How can I blend in socially in my field, esp. at my new internship?
July 12, 2015 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I am currently interning and hope to work long-term in the environmental field (but office-based). I like outdoor activities but I am a bit overweight, out-of-shape and am inexperienced. Most of the people in my field are super fit and outdoorsy, and have already invited me on a variety of excursions that are way above my skill level. I've had to decline them all because I know it would be unmanageable at my current fitness state, and I'm worried people will just think of me as anti-social and unlikeable. How can I deal with this?

I haven't wanted to tell people straight up that I am out-of-shape because I am embarrassed about it. I am in the first week of a six-month internship in a new desert state with lots of outdoor recreation and I was hoping to build up my fitness level over this period since I want to be able to do cool outdoor activities. But people are already inviting me on things (strenuous hikes up mountains, backpacking) that I just know I cannot handle currently. I've told them that I don't think my hiking skills are up to par (to avoid mentioning my fitness) and they keep pushing, and now some of them seem to think I don't like hiking/am anti-social.

At my last internship I know the office retreat (right after I left) involved white-water rafting, hiking, and camping which I know I wouldn't have been able to do either had I still been there at the time.

How can I handle this? I wanted to use this six months to work on myself, my fitness, and doing more activities, but I don't want to have to keep turning down offers from my co-workers with lame excuses. I just feel like people will think I'm some kind of couch potato misanthrope.
posted by majesty_snowbird to Work & Money (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You could look up a beginner-level activity (eg. a specific trail that is mostly flat) and then try inviting the people who have been inviting you to things.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 1:46 PM on July 12, 2015 [12 favorites]

I've told them that I don't think my hiking skills are up to par

"I don't think my hiking skills are up to par for something like that yet, but I'd love to have you over for dinner next week."

The way not to seem like an antisocial misanthrope is to propose additional activities if the ones you're being invited on aren't suitable for you. Look, I'm a chubby non-drinker who hates the sun--lots of things I'm invited to don't appeal to me. I make up for it (to the extent that I actually want to be social) by inviting people to things like board game days, brunch, and trivia meetups.

Also, you should confide in one of these new friends that you're out of shape but want to work on it. Ask them for suggestions/to come along with you on beginner hikes until you get to where you want to be. It's your embarrassment and shame that's leading you into social isolation, not your fitness level.
posted by phunniemee at 1:48 PM on July 12, 2015 [31 favorites]

Did you see the recent FPP about the woman who holds the current record for fastest traversal of the Appalachian trail? She trained to those levels by hiking all the damn time. If you want to be a better hiker, hike more often. Go with non-work friends, or go by yourself. That will solve the hiking problem. Why not start there?
posted by oceanjesse at 2:20 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do you like photography? That's a great excuse to slow down and catch your breath on the trail. I'm always stopping on the trail to check out a cool mushroom or awesome beetle. Also you can research trails in your area ahead of time, pick one out (shorter, flatter, maybe with great vistas you don't need to climb a mountain for, or a good chance of seeing wildlife), and invite coworkers there.

Also if you enjoy cooking or baking at all, bringing tasty trail snacks will make everyone fall in love with you.
posted by Drosera at 2:29 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Why not ask the people who invite you if there's an easier/shorter route you can do while they do theirs? If they're doing an out-and-back hike tell them you'll stop at whatever point in the trail you get tired and wait for them to come back. Yes, this requires admitting you're out of shape, but they're going to have to find out eventually anyway. There's no shame in it unless you let there be.
posted by MsMolly at 2:49 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

"I don't think my hiking skills are up to par for something like that yet, but I'd love to have you over for dinner next week."

I would do this, but make the counter proposal something outdoorsy -- "Wow, that sounds amazing, but probably too difficult for me right now. Want to join me on [easier activity] on Thursday?" And even more, just be honest: "Gee, I'm new here and I've never done anything that intense. Do you think I'd be able to make it, or is there a good halfway point for me to take a break while you guys summit?"

The other thing is that you might be selling yourself short. Have you actually tried these hikes, or are you just assuming you can't handle it? Get out there and start going, because you can turn around and head back if you are getting your ass kicked. There's no shame in going partway and hitting your limits.

In my experience, people in the environmental/natural resources field tend to talk a big game about outdoors stuff (almost always either wilderness activities like hiking and kayaking, or more mainstream fishing and hunting) but they are mostly living the same lives as everyone, with some outdoor time mixed in to the usual movie nights and lawn mowing. It's a status signifier, and it's easy to play -- a day hike up the hills on the edge of town will give you all the credibility you need, especially if you are new to the area.

(As an aside, this gets used to keep hiring in the field to "people like us" -- usually outdoorsy white guys with degrees from good colleges -- which is overall a shitty pattern. It's ok not to want to play that game, but outdoors experiences are an expected skill component even for office-based people and it will keep coming up for your entire career. If a position requires any field time at all, you are going to probably need to be ok hiking in rugged terrain, wading streams, climbing small outcrops, and so on, whether or not you actually enjoy those activities.)
posted by Dip Flash at 2:56 PM on July 12, 2015 [19 favorites]

You definitely don't need to be ashamed by saying that you have concerns about the strenuousness of the proposed activity. People aren't mind readers so they can't make accommodations or recommendations if you don't let them know about your concerns. I'd use the scripts listed above where you say you are concerned about the difficulty. With this knowledge they can warn you off this particular activity, perhaps go at an easier pace or suggest a different future activity that better suits your abilities.
posted by mmascolino at 3:10 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're working in an environmental gig, it's probable the people with whom you're working aren't just outdoorsy - they may be passionate about the outdoors in general. Your not wanting to go hiking may be less rooted in you being "anti-social" and more rooted in a signal- to them! - that you're not as passionate about the outdoors as they are.

Not only that, they probably spend a lot of time just talking about being outdoorsy, from the bike ride in which they bonked to new gear to arguments about which trail is best for X. If your entire office spends a lot of time talking about being outdoors, it's just not activities you may be missing out on - it's also general water cooler conversation, in which your not participating can also lead to that stigma.

So I bet it's not just what you mentioned, it's also showing that you care. Luckily, that kind of passion is also a partial solution to your problem - although only if you really want to get into that fitness stuff and being outside as you mentioned. People who are passionate about the outdoors are like everyone with a passion - they're generally enthusiastic about sharing, teaching, and showing off. Use that to your advantage. Phunniemee's on the nose about how to solve it.

Be honest with someone, "Look, I need to get in shape and I need to develop the skills to do this - can I get some suggestions?" In a conversation at lunch say something like, "Hey everyone, I really would love to spend some time out on the desert in the evenings but need to work on my skills - does anyone have any suggestions for good evening hikes that are simple?" Then invite the person who has a suggestion with you. If people are having a discussion about backpacks, ask, "Hey, what's the best pack out there right now?"

As someone who's really outdoorsy myself, I've learned that nothing gets you experience AND fitness quite like just doing it. Want to be fit enough to climb a hill? Go climb some hills! Once past a particular skill level, pushing yourself to do things you don't have the skill set yet is probably the best way to develop those newer skills, and nothing quite pushes you like other people. Most outdoorsy people have been involved in activities way above their skill level AND fitness level at one point or another, which may contribute to why they're not listening to you about your experience; your coworkers probably assume you have that basic skill set and fitness.

Set some goals for yourself to encourage getting in shape. I find it's a lot easier to do the "on-your-own" if I'm working towards something. Asking around the office for a particular hard hike/trip that you can work towards at the end of 1, 2, 3, 6 months will get you some suggestions, good goals, and probably some companionship. So something like, "I want a super hard hike that I can work towards being able to do by the time I leave - any suggestions?" It will also subtly alert people you're working towards a particular level of both fitness and skill set. Keep your ears open - if someone mentions a 10k in 2 months, say, "I've always wanted to do one - do you have any training tips?" You may even gain a training partner.

All the suggestions in this thread are good (on preview, Dip Flash also hits the nail on the head). To learn on your own, your local REI or other sporting goods store might also have classes (navigation: a great place to start!) that you can take - even fed/state/local gov't might also have classes, like the Game & Fish. If you need gear, look to Craigslist and local consignment stores. If you can, rent before you buy. Look for some outdoor/environmental blogs so you can amp your conservation AND conversation game. Learn about local/regional issues. And listen!

As you do more outdoors stuff, you may find an activity that you really love. My rule of thumb is to try something 3 times before I buy gear because I'm so in love with it or before I declare that I don't like it. As your fitness ramps up, if you hated something before, try it again.

One more thing - if you're with someone who insists on you doing something way, way above your skill set (like rappelling down into a canyon when you don't even have the skills to hike in one (i.e. knowing what to do about flash floods, navigating, basic rock scrambling, etc.) SAY NO. Pushing yourself is one thing - risking your life from peer pressure is not cool. The fundamental skill set in the outdoors is safety and risk management.

Have fun, and please, feel free to memail me for any questions - I love the outdoors.
posted by barchan at 3:18 PM on July 12, 2015 [10 favorites]

It seems unlikely that you'll be shunned if you admit to not being as fit as you'd like to be - the opposite seems more likely with a group like this.

Maybe ask if they know about local yoga classes, or where a good gym is, or what they do to train for the intensive outdoor activities. You could explain that you want to use this six months to work on yourself, your fitness, and doing more activities, and ask if they have any ideas, know of any good things to read, et cetera.

People often love to talk about what they know, and it sounds like these folks know fitness and how much work it can take. They might never shut up about it, but that could be an AskMe for another day...
posted by Little Dawn at 3:20 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everyone above has good suggestions about dealing with this in the short-term for this specific internship.

For the longer term, please know that there are a ton of jobs in the environmental field that either are totally office jobs, or that may require some field work, but not the strenuous variety. I've been in the environmental field for a while now. I have all kinds of coworkers -- some of them play soccer after work, some of them prefer going down to a bar for a drink. Some of them ask to avoid the jobs in the deep woods, and some of them request the jobs in the deep woods. Some hate being in the office, and some hate leaving the office. We have all kinds.

As I'm fond of telling people, most environmental contamination doesn't take place in the deep virginal forest -- it takes place at gas stations, and drycleaners, and factories, and other places where humans are.

If it helps as a reference, the fieldwork that gets done by our team would require being in good enough shape to walk at a slow-medium pace and look at things. You might also need to climb a ladder up one story, depending. You might need to be able to lift a cooler filled with ice and samples from your car to a dolly to bring it into the shipping store. And... that's about it. That's the physical fitness requirement. It's pretty do-able.

tl;dr: It is totally possible to have a rewarding career in the environmental field while also not being super-outdoorsy.
posted by pie ninja at 3:28 PM on July 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you are female, you might look for a women's outdoor group. There are a lot of them that focus on outdoor education and leadership training for women of any fitness level. If you live in the DC area, send me a message -- I can recommend one to you.
posted by OrangeDisk at 5:10 PM on July 12, 2015

People can be super evangelical about these things. I suggest being honest - I'm not sure I can handle a hike that long, but I'd love to be able to. Is there an easy short hike you can take me on? Can you suggest a place to buy hiking boots? Let people help you. (Note that only having brand new hiking boots is a pretty good reason to not want to do huge long hikes. No one recommends walking long distances in new shoes.)

I don't think it'll take long for you to be able to do the long hikes, and unless they are arseholes, they won't mind waiting for you to catch up as you build up your fitness.
posted by kjs4 at 9:07 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing that I don't think the answers here have mentioned yet is that you are an intern, which means that you are already naturally in a position where people want to take you under their wing! You aren't expected to be good at everything yet and you have all these more experienced people in your filled who actively want to help you with work and life stuff right now, take advantage of that!
Another thing about interning is that you want to make the most and strongest social connections as you can because you want to be able to hit these people up for advice or jobs later in your career. So if I we're you I would just go to everything, and don't worry if you sucks at it or have to stop and wait for everyone to come pick you up for the descent. Obviously don't put yourself in danger, but this sounds more like you just don't want to be the slow person or the quitter and want to look good at hiking. The worse you look while being enthusiastic, the more people will like you and want to help you and will tailor later activities around what you could do.
Anecdotally, when my best friend and I were interning (in different fields), I had the attitude of "I want to prove how independent and good at everything and smart I am so these people think of me as an equal and as someone who they can picture hiring" while she cultivated the "teach me everything, you smart benevolent older person" vibe. People bent over backwards to help her, introduce her to other high ranking people, and generally loved the flattery and the feeling that they were making a difference for her. Which they were! In hindsight, it was a much more successful way to go about things as a young inexperienced person.
Don't be afraid to look inexperienced! As long as you are appreciative of the help you are given, people will want to help you more and will feel connected to you and invested in your success, which is exactly what you want in an internship.
posted by rmless at 8:25 AM on July 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thanks for all the great responses! I asked my supervisor about some hikes and she recommended one for me to work up to in 2-3 months and showed me all the flatter, shorter hikes. I'm living on the edge of the park but there's a bouldering gym nearby I'm thinking about checking out. I really do enjoy outdoor activities but never really knew anyone who could show me the ropes, but I'm willing to just go out there and do it on my own now, especially since the trails are just a prickly pear's throw away!
posted by majesty_snowbird at 7:59 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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