Grownup coping for embarrassingly middle-school work dynamics?
October 5, 2018 11:16 PM   Subscribe

For the foreseeable future, I'm in a job where several immediate coworkers seem to low-key dislike me. Fair enough, but I've got mild social anxiety tendencies, and this really exacerbates them. Suggestions for staying sane and socially functional?

Background: My job has a semi-autonomous workplace structure: we mostly work on independent projects and don't necessarily collaborate or report to others on a daily basis. However, there is a (loose) hierarchy, and colleagues definitely have the opportunity to impact one's success via framing on big performance reviews, extending or withholding special opportunities, etc.. So others' opinions do matter in a non-trivial way.

We also have a very intimate office setup, where about 6 people work in adjacent, mutually audible cubicles, with another cluster or two nearby.

Socially, I'm kind of a big geek, but I think I'm fairly functional. I'm an introvert and probably tend too much toward a guileless puppy-type demeanor, but I've been told I'm a good listener, and I definitely have a good (possibly overactive) ability to monitor the emotional tone of interactions with others.

When I arrived at this job a few years back, there were a few months where I was warmly welcomed into the main social circle within our department. At this point, it became evident that notwithstanding the surface civility in the office, people did a fair amount of gossiping and vicious complaining about certain coworkers outside the circle, and that there were networks of key information/influence from which other people were excluded.

Thereafter, following some personnel shifts-- new hires, coworkers returning from leave of absence-- I gradually fell out of that main circle, for some reason. (I've thought plenty about why this happened-- there are a variety of possible political reasons, though I'm not aware of actually having done anything wrong-- but I've concluded that trying to pin it down is just a fruitless and crazymaking endeavor).

Since then, I've definitely been relegated to the outgroup, albeit in a low-key way. There's no real bullying, just lots of dispiriting non-inclusion: colleagues assembling and walking together to org meetings without waiting for me. Colleagues frequently visiting others' spaces to share random jokes/ stories/social plans without casting a glance toward me sitting 3 feet away. Flat, terse hallway interactions (versus warm, effusive interactions within the group). But mostly, there are bouts of whispering in nearby cubicles that drive me kind of insane, because from earlier experience I know that signals an exchange of gossip or information that needs to be kept from someone else in the cluster, and I'm generally the only one around who could plausibly be out of the circle.

I'm not sure that anything can be done to change this social dynamic, but I could really use some suggestions for rolling with it and not letting it interfere with my wider job performance. I've got some mild social anxiety stuff (mostly anxious overanalyzing, then being awkward after), and hoo boy, the randomly spaced negative stimulus really kicks that into overdrive. I also feel like after a couple of years of this I've developed a bit of an outcast/ low-status self-image that probably harms my self-presentation elsewhere in the org-- I've noticed myself being much more apologetic and self-deprecating when I interact with people, for instance. Finally, I'd really like to be able to reclaim the time I now spend in paranoid attempts to overhear or reconstruct what people are whispering about-- even if, as is at least possible, they really are whispering about me or things that could negatively impact me.

I know the stock recommendation would be CBT for social anxiety, but I'm not sure how helpful that will be when there are no obviously huge cognitive distortions in play-- just a kind of crappy situation that I need to emotionally regulate my interactions with. I mostly need some techniques for getting myself to a calm, confident headspace, and interacting from a place of strength and authenticity, even as a sensitive person receiving ongoing negative social cues from those around her. Goonies-style coalition with other outgroup members is not an option; they're mostly scattered and work at a greater distance from the social center than I need to. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds hard. I don't have much advice for the larger social dynamics stuff, but in terms of getting through the day, could you invest in a pair of headphones and listen to music all day through them? It will be much harder to notice and be bothered by random whispering and terse interactions in the next cubicle.
posted by forza at 1:15 AM on October 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hey I have probably accidentally been on the excluding side of this. I started a new job with close quarters of people working largely on their own stuff, and the culture was mostly of polite ignoring. Well, I ended up making some good work buddies and we’d have a great time chatting about small overlaps in projects, or sharing random jokes etc.

And I realized eventually that there were several people right there whom we were not talking to much or even at all, and they may have felt excluded or annoyed by our chumminess.

There was no intentional exclusion, just overlooking, due to the fact that these people never dropped by to chat, or chimed in when conversations were happening a few feet away. And because this was the way the group formed (informally, people jumping in), I don’t think anyone in our group really thought to say, “oh oh let’s see what Sue says, we haven’t heard from her in a while”.

One key difference was we had almost zero power over each other, and the pit of coworkers was fairly flat in terms of power/hierarchy/seniority, so this wasn’t hurting any of their job stuff.

Anyway, I know it’s not so simple, but if abybone of them had jumped in, we’d have welcomed them!

So my advice is to consider that while you may be low-key disliked, it seem more likely to me that you are simply being overlooked, and that might make it easier for you to find peace with it, or more confident to jump in to more social interactions at work.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:45 AM on October 6, 2018 [15 favorites]

So it's possible that there's some "reason" you are being excluded, but it's also possible that your coworkers returned to their usual social patterns when their old colleagues returned, and you kind of got lost in the shuffle. It's really challenging to try to get in with people who have a lot of history with each other.

One thing you can do is take charge of your side of your social interactions. I don't mean pressuring people to be friendly, but if you want someone to ask you about your weekend plans - ask them about theirs. Keep it short and light and make it about your goal of being slightly more outgoing, not about how they respond. Let them get used to you asking. Talk to the other outsiders, too.

However it also sounds like you might not really want to be really "in" the circle with the vicious complaining and gossip. I've tried to get into groups only to realize that the level of drama on the inside was of zero interest to me. Right now I try to maintain light, friendly interactions with everyone, show myself to be a friendly person interested in how their kids are doing and what book they just read, and avoid the gossip as much as I can. This means not being part of any of the "in groups" and it's hard, but not as hard as dealing with drama. It helps to give myself other things to think about - listen to audiobooks or podcasts during the day, meet with non-work friends for lunch, do fun things outside of work and take good care of myself in general.

Sometimes a small hint of rejection can be enough to send me into a shame/depression/anxiety spiral, and it helps me to recognize when I'm engaging in disordered thinking. To be able to tell myself "that's depression, telling me that there must be something horribly wrong with me that makes people not want to be my friend." Or "I'm super anxious today so I'm not going to take my thoughts too seriously and I'll go to yoga after work."

One final thought - sometimes people close ranks over things that need to be private. If someone is in the middle of some kind of intensely stressful personal or work situation, they might try to keep it mostly secret but rely on one or two friends in the office, and they might close ranks for a while. Take lunches and breaks together so they can talk about the situation and keep it private. Cancer, harassment, abuse, ugly divorce, suicide or mental illness in the family. Like, if Pat reported a supervisor for sexual harassment they might discuss it with Alex, a longtime friend who witnessed the harassment and encouraged her to report it, and Terry, who also reported harassment, but not anyone else in the office. Probably not the case here, but it does happen.
posted by bunderful at 7:01 AM on October 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

Try to look on the bright side that these people aren't sucking your time away from you. They're obviously not close friends, so be glad that you're not getting dragged into things or wasting your energy listening to other people's drama or gossip. Its totally ok to be the person who comes in, is cordial to everyone, does their work, and goes home.

Something similar happened to me once - two people left over the course of a few months and apparently they were the bridges that connected me to the "in group". While I did suffer from some FOMO (fear of missing out) at first, I'm an introvert and I began to see the positive side that I could just focus on my work and students and not deal with all that crap. It helped a lot and I found I was putting my energy into more valuable things than gossip. There were some co-workers that I did genuinely like and I put more effort into those relationships on an individual level. Overall though, I found it very liberating. Hope that helps.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:39 AM on October 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Use the Ben Franklin effect. Ask them for a small favor that they can easily do for you, and they will look on you more positively (no kidding). For example, "Oh snap, I just shut down my computer... Sally, do you know what room the xyz meeting is in?" or "Does anyone have a non-black pen I could borrow for a minute?" or "Can I grab a sticky note?" and "thanks, you're a lifesaver!" if they help you. Something tiny maybe once every week or two, not enough that it sticks out as you being needy but just enough to anchor you into the group.

You can also make yourself think more positively towards them if you deliberately do favors (actual favors, not expecting anything in return). Personally I recommend bringing in a candy bowl, it's a good season for it (oh, yeah, I had a ton of leftover Halloween candy--help yourself!) and it also creates a natural social interaction.
posted by anaelith at 8:29 AM on October 6, 2018 [14 favorites]

I have been in a similar situation, although in my case the exclusion escalated into harassment. I was included in conversations, lunches, etc. for about six weeks, and then they closed ranks. I don't know why, and I agree that trying to suss it out is a huge waste of time.

The question you have to ask is whether you are being actively shunned (which it sounds like from your description of their behavior) or if people have just kind of forgotten about you. Increasing interactions with people (candy bowl, small talk, asking for favors) will help if it is the latter, but will definitely NOT help if it is the former.

You don't mention anything about your boss, but in my experience, this kind of thing really represents a failure of leadership. It is easy to blame your co-workers for this behavior, but ultimately leaders are responsible for ensuring that everyone receives the communication and information they need, and for shepherding the culture of the org or department. Have you had any discussions with your boss about this? What has her response been? My boss at the time refused to get involved other than assuring me that he saw the BS that was going on and didn't put stock in what my coworkers were telling him about me.

I ended up getting promoted out of that department, which helped, and then a lot of the people who were doing this left the organization, which really helped. If you are being shunned, and your leadership won't engage with addressing cultural problems in your organization, it probably won't get better over time.
posted by jeoc at 8:40 AM on October 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Get a new job. This seems super unhealthy for you. You’re describing a literal personality change for the worse. It’s not worth it.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:29 AM on October 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sorry you're going through this, your co-workers sound immature and insensitive. In an environment like that, being out of the "in-crowd" could be an advantage over the long term. There's probably a rotating outsider chair that many people get shoved into eventually, especially if management is oblivious or can't be bothered to nip that behaviour in the bud.

That said, there are a few things you can do to smooth things over and make life a bit easier and more comfortable on a day to day basis. Make a point of talking to at least one of them every day, and asking questions that make you seem interested. Stop and say hi when you're walking down the halls. Bring a candy dish or cookies. In general, do what you can to "humanize" yourself, rather than retreating into your shell. It's much harder to be nasty to a real person who just smiled at you than it is to someone you rarely see and don't talk to.

But, at the same time, I'd also avoid giving too much personal information. Keep conversations light, on neutral things like pets, movies you've seen or want to see, articles you've read, etc.. I'd also recommend investing in a pair of headphones for when you just need to get work done and find yourself fixating on what they are or aren't talking about without you.

Finally, you would probably get some major benefits out of practical steps to address your anxiety about the way you present yourself, especially outside your own work unit. Something like communications or public speaking training could be really helpful. Making positive connections with others in your workplace will ease your anxiety in dealing with your current "colleagues," as well as increase your chances of finding a better job elsewhere (if you want to do that).
posted by rpfields at 10:34 AM on October 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I mostly need some techniques for getting myself to a calm, confident headspace, and interacting from a place of strength and authenticity, even as a sensitive person receiving ongoing negative social cues from those around her.

You mention CBT and one CBT technique that helps me a lot is to find a phrase that makes me feel better and use it whenever my brain starts going down a bad pathway. It could be anything that shifts your thinking from where it was going to go, to where you want it to be, be it "that's their problem" or "I'm above all that" or building on the idea that they're acting in a high school way and that strengthening your performance can help you get out of there something like "I've got to study to graduate." The key thing is that you believe it. This technique gains strength over time as your mental pathways strengthen until eventually you form a new mental groove straight to that attitude (or at least notice yourself not having to use the phrase anymore - I don't mean to oversell this approach).

I also find physical stuff to help if you can get over feeling a little dorky initially. Be it just doing pushups in your cubicle to-- in my first job some wise older staff member taught me a little physical ritual to clean someone's bad juju away from me after every phone call. Cheesy, yes, but also it worked. Anyway, I hope you find some hacks to get these people out of your head.
posted by salvia at 11:31 AM on October 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I too have been on the accidental-exclusion-by-overlooking side of this, and yeah a big thing is the person we were excluding just never seemed to want to talk to us. They'd interact in meetings and respond when directly asked ("hey, how was your weekend?" that sort of thing), but they'd never start the conversation and it's a two-way street, you know? If you show no interest in my life in return, then eventually I'm going to stop asking you. If I'm always the one coming up to you and saying "hey let's go to this org meeting" and you don't do the same, then eventually I'm going to stop that too.

Every now and then I try to walk up to them to say hi and chat, as an intentional thing, but it's hard because there's never anything that comes back (and in all honesty I'm not in fact 100% sure that they view this as a good thing, it's entirely possible that they would in fact rather I left them alone entirely and they're just too polite to tell me). There was another person who I stopped talking to entirely unless it was work-related, because making small talk made them visibly nervous and I didn't want to do that.

Regarding whispering, it also happens because (in my office, anyway) voices carry to nearby clusters AND the nearby hallway and there might be someone there that you don't see. And if we're talking about something that we don't want to be general knowledge (which isn't necessarily gossip, sometimes it's secret projects that haven't been greenlit yet, that sort of thing).
posted by Xany at 1:10 PM on October 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm an introvert with extreme lifelong social anxiety (which presented as a toddler). I've struggled with this my entire life and one thing therapy has really helped with is not giving power to other peoples' thoughts. So what if someone doesn't like me? It doesn't effect my life unless they are doing things other than just disliking me, which then of course needs a different course of action. But otherwise, I just don't care anymore if someone doesn't like me. That's their problem, not mine.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 1:59 PM on October 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm also an introvert and the idea of going out of my way to try to be extra friendly to people gives me the willies, so I imagine those suggestions sound like torture to you. A passive interaction is a lot easier for people like us - get a candy dish going, or bake cookies. All you need to do is put up a little sign that says "help yourself, I like to share" and you have an easy positive interaction. A lot of time people interpret introvertedness as snobbery, so they may have just misinterpreted your behaviour - showing some quiet goodwill may really turn things around. I have heard many times that people think I'm a bit bitchy until they get to know me, when they find out I'm actually pretty nice.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:25 PM on October 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hah, I could have written this because what happened to you happened to me. Everyone was friendly for a few months, then I started finding out that they were closet mean people from hearing the shittalking in the office, and even though I said nothing about their commentaries, they all decided they hate me and hell if I know why. In my case it's been a lot worse, so be glad they're just ignoring and whispering.

I just straight up do not talk to these people, nor they me, unless we absolutely have to. They don't want me to speak to them (my voice annoys the shit out of them, so that's at least one reason why they hate me, and unfortunately I have to do the most talking). Ignore, ignore, ignore. Headphones on all day, and do not try to listen to their gossip and whispers. It's really not going to be anything you want to hear or will be able to do anything about.

If they are going to genuinely try to take you down, I speak from experience that uh, you will find out about it and there probably isn't anything you can do about it. But unless they're really malicious, odds are higher they're just bitching about how everyone who isn't them is a horrible person and how they won't invite you to their parties. If they hide crucial information from you, you can't stop them or do anything to make any of this shit better. So you gotta let it go. Stop thinking you can do anything with regards to them to make it better. Just shut them out like they're doing to you. Make it a mutual disdain. Don't focus on their hatred and what they say about you--everyone can say whatever they want behind your back as long as they don't make it a problem to your face.

As long as they're not actively trying to go after you, you can manage. It sucks, don't get me wrong, and the fact that it sucks just keeps going. But if that's what you have to endure in order to eat and have a home, it could be worse.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:51 PM on October 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

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