The Challenges Of Socializing At An Office Job (When You're Less Social By Nature)
Socializing at work doesn't enjoy the best reputation among people who aren't naturally outgoing. This article will focus on the unique social circumstances that office jobs create. I'm hardly a veteran, but I've put in some time at those types of places. Part-time and blue collar jobs have different dynamics, and I won't deal with them here.
Sometimes when I hear someone who describes themselves as not that naturally sociable, and they're complaining about the aspects of the interpersonal world they don't enjoy, I wonder how much of their opinion of the interpersonal world is based on all those unrewarding hours they've spent at the office. I mean hanging out with your friends is one thing, everyone likes that. Co-workers can be harder to connect with.
Challenges of socializing at the office
Challenges everybody has to deal with
In no particular order, here's a list of ways socializing at work can be less than ideal. At a glance this list may seem way too detailed, nitpicky, and whiny. I admit most of these things aren't horrible, especially once you get used to them. However, I'd say that they are all still technically social issues that can come up at work:
- You don't get to choose your co-workers. While you'll probably get along with most of them alright, some of them you may not be able to stand.
- Even if you superficially get along with your co-workers, they may come from a variety of backgrounds, and you may not have a ton in common with them. You may be the only young guy in an office full of fifty-year-old soccer moms, for example. Ever sat around a break room table while everyone but you was talking about day care? Or everyone could be your age, but have different interests and value systems. The lack of similarities and rapport can wear on you after a while.
- Because you may not share interests or know your co-workers too deeply, conversations often stick to safe, general topics like the weather, recent news events, upcoming holidays, and pop culture TV shows. If you've been following the reality show that everyone is gabbing about, then the conversation might be fun, but day after day of this fare can get old.
- Work itself is another all too common fall back topic. When there's a lull in the lunchroom conversation it's tempting to fill the silence with dry shop talk.
- Since you won't run into everyone at once, you tend to get asked the same questions over and over by different people throughout the day. Coming back from holidays are especially bad, when you might have to recite your "How was your long weekend?" answer to a dozen colleagues.
- Even if someone rubs you the wrong way, for the sake of teamwork and office harmony, you have to bite your tongue and do your best to get along with them. In fact, an annoying person's co-workers may let them get away with a lot, because they'd rather keep the peace than risk a messy confrontation that will leave lingering tensions.
- An atmosphere of fakeness and false chumminess can pervade the air as everyone tries to get along, not step on any toes, and be a team player. Some places are the opposite though, and have an overly macho culture that can quickly get tiresome.
- The workplace itself can create reasons for people to not get along, such as office politics or because one department is not fulfilling its obligations to another one.
- Your average person probably wouldn't be working at their job if they had a choice, so they may be a little more gruff and unsociable than they would be otherwise.
- The demands of their job can cause various socially annoying traits to develop in otherwise likable people, e.g., anal retentiveness, passive-aggressiveness, etc.
- Job stress and pressure can also bring bad parts of people's personalities to the surface. Someone who's nice and easygoing on Day One may be a total jerk seven months into a death march project.
- The need to be "professional" causes people to submerge aspects of their true personality and present a more bland front to their co-workers. You may not hold everything back, but you'll second guess whether you should reveal certain things, like what you really did on the weekend at that party. As a result, everyone ends up seeming more generic and boring than they really are. Dress codes don't help either, making everyone seem basically look like the same type of person.
- Part of being professional also involves behaving yourself. You can't swear too much. You can't tell edgy jokes. You can't get too carried away at the Christmas party. Well, in some jobs you can be crude, but not all workplaces by a long shot. Sure, if you trust someone you can drop your guard a bit, but you have to be cautious by default.
Challenges specific to employees who aren't super social by nature
Besides from more systemic problems, being at work usually carries specific challenges for less-naturally sociable people:
- You have to be social all day. At any time during the eight hours you're at work you may have to perform socially. You never know when someone will drop by your office or if you'll run into someone at the coffee machine.
- You have to be social day after day. Just because you had a good conversation with someone yesterday doesn't mean you're off the hook for today. You have to consistently perform. The pressure can really drain you.
- You have to make lots of casual small talk, which you probably dislike if you're the type of person who likes their own space.
- You have to be around a variety of people. You can't pick and choose a select few who you want to socialize with, like you can your friends.
- You'll probably be branded as anti-social and aloof if you avoid your co-workers too much. They'll take it personally when you don't want to sit with them at lunch or always cut conversations short. They follow an unwritten rule that you should socialize with your colleagues a certain amount of time each day, and think it's weird if you don't follow the guidelines. You're not expected to be 100% productive every minute. Some of that should naturally be sacrificed for chatting.
- Speaking in broad strokes, less-naturally social types are better at the serious, logical side of interacting with people. When they do talk, they want to have meaningful conversations. In contrast, work is often more about the light, casual dimension of socializing. Their relative weakness in this area may leave them feeling bored and unfulfilled with most office chit chat.
- If your co-workers have better social skills than you, they may not feel like accommodating your own shortcomings in that area. Their attitude may be, "Well if she's uncomfortable with socializing, she should get better at it. Why should I act differently toward her because she can't handle a two minute conversation in the hall? She's the one who needs to change, not me."
- If you're the type that tends to be a little insecure and think people don't like you, then seeing the same colleagues day after day gives your worries lots of time to develop. Someone may look at you funny in the hall one day, and three weeks later you're avoiding them because you're sure they hate you. Even if you get along with someone fine for months, you'll find something to fret about eventually.
My suggestions for making socializing at the office more tolerable
Below I'll cover two broad approaches to handling the social issues that crop up in the office. Before that, here are some more general points:
Your co-workers probably aren't that bad
In spite of the dozen or so reasons I gave as to why socializing at work can be annoying, most of your co-workers are probably pretty good people if you give them a chance. If you get to know them better you'll probably find things to like. If you dig around you may find hidden commonalities. That said, some of your co-workers may not be the greatest. You can't expect to click with everyone. But you may be able to get along with even them a little bit better if you try.
Accept that the office environment isn't totally set up the way you want for socializing
Similar to dealing with loud, chaotic group conversations, I think a big part of improving your attitude toward working at an office can be to realize it's probably never going to be an ideal setting. Even if you take steps to bend it to your style it's not going to be 100% perfect. You aren't always going to have space when you want it. Sometimes you'll have to give ten different people the same summary of what you're planning to do on Thanksgiving. Your co-workers are going to have certain social expectations of you that they're never totally going to drop.
When you believe there's a possibility that you can have your own space, or that your fellow employees will be understanding of your needs, it's only normal to get annoyed when you're deprived of these things. If you have no expectations, and don't feel any of these things are a given, you can't care as much if you don't get them. Similarly, if you see all the "How was your weekend?" fluff as unavoidable, you may become more easygoing about playing along and making the best of it. If your co-workers ever do accommodate you in some way, enjoy it as a bonus.
As much as you can, try to take what you need from the work environment
Most of the advice I've read on this topic falls into this camp. You may have heard it before too:
- If you have your own office, close the door and recharge your batteries when you need to.
- Get away at lunch. Go for a walk or tell everyone that's when you head to the gym.
- Spend a few minutes chatting to everyone at the start of the day, to placate the more talkative types who would otherwise drop in and interrupt you later on.
- Explain to your co-workers you like some space, and that they shouldn't take it personally if you don't always want to hang out with them after work, etc.
- Portray your outside life as busy and full of commitments, so you'll always have an excuse for turning down invitations to join the company's softball team, or whatnot.
- If it's feasible, arrange to work from home some of the time.
These fit into the idea of getting away with doing your own thing socially.
The idea of solving some problems by being more social, not less
Lots of people go the route above and leave it at that. My own experiences at work led me to come to a solution that's more counter-intuitive. It may not be for everyone, and those readers can always stick to the ideas from before, but I found the following helpful. It goes like this:
Often, when people feel things weren't going well socially with their co-workers, their natural tendency is to pull away from them. If socializing with them is causing issues then it seems the solution would be to avoid the problem. Ironically, this avoidance can make the situation worse. If things with their co-workers were only mildly distant and awkward before, now they're even more so.
When people are having these problems, it may be because they're not being social enough, not that they're socializing too much and that's annoying them. They may not gel with their co-workers because they haven't spent enough time trying to build good relationships. It's not that everyone else at the company is inherently irritating or incompatible with them. They need to get out there and talk to everyone more, instead of trying to hole up in their office.
This suggestion assumes your co-workers are good people, and you may just not be giving them a chance due to your "I need my space" nature, or a general mild pickiness you have toward others. This isn't a cure-all though, if your co-workers really aren't your style, then being a little more sociable won't solve all your problems.
This advice also assumes that your people skills are alright, and that you could get along with your co-workers reasonably well if you tried. But if you're really awkward, reaching out to the other people in the office may backfire and leave you discouraged. However, they have to cordial to you, so it's not like there's a risk you'll be horribly shut down.
This advice may go against your instincts. It may feel like selling out or too much work to be worth bothering about. It's one of those things where you have to try it out, and you may see where the philosophy is coming from once you're on the other side.
This suggestion also believes that you can get used to having less space and alone time in certain contexts. The idea is that if you put yourself around your co-workers more, you'll build up a tolerance to not being alone when you're at work. I think this is definitely possible for some people, but not everyone feels this is something that can be changed.
Here are some suggestions for how you could be more social at work:
- Be sure to have lunch with everyone. Even if the time isn't totally ideal for you, eat when the group eats. If they go out to a restaurant, then go too. Lunch is your best time to chill out and really get to know everyone. If you skip it too often, then they'll end up becoming friends, and you'll be left behind, and it will be harder (though not impossible) to join the fold later.
- Make small talk with people when you run into them. Even if what you're speaking about is uninspired, it doesn't matter too much. It's more that you're making an effort to be friendly and showing you want to talk to them.
- Take little breaks throughout the day to stop and chat to the co-workers you particularly get along with. Obviously be respectful of their work load, but at the same time, nothing is really wrong with catching for five minutes in the morning, or at three in the afternoon. This kind of friendly chit chat throughout the day makes work tolerable for most people. Unless you're working at some real "Time is money" place, most offices don't care if you socialize a little. Actually, most workplaces prefer the casual, likable employee who still gets all their work done vs. the uptight, anal-retentive robot who only does a slightly better, overly detail-obsessed, job.
- Try to get to know what your co-workers are really like as people. It's so easy sometimes to just talk about topics that are immediately at hand (e.g., the weather, upcoming movies, the latest hiccup with Graphic Design) that while you may get along with your co-workers, you don't really know them. Once you learn more about them your relationship tends to improve.
- Keep in touch with people from your desk, like send the odd chatty or goofy email throughout the day.
- Make nice little gestures toward your co-workers, like bringing in snacks one day.
- Join in those office pools. It gives you something to talk to your co-workers about and gets you more deeply into the social life at the office.
- Similarly, if everyone is into a certain TV show or sport, then consider following along too. You don't have to actually watch anything, just read a recap the next day so you can chip into the conversation. This is a very pragmatic suggestion, of course. One way to get yourself temporarily into something is get involved through a pool. You'd be surprised how much you can get into a dumb reality show when you've got $5 riding on a certain contestant.
- If some people go out after work, join in at least occasionally. This is usually a good time as everyone will let their true, fun selves show more.
- Show up to all the staff events, like the Christmas party. It's totally understandable if you don't like having to do corporate stuff on your own time, but having to attend these functions once or twice a year isn't too, too bad. And if all goes well, these events are a good way to bond with everyone.
- If you're feeling particularly unsocial one day, that's a cue to be even more social than normal. Instead of letting those feelings fester and grow worse, track down a fun co-worker right away and improve your mood by talking to them. If things feel tense with someone, seek them out to have a nice, quick chat. This all reminds your brain that socializing is often rewarding under the right circumstances and that your co-workers are decent people.