How Not To Survive at Parties as an Introvert

“Always the outsider looking in…”

I was invited to a summer house party over a month ago. I didn’t want to go – I hate parties – but it’s hard to come up with reasons why I couldn’t attend and lying is difficult. Secondly the host couple are fantastic, interesting people. It’s just that I’d rather spend time with them outside of a big gathering.

I went with a friend by train followed by an uphill trudge through the misty rain to arrive at the party that was already in full swing. We had decided to be fashionable late. Initially no one heard us knocking at the door, but eventually one of the party-goers heard us and let us in.

The first thing to do is to locate the hosts to let them know that you are there, that you were actually at the party. As with most parties I’ve been to, you never really get to spend much time with the person who invited you. She introduced us to someone and let us be. As with business networking, I feel it’s bad form to cling to someone you already know so I stood aside and tried to figure out what best to do.

Surveying the room, everyone seemed to know someone else and were busy chatting away. I suppose it always feels a bit like that. There was a couch, with three people talking animatedly and laughing together. Another small group was in the kitchen (it’s an open plan kitchen, diner, conservatory space) clustered around the alcoholic drinks. Some were hanging out at the patio doors. To my left were a small group sitting on chairs against a wall next to the bookcase, again talking with each other.

I clutched my drink like a life line, sipping away nervously. I’m not sure nervous is the right word here. More resigned to my fate. I’ve been through so many of these social situations before. Some people in the groups would look up occasionally and see me standing by myself but would continue with their conversations, not even a smile thrown my way. I didn’t feel like I could go up and introduce myself. I expect others can do this with ease. It was the feeling of being an outsider, and also that I didn’t have anything meaningful, interesting or funny to add to their conversations. I’d just be boring them, a tag-along, a nodding doll.

In the past, I would have gone up to the smallest and friendliest looking group and introduced myself. However, past experience has taught me that this never yields a satisfactory result. I hate being a the fifth wheel in a group, there but not really there as I don’t contribute anything. Whenever I said anything, I found that people just carried on as thought I hadn’t said anything at all. So this time, I decided I might as well just stand on my own.

I tried to comfort myself with the fact that people are more interested in themselves than others. Therefore, they can’t really see me and it’s okay just to stand silently, alone, holding an empty glass, watching everyone else. I just have to make it for a couple of hours then I can go and my duty has been done. Until the next party, if I get invited.

What is an introvert?

You’ve heard the term and you’ve watched the Susan Cain YouTube video. But what exactly is an introvert?

Introversion and extraversion are qualities which are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Apparently 30-50% of people in the US are introverts according to a site I’ve seen. It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me – I’ve always felt different (plural of anecdote is not data). These are the common traits that I feel I can relate to:

Introspection

We focus our energy on our inner world. Spending time thinking energises us. We live inside our heads – we’re often told to stop daydreaming. The outside world sometimes seems too much, too draining and we like to retreat back into ourselves.

Need to be alone

Having alone time is an essential for many introverts. It’s a time to recharge our batteries from the draining outside world, whether that’s by reading a good book, playing video games or crafting. When the world all around is full of inane chatter, we relish the quiet and peace. Maybe you’re often asked ‘Why are you so quiet?’

Prefer few close friends

Introverts aren’t necessarily antisocial, but they may lose energy by being in busy social situations. You’d rather be with a few close friends, maybe even chat all night, than go to a huge, lively party. And that’s perfectly fine by me.

Don’t like the limelight

You’re perfectly prepared to sit back and let others be the centre of attention. You’re not afraid of the attention, but you just don’t have the desire to take centre stage.

You tend not to initiate small talk

This seems to be a popular one! You’re not the kind to share daily life details with others, be they strangers or perhaps work colleagues. You like to keep your business to yourself. You’re definitely not going to start talking about the weather just because you’re waiting next to someone in line at the supermarket checkout. Networking is a nightmare.

As introversion-extraversion is a spectrum, a person who identifies as an introvert may not show all the traits, and not all the traits to the same degree. It’s not all-or-nothing. Perhaps nobody is 100% introvert all of the time. I hate being centre of attention, but I entered a public speaking contest through choice. I know! I didn’t win, by the way. The trait I least identify with is the need to be alone. How about you?

Why you shouldn’t compare yourself to others

And other tall tales…

So, I wasn’t haven’t a great week anyway. I’m working on writing my third book and it’s a long, hard slog. I’ve been feeling demotivated by this. I’ve haven’t worked on any new dress patterns and I’ve not sewn up any fab new dresses recently. This is mainly due to environmental guilt – I feel like I am adding to the consumerist mountain of material possessions. Therefore taking a bit of an enforced breather from the crafting, even though I thoroughly love it. The book is different as it’s only available in digital format – still trash you might say, but at least it’s not ending up in landfill.

Enough moaning – back to the nitty gritty of why I started this inane post. It was a humid summer evening last night, and I was reading lifestyle blogs as people are wont to do before going to sleep. The I get a notification on my phone – a message! My friend’s sister wrote a book (a proper one, paperback and sells on Amazon) some months ago with a new angle on feminism. She’s been invited to present it at the House of Commons next week. My friend was obviously really proud of this achievement.

I should be too, right? And I am – it’s a good topic. The thing is, the overriding emotion was that of emptiness and lacking. I know it’s awful to focus on myself when I should be feeling nothing but happiness and excitement for her success. She is only a few years older than me but her success (I feel) highlights and brings to the fore my shortcomings and failures. I don’t feel that I have achieved enough when I compare myself to her. I didn’t actively make the decision to use her as a yardstick against which to measure my success and worthiness as a person. It just happened. At this moment, my life seems to lack direction and purpose. I’m not doing anything ‘big’ like her, not being seen out and about, not in the political world, not taking a noticeable and meaningful stance on issues such as feminism or racism. I’m just living my life, typing away, going to my office jobs, sewing the occasional dress.

Well, the only thing to have come out of this mind funk so far is the motivation to write this post.

Small talk is hard work?

I have a hard time at work. This is mainly because of the everyday need to make small talk. I don’t like small talk but when someone happens it upon me, I feel obliged to respond. Except I can’t, I don’t know how to. It’s just awkward.

For instance, yesterday I walked in on a colleague in the communal kitchen. I’d normally avoid this sort of situation as I am already anticipating the small talk. But I had to go in to drop my lunch in the fridge (it was morning and I’d just arrived at work). He was busy making his morning coffee. He greeted me good morning and excitedly stated that he’d spent his weekend at the Tour de France. I just did not know how to respond. I think the block was due to the fear of looking stupid. I didn’t know much about the Tour de France, and therefore had no background on which to frame a meaningful question to ask him. I was trapped. Was he watching it on TV or he was actually there? Wasn’t it in France? I just don’t know!

I felt terrible as there was this awful pause where he was obviously expecting me to come up with something so he could continue with whatever it was he wanted to share with me. But my inability to string together a coherent sentence to show him that I was interested was letting me down. He must have thought I was either ignorant or being rude by not being interested enough to ask him more about it. I ran through some questions in my mind but none seemed suitable.

I don’t know if anyone else has to go through this mental palaver any time an innocent colleague mentions what they’ve been up to over the weekend.

Surviving in an Extravert World

The masks we wear…

Do you try to hide the fact that you’re an introvert to blend in? I have tried but without any great success. It’s too much a part of me, and no matter what mask I put on to hide it, it’s obvious who I am.

This seems to be in stark contrast to a friend of mine, who visited me last summer. We grew up together, but his life took a hugely successful trajectory leading him into the world of financial services, six figure salaries, a wife and kids. They moved to Singapore a long time ago now, to follow his career and I think he enjoys his life there very much. Growing up I think we were only friends because he was introvert and shy too. We weren’t close friends but managed to stay in contact throughout our adult lives.

He told me a little about the ex-pat community living and working in Singapore. They go out a lot, drink a lot, and play hard. I don’t know if that’s typical, or just for his circle of acquaintances. I also ask what is was like working in financial services sector. He described that he works hard to put on this mask of being extravert to fit in with everyone else there. It’s one way to ensure success, ensure you are treated as one of the team ensure you’re in mind when promotions are up for grabs. At work, he’s chatty, sociable. I was so surprised to hear when he said that afterwards, he feels exhausted and simply has to have time on his own to recharge, get away from the buzz and noise. The whole thing completely drains him. What was even more surprising was that he admitted that he felt this way even when meeting friends, even meeting me one-on-one for a coffee.

I’ve always been envious of his success. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy for him – I just wish I could have achieved as much as he has done. As were grew up together, it makes it easy to compare myself to him. He networks all the time, and makes use of the connections from that. He seems to be able to make friends wherever he goes. He manages teams and projects. I thought all these skills came naturally to him but in reality they’re not really a part of who he his. It’s a persona he’s been crafting and honing since he was young. It’s helped him to advance in his career, whereas I’m stuck in a junior position. (I’ll add the caveat that career isn’t everything – his work comes with a lot of stress and little time for life outside of work. I work in a junior position and what I earn is a drop in the ocean for him. However I like to remind myself it means I sleep at night and have time to do things like writing this blog.)

I wonder how many people I’ve met and envied have actually been shy introverts hidden behind a mask of extraversion?

Interviewing for Introverts

How Not To Succeed at Job Interviews

You’re just not what we’re looking for…

The last round of interviews I had to subject myself to was about 5 years ago. I still feel its negative effects deeply. Others would say it provides a solid learning experience. I’m divided.

The first of the batch was at a private equity firm and had been set up via a recruitment agent. I wasn’t keen on working in financial services, having the preconception that I would be routinely be surrounded by successful extraverts, play hard, work hard types. The agent pushed it, saying this one was smaller, it would be different and my CV was good so I fell for it.

The two gentleman who interviewed me stereotyped visions of traditional banker types – older, salt and pepper hair, impeccably dressed in dark coloured suits. They radiated ease and confidence, but they were pretty friendly towards me. I was able to deal with their questions, even though I’ve never worked in finance before. At the end of the questions, I allowed myself to believe it had gone reasonable well and perhaps I would get called back for second interview. Alas, this was not to be the case. Unusually, they gave me feed back right there and then. They were impressed by my record, the lack of finance experience wasn’t a problem as they could see that I can learn and adapt (I’ve had a career change in the) past) but they were worried I wasn’t going to be a good fit. They said I was too quiet and the managing director was quite a harsh man, not afraid to shout at people if they’d made a mistake, that sort of thing. They thanked me for coming in.

I knew they were right – I don’t want to work for someone who can’t keep their emotions in check and behave professionally. However, the interview left me reeling, my already low confidence had taken a hit. I wasn’t good enough because of my personality and they’d spelled that out in block capitals. I WAS TOO QUIET. I always try to hide that part of myself but it’s impossible. It’s too much of who I am, and who I am hinders me from getting jobs in this strong, loud, extravert world.

A second interview with another potential employer was set up some weeks later – this time with a fashion retailer aimed at middle aged, middle class women. My role is back office. The interviewer was a slim, attractive woman with brown shoulder length hair, in her early forties. It was a hot day, but she was the kind who manage to always look cool and dry. No sweat stains on her armpit for her.

She smiled occasionally, but they were the ones that didn’t reach the eyes. The questions were ‘how would you do this?’ and ‘give me an example of how you would do that?’ type. My big mistake in the interview, the one that gave away my introvert tendencies was when she asked what I’m like in the office. It was not something I’d prepared for. I said that I was someone who could really get stuck in on a figuring out a problem, to eventually look up some hours later and realise I’d not spoken to someone in all that time. I know, what a disaster of an answer. I could see her eyes bulging slightly. From that I’m sure she could deduce that I’m one of the quiet ones, don’t like small talk, no fun in the office, don’t contribute much, you’d hardly know I was there. Not what they were looking for. I did not get called back for second interview.

Not sure how I managed to eventually land a job in that year. After all those knock backs which were due to my personality, my self-esteem suffered. I was being rejected because of who I am, not because I hadn’t yet acquired enough experience or hadn’t yet learnt to format this spreadsheet, or do some fancy formula with these numbers. These are things that can be changed or learnt. Personality is hard to change. I’d say impossible to change, but you may disagree.

Letting Go of Mistakes

I made a big mistake at work today. Nothing illegal, life-threatening or anything, but embarrassing for the company that I work for. As I realised what I’d done, I could feel the chill going down my spine, heart racing, face flushing and dread sinking in. I put off informing my boss for a few minutes – I just didn’t want to deal with it.

He emailed me back to say it was a serious mistake (I was working remotely) and it definitely must not happen again, re-iterated. It was copied in to a few other team members, more for info probably but why did I feel like it was to widen my circle of shame?

It was something that could have so easily been avoided. I can’t understand how I missed it. Looking back, I think ‘only an idiot or extremely lazy person could have done that’. I can’t get it out of my head – I’m excruciatingly embarrassed and ashamed. What must he think of me? I’m only to happy to fill in the blanks.

I’m also feeling bad about feeling quite so bad about myself. I find the self-pity and self-loathing to be utterly self-indulgent. I should get some real problems.Ackno

I feel so bad that I’m going to try and apply what I’ve previously learnt from reading depression and low self-esteem help books:

1)Don’t judge yourself based on isolated or specific incidents.

I take this to mean that I shouldn’t base my value as a person based on just a few negative incidents. I should look at myself as a whole. At the moment, only past mistakes are running through my mind. I’m trying to build a mental dam – not too difficult, I can easily focus on my BFM today. I feel that overall I am a bad person.

2)How you would feel towards someone who had make the same mistake.

Generally I see mistakes as part of life. Usually not life-threatening and most of the time. I’m quite understanding and forgiving. I don’t imagine that others are, so I feel justified today in ruminating on my mistake. I’m only hurting myself, I know.

3)How big a deal is it in the grand scheme of things? Will it still matter in 6 months, 1 year, 10 years time?

It is a big deal to me. I have a fantastic memory, especially for negative events. Sometimes I can’t get to sleep if I start thinking about past shortcomings. It’s very likely, almost certain, that this event is going to be haunting me in over a year’s time. Also I imagine it will lurk in my boss’s memory – not an active memory, but just enough to taint their view of my competency. I think that’s the worst thing in this particular mistake.

Maybe the shame won’t feel quite as strong and will diminish over time. It’s not helping me now to know that, though.

In 6 months time, I’m sure I’ll have made another rotten mistake to ruminate and obsess over.   Something to look forward too…

4)Acknowledge that I did the best that I could do at the time.

Oh dear. The problem arose because I didn’t do anywhere near my best. Going forwards, I will be obsessive about trying to prevent myself from repeating the same mistake. A positive outcome perhaps? Possibly. However, I can already see where this is heading. Me taking longer and longer at work to check things, then double check things to make sure I did check properly the first time. Heightened stress and anxiety when I have to perform this monthly task – the expectation and dread of further failure. Especially now I’ve been warned by my boss that ‘THIS MUST NOT HAPPEN AGAIN’.

Typing this out has made me feel marginally better. I’ll save the obsession and rumination for when I go to sleep tonight and there’s nothing else to occupy my mind.

I’ll be sure to let you know in 6 months whether I still think of today as a big deal.

 

Painfully Not Speaking Out

There is an everyday event that still sticks out in my mind.

I was waiting at a bus stop and two school girls in maroon uniform turned up a few minutes later. They were about 14 or 15 years of age and one of them was drinking a bottle of Evian.

As the bus approached, I heard the clatter of plastic on the floor behind me. Looking around, I saw the empty plastic Evian bottle lying on the floor. The girl had just dropped it, as though the floor were just one giant bin.

I got on the bus, followed by the two girls.

I should say something. I should definitely say something. Any normal person would say something. Those were my thoughts non-stop on the bus during the ride home. Glued to my seat and staring wilfully out of the window, I remained mute.

It’s awful to litter. That street we were waiting on was the absolute pits anyway.  Bags of rubbish strewn everywhere, half empty take-away boxes dotted about, dog mess and chewing gum and all sorts. And I could understand how it had gotten that way, if that girl’s behaviour was acceptable, the norm.

I wish I had said something to her at the bus stop – ‘Hey, you’ve just dropped your bottle. There’s a bin over there’.  On the bus I felt trapped between speaking out and the fear –  fear of creating a scene, fear of confrontation. Worse, afraid of being verbally, maybe even physically abused on the bus. It’s happened to me before (racial abuse) and no one comes to help. Probably because they’re afraid too, or perhaps they don’t give a damn.

But maybe the confrontation would be more bearable than still ruminating about my cowardly inaction almost a year later. That said, the time I was verbally abused on the bus still makes me angry inside, and that was more than ten years ago.

Networking – An Introvert’s How Not To Guide

Networking – the word strikes fear and brings it me out in a cold sweat.

I work in a finance department of a UK company. We have several offices around the country and also in Northern Europe. Once a year the finance teams all meet up at a company sponsored conference. This year, it was in Newcastle. I already knew I didn’t want to go but hadn’t been able to come up with any good excuses so get out of it – no holiday that had already been booked, no children to have to look after because the husband was away, that sort of thing. Believe me, I tried.

We caught first class trains up to Newcastle and arrived at pretty decent 4* hotel. After checking in, we met up at the hotel conference rooms for the obligatory power point presentation to show us exactly what we were going to be subjected to over the next to days – in sharp, crisp bullet points.  Seriously, I don’t know why they bother with that bit. It takes half an hour, and if we left it out, we could all retire back to our hotel rooms half an hour early. But such is life.

Then we had the predictable getting to know you session. This time we had to pick a film title that said something about us. We only had a few minutes to come up with something and suddenly I could not think of a single film other than Bambi and Neon Demon (a film which had recently been premiered at Cannes, so you can guess what kind of film it might be). Obviously I couldn’t use Bambi, could I?

So the conference leader (Marcus, the Group Finance Director) goes around the group and each person comes out with their film title and why it relates to them. They’re all pretty forgettable, either that or I was still sweating out what I was going to say when it was my turn. Which is now! So I went with Neon Demon and said it’s because I like to wear neon colours at the weekend. I cringed inside as I said it, and imagined that everyone was looking at me oddly, or pityingly. The film is actually a gross out horror film if you’re interested, about a model trying to make it big in LA.

Then followed some awful team activity which involved brainstorming and sharing the rubbish that we’d come up with everyone else. These aren’t the worst parts of business conferences/team away days. At least it’s structured so you’re not drifting around relying on small talk.

The true horror is the coffee break. (Sorry I’m switching tenses here as I like to). I dread this part as it’s a free-for-all. Dispersing to the coffee machine and free mini pastries, we cluster in small groups around high little bar tables where there are no tall stools so you have to stand. Aware that my boss is lurking, I resist the temptation to  seek the safety of hanging out with my colleagues from the London office (where I’m based). I’m sure he’d see that as weak and making the whole purpose of this networking opportunity redundant. I sidle up to a group who look reasonably friendly – they look like they could be a my level in the organisation. I introduce myself and then ask a little about them and their role. So contrived and on-script, I know, but people often say that I’ve had a sense of humour bypass and I was last in line when they were dishing out personality. Therefore after the initial introductions, I run out of things to say. I’m introvert and shy – I hate telling people anything about myself unless I can be anonymised. So I stand woodenly and fix a grin to my face and watch them talking to each other, hoping that I look like I’m part of this networking nodule. Sometimes I move my lips, so that at a distance it looks like I’m talking. It’s pretty obvious I’m just a bystander, as no one makes eye contact with me after the initial introductions. Feeling like my duty is done, I trot off to the ladies to kill time until coffee break is over and we can resume in some more structured corporate activity (analysis of Q1 results).

 

Am I Shy or Introvert?

cake-374044__340

Good morning, visitors!

So in my previous post I mentioned about my school reports from age 5-18 commenting on the fact that I was shy and quiet.

Throughout my school years, I believed that this was A BAD THING. This was due to the wording in the reports.

‘Her work is good but needs to participate more in class.’
‘She is one of the quieter students of the class.’
‘Quite shy and would benefit from speaking up more.’

Apart from the use of the word ‘but’, you may think that there isn’t anything especially negative about these statements. Then why did my heart sink when I read these reports as my thirteen year old self?

In this present moment, I think it’s because the reports comment on my personality and character. And then suggest that I change, making me a better student. Is it wrong for teachers to call out on enduring personality traits laced with the undertones of disapproval?

I feel that I’m a being a bit precious about this. If a student were displaying anti-social personality traits, then you would probably expect a teacher to comment as such in a school report. I suppose the difference is that I don’t feel like I’m harming anybody with my awful shy and quiet ways.

I remember a primary school teacher saying to my parents that he wished there were 6 more of me in his class. Why not the whole class like me? Because then whenever the teacher asks the class a question, there would just be silence staring back.