Introverts: remain calm. You are fantastic—smart, observant, focused, responsible, flexible, all-around a joy to work with. This title does not mean we think you should change your personality, because you shouldn’t. We need you, and to be honest, an all-extrovert world sounds utterly exhausting. However, you know as well I do that when working in an office, there are times you’re required to step out of your comfort zone and go the extra mile for the sake of “being social” or “seeming like a team player.” Unfortunately, you will likely need to make some small talk at holiday parties, and you can’t always be the last to speak up in a meeting (even if it is because you are processing everything and your eventual response will be better than everyone else’s combined). I had some psychologists weigh in on what to do in situations like that when, you like it or not, you may just have to fake it.
[Related: How to Stand Out in a Group of Extroverts]
1. Reframe your perception of office social gatherings.
Clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, Ph.D., and Kali Rogers, CEO and founder of Blush Online Life Coaching, both suggested that before anything else, introverts need to rethink these small workplace social interactions. “While some people see getting together as a way to unwind, introverts see it as work, but often feel guilty for doing so,” Rogers says. Instead, introverts should embrace the fact that yes, workplace social gatherings are a facet of work—and an important one at that. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do in order to push forward,” Neo says, “and attending social events is great for new opportunities at work.” Dr. Neo describes these types of gatherings as “necessary rituals.” “Chances are, if you believe that these social niceties are painful, unnecessary and unpleasant, then they will be nerve-wrecking, tiring and difficult,” she says.
2. Do a little prep-work.
Speech and communications expert Ita M. Olsen says that people who find small talk exhausting would be well-served by having a few practiced phrases on hand. “Just put a nice smile on your face and say something like “Coming to these events makes me a bit nervous—I never know what to say!” Olsen suggests. “I’m willing to bet real money that most people will be able to relate and say so. This establishes a bond that’s so much stronger than typical work-chat.” Don’t be afraid to share that bit of information about yourself—it will actually make your workplace relationships stronger, more comfortable, and ultimately, more effective. “You don’t have to poke fun at yourself, but that, too, is a real relationship starter,” Olsen adds. “People love humor and the deliverer of humor, and making fun of yourself is just that.”
This also applies to meetings or brainstorming sessions. If you have brilliant ideas but often have trouble speaking up in a group, write them down first. “During the meeting, open your notebook and say ‘I had this idea,’” and then read it to the team,” Olsen says. “We all do it. Additional benefit: It will be so much more well formulated and concise.” Ten points for the not naturally outgoing!
3. Go for the one-on-one.
Personally, I know that I’m always more comfortable speaking to people one-on-one than in groups, so I try to put myself in those situations as much as possible. If you need a little confidence boost first, listen to Constance Dunn, communication instructor at UC Santa Barbara: “You know what’s great about being the office introvert? You’re something of a mystery. Because you speak quite seldom, when you actually do pipe up, people listen. Use this knowledge to your advantage in your quest to appear more outgoing, or connected with the rest of the tribe. If speaking up in group situations gives you the squirms, casually approach co-workers on a one-to-one basis, like at the water cooler or copy machine. The person you approach will be flattered that you singled them out.”
4. Do what you do best: listen.
This one is particularly valuable at holiday gatherings, when everyone’s had a few drinks and suddenly wants to share all of their quirks and extracurricular hobbies. In those situations, you can find yourself in the heart of the conversation by simply being engaged in a long-winded story about the biggest carp your boss ever caught. Olsen recommends more listening to all of her clients, but those who are not naturally outgoing often have a natural advantage. “When you really listen to people it makes them feel good, which provides an important foundation for productive and positive relationships,” she says. “Really listen and repeat what you think you’ve heard.”
5. Ask uncommon questions.
Introverts tend to find small talk trivial—and they are most often correct. “Introverts draw strength from having an active inner life and are invigorated by building deep, personal relationships, so the chit-chat we have to make at parties can feel superficial and fake,” says Melody J. Wilding, a therapist and professor of human behavior . To make chit-chat more interesting, she recommends asking uncommon questions about topics you are genuinely interested in. “Instead of the trite small talk about the weather or asking ‘So, what do you do?’ be different, stand out, and leverage being your curious introvert self by asking things like where the person grew up, what was the best book they last read, or what has been fascinating them lately.”
6. Be mindful of your body language.
Perhaps the easiest hack for seeming more outgoing is to adjust your body language. “When used well, facial expressions and body language can be an introvert’s best friend,” Wilding says. “Simply giving someone a warm smile can be enough to make that person relaxed enough to start talking. Open body language (not crossing your arms or legs) makes not only the introvert more relaxed, but the others at the event more comfortable. People often walk away with the impression that you are sympathetic, in agreement with them, and super nice.” So simple, but oh-so effective.
7. If it’s a social event, know that you can (and perhaps should) leave early.
Oftentimes you do need to make an effort and show up for some team-building event you aren’t particularly excited about. You do not however, need to commit to the entire evening. “If introverts get in habit of staying the entire time, things can get ugly really fast,” Rogers says. “Introverts have a shorter fuse when it comes to socializing, and there is no need to push ourselves to the limit. But that’s not an excuse for ditching completely, either. So show up for half or three quarters of the time. Leave when you start to feel the anxiety coming on.” I also find that planning in advance to dip out early will help you motivate yourself to show up at all.
8. Give yourself time to re-charge.
Trying to seem outgoing at work is undoubtedly exhausting, and too many social encounters can leave introverts depleted. Dr. Neo suggests setting a target for events. For example, “I’ll have three meaningful conversations, and then I can leave.” Once you’ve done this, she says, “reward yourself with something nice…and ample time to recharge.” Socialize, reward, rest, repeat. You can do this.
Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images