Many people identify as introverts and struggle in a loud, open-office culture. But what can be difficult for the slightly shy can be painful for those with social anxiety or those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
This week, psychologist Art Markman helps a reader who is struggling in an office of extroverts.
I have a problem that’s been going on for a long time and is increasingly causing me problems: My coworkers have brought up the fact that I am extremely quiet.
I’ve always had trouble interacting with people, and I think I might have Asperger’s Syndrome. I can’t seem to work and interact with people at the same time: I’m unable to communicate, read emotions on faces, and socialize properly.
People in my office are very talkative. But I’m very different. I like to just come in and keep my head down, and be buried in the work. The company coordinator says I am doing a really good job, and they seem happy with my work.
It’s very frustrating that I can’t quite fit into the team environment. One of my coworkers even said once, “Poor girl, it’s as if she’s not there. Theresa is very talkative, and so is Patty. But she . . . is she alive over there?”
What can I do to help myself?
You find yourself in a tough situation. What used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome is now part of what psychologists call Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This new name recognizes that there is a continuum of symptoms from mild to severe that are interrelated.
There are many intersecting factors that are part of ASD, but a big one has to do with social interactions. If human behavior was like a language, people with ASD do not comprehend other people’s behavior like a native speaker. Instead, they have to translate what they see other people doing into an interpretation of what they must have been thinking or feeling. As a result, it can be difficult for you to understand why other people are acting and reacting the way they do.
This can create a lot of awkwardness in the workplace. You don’t want to say the wrong thing and risk offending anyone, or just bringing an otherwise energetic conversation to a halt. As a result, you are likely to just stop trying.
If you want to improve your ability to interact well with other people in the workplace, there are several things you can do.
First, look for a good counselor or therapist in your area who has some experience with ASD. Even if you don’t fall on the spectrum as a formal diagnosis, this person will have experience with people who have experienced similar issues to yours. That individual can help you work on skills to make it easier to engage with your colleagues.
A therapist may also be able to suggest a group in your area of other individuals who are working on developing new workplace social skills. A group like this will help you practice for the kinds of situations you encounter often.
Second, if there are any colleagues you have a good relationship with, you might want to talk with them and let them know a little of what you are experiencing. Go out for lunch or coffee with them and let them know that you understand the conversation might make them a little uncomfortable, but you wanted to share your experience. By reaching out to someone, you may be able to create allies on your team who can help you to become a more engaged part of the group.
You may never feel completely comfortable at work, but you can improve some of your skills that help you to be a more involved member of your team. You just need to find a few people who can help.
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