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.

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?

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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.

Is It Bad To Be Shy? A View From School

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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.

Speak Up!

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Do you find it hard to speak up at work? I’m talking staff meetings, team meetings, meetings with suppliers even the work Christmas party. Anything where you’re not taking the lead in the meeting, but just another participant.

I don’t know whether it’s my shyness or introversion that is the problem here. Let me give you an example of what happened just last week:

It’s our company mandatory training on some new finance regulations. An external speaker has been hired at no expense spared to give us the low down.  We’ve been told in advance that it’s going to be much better than the usual online training we do, where we just read pages of stuff and do a short term memory test on the stuff we’ve just read. It’s going to be all about participation and being actively involved.

Now I only started at this company about a year ago, part-time. Much as I tried to re-invent as a non-shy, non-introvert person, my true self is shining out and breaking free.

So for this staff training session I tell myself I MUST participate in some way. Whether that’s asking a sensible question, making an informed comment. Something, anything semi-intelligent.

Most of the session, I’m totally on edge trying to think of something to contribute. All the usual confident people (destined for great things) have already asked great questions or made interesting comments. I’m under so much self-generated pressure. I finally ask a question. Sort of. It’s more of a statement of the obvious in the tone of a question.

The external trainer answers briefly and moves on to the next slide.

I feel deeply embarrassed but at least I made an utterance. Will that do?

Why was it so important to me say something? I didn’t want to be my usual mute self. Successful, respected colleagues always seem to have something to contribute. I wanted to be seen as a worthy employee. Even if by trying, I just announced in no quiet terms my dull-witted desperation.

Do you try? Or do you accept yourself as you are?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will The Quiet Ones Please Stand

Doesn’t that title just make you quiver? Shake slightly in your boots?

It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye a needle than for a quiet one to want to speak up.                                                   Victoria, July 2018

Since I was very young, I’ve been hassled by teachers (not so much parents) to speak up in class. My school reports would inform my parents of good grades – great, you may think (my parents didn’t bother reading my school reports). On the other hand, they were also a slap in the face. ‘Quiet’, ‘conscientious’, ‘shy’, ‘needs to speak up more’, ‘needs to participate more in class’  were the words and phrases that I would get used to over the 10+ years from primary through to secondary school.

As you probably can guess but the fact I’m writing this, I wasn’t particularly successful in following through on those suggestions. I did try…

Some tens of years later, I’m still trying.