why can't I keep a job?
August 10, 2012 8:15 PM   Subscribe

I keep getting fired from jobs, and I think my poor social skills play a major role. I don't know how to change this pattern.

I recently graduated from college and I'm struggling to find and keep a minimum wage job so I can support myself while I intern in the career of my choice and study to apply for graduate school. I'm a bit older than most recent grads, in my late twenties.

I have a pattern of getting fired from minimum wage jobs and even when I'm able to hold onto one, I often get bad vibes from my supervisor. I haven't been able to figure out what it is, because I work like crazy. After speaking to a number of people who know me, the only thing I can point to is that my social awkwardness and lack of confidence make people assume I'm incompetent even if I'm actually doing fine work.

Here is a recent example. I spent months trying to find a job working part time at a cafe. I got a number of interviews but only one of them turned into a job (as a barista) and the person who hired me expressed misgivings about my slight shyness during the interview.

I put my all into the job and I really thought I was doing fine (I only made a couple of minor mistakes that I can think of during the training), so I was pretty shocked when they fired me a few days after I started. They told me I never really found my "comfort zone." I think the problem is I seem to come off as really anxious. It's true that I do feel nervous when I'm starting a new job, but this isn't something I know how to control. I also think something about my body language amplifies whatever I'm feeling, because even when I feel relatively calm people will give me the cold shoulder. Basically I don't know what it is that I'm doing but people get weird vibes from me and either don't like me or assume I'm incompetent or both. It doesn't help that I'm not great at small talk. This has been a life long struggle. I have a lot of difficulty making friends as well, although the friends I have made seem to really value me once they see past the surface.

I worry that if I can't even hold down a minimum wage job I"ll never be able to advance in a career. I wish it was just a matter of working harder, but I already *do* work to the max and that doesn't seem to help.

Any insight or advice about how to solve this problem?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried doing a job where you are not dealing directly with customers?
posted by peppermintfreddo at 8:27 PM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Based on how you describe yourself -- and you sound like a perfectly lovely person to me, who just doesn't happen to be wired in a particularly outgoing, customer service oriented way -- that may be that any job that requires a fair amount of face-to-face interaction is just always going to be inherently problematic for you. This doesn't say anything bad about you as a person, it just points to where your inherent skills may or may not lie. Have you tried jobs that are more solitary/"back of the house" in nature? A few that come to immediately to my mind include mail room, stock room, dishwashing, etc.

Good luck.
posted by scody at 8:28 PM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you can afford to see a psychologist about your shyness, that may be a good place to start.
posted by Autumn at 8:40 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, stop dealing with customers. Client-facing jobs (of any type) are among the most stressful and difficult to navigate for the introverted/shy.

If you want to work in food service, perhaps a grill or barback position? Or something on the phone? Data entry? There are lots of jobs where you don't have to interact with the general public.
posted by xingcat at 8:40 PM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

peppermintfreddo took the words right out of my mouth.

The ability to be helpful and welcoming to others is HUGE in the service industry. Or really, looking and sounding helpful. If you come off as awkward to customers and seem like you maybe don't really want to be there, these jobs will not be good for you.
posted by Sara C. at 8:42 PM on August 10, 2012

I'm on the introvert end of the spectrum (not extreme or socially anxious, though), and I used to bartend when I was younger, so I've been in the service industry and have known plenty of people in the service industry. If you're the kind of person who's naturally extroverted, you're lucky, because you're just built for that kind of job. If you're not, you have to work at it a little bit (don't become someone else, just try to be more proactive). This is especially true of your interactions with customers (depending on the type of interaction -- waitstaff get less respect than bartenders, for example), but also of your interactions with coworkers.

Depending on the culture of the place in question (mom-and-pop? corporate?), there may be some unspoken requirements about your fit with the rest of the staff. I can tell you for sure that the best shifts tend to go to the people the management likes the best (on a I-like-working-with-you level) and that are especially well-equipped to handle them (i.e., experienced service staff). If you aren't either of those things you're going to end up with the short straw. On the other hand, firing you a few days after you started sounds a bit extreme to me (that's likely before the end of your training shifts), so maybe it had nothing to do with you?

Working hard is a good thing, but it's by no means the be-all end-all of the job -- you will get yourself fired for being lazy, sure, but it's a minimum wage high-turnover job, so nobody is particularly wowed by your mopping skills (or whatever the case may be).

Don't overthink it either -- it sounds like you may just have had some bad luck or found a place that's poorly run. Keep looking for a job and maybe the next one will prove this the exceptional case.
posted by axiom at 8:43 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Does your lack of confidence make you sarcastic and dismissive? I have a coworker (we teach) who almost wasn't because she does that. Her body language often is very protective (hunched inwards).

How she got hired anyway? She copped to it pretty early on in front of everybody, and visibly/tangibly worked super hard at toning it way down. She also said she spent hours practicing her lessons until she felt more comfortable before practice teaching any of them to us as a group or in front of actual students.

Also, if you are like her - and you may well not be, everyone's nerves manifest differently - she gets a kind of nervous verbal patter going punctuated by sighs or nervous laughter and a whole heap of self disparagement. So if that sounds familiar, I'd recommend trying to talk less and at a slower pace, smile more and physically relaxing your body whenever you can think of it. And definitely no putting yourself down. It doesn't read humble, it reads irritating and eventually, true.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:58 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going to take a different tack and say that avoiding the issue may not be best for you, long-term. Sure, you might do well short-term, but if you want to go to grad school and (presumably?) lead into a professional career eventually you will need to have professional skills, dealing with people one of them.

To take a (very simplified) page out of the operant conditioning handbook, say you don't deal well with people, as you suspect. If you avoid people, you are positively reinforcing avoidant behaviour, and that is just going to lead to more avoidance.

Now, when I was younger I decided not to do architecture because the gent at the info day said you have to deal a lot with clients and you need a lot of people skills. That was it, NOPE for me, where is the seminar for the Bachelor of Arts? So I kind of get where you're coming from. People skills do not come naturally to everyone, but they are in the end skills and can be learned.

I learned my people skills by realising that I was much more outgoing and pleasant when I was drunk. So, while realising that it is impractical to get drunk and go to work (at this time I am studying to be a doctor, it's frowned upon unless you're an anaesthetist [joke]), I tried mimicking my drunk, personable self while I was sober. Fake it til you make it. Eventually you can start to believe your own bullshit.

My other shy person tip - people actually love talking about themselves. I was never inquisitive about other people's lives because it seemed rude and invasive, but it makes you seem more outgoing and puts most of the conversational load on others if you make them talk about themselves. "Where are you from?" -> "What's x like there?" BOOM that does most of the work in any conversation.

This is, of course, if shyness is what got you fired. It's totally not your fault if that's the case anyway - I'm not in the US, but who the fuck fires people after a few days for being shy?
posted by chiquitita at 8:58 PM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

You need specifics. Ask your good friends to help you identify what mannerisms are giving off an odd vibe - fidgety? poor posture? too little eye contact? too much eye contact?

Ask them to help you understand exactly what to change and exactly how to change it. Then fake it til you make it. You want to get to the bottom of this so it doesn't hamper you in the future.

This is a time to lean on your good friends for honest feedback.
posted by 26.2 at 11:03 PM on August 10, 2012

I also think something about my body language amplifies whatever I'm feeling, because even when I feel relatively calm people will give me the cold shoulder.

The big one is to make sure your arm muscles are completely relaxed. (Unless you are doing something with them, but even then, consciously try to keep them as relaxed as possible and keep your movements slow). Try not to cover any part of your torso with any part of your arms or hands, unless you are doing something that would make that really awkward and forced.

Can you videotape yourself socializing in a situation where you are totally relaxed, and then one where you are nervous, so you can see if you have any weird postures, tics, changes in facial expression?

Here is the secret first step to becoming good at small talk, if you currently suck at it: just randomly say 1 sentence about something random, banal, and boring that comes into your head. If the person replies to you with a nod, a grunt, or something equally disinterested, then you're done and you have completed small talk level 1. If they engage with a real response, then say a second short, boring, mundane sentence in reply.

You know, I think people who see themselves as being bad at small talk often feel you need to have a REASON to say something to someone else. Why are you bringing this up, and why are you bringing this up to THIS person? Why would they care. You will only bore them.

And the other belief a lot of people have is that what you say has to be interesting or you will put people off.

But the thing is, if you keep what you say to a sentence starting out, then it's okay. It's not like you've cornered them against a wall blabbing for hours on some snore-inducing topic. Just a sentence is totally okay to bore someone with.

So if you feel like you have to have a reason to say something random to someone, maybe experiment with trying it anyway. I think you might have way more positive reactions than you anticipate, and if you do, you will loosen up and get more comfortable with random conversations.

Just stay away from topics that are controversial, overly personal, etc., and it's better to say something positive when you are first starting out with this.
posted by cairdeas at 11:41 PM on August 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Just addressing the last part of your post, because I think others have written some sensible stuff already. When you say that you worry that you will not be able to advance in your career because you cannot hold down a minimum wage job. Well, good news, for the most part, IT DOES NOT WORK LIKE THIS.

Actually, hospitality/service industry jobs are ones that can be particularly demanding/difficult for people who are quite capable in other fields, in part I think because the former really rely very heavily on social skills. While social skills are always an asset, in this industry they are the asset (I mean I know frothing milk is something of a skill but it's very learnable). So when you get a job that requires the use of your university degree, the extent to which your socialising skills are valued will be a small proportion of what is required, and thus, what you have to offer. And so your shyness is much less of a big deal. Also, if the job you have requires a degree then the firm is more likely to be committed to working through your issues (you are more valuable) and thus you are less expendable.

Double bonus-- I have found that when my socialising skills were less in the spotlight, I was able to interact with greater confidence and ease anyway-- propped up by the knowledge that I was very good at the other part. And over time, I have become pretty good at both.

So this doesn't help that much with holding down the cafe job, but it should give you hope about the future!

My two cents on the cafe thing-- be much less task-oriented and more people-oriented than is probably natural. Be less particular and cautious and ask questions rather than figuring stuff out yourself. My hospitality experience was that I certain kind of brashness was rewarded and interpreted as efficiency.
posted by jojobobo at 12:05 AM on August 11, 2012 [10 favorites]

I wish to speak to one particular sentence:

"I worry that if I can't even hold down a minimum wage job I'll never be able to advance in a career."

Do not worry: failure to hold down a minimum wage job means nothing about your ability to advance and do well in a career.

The two categories of endeavor have very little to do with each other.
posted by enkiwa at 12:08 AM on August 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

Just to pile on with everyone else: perhaps you simply aren't suited for a customer-contact job. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being introverted, and no, being introverted does NOT mean you'll "never be able to advance in a career". The thing to consider is WHO you are interacting with: as a barista, you're forced to deal with strangers all day every day; in a professional office, you'll deal with mostly the same known coworkers every day --- and speaking from my own experience, that is FAR, FAR easier!

Instead of cashier/barista/sales clerk positions, try looking into 'back of the store' stuff: a lot of groceries restock after hours; car dealers need drivers to move cars around; messenger or delivery services hire both drivers and driver helpers (especially around the holidays); any telemarketing in your area?; or heck, office cleaning.
posted by easily confused at 4:00 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

What others have said regarding your environment, however, if you're anxious I sense that working on your weaknesses is probably going to make you feel better.

(And you may actually just have been unlucky)

But if you are accidentally stigmatising yourself with your self-presentation, try working up an act and practising in front of the mirror. Look for examples of characters on TV and in movies who put themselves across really well, and imitate them. Take hours. Of course, take this with a pinch of salt - in real life, comedy-sassy-waitress behaviour will get you fired like a cannonball shot from the roof of the Empire State Building, just as rom-com behaviour will get you arrested. I'm sure you have the sense to filter this :-P and if in doubt, leave it out.

The point is that you can often learn to portray something better by watching someone imitate or act it out, than you can from watching them do it in real life.

Finally, I actually do not think that your ability to be a barista is any kind of measure of your ability to build a career. I often had people telling me that the reasons I was struggling with low-level admin jobs (well actually I was very good at them, but I had to struggle desperately hard, and of course that was blood in the water for sharks) was because they were beneath me and that as soon as I had a creative job with a corner office and a door and my own secretary, I would flourish! To this day I wonder what planet these people were on, and where I can get a one-way ticket. I do however think that you have to pick the right kind of low-level job in order for it to be a reasonable measure of your ability.
posted by tel3path at 5:02 AM on August 11, 2012

The other thing is you saying you worked really hard...honestly, in a lot of minimum wage jobs, working really hard will make you stand out in a bad way. You want to work exactly as hard as your peers, otherwise you come across as thinking you're better than everyone else, or as someone who is really stressed out and anxious, or as someone who is going to make everyone's life harder by being super-into the rules and reporting them whenever they take an extra smoke break.

Working hard is usually not nearly as important as fitting in when it comes to jobs where you work in close quarters. Of course, sometimes working hard is what you need to do to fit in, but not always.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:11 AM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are two basic needs here that I can see -

1. Immediate need to find some sort of steady work. So look for work that doesn't require customer service skills. Filing, sorting mail, data entry, that sort of thing. Check with the university library. Call a temp agency. (Avoid receptionist work or anything with a lot of phone-answering).

2. Long-term goal of dealing with your anxiety. See a therapist if you can. Lots of advice upthread.

As for that bad vibe you get from the supervisors - be aware that managing up is another important skill. It's hard to give much advice without more information, but there may be concrete steps you can take to change this. This might be fodder for another question later, if you feel it's important. Or feel free to PM me.

I have a friend who is very anxious and she frequently sounds terse or dismissive. I would never want her for my waitress or barrista ... but she has a job that she apparently kicks ass at and loves. So keep that in mind.
posted by bunderful at 6:44 AM on August 11, 2012

I agree with those who say it would be nice if you could work through the anxiety rather than giving up. I had a lot of problems with anxiety and trouble multitasking when I started working retail. There's a certain economy of movement and an air of authority that you have to cultivate. When I learned some of that, it made me feel better about myself overall and the confidence and adaptability translated into my other work. In addition to the other tips people gave, let things flow right through you. Notice when you are anxious and just tolerate it.

I am impressed that you were able to pick up most aspects of the the barista job fairly quickly. A lot of people get very flustered by the amount of people and level of multitasking, but it sounds like you are at least halfway to being really pretty good at it. At the very least, do not decide that you are hopeless.
posted by BibiRose at 6:47 AM on August 11, 2012

First of all, what enkiwa, jojobobo, and tel3path have said about the difference between minimum-wage McJobsj and "career" jobs. Minimum-wage workers in McJobs are utterly disposable - nobody wants to bother working with and coaching someone who is easy to replace and will likely not be staying for long anyway. There is an expectation in (most) real career jobs that you will be worked with, trained and given feedback so you can improve (outside of the most cutthroat industries where people are lining up three-deep for a foot in the door). So please don't despair. The attitude of employers towards minimum-wage workers is much different than those who supervise people in career jobs.

I think it's a great idea to find non-people-centric work if you are an introvert/naturally shy and anxious. Temp agencies place lots of people in data-entry and filing jobs - yes, this is tedious grunt work but it pays and it doesn't require a calm and sunny disposition or much interaction with others.

Overcoming your social anxiety (with the help of a therapist) so you can work customer-service jobs is also a great idea if your chosen career path is one that requires it. But there are plenty of jobs for introverts! An idea - if you haven't taken a skills-matching test (I took one called SkillScan) or sat down with a career counselor, this is a great idea, so that when you are looking for your career jobs you find one that is a good match for you as early in your career years as you can.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:53 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a famous take on what it's like working entry-level jobs. I thought of this every hour or so when I first started doing that kind of work.
posted by BibiRose at 6:55 AM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

nobody wants to bother working with and coaching someone who is easy to replace and will likely not be staying for long anyway

I've found this to be VERY true. Like the OP I got fired from a few waitressing-type jobs and feared I would never be able to hold down a job. This wasn't true. I was very poorly suited for waitress jobs and probably never would have been very good at those even if I had received coaching and feedback. But once I found jobs that played to my strengths, and where my employers had an interest in helping me succeed, things got a lot better.
posted by bunderful at 8:24 AM on August 11, 2012

From the OP:
Unfortunately the creative professions I am interested in do require a lot of social finesse, especially at the lower levels. I think this is true for all creative jobs. Sadly I have a lot of natural ability, but given my social unease, I don't know if I'll ever be in a position where it has a chance to shine.

From speaking to people in these professions what they look for most when hiring is people they'd enjoy working with.

Is it a lost cause for me to pursue such a career?
posted by jessamyn at 9:35 AM on August 11, 2012

Seriously, you didn't hit your "comfort zone?" gahhhh, what jerks.

Get a job at someplace that isn't so self-consciously 'cool.' Target, Sears, a hardware store. Get used to dealing with people, one at a time. My survival skill for dealing with shoppers or any customer service situation is to be extra cheerful and polite.

Etiquette exists for a reason; if you follow the rules of Please, Thank you, Hello, how are you today, it just works better. Read a lot of Miss Manners; it helps that she's witty an dhas a lot of common sense. Read How to Make Friends and Influence People.

Remember that you may be incredibly talented and intelligent, but the other person may be just as intelligent and have different skills and talents. Be open to the idea that every single person you meet may have something to teach you, or may be experiencing some conflict of their own. Give everyone the gift of authentic interest and genuine kindness. It helps, and it's a decent philosophy of life.
posted by theora55 at 9:48 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it a lost cause for me to pursue such a career?

No, it is not. You recently graduated from college? A lot of people are very uneasy in the workplace at that stage. You can learn and grow.

In my opinion, you are already ahead of people who blunder into the workplace with no sense of what they need to address about themselves.
posted by BibiRose at 9:49 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I agree with theora, that thing about your "comfort zone" was dumb. Don't waste time thinking about that kind of comment. I mean, take anything useful that you can from it, but generally those kinds of things are not that well thought out, to say the least.
posted by BibiRose at 9:52 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

What kinds of creative professions are you interested in? Because with graphic design, for instance, it's the quality of your portfolio that is what will get you the job. Yes, designers interact with clients, but most clients want someone with the design chops, not someone who is looking to be their friend. Many graphic designers and other visual-arts creatives are introverts. Same with writers.

Can you go back to the people you were talking to - your informational interviewees - and ask them, "What would you say to an introvert, someone who isn't naturally bubbly and outgoing, who wants to work in X field? Knowing me, do you think anything about my personality or self-presentation will be a problem?" Because "people one enjoys working with" doesn't necessarily mean "self-assured, charismatic, and at ease in all situations." It means someone who will get the job done and be pleasant to others. Most people, intro- and extrovert alike, can carry this off. Don't be too hard on yourself.

Don't assume you don't have what it takes to succeed in your chosen field without going on informational interviews and at least trying to get your feet wet. If it turns out that your chosen field does require being a charismatic people person, there are bound to be related fields that you could shine in. Don't give up!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:19 AM on August 11, 2012

"Is it a lost cause for me to pursue such a career?"

Absolutely not. I was so painfully shy in high school that even one "successful" conversation a day was almost too much to hope for.

One of my first jobs on moving to the city was - waitressing. And I was ***terrible*** at first. I was anxious all the time, and that affected my time management, which pissed off the customers AND the kitchen. My boss talked to me after a couple of months, saying, "You need to get the hang of this, or we'll have to let you go."

But you know what? I got better. After a while, things just started to click. Later on in life, I ended up doing all sorts of interesting jobs - interviewing race car drivers for a magazine, doing research where I had to ask people personal questions, etc... I'm still introverted, but I think most of the anxiety and shyness is gone, because I became more comfortable with myself and confident in my skills over time.

That's all you need - time and experiences that give you confidence. You'll find a job where you "fit" (check out my past questions for a recent example of a job where I didn't "fit," and how it all worked out for me in the end!) and you'll go on to get even better and more interesting jobs.
posted by HopperFan at 12:22 PM on August 11, 2012

Just because someone in a position of power tells you something doesn't mean it's true or right or the best thing they could say to you.

If you want to do these kinds of jobs, I suggest some kind of relaxation method. Once you get more comfortable within yourself, those around you will see that more.
posted by heyjude at 4:17 PM on August 11, 2012

What was the feedback you got during your internships? Did people remark on your shyness or other personal quirk? Because this is where it counts!

The "comfort zone" thing is bs obviously. Often people feel uncomfortable telling us the truth, this also goes for friends. Thus, I would suggest finding someone who will be objectively blunt and tell you the truth about your personality and self-presentation. Ideally this would be an older professional who you respect and who does not feel obliged to tell you only the nice stuff.

In customer facing positions one has to be well groomed and well dressed, polite and pleasant, competent and patient among other things. You probably are all of it and the reason for getting fired might not have to do with you at all. And frankly, I don’t expect a barista to be great at small talk. However, I think the advice about other types of jobs is a good one for the mean time. Try to forget about this experience and focus on your real career (internships & studies). Good luck.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:51 PM on August 11, 2012

Find a pattern in your career history and then DON'T repeat it. Customer service might not be something you're good at. No worries. Try something else. See if you can land a part time job at a grocery store working in the produce department. That's one of the best ever minimum wage jobs!
posted by 2oh1 at 4:53 PM on August 12, 2012

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