When Work Is Like a Battlefield

Siti Naquia Abdul Rahim is currently undertaking a PhD in neuroscience/biological psychiatry/materials science. Although her recent curiosity and passion have thrown her into the research world, she still tries to keep her childhood passion for creative writing alive. She is also too shy to say hello to Susan Cain, so she submits entries for Quiet Revolution instead.

Going into the research world, it has not occurred to me that my introversion might make work feel like a battlefield. Scientists do not have to interact with people, they said. You will be working in the lab alone, they said. Now that I am crawling along the path to becoming a scientist, I have to employ these strategies to dodge the flying arrows at my open-plan office and shared laboratory space.

1) I became an early bird.

I am an early bird not necessarily to catch the worms but to avoid as many fellow birds as I can. My work hours are quite flexible, so instead of doing 9 to 5 like most of my colleagues, I start my work around 7 a.m. The perk of being an early bird? I often get to have that first couple of quiet hours in the office or lab to myself until about 9 a.m., when others start pouring in.

2) My favorite accessories are headphones. Or earplugs.

Introverts can be highly sensitive, which means I do not wear headphones at work merely for the music. When people sip their tea noisily at their desks or munch on a bag of crisps, the sounds grate on my nerves. But it is unfair to tell colleagues to stop drinking or eating (or even sniffing). I cannot wear my headphones full-time either because mixing office-based work with music does not always help (and my ears start to hurt after a while). The first time I tried earplugs on in the office, I was like a kid in a muted Disneyland. With earplugs on, it is as if I hear noises like most other people do—muffled and filtered—and the sounds do not feel intrusive at all.

3) In my own way, I let people know that not talking to them ≠ not liking them.

When someone talks to me, I reserve a large space for them in my brain. That is why I remember things about people, whereas most people I have met tend to forget the conversations we have had. So for me, juggling a task and a conversation can be very taxing; neither gets done properly.

When I work in the laboratory, I like to engage with my work and enter the flow state. But it is very difficult to do so when colleagues intrude on my flow with chitchats. I would love to have meaningful conversations or listen to my colleagues’ rants during lunch or after work or when my work gets too monotonous, but not when I am immersed in a task. I can come off rude when I reply to colleagues’ questions curtly, dropping conversations before they really start. Sometimes they will get the message, sometimes I have to say I am busy, but when the time is right, when I am ready, I will seek them out to pick up the conversation. I would be more open to setting a date and time when I can give someone my undivided attention as opposed to someone bursting into my bubble. I do care—I just don’t have the capacity to talk all the time.

4) I use emails as my main communication method. Not phone calls.

I prefer emails because people have to articulate their thoughts into words before hitting send, which I then can reply to in my own time (I am efficient at replying to emails). I know that some people think aloud and it is natural for people to get so lost in their own train of thought during phone calls that we end up going in circles. I hate unproductive conversations because it means I have wasted my energy reservoir for talking. If colleagues keep calling every few minutes every time a thought comes to their minds, I have to ask them to call me later, after I am done with my experiment in the lab, because I cannot have my work flow interrupted repeatedly. For this reason, I rarely bring my phone into the lab, and I stick to my cheap mobile phone service that provides poor reception in my office. Sometimes, I find that spending two minutes responding to an email can achieve the same result as a 10-minute phone call can.

5) I am selective of the social events I attend.

Introverts are not necessarily anti-social. I make an effort to attend work functions because I try to be a supportive colleague every now and then. After all these years, I can say that I have never truly enjoyed the events because it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation with your colleagues when you’re shouting at each other over the noise. The only gatherings I have enjoyed are those that went beyond talking, such as playing catch with touch football/Frisbee or a game of cards…you know, anything other than idle chats. But most parties tend to revolve around talking; ergo, my attendance to these events has nothing to do with joy.

When there are multiple social events stacked in one day, that sounds like extra labor to me, not entertainment; so you cannot expect introverts to attend all occasions in a day, especially the spontaneous ones, without advance notice. I could perhaps attend all—but only by allocating 10-15 minutes for each. If I knew beforehand that a particular day would require a lot of socializing, I would prepare myself. For example, I would keep my socializing to a bare minimum the entire week prior to the day so that when the day finally came, my near-empty social quota would be ready to be filled up.

That’s my list so far. I am aware that the “easiest” route might be to explain our temperament to our colleagues and set the boundaries, but some are still not comfortable doing so while others cannot be bothered elaborating to every single person, especially if the workplace sees new faces quite regularly. But I am still learning the ropes as I go along.

Field Notes brings you first-hand workplace experiences written by contributors who share their own stories, the lessons they’ve learned, and the unique benefits of a quiet approach to life in the office. Whether you’re an introvert looking to make the most of your strengths or an extrovert/ambivert who wants to learn how your quiet colleagues tick, Field Notes offers real-world insights about taking a walk on the quiet side. Submit your own story and watch this space for more perspectives from your colleagues.