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.