Are people and the whole “being around people” thing not your game? Come sit by me. The phrase “people skills” as part of job description used to trigger a big “nope” on my end. It’s not that I dislike people, but given my druthers, I would prefer to work on my own. Basically, I wanted a job where I could just be myself all the time, only coming out for rare occasions, like a book signing or winning an Oscar for screenwriting or something important like that.
While I still hold that dream, my actual big girl career as a professor and dean requires me to not only be around people, but to be good at being around people. What started as a career path based on my love of books and writing has evolved into me talking to massive groups, training faculty, attending social events, and working with all kinds of people all day. This little introvert has stumbled into a job plum for extroverts.
Should you try to force yourself to change in order to fit the job, going against your nature? No way. The simple truth is that if you are a people-dodging, space-loving introvert, you are never going to change who you are. You might learn some coping techniques, but the clothes of the extrovert are never going to feel as comfortable to you as your own. With that in mind, you can still do this job and do it well.
Focus on the function
Instead of trying to be something you’re not, focus on how to meet the job’s requirements within your comfort zone. Looking at the extroverted parts of your job as precisely that, job requirements, might help you approach them in a more functional way. When you have to do something that requires a little more social slickness, don’t think of it as “I have to talk to people” or “I have to be social.” Framing it that way is going to already have your brain saying, “No thanks, let’s not.”
Spin it from the practical standpoint—you have to be social, but why? What are you trying to accomplish? In my own position, I have to lead faculty department meetings which consist of me talking at length to a room full of people. Instead of thinking about talking to people, I focus on the information I need to convey. Giving the task a specific function, and an action to complete that function, helps reframe your introvert brain.
Work with what you’re good at
The good news is that even though you might have extrovert parts to your job, you don’t have to love these particular duties. You aren’t the social director of a cruise ship (or hopefully you aren’t, because that would be a truly unfortunate job for an introvert). And there are other parts of your job where you excel. Cheesy as it sounds, make yourself a list of the areas where you shine to keep in your phone or desk. When you are dreading some aspect of your job that stretches your limits, the list can be a nice little reminder of your strengths.
Develop a relationship with extroverted work folks
The workplace often relies on symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationships which can be a gift for the introvert. Cultivate relationships with your more extroverted co-workers and figure out how you can scratch each other’s backs where they play to their strengths and you play to yours. My writing skills are vastly superior to my people skills, so I have a deal with a social butterfly dean where she presents during the adjunct faculty meeting while I write up the information and agenda. We both are in our comfort zones, the faculty get what they need, and we get a big check plus from our supervisor for teamwork.
Know your own defense mechanisms
As a bonafide introvert, I go into a weird protective mode when I am uncomfortable. My voice gets high-pitched, I talk too much and too fast, I tap the tips of my fingers against my thumb in succession, and I mess with my hair. It’s as if my body is sending off signals to anyone nearby “Uncomfortable Girl Walking! Back away to avoid awkwardness avalanche!” Then they do just that.
Unfortunately, that defensive mechanism plays against me in the work place. The first step to overcoming this is to recognize your defense mechanisms. Try doing this in a non-work social setting. Yes, I know, that means you have to venture out even more, but don’t think of it as socializing; think of it as research. When you are feeling your most uncomfortable, do a self check. What are you doing with your body that might broadcast your discomfort? Another way to tackle this is to take a trusted friend and have them tell you what they observe. Being able to do this and not be upset or become more uncomfortable depends on you and your friendship.
…and try to curb them
Whichever way you go, once you discern your tells, figure out how to counteract them. This doesn’t mean having to constantly control yourself. Instead, work on a few things to keep your tells from telegraphing your discomfort. In my case, I either take notes or fold my hands together to keep from fidgeting, and I focus on speaking in slow, deliberate sentences when asked a question. The bonus side is people pay attention when I speak because it seems like I have something really important to say (even when I don’t).
Find yourself a safe space in the chaos
Introverts need a place where they can recharge and reflect away from the fray. I’m not talking about 30 minutes of meditation; I’m talking about 5 minutes in a quiet space where you can internalize without anyone interrupting or judging. In the dream workplace, this would be your own semi-secluded private office with a view. If that dream isn’t your reality, you still need to find a way to give yourself a timeout when required (especially if your employer uses an open floor plan).
This may require casing the building for your thoughtful spot. Maybe there is an employee lounge you can drop by during non-peak hours. Or a bench in the atrium. I once found a very small, single stall bathroom on a higher floor where I could take a few minutes to clear my head while I checked my lipstick. When I worked as a receptionist, I would volunteer to make copies because it meant I could put on my headphones and work independently to give me some down time from the people parade and ringing phones. These days I am lucky enough to have a private office, but because of the steady tide of people, there are times when I have to close my door for a few minutes, put on my headphones, and decompress before facing it all again.
Being an introvert shouldn’t limit you the job you want. A little thought and preparation will allow you to grow into the profession while still doing things your own way.
Amber Kelly is a Texas-based professor whose specialties include walking in heels and snarky comments at inappropriate times. She enjoys punk band t-shirts, the writings of Margaret Atwood, and roasted corn salsa. When she grows up she wants to be Patti Smith.
[Image via Fox Pictures]