Being professional while socially awkward
August 7, 2013 9:24 AM   Subscribe

My role at work is changing such that I'll need to interact with people face-to-face and over the phone much more than I currently do. The problem: I'm kind of awkward. I don't want to make things go poorly for my employer, so what is my next step?

For background, I'm 22, female, live in the US, and I've been in the working world for about a year.

I know that I'm socially awkward. I'm not someone that people find "creepy" or "off-putting" - I've just always felt like I don't quite read out of the same "rule book" as everyone else in social situations, like others have a mutual understanding that I lack. I score on the extremely low end of this empathy quotient (16 to be specific). I don't have a "warm" personality, and I'm frequently at a loss for words or feeling like the things I say are out of place. I often talk out of turn because I can't tell if someone is going to stop talking. I also make a lot of weird mistakes, and sometimes say the wrong words - like today, I asked someone "How are you going?" when I meant to say "How's it going?" or "How are you doing?" (but that's just one example, I do this frequently and in even weirder ways).

My manager is giving me some new duties at work where I will need to interact directly with people more. I can see that she trusts in my abilities enough to give me these responsibilities - she even directly said to me that it's okay if I make mistakes occasionally and that new skills are best learned by doing - and people are not usually fired at my workplace if they are trying their best, so I'm not worried that my job will be on the line. We are not a very rigid or excessively formal workplace.

But I am worried about hurting business for my employer. I don't want important contacts to meet me and be turned off by my awkwardness. My goal is to have people meet/call me and think "she's someone that I like working with" rather than "she's kind of odd" or "she seems very immature and not professional".

I don't want to discuss this with my manager. She is my boss and not a mentor figure. I don't think this conversation would be helpful or appropriate.

So I'm wondering where to go from here. Is therapy the correct option? Is there some other kind of coaching that I should try? Books I should read? Are there professional development courses geared toward someone like me?

Or is my manager right and I should just accept my new duties with grace, inevitably mess up a few times, and learn from my mistakes? Or do people in the professional world not even care if others are slightly socially awkward?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Try going to Toastmasters or some other place where you can hone your self-presentation outside of work.
posted by BibiRose at 9:33 AM on August 7, 2013

I found Toastmasters, suggested by BibiRose, helpful and fun. But I think your manager is right: you should plunge in and you'll find that practice makes it all easier.
posted by anadem at 9:37 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like maybe you are worrying a little too much. Being a little awkward is not going to hurt your company or your career. Surely your manager has some idea of what your personality is like and thinks that your presence in this role will be a net positive for the company and for her. So remember that.

You might want to consider group therapy, which might be a good place to work on how to interact with others, and some of the other issues you express (empathy, maybe self-esteem).
posted by grouse at 9:39 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Put together a script for yourself that can cover the most common requests/conversation types you'll have, which - depending on your job, of course - will be most of them. Take your time, and ask questions and take notes (this is both helpful to you and makes you appear thoughtful and attentive).

Also, maybe reframe this. You're not "awkward" so much as "inexperienced" or "a little tongue-tied, sometimes." I talked with someone recently who said she is terrible at small talk and talking to people she doesn't know well. This has never been my impression of her, and I've seen her show up at things where she's probably not going to know anyone and she makes perfectly acceptable small talk and does all the normal getting-to-know-you stuff. Sometimes our perceptions of who (or how) we are don't reflect how other people see us.
posted by rtha at 9:39 AM on August 7, 2013

One thing to consider is that you feel like you are much more awkward than you actually come across to other people. I feel like is true for almost everyone. The things you have described about yourself here do not seem especially strange.

Also, nobody feels completely comfortable in professional situations at age 22. It's going to take some years of experience to get your feet underneath you, to get to the point where you feel comfortable interacting with people of different ages and backgrounds and levels of experience. I remember pretty clearly talking with a CEO on the phone when I was a 24 year old executive assistant and suddenly realizing, "this dude is just a person like me and is probably not even smarter than I am." Try to keep that in mind when you're talking to people - that this person is really just some guy with a job who would probably rather be at home hanging out with his dog.

It also helps to imagine the guy you're working with as your brother, or your friend, or someone who works at the library - that is, try to just be yourself, rather than someone you have to impress with your professional demeanor. At the end of the day, people you work with are just other people, and they have their own awkwardnesses and insecurities, and the longer you work in the professional world you will see that more and more. We all work with some real weirdos, you know? but that doesn't mean they don't do a good job.
posted by something something at 9:39 AM on August 7, 2013

You'll be fine. The empathy score thing is just a number. I assure you that even to so-called outgoing people this type of thing is just a skill that takes practice. You are already being so thoughtful and introspective about this challenge that I am sure you'll figure it out.

Scripts are helpful. Have your three lines that you use and memorize them to minimize tongue tie. I know it's lame, but I always default to the weather as my go-to small talk. "Nice day today." or "Wish it was warmer!" Feel free to keep the conversations brief and focused on the business at hand. You don't actually need to be warm, just professional.

If you're stuck, ask a question about whatever it is they just said.

Depending on your role, leadership coaching can be very helpful. It's not cheap, but I've seen really awkward people learn to be great managers. It's just something you have to work at.
posted by annekate at 9:40 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Experience is what turned me from someone so shy I could hardly work the cash register at Wendy's into a person who can work with a wide variety of people every day, in sometimes complex interactions. I certainly don't love it, but it can be done. Experience is a great, if painful, teacher.

But I think therapy would be good for you--particularly if your therapist could suggest a social skills group you could participate in.

Finally, people don't notice your conversational mistakes as much as you think they do. (I say that even though I have a hard time reminding myself of that at times.)
posted by whistle pig at 9:40 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and yes, to build on what annekate said, I know someone who was so awkward when he first started at his job that his manager required him to sign up for public speaking classes. He's now a well-respected manager fairly high up in the organization. Clearly, his manager saw something in him despite his social difficulties.
posted by whistle pig at 9:41 AM on August 7, 2013

"How are you going?"

I swear to God I said this exact same thing today on the phone!! Sometimes I just get a wave of awkward and I trip over my tongue. But I just laugh about it now.

I used to be shy to the point of oddness, and then I started working in jobs were I was talking to people constantly (reception, admin, retail etc). I think it was the best thing for me as it forced me to get good at small talk and generally be more sociable.

I think your boss is right - just do it and you'll get better. You'd have to be a complete asshole to lose the company business; most people make allowances for a little odd/awkward etc. If your boss is ok with the possibility of making mistakes then let yourself be, too. They've obviously seen the potential in you, so focus on that and congratulate yourself for your achievements. Good luck!
posted by billiebee at 9:46 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You'll get used to it. I was extremely awkward (and still am sometimes)... I still try to do all my work via email or instant messaging.
If I mess up while speaking, I just make a joke like "ha, it's too early for me!" Or "It's been a long day!"
posted by KogeLiz at 9:48 AM on August 7, 2013

You're human. Your interactions with other people. I encourage you to stop affirming that you are weird or different and that you are somehow less-than because of it. This is something you need to square your shoulders against and stop obsessing over because it is entirely possible to just get over this mindset once you stop allowing it to rule your view of yourself. Practice interacting with others. Affirm to yourself that you are doing your job. Quit telling yourself that you aren't good at it. Wash, rinse, repeat.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:55 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

"How are you going?"

One time I helped someone out at work, and in response to their thanks, my brain combined "No problem" and "My pleasure" into "My problem!" They weren't entirely sure what to make of that, but hey, that's their problem.

In any event, I'm no less awkward or more cuddly than I was when I was your age, but faking it comes ever easier. I haven't changed on the inside--I'm still awkward and aloof--but I'm mostly normal on the outside.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:56 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with wanting to improve your social skills and doing so is not a betrayal of your soul. Everyone makes little tongue slips, but being more aware of yourself and those to whom you are speaking can keep this from becoming a habit.

The MIT "Charm School for Geeks" is a good place to start, as is reading Dale Carnegie. Taking an improv class is more fun, and can very useful.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:02 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also get tongue tied brain and mouth don't always work at the same speed. I was just saying to someone today, "yes we have friends visiting from....Philadelphia? Right, is that it? Um....well let's just say Pennsylvania!" I know that sounded stupid so I just laughed and said, "sorry, my coffee hasn't kicked in yet!" If you get a few of those lines in your pocket, it can make YOU feel better. (The other person probably didn't even pay that much attention.) Also, do you have anyone who does your job that you can watch and imitate a bit? When I was younger, I got hired to do sales and it was tremendously helpful to listen to other people because I am not naturally a talker and I needed to cold call people and make conversation--with people who didn't want to talk to me! I had to imitate other people at first until I could learn a comfortable way for me to do it.

Anyway, by the way you sound, I bet people find you charming. If you flub up a bit, I would just think you're human and I much prefer interacting with a human than someone who is especially "professional."
posted by biscuits at 10:04 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dammit. I meant to say "your interactions with other people are normal and human" but my phone got tongue tied!
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:31 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

i am this way. one thing i found, and i've always hated this advice, but it really works, is to smile when you're on the phone. really. i LOATHE the people i am talking to on the phone, but my partner sitting behind me on the couch is like, "wow, i couldn't even tell you hate them!" when i'm on conference calls or whatever. the smile tricks my brain into using my happy voice or something.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:29 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Or do people in the professional world not even care if others are slightly socially awkward?

As a working person, nice and competent are all I really hope for in a colleague. If you can manage that, I'd say you're already head and shoulders above most of the working world.
posted by Jess the Mess at 11:42 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

As another way of thinking of it that has helped me - there is no particular reason that being socially awkward in your personal life should mean that you are socially awkward in your professional life.

They are different things!

The professional world is quite different and to my mind much simpler than the social world.

In my experience most professional conversations are based around transactions - "Do you have X?" "Yes/No".

It gets a bit more complicated but fundamentally people are talking to you because they want something that they need for their professional work and either you can help or you can't. They don't want to get on with you particularly, hear your anecdotes, swap stories, match personalities or the million other things that come up in more social encounters. They just want to get on with their work and you to have what they want.

Any social sides to it are very easy to follow, it is a one line question 'how was your weekend/holiday/lunch' and a one line answer 'we hit the beach and it was swell'. No one asks for or supplies more.

And so if you can put yourself in the position of:

a) generally being able to answer the transaction part positively - which is a general job thing rather than to do with anything socially (and it's almost always OK to say 'I'll get back to you' if you don't know on the spot)

b) having a small stock of insubstantial questions and answers about the weather, holidays etc and remembering to ask them if the other person doesn't - which is much more straight forwards and predictable than usual social interactions

and then you very easily fly through the vast majority of professional encounters!

Also you mention wanting people to think "she's someone that I like working with". This won't be because of a great joke you told or your outgoing and bubbly personality it'll be because you actually do the job required (see a above) and you are always polite (see b above)!

Background to this advice - I am someone who is not socially personally and hates telephones in personal life apart from my wife (I can remember spending hours psyching myself up as a teenager to ring a mail order line and being petrified when I did it) but who now after a couple of years manages to deal with people successfully in all sorts of situations in my job. Just thinking about it today I spoke in person with 7 client side guys and had 5 lengthy phone calls with different people, alongside talking to the various people in our office, all went well and it becomes something your work persona just 'does'.
posted by Albondiga at 11:59 AM on August 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Empathy isn't just a natural thing you either have or not. It can be learned and improved. As others have said, this is easier in a professional setting because the range of problems is smaller, and the range of responses you need to decide between is similarly more limited than general social interactions.

The piece of advice I've found most useful in professional, transactional interactions is to understand what the other person wants from the conversation. A customer may want to solve a problem. Someone who reports to you may want direction. A colleague may want information. A manager may want an update on a project. Figure out what they want, then respond to that need.

An example: you need to convince someone to do something but they have objections. They are not sure about a, b sounds too difficult, c looks like it's too expensive. Address each of those concerns in turn: assure them about a, walk them through b to make it clear, show them that your solution is actually cheaper than leaving the problem unsolved. Deal with each in turn.

Empathy, in a transactional, professional context, is often about understanding what the people you are dealing with want, then trying your best to meet that need.

Sometimes it will not be clear what they want. In this case, you will need to ask them directly to understand their concerns. This can be what the first part of the conversation is about: what they want. The next part of your conversation then becomes sounding out solutions with them. Finally, you can give them the information they need/undertake to get it to them when possible.

This isn't a perfect solution, but improvement will come with time. However, if you are capable of meeting the needs of the people who interact with you, even if that takes some time and questions on your part to figure out, people will be happier for dealing with you.

A good next step is to learn to anticipate what people might need before they ask you for it, but that takes more practice and context.
posted by bonehead at 2:56 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

It might be helpful to remember that it's not really about you - it's about the customer/contacts. For instance this:

My goal is to have people meet/call me and think "she's someone that I like working with" rather than "she's kind of odd" or "she seems very immature and not professional".

is ok as a personal goal, but should not actually be your professional goal. Your professional goal should be some variation on "the people I meet feel good about our interaction and the business."

These are two very different things. Honestly, it doesn't really matter what they think of you beyond "she was pleasant and professional and dealt with my concerns/needs/questions/whatever."

Once you realize this, professional interactions become a lot less stressful. You can focus more on making them comfortable, which takes the pressure off making yourself comfortable.

Also, everyone trips over their words or gets nervous sometimes. Again, put the focus on the people you're working with and you'll see this. Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself if you mess up (ie, when you say "how are you going?" you can then just say "whoa, where'd that come from? Must be Monday!" or whatever.)
posted by lunasol at 1:41 PM on August 8, 2013

Also, the whole "it's not about you" thing I think is one of the most important things you learn when you enter the workforce. If you've been in school for about 17 years, you're used to it kind of being about you, because most of your interactions are social (where you want to be seen as cool and/or fun) or educational (where you want to be seen as smart).

But in the working world, it tends to be more about what you can produce and how you make others feel. Your boss doesn't care if you're cool or even smart - she cares if you produce and if she feels like she can rely on you. Your coworkers and business contacts care that you're reliable and make them feel heard, respected, etc.

This is a very liberating thing to realize.
posted by lunasol at 1:46 PM on August 8, 2013

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