Why It’s Okay for Introverts to Keep to Themselves at Work

Introverted woman working

Introverts shouldn’t feel as though they are “wrong” if all they want to do is show up at work and actually work (vs. make small talk).

It’s a fact that being an introvert in the workplace is hard, particularly when we are trying to find work that is suited to our personalities. We know that we probably won’t be happy in a call center or a position where we have to interact with people for our entire shift (just thinking about it is exhausting). And there aren’t many jobs that don’t involve human interaction to a degree that the average introvert would wish to avoid.

In October, I left my job in IT and went to work in the dish room of a restaurant — in other words, where the dishes are washed. In some ways, it is a nice change of pace from my old job. I don’t have to be on the phone or constantly monitoring my notifications on Microsoft Teams and Outlook. I don’t have to try to remember a myriad of complicated passwords to log into software that I don’t even want to look at. I don’t have to talk to irate customers who are upset with their flawed systems. But…

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All Jobs Have That ‘Thing’

A couple of weeks into my new job, I was quickly reminded that all jobs come with that “thing.” Fellow introverts, you probably know the one I mean. It’s that “thing” that clashes with your personality that will either make you stronger or slowly drive you closer and closer to the brink of quitting as it becomes more and more unbearable.

Washing dishes seemed like a straightforward job that would not require much human interaction. I knew it would be a drastic pay cut for me, but I was also okay with it since I can supplement my income with my self-employed jobs — writing and contracting ones — or even student loans (if I absolutely must). The way I saw it, the pay cut in exchange for feeling more at peace and not having to deal with the “Sunday scaries,” that feeling of dread that comes up about the work week ahead, was worth it.

There are actually a couple of “things” at my new job (but don’t get me wrong — they aren’t as miserable as the ones at my old job). One is the constant noise of the dish machine and the clanging and banging of metal sheet trays as people either toss them onto counters, drop them, or hurriedly shove them into the dish machine. The other is that the dishwashing job is not a solitary one, because there is usually one other person working the dish room with me since we get busy. To close, two people definitely need to be working to finish the dish rush and close out the dish room. (I mean, one person can do that, but they’ll probably end up working overtime.) 

I have worked with a range of personalities in my shift partners, and my shifts usually range from six to eight hours. Typically, I only take one thirty-minute break, and I try to pick the most inconspicuous spot I can find in the break room for some alone time. Most of my shift partners are chattier than I would like. Most of them are also really nice, but I can tell they probably don’t understand what introversion is. They’ve probably heard of it, but hearing of it does not equate to understanding it. The more tired I get, the less capacity I have for making conversation while I work. As the night progresses, I don’t want to make small talk with anyone about the latest movie releases or whether it’s a busy or slow night. I just want to finish up and go home to my bed.

Can ‘Introvert Battery Recharge Days’ Be a Thing?

One Sunday, I hid in the supply room under the guise of needing more soap for the dish machine. But in reality, I was seeking a quiet moment. My shift partner for that day was extra chatty, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I contemplated telling the manager I was sick, but it didn’t feel right. I tried to imagine a conversation in which I told the other dishwasher that I’m introverted, or that I was tired, but I didn’t think they would understand. Defeated, I grabbed a bottle of red liquid from the shelf and made my way back to the dish room. Thankfully, my shift partner had latched onto someone else to talk to by the time I got back, and I prayed they would keep talking so I could work in peace.

As I scrubbed pans, which turns out to be a good exercise for contemplation when someone isn’t talking my ear off, I thought through my urge to flee. Why did I feel that way? Yes, I was tired — I had just finished a 20-page paper for school that morning (I’m working on my Master’s in fiction) and worked an extra closing shift for someone who was sick earlier in the week. But there had to be another reason for my flee response, I thought…

As an intuitive introvert, I’m highly tuned in to others. Even if I don’t want to, I’m constantly taking stock of others’ responses and trying to tailor my own to either reassure them or seem interested in what they’re saying. I care a lot about how people feel, and that’s exhausting. I had to give myself permission, I realized, to tune out and get my job done so I could go home.

Tuning out, in this sense, meant not pausing to make eye contact every time my shift partner spoke to me. It meant not carefully thinking through a reply that could keep the conversation going. It meant giving a noncommittal “mm-hmm” or “hmm” here and there to show I was listening, but nothing more. It won’t win me a “Personality of the Year” award, but it was the best way I could think of to get through my shift and go home without making a big deal of anything (or needing to hide in the supply room again).

Work could be less of an energy drain for introverts if we felt more reassured that it’s truly okay to just do our jobs and go home. The idea that we have to be a shining light for others — or always smiling and approachable — puts undue pressure on us introverts to be someone we’re not. As it is, we’re expected to expend a whole lot of energy (that we don’t have) to achieve an unattainable goal. I’m not saying this pressure always comes from outside sources; sometimes it comes from ourselves. It can show up as that feeling that there is something “wrong” with us, that we “should” smile more, that we need to be “exciting” or “fun” somehow.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.

It’s Okay to Get the Job Done… Quietly

Quietly keeping to ourselves while we work is not the same as having a bad attitude or being unpleasant to be around. Just as extroverts feel no hesitation about walking into work and talking about whatever comes to mind, introverts shouldn’t feel as though they are “wrong” if all they can do is show up and work, but nothing else. I have tried so many different jobs, from IT help desk to bookseller and now dishwasher, but no matter which one I choose, human interaction is always there. It always will be.

Trying to avoid jobs that require human interaction is impossible, so the goal should be to find a job where we can be ourselves without worry. But a big part of that is self-validation. It is allowing ourselves to be who we are. When I felt the need to flee from my chatty coworker, asking myself why was key. When I examined it, I worried about coming off as rude if I didn’t always come up with a verbal response to his every comment. At the same time, not everyone is equipped with the ability to listen to, and understand, others. I could have tried telling him how I am, but my gut told me it would be a waste of breath. So I took the middle road and decided to just be me, without explanation. If we wait for permission to be introverted, we might be waiting for a very long time.

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