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.

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  • Donna Zino Whitham

    Thanks for writing this and sharing your experience. It”s right on the mark! When I try to explain this to people they look at me like I’m crazy! I work in healthcare and they throw us in open work spaces like sardines! I ended up completely burned out and on a stress leave because I was staying late so often in an effort to get my work done that I couldn’t get done during the day.

  • Nakul

    Very nice experience

  • Gabriel Cepeda

    Thank you for the interesting article, living in a latin american nation where our kind is very rare and wrongly interpreted is very tough, and it’s interesting to see that most of the things I do, are used by others as well. Thanks again!.

  • Linda Hoffecker

    I’ve spent a lot of time sending this to friends who wonder why I am not terribly interested in celebrating w/gangs of talkative people….Discovering that my being unnerved in such situations (unless I’d be somewhat in my cups) is a feeling shared by a lot of other people has me dancing on air..I just had to share with them and now, maybe they will stop bugging me to go here, there and everywhere.. I actually enjoy going places alone! Take a book, newspaper, whatever.

  • coconutstudio

    As for headphones, I strongly recommend any of the Bose noise cancelling headphones. They are the only effective noise cancelling headphones. Every software engineers wear these when they are working in an open office. Also, you don’t have to listen to any music while wearing these headphones, as you can just turn it on for quietness without listening to any music.

  • Kim Stewart

    This is absolutely brilliant! I love when someone can articulate how I feel. This is set in a research lab but I work in a noisy office where closing my door is frowned upon so I can totally relate to all of this. I am so excited every time I see an article from this group. It reconfirms that there is nothing wrong with me.

  • Tina Young

    I happened to come across Susan Cain whilst surfing the web and it was like a revelation. For the first time I realised that I was an Introvert and that it was ok! I can relate to so many of the points above especially preferring email to telephones! If I had a pound for every time someone has said to me that I’m too quiet I’d be rich, but now I explain that I’m quiet not because I’m shy but because my mind is thinking at 100 miles per hour and when I have something that I feel is important/useful to say I will!

  • sahdiak

    I can relate to so much in your article. Thank you for sharing.

  • Excellent article and I can relate to every one of these. In the past couple of years I’ve managed to get jobs I can much of from home, which has been an absolute blessing.

  • PJ Urq

    I have used the same methods as well except for #1. I can’t bring myself to go in early yet, but I may start doing that. I was working from home in the morning to get stuff done that I needed to concentrate on before going in so I could get uninterrupted time. But now I have my own office, so the interruptions have dropped way down. Having my own space as an introvert is an absolute godsend. And on #3, I have had a tough time with that because I don’t particularly like chit-chat. I find myself getting annoyed if someone wants to talk about fashion or celebrity gossip, etc. I’ve never had much of a tolerance for it and the older I get is the less I want to even be within earshot of it. So… I try to excuse myself to the bathroom to escape, and, no, I don’t seek them out to pick up the conversation later. I just… can’t.

  • Sophia Nguyen

    I am (Breathes) a introvert at heart. I am pretty young and I sometime force myself to write online so I can get comfortable. I am new at QR and love it! For the past 52 minutes I have been looking at amazing articles posted by people that really get you comfortable.
    I have a strict mother who usually forces me to go out with out with others and what I once did is sneak a book out and read for hours and hours until my mom called me back inside. I got so scared until I hatched a plan, the plan was leave the book outside, open the window to my room an go back outside telling my mom I need to get something and throw the book back in. And it worked! (Yay!)
    I am a Introvert by heart!
    I also forced myself into making this.

    PS: Mom if you are reading this… Please don’t ground me for not playing out that day!!! 🙁
    PPS: I forced myself so hard that it took me 20+ minutes into making this. (Introvert issues.)
    PPPS: Creating this is a great achievement for my introverted self. (Pats self on the back)
    PPPPS: You’re still reading about a random girl’s story on a random article? Well thanks for such support!!!

    Unknown Taco-
    (Hey I still want privacy!)

    • Blue Wren

      Good one Sophie! Sneakily reading while your mother thought you were being outdoorsy! My husband and I are both introverts. When he was a kid and visitors came to the house he used to run outside and hide under the house until they left (Australian homes don’t have basements so under the house literally means crawling into the 1.5 foot space under the floor). I was fortunate (or unfortunate as you choose to look at it) to be one of 11 children. My mother never knew where any of us were so I could spend my time as I wished and I did spend a lot of time alone, book in hand. You just be yourself and don’t feel the need to conform to what others expect of you. Challenge yourself only in ways that you believe will benefit you (as you have done here so eloquently – well done!).

    • Tami Harbin

      Hi! While reading your story, I remembered one of my favorite characters…Elend in the Mistborn series by Sanderson even brings his books (a stack usually ) to formal balls that his father forces him to attend! Maybe you’d like to read that series next time!?! I always had a book or two on hand when I was younger, wherever I went. It eradicated boredom. Anyway, I’m glad you commented and hope you continue being part of this community! Your comment could help someone else!

  • njguy54

    I use email for about 80% of my workplace communication, as do my colleagues. I do, however, find value in face-to-face meetings, and I enjoy facilitating design workshops. Phone calls and conference calls are my options of last resort; I find talking on the phone annoying, and with conference calls, you never have everyone’s undivided attention. And like any good introvert, I find receiving calls from anyone other than immediate family to be highly invasive.

  • Zachariah Frank

    I really appreciate point #3, as I have a similar focus that’s best used for “single-tasking.”

    As Siti drew attention to, though, it’s still so important to get the point across that aversion to chit-chat throughout the day isn’t apathy. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Instead of paying a passing thought to conversion most of us introverts prefer really thoughtfully formulated responses- we care a bit more.

    All the advice in this article is well and good, but for the above reason I really appreciate #3… #5 also should *not* be overlooked!