This review first ran in the Oct. 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
You’re about to walk into a room full of strangers for an hour of mixing and mingling.
Will you have a blast shaking hands, making small talk and swapping business cards?
Or will you repeatedly skip to the loo to screw up your courage, calm your nerves and recharge your batteries?
Morra Aarons-Mele feels your pain. The author of Hiding in the Bathroom is an extreme introvert and self-proclaimed hermit entrepreneur who’s spent a lifetime wrestling with mental health challenges.
“Given my natural inclinations, I would hide almost all the time,” says Aarons-Mele. “I would rarely chose to leave my house. But as extensive as my online network is, I could not sustain a business that way. So I’ve learned to get out, building in strategies and tricks that allay my anxieties and introversion while I’m at a professional gathering or client meeting, then creating home time to recharge, be on my own and do the work.”
So here are some of Aarons-Mele’s tried and tested tricks for surviving social situations like conferences, dinners and networking events that can exhaust and overwhelm an introvert.
Channel your inner Oprah. “If you feel alien, unworthy, shy or nervous in a room full of powerful players, pretend you’re there to report a story. Ask people lots of questions – this is your strength as an introvert.”
Remember you are there to work, not to make people like you. “You’re a grown-up, it’s not middle school and you don’t need everyone to sit with you anymore.”
Make someone else comfortable. Asking someone how they’re doing is the gateway drug to feeling comfortable, says Aarons-Mele.
Find a conference “spouse” for cocktail chatter and to kill time while standing in line.
Be prepared. “When I have to go out in public and be awesome, I’m training for the Olympics,” says Aarons-Mele, who puts together a briefing book for small talk and rehearses names before she walks into a room.
Connect and move on. Master the art of the “cocktail bump” where you introduce people and then let the conversation go on while you slip away.
Chunk your time. Set a minimum target for how long you’ll be an event before you need a time-out to recharge.
Know what comes next at the conference or event. “The more you plan your schedule so you know you’re hitting what you need to, the calmer you’ll be and the quicker you can exit.”
Aarons-Mele also has strategies for avoiding social media’s twin plagues of achievement porn and FOMO (fear of missing out). “If you’re an anxious introvert, an Instagram picture can turn into a dagger. If only I were different I too would be invited to that party. I’d be getting that award. Instead, I’m hiding.”
Every time you feel left out or there’s a twinge of envy, remind yourself why what you’re doing is right for you. Turn FOMO into JOMO or the joy of missing out. Feel grateful for what you have instead of resentful for what you’re missing. You can also break the cycle of bragging by using online communities for getting and giving advice.
While introverts need to work at getting themselves out there, Aarons-Mele says employers must also do their part and recognize our skills and strengths.
“As we recognize neurological and emotional diversity in all its forms, workplace culture needs to begin to make room for the Technicolor range of emotion. Although so much has been done to promote diversity at work, there’s a giant hole in the understanding of how temperament and emotions play not just into our daily grind at the office, but into the very trajectory of success.
“It’s my fondest wish that managers and HR professionals begin to recognize the ambivalence and inner conflict that many insanely talented people feel. Because when they get the space they need, great employees have no reason to quit or feel miserable. Great things happen when teams are truly diverse and team members can be honest about who they truly are.”
@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999.