Introverts at the office

September 12, 2014

Photo: Writer's desk by Mika Marttila, used with Creative Commons license

When I released the latest episode of the podcast on authenticity at the office I suspected it would resonate – after all, a lot of women are criticized at work, subtly or otherwise, for being too ‘pushy’, ‘abrasive’, or ‘intimidating’. It’s that kind of criticism, and how to handle it, that I covered in the show.

But here’s what I didn’t think about – the flipside of that: when women are criticized for not being pushy or outgoing enough.

Last night I had dinner with a friend. She’s a writer in her mid-thirties, who, like me, did not grow up in the US. Being outwardly excessively confident is not her thing. That said, she is highly intelligent, educated, and friendly. For a few years she was freelance, but last year she got her first permanent US job in a corporate setting.

Initially all seemed well.

“Just be yourself,” said her first (male) boss. Shortly afterwards he was pushed aside. Since then, she’s struggled to fit in. And her new bosses have made her very aware that she doesn’t. They’ve carped at her appearance, starting with her hairstyle. She was told her fringe [bangs] made her appear “unapproachable”. She was informed that the top boss “likes big people” (we’re talking personality here) and asked if she could be “bigger”. She is not only physically tiny, but rather unlikely to be able to effect a complete personality change after 30-something years of being herself. Essentially, her workplace is asking her to morph from introvert to extrovert. Which, to me, seems even harder than curbing a more outgoing, say-it-like-it-is personality to mesh with workplace culture.

Hearing her story reminded me of this wonderful New York Times op-ed by Brazilian writer Vanessa Barbara. In the piece she talks about how all Brazilians are seen as extroverts and how difficult it can be when you don't fit this stereotype, particularly in the workplace.

I’m more of an extrovert myself, but I have introvert tendencies. If you’re a natural introvert, how do you manage at work? Does your personality fit your office's culture or not? All stories and tips are welcome.