Workplace Woes Pt. 1: Socializing - Who, Why, How

What to do when you just need some time alone.

Posted Dec 21, 2017

Many are often concerned with the unspoken rules of the workplace. The following is a question I received from a reader regarding feeling anxiety around being social in at work, with my response below:

Stockpic/Pexels CC0
Source: Stockpic/Pexels CC0

Dear Mariana,

I have a question about being social in the workplace.

In my area of work, I have constant contact with other people, which is a ways away from my comfort zone. Because of that, I tend to like staying in my office during lunch. I like the time alone, and I feel like after a busy and hectic morning I need it, but I don’t want my colleagues to think that I am anti-social or don’t like them. It causes me a lot of anxiety, and I don't know what the right answer is. Should I be making an effort to eat in the cafeteria with them?

Thanks for your help,

Sarah*

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Hi Sarah,

Thanks for writing in. I think this sort of question affects many people and often expands to the essential question of 'to be social, or not to be'? And if so, how often, and when? If only there were a set of clearly defined rules we could choose whether or not to adhere to, how soon the anxiety would dissipate!

The correct answer to these questions, if there is an absolute, lies directly within yourself. I don't mean that in an esoteric sense, but in a practical one: If you happen to fall on the higher end on the introversion-extroversion personality assessment scale (known in the psychological literature as the 'Big 5'), a question like this - whether to engage with colleagues or not in your free time - would likely rarely, if ever, cross your mind. That is because people who are naturally very extroverted tend to be particularly energized around others and very adept in social situations - not only do they not shy away from being social, they thrive in environments where they can exert themselves and be the centre of attention. It would never occur to them to even consider how much time to spend with coworkers, usually because they are the ones leading the way! 

On the other hand, I suspect that you might score more towards the lower end of the introversion-extroversion scale, indicating that you are most likely introverted. Unlike someone who scores high in extroversion, being able to be at your best means having more downtime and more time to yourself in order to gather and clarify your thoughts. This, I believe, is what you enjoy most about having lunch alone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and, in fact, introversion in the workplace has been of much interest in the academic arena as of late. This is mostly because the times have recognized that certain personality types prefer specific work conditions, particularly when it comes to being most productive and happy in the workplace; it turns out, the "one size fits all" work environment only works for those who fit that one size.

Unfortunately, just because researchers are beginning to identify how different personalities "work" in the workplace, this knowledge hasn't necessarily spread to the public arena, which allows for misconceptions abound. So, unless your colleagues are otherwise quite compassionate or introverted themselves - unlikely given that you work in a field requiring extroversion- , they may not understand your need to be alone, particularly since you exhibit extroverted traits during your work hours.

What I suggest you do is this: If you are invited to lunch by your colleagues, but would rather stay in, simply tell them the truth - you need a little time to recharge. When you do you feel like going to lunch, do so happily and wholeheartedly, and be mindful of not turning the situation on yourself by assuming that your colleagues believe you don't like them or are anti-social. These are assumptions you are making which will interfere with your ability to connect outwardly with them, and indeed, may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein because you believe these assumptions, you may act differently towards them to make their assumptions true. Instead, focus your conversation on them, stay upbeat, and say something to the effect of, "I'm glad I could join you for lunch today", or a similar expression of gratitude indicating that you like your colleagues and enjoy your time with them.

On a side note, engaging in work that does not naturally come easily to you is highly commendable: Although we inherently have specific personality traits which are difficult to change, we nevertheless have the power to develop and fine-tune a set of skills which can mimic traits we do not have; it just takes energy and effort. In your case, you've developed the skills necessary to seem extroverted in order to excel in your career: Well done!

* name changed for privacy reasons 

References

Sur, S., & Ng, E. S. (2014). Extending theory on job stress: The interaction between the “other 3” and “big 5” personality traits on job stress. Human Resource Development Review, 13(1), 79-101.

Sackett, P. R., & Walmsley, P. T. (2014). Which personality attributes are most important in the workplace?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 538-551.