How to Deal
When Socializing at Work, Just Be Yourself
Wednesday, February 6, 2008; 6:19 PM
I am a relatively successful female employee in my mid-thirties who has always received the highest ratings on performance reviews. Unfortunately, I am also quiet, and this is often interpreted as aloofness. Because this is hurting my career and because I genuinely want my co-workers to feel comfortable around me, I've tried to pinpoint the specific behaviors that bother them, and it basically comes down to insufficient socializing over non-work-related topics. (They admitted that work-related communications are just fine, in terms of information-sharing, collaborative brainstorming, negotiations, etc.)
I first tried to spend more time talking to others about the subjects that interest them, but the majority of their conversations revolve around gossip, which does not interest me. The topics that interest me do not interest them. So, I started scanning newspapers for discussion topics, brushing up on sports (I don't even like sports), attending more potlucks (after learning that my co-workers were bothered because I attended only two out of three per week) and being more complimentary, but the harder I try, the more uncomfortable and unnatural I feel. Don't extraverts realize how hard it is for introverts to chit-chat? How can I find a way to interact with my peers in a way that makes both them and myself more comfortable? And how do I maintain my professionalism in contexts that feel -- to me -- unprofessional?
Although you may very well benefit from making a greater effort to socialize at work, you are putting far too much pressure on yourself. As a fellow introvert, I know that it can be painfully hard at times to engage in casual office conversation, especially if it seems trivial or petty. I know the dread of having to mingle at social gatherings and the awkwardness of making small talk with a virtual stranger. But if you polled the people I have worked with, I doubt that many would typecast me as an introvert.
The secret to faking it is to be yourself. Stop scanning the paper for topics. Stop reading about sports, for Pete's sake. You already have interests of your own, and that is what you should be sharing with your co-workers. I do not condone gossip, but part of what your co-workers are accomplishing through their "chit-chat" is bonding. They are talking about themselves so that others in the office might know them better. And you can easily do the same.
Do keep attending the potlucks, but also create opportunities to socialize in a context that feels more comfortable for you. I am guessing that, like me, you are far more at ease socializing one-on-one than in a large group. So try asking individual co-workers out for lunch or coffee. If you can get to know them as individuals in a setting that is more relaxed for you, you will each grow to like the other more.
Finally, don't be afraid at times to just listen. Go to the lunches, hang out by the water cooler, but don't feel like you necessarily have to be talking the entire time. Listening attentively to a co-worker's stories and smiling or laughing along with them also counts. Your co-workers will just be happy that you showed up to the party. Far more happy than if you try to be someone you are not.
Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.
Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail email@example.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. The information contained in this column is not intended to be legal advice.