The Introvert's Guide to Office Socialising

Pete Ross

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

Tell me if this sounds familiar. It’s Monday morning and you need a coffee. You head to the cafeteria and the usual group is there, sipping and chatting away about the weekend. You’d rather gouge your eye out with a spoon than try to join in, so you do your best ninja impression, making your coffee as silently as possible before you scurry out of sight to avoid socialising. Whether it makes you nervous, you dislike it, or you just want to get back to your work, the result is the same: you get seen as the quiet person who does a lot of work, who in turn gets more and more work piled on them, without the appreciation and opportunity you feel you deserve.

I’ve written about this before, and I believe it’s one of the great unacknowledged issues of the modern workplace. But there are ways for you to come out of your shell without feeling horribly anxious about the whole affair. I’m not a nervous person, but I’m definitely an introvert in that I don’t socialise if I don’t have to and would rather be working or thinking. When someone comes to my desk and starts talking to me, if they haven’t gotten to the point immediately after greeting my mind is thinking “ok, what are you doing here?” It’s like I didn’t have the chip governing social interaction implanted in the factory or something. I especially hate cocktail parties or any kind of group socialising event — if I ever end up in hell, I have no doubt that’s where I’ll be and the devil will insist I “mingle”.

That said, I’m getting better and better at making people believe that I’m not super quiet, at showing that I’m an interesting person and building decent relationships. It’s not just because I want to network and move up in my career either — I started to work on it because it just felt stupid not to. I mean, we all have to do things in life that we don’t like, but so often once we start doing them, they’re nowhere near as bad as they might seem. A chance encounter where you open yourself up instead of averting your eyes and continuing on can mean the difference between a truly rewarding friendship and never talking to that person. There’s a high price to pay for being too much of an introvert, and I decided some time ago that I wasn’t willing to pay it anymore.

I want to help you out, because I know how hard it can be when you’re doing amazing work and no one seems to notice. When you watch people advance and it seems to happen by virtue of them talking to a lot of people. Or that you live what you think is an interesting, meaningful life, while everyone thinks you’re a bore just because you don’t talk much. Or that you have deep opinions about subjects, but no one cares to ask because they’re too busy talking over the top of one another and forcing their opinions on you.

Here are some things I’ve learned and can hopefully help you in your quest to shed the label of “quiet guy/girl of the office.”

Find areas of common interest. You can do this with almost anybody, no matter how different they might seem. It could be sports, music, dogs, kids, gaming, or even something as esoteric as flower arranging. Whatever the subject, it’s a conversational ice breaker for you. I’ve struck up conversations with people at my company over barbecuing techniques, asking advice on parenting, books, working out, you name it. You’re not looking to discuss a subject deeply for hours (although you can do that), you’re looking for an in to get the conversation going. How do you find out what they’re interested in? Talk to them. Or talk to people who know them. Or look at their LinkedIn feed. All you need is one thing.

If you can’t find an area of common interest, see if you can find something about them that you’re interested in. There’s one colleague I have at work who goes mountaineering — something I don’t have the time or inclination to do, but which utterly fascinates me. So I ask her about it every chance I get. I may not have anything in common with her, but I can live vicariously through her whenever she tells me of her exploits. Everyone loves to talk about their passions, so ask. They’ll love that you did.

Don’t put yourself under too much pressure. So you’ve found a good shared interest with someone, only to have the conversation fizzle out after a minute when you bring it up. Chill out — Rome wasn’t built in a day and you’re just getting started. Besides, the person might have been distracted, they might have had their mind on all the work they had piling up, or any one of a dozen other things. Every small step, every conversation started is a victory. Take those small wins and build on them.

Don’t use conversational dead ends.

“How are you”

“Good, how are you”


That’s the extent of so many interactions that could be so much more. “How are you?” Is a conversational dead end, because it’s not actually asking how someone is, it’s a standard greeting that requires minimum effort and doesn’t invite elaboration on the other person’s part. It should be used merely as a starter, before proceeding to one of these far more interesting questions:

  • So what’s happening in your world?
  • Are you working on anything interesting at the moment?
  • What have you been doing in your downtime?
  • Is there anything exciting you at the moment?

Number one and four there are especially great, because you have no idea what the answer is going to be, and it will give you a lot of insight into the person, because you haven’t contaminated the question by putting a subject on it like work or home or whatever. You’re going to get whatever they want to give you and you’re going to learn something that you can use to talk to them about next time. People will be taken aback too, because you’ve actually asked them about themselves.

Start sharing things about yourself. You’ve got to actually start letting people in if you want decent relationships that will help you advance in your career. You don’t have to start a deep and meaningful conversation first thing in the cafeteria, but do more than just answer “good” when someone asks you how you are, or “not much” when someone asks you what you did on the weekend. Offer some more information. Something as simple as “yeah it was alright, I’m reading this great book called x about y”, or “I saw x movie, it sucked”, or “I found this great shop that sells x.” Even if the conversation stops after that, you’ve given that person information about you that they can use to start a conversation the next time they see you. You might just end up exchanging pleasantries each time you see them, or you might discover that they share one of your interests and you end up talking all the time. You just don’t know until you try.

Do it your way. Just because you’ve decided to start being more social, it doesn’t mean you have to turn yourself into the office extrovert and be the centre of attention at a party, it doesn’t mean you have to talk like someone in a sorority where the end of every sentence is an upward inflexion (like everything is a question?), and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time making that thing we introverts despise the most, small talk. You can still have good, meaningful conversations with people, the type you like to have right now. The only difference is, you’re the one who is going to have to reach out and start the conversation. Remember, you’re in control here, don’t try to be anything you’re not, just try to be a better version of you. Don’t think it means you have to socialise with everyone either. Some people you just aren’t going to gel with, and that’s ok — no one said you had to be friends with everybody.

Realise that socialising is your job too. I know, us introverts tend to value competence and productivity above warmth and relationships. But the office extroverts are often the flip side of that, so your productivity and competence can go unnoticed for a long time if you choose to eschew the human side of work. I’ve had a couple of days recently where I spent most of my day on the phone or talking to people in the office — some who I’d only just met. I had a minor freak out when I realised I hadn’t got any work done, when I stopped myself and thought “no, this is your job too.” That’s because socialising and building relationships grease the wheels and make getting things done easier down the track. Relationships are an investment that doesn’t usually pay off straight away, but it’s important you nurture them knowing that they will in the future.

Working from home, or in the field, is death. There might be hundreds of articles out there on the rise of working from home and how great it is for flexibility etc, but the simple fact is that when your face isn’t there, people forget about you. Results? Ha. People don’t care about results when they come from a faceless person, they might as well be coming from the intern. Avoiding face time at the office also allows people to plot against you and talk crap about you. When you’re not there nurturing relationships, there’s a good chance people will believe anything, because you’re not there to give them the real deal.

Go first. This is the last, and most important. If you want something, you have to go out there and get it. That means you need to put yourself out there. If you see someone approaching down the hall and you don’t know them, smile and say “how’s it going” or “good morning” anyway. If you get a strange reaction, they’re the weird one, not you. Most people will return your greeting with a smile, because you went first. If you’re making coffee, getting your lunch or anything that means you’re going to be in the same space as someone else for more than 30 seconds, say something as simple as “hi, we haven’t met before, I’m Jane. I work in x team” That’s all it takes. Start simple, and do it often.

I hope those little insights I’ve gleaned have helped you. I talk a lot about relationships in a transactional, “how can it help me later” kind of way, but don’t just think of them that way. If that helps you to start reaching out, because you want the benefits, then great. But relationships are good in themselves, because you’ll realise soon enough that it’s nice just to be able to talk to anyone around you. Don’t stay hidden away in your shell, it’s not doing you any good.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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