bulleted summary under “How Can WorkPlaces Improve Social Events for Introverts?“)

A Quick Review on Introverts

Before we get too deep into this topic, I want to talk about introverts in general. If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m an introvert. It is estimated that introverts make up anywhere between 25 to 40 percent of the population. You would think that with numbers like these, workplaces would be inclusive of introverts, extroverts, and anyone in between. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, but we’ll get to that. Let’s return to talking about introverts.

There are a lot of misconceptions and questions about introverts, especially in the workplace. Luckily for us, there are plenty of resources on the internet. Here are a few!

Hopefully some of those reading suggestions were enlightening. Before we move on, let’s just summarize a few key traits that introverts have (some borrowed from 8 Signs you’re an Introvert):

  • Being around lots of people drain their energy.
  • Too much stimulation leaves introverts distracted and unfocused. (Not good for work)
  • Prefers written communication to verbal. Prefers verbal communication to be planned ahead.
  • Enjoys solitude. (So many good books to read, my friend.)
  • Has a small group of close friends. (Selectively social, not anti-social)
  • Prefers to get to know people on a one on one basis rather than in a large group setting.
  • Needs time to think/process. Doesn’t like being put on the spot. Doesn’t like surprises. Unless it’s the “Congrats, you’ve hit the 10 million dollar jackpot” kind of surprise. I’m sure introverts wouldn’t mind a surprise like that. 😉

I'm not anti-social. I'm selectively social. There's a difference.

After reading that list, you might realize that you know more introverts than you think. You might even be one yourself. Interestingly enough though, despite all the information out there that has already cracked the mystery behind introverts, the workplace still hasn’t kept up to accommodate them.

IT is no different. There are many that believe IT is an introvert friendly career — I’ve even seen IT touted as such in articles. From my decade’s worth of experience as a developer though, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Let’s dive deeper…

The Three Pillars

Over the years, I have attended lots of impromptu lunch outings, random parties for random reasons (like the Super Bowl!), holiday gatherings, and “once a year” meet-ups. I will say upfront that I actually had a great time at some of these, and even looked forward to them. Three of my favorites were Froyo Day, a barbecue in Central Park, and a game at Yankee Stadium.

“Froyo day” was a day in the summer where the company would set up a Froyo DIY bar. At this bar, employees can grab some free Froyo (including dairy free options), choose their toppings, and enjoy. There was always leftovers, and so it wasn’t unusual to see a few containers in the freezer for the remainder of the summer for whenever someone had the hankering for it.

The barbecue in the Central Park was pretty straightforward. It was a one time thing where we were celebrating something I can’t remember. Everyone left work early to meet up at the park and there was catered lunch. Lots of pictures were taken, plenty of conversation as we sat on blankets and enjoyed nature. With the exception of some allergies, it was a really relaxing experience.

And the third was a Yankee Stadium game. I’m not really a baseball fan, but if you’re from NY, you know that regardless of whether you’re an actual fan, you have to choose a team. Either you’re a Yankee fan or a Mets fan. It’s just the New Yorker thing to do. Anyway, so the company splurged on these expensive tickets where we sat in a skybox with access to all the free food and drinks we wanted while we watched the game. And yes, there was ice cream. (I think you’re seeing a pattern here with me.) It was a lot of fun.

Now that we’ve reminisced about a few of my fondest memories of social events in the workplace, let’s address the elephant in the room and talk about the times when I did not enjoy social events. The reasons why can be summed up to three which I’ll call “pillars.” Spontaneity. Peer-pressure. And no means of escape. I’ll have to warn you, I have some horror stories coming up.

“The three pillars of miserable social events for introverts: Spontaneity. Peer pressure. No means of escape.”

The means of escape thing is really important. Introverts need the ability to step away and re-charge — in private. They don’t like to feel trapped. I don’t think any workplace will ever feel like they’ve ever “trapped” someone, and I’m sure the best intentions are always there, but sometimes certain social events are bad ideas. And yes, they feel like traps…

  • An all day trip on a boat. Motion sickness aside, if forced small talk wasn’t draining enough, being trapped on a boat with your co-workers is the icing on the cake. For obvious reasons, I opted out of this one. And yes, people got motion sickness. I dodged a bullet.
  • Week-long meet-ups or meet-ups that last several days, with co-workers in completely different states. To an extrovert, this sounds exciting! Travel! People to hang out with! A week of “fun” and still being paid. To an introvert? Stressing to pack, get to an airport, hop on a plane, and fly out to an unfamiliar location. To spend time with unfamiliar people. Even possibly share a room with said unfamiliar people. I’m getting heart palpitations just writing this. And that’s not even considering that we’re still in a pandemic. I just- why does anyone think this is a great idea, especially now?
  • Very personal/unprofessional settings. This happened years ago, but it’s definitely one of the weirdest events I’ve ever been invited to. It was crunch time, and it was all hands on deck. I was the only female developer on the team. The boss thought it’d be a “great” idea to catch up on this project if he got a huge hotel room (No, I’m serious, let me finish.), ordered pizza, and we all spent the night together coding. So yes, they wanted me, the only woman, to go to a hotel with a group of say, five to eight men? Overnight. That can’t possibly be an issue, right? 😱 😱 😱 Yes, I agree. This was insanity. The boss couldn’t fathom how something like this would be a problem. Introversion aside, there were soooo many problems with this, but I’m sure you can see them all without me having to list them. Luckily the person directly beneath his position was more understanding and able to help me get out of it. To be fair, this was also a start up that didn’t have an HR department yet, and if they had, I’m sure HR would’ve been the first to shut that idea down. 

The second pillar is peer pressure. Peer pressure doesn’t end in high school. It exists in the workplace. Let me give some real life examples of that too.

  • “It’s good for you.” I have been pressured to join social events with this as a reason more times than I care to admit. It’s usually an extrovert who is doing the convincing. One that doesn’t understand that the things that energize them, do the complete opposite to an introvert. And I have to ask, who is this good for exactly? Is it good for the extrovert because they feel like they’ve “saved” the introvert who was eating lunch alone and enjoying a good book? Is it good for the people who want to be this introvert’s friend so badly, they’d purposely put them in uncomfortable and draining environment to achieve it? Is it good for the company when the introvert is forced into said environment, and loses productivity as a result of being drained? I don’t know who this is “good for”, but I can tell you that it’s definitely not good for the introvert.
  • “It won’t look good if you don’t go.” What does that even mean? Who am I trying to “look good” for this badly that I’ll sacrifice my own well being for it? Isn’t doing my actual job to the best of my ability (because that’s what I get paid for) not enough? Will I be fired or denied opportunities because I don’t want to stress myself out in a last minute group setting with people I’m not close to? The answer to that last question is yes, your value in the workplace can be affected by these social events, but we’ll get to that later. And yes, it is a very real thing that people sacrifice their well being and their comfort to force themselves into social events at work. I have witnessed people have literal meltdowns because they didn’t want to attend something completely optional due to social pressure, yet they put on a forced smile, and pushed themselves through it anyway. Why would workplaces do that to people? One of these people was a manager venting to me. Even managers want to be able to opt out of social events without feeling like it’s expected of them.
  • “Everyone else is going. You have to go.” If that doesn’t sound like the typical high school peer pressure, I don’t know what does. I pride myself of coming back into my more rebellious roots from when I was a teen, that I temporarily abandoned when I was new and bushy-eyed to the world of work after college. It’s gotten much easier as I get older and my priorities have gotten clearer. If I don’t want to go, I will not go. I won’t be pressured.
  • “It’s part of your job.” It can be. Depending on the job. In the case of being a web developer from my experience, it’s not.Yes, it is part of my job to socialize with my peers and with clients within the scope of said job (soft skills). It is not my job, however, to “hang out/get drinks/karaoke/party” either during or after work hours. Even without considering whether someone is an introvert, people have their own personal circumstances, their own families, and sets of responsibilities. This should be something that should be taken into account when planning social gatherings and trying to rope employees into it. Let me give two examples of where circumstances determined whether or not I could attend something:
    • Before my web dev days, I worked in an after school program doing office work and teaching kids arts & crafts. One day, the boss wanted to have a meeting that would end late at night. It wasn’t a mandatory meeting. This job was not only a two hour trek, two trains and a bus away, but it also passed through unsafe neighborhoods. Going home alone at night was dangerous. My boss, bless her and her privilege, could not understand how or why I needed to skip this meeting. Said boss also had a car that she took to and from work. I didn’t go. She docked me a day of pay as “punishment.” I’ve also turned down almost all after work/late night social events for the very same reason — it’s dangerous. That may apply to other people too.I'm in danger meme
    • This was during the time I was grieving the loss of my mother. I’d returned to work honestly nowhere near being a capable and productive employee yet, but trying. It took every ounce of energy I had to do my job and of course, not cry. One of the bosses decided an impromptu lunch was a good idea. Most of the team was going with the exception of the only three women on the team. It was a complete coincidence, but we all declined because we were super busy. And no, it wasn’t an excuse. We were actually busy (and I was trying not to fall to pieces). Said boss heard of this, swooped into the room, and declared, “All of the girls aren’t going! Why aren’t any of them coming? We need more girls!” Because of this statement (never mind the strangeness of it) and his position of authority, the other two women immediately dropped everything, and were dragged into it against their will. I was the only one who finally lost my temper (grieving is hard) after politely declining and saying I didn’t feel well numerous times, and finally put my foot down. I huffed something along the lines of, “I said I’m not going.” You don’t know what people are going through. You should never pressure anyone into anything.

And finally, the third pillar, spontaneity. I have one good real life story of that.

It was just “one of those days” where nothing seems to go right. When I got to work, something happened with my contacts so I had to take them out. I didn’t have my glasses with me, so I was essentially blind of anything more than a foot away from my face. I did not have my hearing aids yet, and as a reminder to readers that are not aware, I have hearing loss. For some reason, I think it was to meet up with a former employee, my team decided on a last minute lunch to Katz’s Delicatessen.

I was fairly new and this is usually the point where I’m the “most social” because, like most people, I felt like I needed to give a good impression. Anyway, so I can’t see, and I can’t hear. I’ve never been to this place, and what I wouldn’t find out until I got there was that it wasn’t a traditional “order and pay at the cashier” kind of place. This was years ago so the process may have changed, but back then, you got a ticket when you walked in. That ticket is important. There are numerous counters and you have to order specific items separately at each counter. Each person behind the counter has to mark your ticket, and finally when you have everything you ordered, you sit and eat. To pay, when you get to the door, someone looks at your ticket, and tells you the total.

This place was packed to the brim, like shoulder to shoulder packed. It was loud. I couldn’t see the menu boards. I couldn’t hear even as one of my very kind and more aware co-workers honed in on my panic and read the items off the menu for me. I didn’t understand how to order, how to pay, where to go. By the time I made it to the table to eat, I’d done my best to keep a poker face, but truly, I was internally reminding myself not to cry. And what I ordered, I didn’t like very much. Even if I wanted to socialize, I couldn’t hear with all the noise. To top it off, when it came time to pay, they only took cash and all I had were cards. 😱 😱 😱

There was an awkward shuffle at the door. We were trying not to hold up the very impatient line of people trying to pay and push out of the exit. The same, very kind, co-worker paid for me, and I promised to pay it back which I did at a later date.

This would be the first time I would allow my “true self”, my introvert self, to show in front of my then “new co-workers”. When we returned to the office, I tried to explain in the nicest way possible that it was the most miserable lunch I’ve ever had. I had to lay some ground rules. No more last minute lunches. Warn me in advance. Tell me where we’re going so I can be prepared as far as money goes. I’m not sure I was fully understood by everyone at the time. One of them even, and yes, I’m pulling from one of my earlier points, tried to justify the experience by telling me it was “good for me.” But even if I wasn’t entirely understood, my team listened to my boundaries and spontaneous lunches were a rarity after that.

Now that I’ve gone over the “Three pillars of miserable social events for introverts,” you might be asking, “Well, why can’t you just say ‘no’, and move on?” This can all be avoided if you say no, right? And it won’t affect your value as an employee? Even better, if you work remotely, you can avoid all the in-person social interaction completely! Problem solved.

It’s not that simple, and finally, we’ve arrived at the point of this article. I know. It was a journey, but I appreciate you all sticking it out with me.

Why “opting out” for introverts is not an option, but it should be.

I’ve already given the bulk of the answer as to why it’s difficult to opt out of social events. Some people think it’s good for us, it won’t look good, because everyone else goes, and it’s “part of our jobs.” Aside from the peer pressure, I have seen and experienced the negative effects of not being an extrovert.

Story time again. Once upon a time, I was at a job where they hired a guy. He was around for a few weeks, and then one day, he wasn’t. I asked my boss what happened to “that guy.” Was his skillset not a good match? Was he not doing his job? Did he leave for a better opportunity?

The answer I received was something along the lines of, “He wasn’t a good fit. He didn’t really talk to anyone and kept to himself.” This was a clear and chilling message.

To succeed, and be a “good fit” in the workplace, you have to be extroverted.

So this poor guy, who I never had the fortune of knowing his actual name, was let go because “he wasn’t a good fit” and there was no other valid reason aside from him being less social than the others? I’m pretty sure that’s illegal if it can be proven? Maybe? Either way, being judged in a way that affects job security can be a real thing.

Extroverts are rewarded, sometimes literally. When people are extroverted and seek random, casual conversations with others, they become familiar, even favored. I’ve witnessed people receive actual award certificates at a holiday party (not kidding) because of their social prowess. It felt very high school year book. Who was voted “the person who knew all the lunch spots” or the “person who was the most helpful.” I’m sure introverts know some good lunch spots, and are just as helpful, but because they’re not part the crowd of people who regularly talk, their lack of participation excludes them from ever receiving these “rewards.” Things like this can make introverts feel invisible, and less valued.

The last perk of being an extrovert is the opportunities that are open to them. Due to their natural ability to be social, they professionally benefit. In meetings, their voices are always heard. When considering ideas for social events, these people control the narrative. When it comes to promotions and maybe even new jobs, employers like to see someone who seems “outgoing” and “enthusiastic.” It doesn’t mean that introverts do any less of a good job than extroverts do. It’s just much easier to recognize extroverts because they stand out.

There are lots of doors that don’t open for those who prefer to stay out of the spotlight, but still work just as hard. An example (I have so many!) is something that happened to me at least twice with two different all remote companies I was being interviewed by. Everything in the interview process went well for me. The skillset matched, the pay was right, we seemed to like each other just fine. Things went downhill, however, when I told them that I’d like to opt out of the once a year meet ups that they have. After that, the interview process came to an abrupt halt and I was told they were considering other candidates…

How Can WorkPlaces Improve Social Events for Introverts?

The Bulleted Summary

  • Get feedback from real life introverts. Allow a safe space for that feedback to be provided. Even better if it can be submitted anonymously without judgement.
  • Make sure social events avoid the terrifying “three pillars.”
    • Make sure people have a means of escape. People should be able to step away for a breather in private. People should also be able to leave if they really need/want to.
    • Avoid spontaneity if possible. Believe it or not, introverts are more likely to attend something they know of ahead of time, and actually enjoy it versus it being randomly forced onto them.
    • And of course, peer pressure. Don’t do it. You never know what people are going through or what they have on their plates. If someone will be happier, healthier, and more productive by skipping out, then please don’t pressure them to attend a social event.
  • Keep social events during work hours. This way no one has to worry about getting home safely, or not being able to tend to other responsibilities they may have outside of work.
  • Keep events local (if possible). I know there are those yearly “meet-ups” that remote companies are famed for, but while hopping on a plane to spend a handful of days with your peers might sound exciting to some, it can be extremely stressful, and miserable draining for others.
  • Everyone should feel appreciated and treated fairly regardless of “how social” they are. No one should ever have to worry about job security because they “keep to themselves” too much or “aren’t a good fit.” Of course, this depends on whether being social is actually part of the job description (like customer service), but if it isn’t, so long as an employee is doing their job effectively, that should be all that matters.
  • Normalize being able to opt out of social events, whether it’s for some of them, all of them, the local ones, or the far away ones. There should be no backlash, pressure, or judgement for those who’d rather skip. Some people just really want to do their jobs, get paid, and go home.

The Longer Wrap-Up

Reading this post is a good start. Learning more from other resources is even better. Talking directly with introverts (in private, one on one or anonymously) can be the best method if it’s feedback you’re looking for.

Introverts in the working world know that they can’t avoid all forms of social interaction. Most of the time, they don’t want that either. Even introverts like to socialize every now and then (Froyo Day!). The difference between them and their extroverted peers is that they like control — the ability to choose when, where, and with whom to be social with. They want personal boundaries to be respected, to be safe, and to remain healthy whether that’s mentally, physically, or both. They also don’t want to feel less valued than their more talkative peers. They want the option to opt out without feeling like it’ll affect them professionally or that their peers will take it personally.

Not that introverts can’t be talkative once they open up. Believe me, once I get comfortable with a group of people, and I’m not heads down into a project, I can get into really deep discussions about all kinds of things — movies, video games, books, and yes, places to go to lunch. There are lots of cool conversations that can be had with introverts provided they’re in the right environment and feel their best.

So returning to the “Three Pillars”, setting up an inclusive social event should be planned ahead, should be optional without pressure, and should have a means of escape to take a breather.

Remote working can also be a great option. Fully remote jobs still have once a year meet-ups however. I’ve never seen a remote job posting without it. It’s even touted as a benefit to potential hires. This might be an unpopular opinion, but remote working and mandatory once a year meet-ups are contradictory. If people choose to work remotely to free themselves from those social obligations, these meet-ups drag them right back in.

The good news is that work culture has shifted so much in the past year or so. Now there are more flexible and remote opportunities than ever before. Employers are listening to all kinds of people and willing to hear all kinds of feedback that they were previously unwilling to. That’s a good thing for a lot of people, not just introverts.

And so I’d encourage companies out there to continue seriously learning how to be inclusive. I hope that in reading this, at the very least, it’s gotten some people to see a different perspective.

I’ve also accepted that some might read this and still have zero relation to it, zero empathy. Dare I say, they might be thinking, “Well, that’s just how the work force works. We all have to do things we’re not comfortable with. Suck it up!”

And so, to play Devil’s advocate, I want to ask those people what if it were the reverse? What if the expectation was that there were never social events where you gather at work, either during or after work hours? What if you were socially pressured into staying home, reading books, writing, watching your favorite shows, and just avoiding most people in general save for a handful of close people? What if you were limited in the casual conversation you could have with your co-workers versus the time you spend actually working?

The pandemic has already given us the answer by forcing everyone into lockdown: Extroverts likely to suffer higher mental health toll in Covid lockdown (The Guardian)

Extroverts don’t like being forced into things against their nature — it’s not healthy for them. And yet, doing the same to introverts is considered acceptable, and even the norm. (At least in the US workplaces, I’m assuming…)

So I ask, since work culture is already changing and becoming more flexible, why stop there? Maybe one of the things that also need to change is how we improve social events in the workplace for introverts. Thank you for reading and be sure to remind your introvert friends/co-workers that they’re awesome.🌻

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