Lacking Charisma: Social Anxiety and Work

I’m bad at small talk and, despite my desire to be well-liked, I lack adequate amounts of charm and grace. Looking back on my job positions over the past five years, I see a disheartening trend: my failures are more or less due to my desire to limit human interaction as much as possible in any given period of time.

Silicon Valley is all about the small talk. The inside jokes, the laughter. I probably seem like I’m stuck up because I don’t know how to just chat. Either I feel like I’m talking too much, or I feel like I’m boring the person I’m talking to with questions.

I feel like I do well on my job interviews. I seem personable enough. Then it comes to the actual ‘work’ part of a job… and I just want to work and be done with it. Well, that’s not entirely true, I love collaboration… working in small teams… when my ideas seem to be worth something and I can help contribute to a final product. That’s when I like talking to other people. But otherwise… I just crawl back into my shell.

It really, really sucks. I just want to be that girl that’s always smiling who everyone likes. Maybe I’d annoy some people because I’m just so perky, but when they figured out that the perk was genuine they’d have to like me, at least a little bit, right?

But instead I have trouble making eye contact and forming sentences that seem to resemble phrases that might generate some sort of interest.

I don’t know if there is something ‘wrong’ with me or if I’ve turned myself into this anti-social monster. Sometimes I wonder if I have some kind of autism. I’ve never been good at socializing. When I was a kid, I’d only want to talk to adults, and that wasn’t because I liked talking to adults more, it’s just they’d forgive me for being awkward in exchange for accepting that I hadn’t reached puberty.

How much of growing up ‘the cootie girl’ influences ones ability to succeed down the road? There are so many voices in my head telling me that I’m a failure, and it’s hard to shove them all out and achieve some sort of clarity.

At my job, I go into the office, I basically run to my desk, and then I work all day, and then I go home. I’m too afraid to even say goodbye to people. I just appear and disappear. That’s no good for making employers want to keep you on as a worker. And don’t even get me started about why I should have never attempted to pursue a career in journalism with social anxiety…

Do you all think that charisma and charm are traits I can take on, or should I just try really hard to learn some super-specific geeky skill that pretty much requires me to be a recluse?

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4 thoughts on “Lacking Charisma: Social Anxiety and Work”

  1. I can really relate to this. I am by nature very shy and introverted. The kicker, however, is that very few people actually realize this because I’ve learned to project, project, project.

    Job skills are really important for getting ahead in the work world, but being able to network and get along with people is also hugely important. This is especially true if you want to be in management: most of what you will do is communication-based.

    Some tools I’ve learned over time that really help include:
    –Asking questions. People love to talk about themselves. When you do this, though, don’t pepper people with questions: start with one (what did you get up to this weekend? is always a good starter), really listen to the answer (don’t forget the cues that go along with this, like nodding, eye contact -I know this one can be hard – and mmm-hmm). That answer is usually a good lead-in to a follow-up question. Before you know it, you’ve got a conversation. Finding out more about people’s interests will give you grounding to build on.
    –Smiling, even if you don’t feel like it. Think of it as your poker face.
    –Inviting people along for a trip to the coffee maker or the water cooler. (I draw the line at inviting people to go to the can, though.)

    I was a cootie girl too, so I can really relate to where you’re coming from.

  2. I think I do really well in interviews as well, but am quite reserved once I'm "on the job". But after awhile, I adjust into a normal (but still a bit quiet) person who can handle conversations. Luckily, I'm in engineering (and a female, which helps) where social awkwardness is somewhat the norm. ๐Ÿ™‚ I think you CAN develop some charm and charisma, but it takes a LOT of effort.

  3. I'm shy and introverted as well. I've gradually acquired some semblance of social skills, but I'm never going to be bubbly and outgoing. It's hard enough to approach people and make eye contact rather than just staring awkwardly at my shoes. Fortunately, I'm a physics major, and thus some degree of social awkwardness is almost a prerequisite. In addition, most physics majors are geeky males, a group with whom I relate much better than I do with the general population. There are more exchanges based on information and ideas, making it easier to feel comfortable and confident. Plus, frankly, there's something those guys seem to find appealing about a person who's quasi-comfortable with conversations about Schroedinger equations, can joke around like one of the guys, and is also a twenty-something blonde girl.

  4. Thanks for sharing…. I can certainly relate to the whole concept of not being good at small talk. Personally I chalk it up to being a bit too serious about my work, or life in general and often don't get the point of the small talk. Someone once explained it to me that it's just how regular people get over their initial anxiety at the start of conversation and find common ground to take conversation to the next level.

    I suppose having charisma and charm helps to break the ice and attracts people to oneself. The trick for most of us reserved types is actually building the self confidence to put ourselves out there and behave in a more exhuberent manner.

    Personally I believe in playing to your strengths, regardless of how shy you may be in the work place, if you have an indispensible skillset, they might not necessarily feel that close or inclusive of you, but you're pretty much guaranteed a future. Sometimes people's charisma and charms get them into trouble at work.

    I guess what's really important in life is to have friends and family that you have closer relationships outside of the work environment – these tend to keep work relationships untainted, uncomplicated and professional.

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