You are here
The plight of the office introvert
I AM not proud of admitting this, but when I'm at the office I'm in a near-perpetual state of fear of hearing one simple phrase. It is not the one Donald Trump popularised: "negative press covfefe."
Nor is it the other one he so vividly brought to life in the boardroom of The Apprentice: "You're fired." (Though naturally, I do fear hearing this as well.) My "you're fired" - the phrase that gets my pulse racing and my palms sweating - is "let's brainstorm". Ask any introvert (please don't, actually; we'll blush and stammer and try to deflect the conversation back to you) what their version of workplace torture is, and it may well be brainstorming sessions.
Other options include orientation breakfasts, trust falls, should we whiteboard it?, team-building yoga, team-building karaoke, team building in general.
I am not someone whose childhood was marked by isolation and unsociable behavior. According to my mother and my Little League Baseball trophies, I played well with others. At some point, though, I seem to have gotten very, very quiet, and very, very devoted to solving problems on my own.
Maybe I took the whole concept of self-soothing, whereby one learns to not require the comfort of others (it comes up early in life, when parents are training their babies to fall asleep on their own) a little too far.
None of this is cause for alarm, of course, depending on whom you ask and their desire to, say, go on a vacation with me and stay at a bed-and-breakfast and talk about the blueberry muffins and seek hiking tips from strangers.
It does mean, however, that a chatty workplace (most workplaces, save silent-vow monasteries) can be a challenge.
Not long ago, the woman who sits at a desk directly opposite mine said to me: "Look at my plant." Through some miracle (overwatering), her ficus (probably not, I just like the word) was doing something called transpiring, which means its leaves were sprouting charming little droplets of water at their tips.
Now, I like a good botany phenomenon just as much as the next guy, but my first impulse was to feel bad for the plant because it was having attention called to it. One moment the ficus (still probably not) was just there, being a quiet green plant and trying to relax us and fix our climate destruction, and the next there were several people around staring and pointing at it.
My next impulse was to be very jealous. No one ever asks the plant to brainstorm or where it went on vacation or what it got for lunch (water; apparently too much).
Estimates of the number of introverts versus extroverts in the world are all over the map. Some say we may make up 25 per cent of the population, while others say the ratio is roughly 50-50.
Still others reject the distinction altogether, arguing that most people have characteristics of both introversion and extroversion. Might this augur an end to Myers-Briggs and other personality inventories? If so, how, for example, would first dates and the digital communication surrounding them work? Would they be, I don't know, awkward?
But I am here to tell you, now, based on zero scientific evidence and slightly more anecdotal evidence, like the number of meetings I see and nervously attend, the spirited Slack chats and the ease with which my co-workers share personal information and trade banter, that we introverts are woefully outnumbered. Or maybe we are just hiding?
I know, I know: Stop my whining, slap on some headphones, and be thankful I have a good job. And, further, consider the possibility that someone who's genuinely introverted might not, say, crow about it in The New York Times? (Yes, I am an editor, and yes, I know what the word "hypocrite" means. People are complicated. That's why animals are great.)
Many years ago, at one of my first jobs out of graduate school, I was so panicked about any potential going-away festivities that when I gave notice, I lied about when my last day would be. I said it was a week later than it was, and when the Friday came, the one that was actually my last day, I reminded my supervisors in the morning. "Reminded" here meaning "told them for the first time".
What this unleashed was a flurry of activity, probably much more than there would have been had I just been upfront about the date to begin with. There were hushed conversations, more bustling in the parking lot than usual. Shortly after lunch there appeared a sheet cake from Kroger (blessedly this was before technology made possible icing made from a photograph of your face), a 2-litre bottle of Coke and attendant plastic cups, and a re-gifted Montblanc fountain pen from the CEO.
The conclusion I drew from this debacle wasn't any sort of "honesty is the best policy" claptrap but a different mantra: Never leave a job again.
Most of my working life has been spent in the media, at companies increasingly fond of open-plan office configurations. Although these setups seem very particular to our tech-dominated age, they have a longer history, to the first half of the 20th century, in Racine, Wisconsin, home of the Johnson Wax Headquarters, among the first open-plan offices.
I have always wanted to visit it. My brother and his family live not far from there, so I could see my niece and nephew, both of them performers (sister-in-law's genes?). The headquarters were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and they are filled with beautiful mid-century modern furniture and architectural details like lily-pad columns that make you realise how stunning a built environment can be.
My current workplace, where there is nary a cubicle wall in sight and where the light from outside - thanks also to thoughtful architectural decisions - angles through the windows in surprising and uplifting ways, is part of this lineage.
Had I ever had the chance to speak with Wright, I would have asked: "Why do you hate me?" The Johnson headquarters likely had secretaries happily pecking away at typewriters and managers at desks behind them drafting important reports, everyone dressed Mad Men style. Probably there were a lot of cigarettes and a drink cart.
In the updated version of this, many open-plan offices are lavished with startup accoutrements like foosball tables, free snacks and complimentary seltzer-ish beverages, and oddly shaped seating choices in common areas. (I'm not sure why the entire, virtually wall-less office isn't considered a common area, but that's a separate issue.)
The aim is to facilitate collaboration and foster creativity. (I think. I could have those words mismatched. I think, too, that even rearranged they would mean the same thing.) We're all far too tethered to our screens, say the workplace experts, too reliant on the myriad ways we have of talking to each other while not really talking to each other. Thus, couches and snack areas.
It's hard to find fault with this goal. Humans are social beings, after all, at least most of us. For those of us who aren't, I recommend proximity to a plant or a dog. I'd use all that brightly coloured seating a lot, in fact, if it was designed not to foster creativity but to foster a rescue animal (I mean a rescue animal in addition to me).
But no employer is perfect. NYTIMES