When it comes to the office Christmas party, introverts would rather be anywhere else.
“Introverts will have more difficulty during the holidays,” said Dr. Bart Rossi, Clinical Psychologist. “They are more reserved, less likely to speak up, may appear out of touch with many in a room, and generally dislike being forced into conversation or actions they do not wish to engage.”
Which makes being smashed in between a group of ten co-workers at the bar living hell.
But chances are, the picture isn’t black and white: “Many psychologists believe that people have aspects of both introversion and extroversion at the same time. In some situations you may behave in a way that suggests extroversion, but in other situations you may do the opposite,” said Alex Hedger, clinical director and cognitive behavioral therapist at Dynamic You CBT in London. “It’s really important to understand that there is a difference between introverted behaviors and social anxiety and shyness, where the main reason for reducing social contact is anxiety and fear. With introversion it is more around a lack of enjoyment.”
That being said, introverts can be socially interactive and even enjoy themselves at parties—but it comes at a price.
“The consequence is they expend considerable energy at it,” said Dr. L. Michael Tompkins, Ed.D. He tells a story of a friend–an introvert–who, as the CEO of a successful consulting firm hosted a reception for an artist in her office. “She called me the next day and said, ‘The party was a big success. People stayed until 1 a.m. I guess the wine was too good. And, as I’m an introvert I’m totally exhausted.’”
But if you’re partying as an introvert, it is possible to navigate large holiday gatherings with minimal discomfort—and maybe even enjoy them a little, too. Put these expert tips to work this holiday season:
Be strategic. “Do not avoid social gatherings. But, have a fully supportive plan in place before you go,” said Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills and author of The Self-Aware Parent. Set realistic expectations: “You don’t need to expect yourself to ‘enjoy’ a christmas party; aim for a more realistic goal like ‘be able to complete it as well as possible,’ which you are more likely to reasonably do,” said Hedger. Once you’re there have a plan of attack: Aim for one-on-one interactions, Walfish suggested. “Three is a triangular group and can leave your shy ‘child self’ inside feeling left out.” And choose the right temperamental fit in the other personality. You may be drawn to more outgoing people, but if you feel overwhelmed by extraverted personalities, stay in your comfort zone and avoid them.
Know when to attend … and when to skip it. Every invite doesn’t automatically mean you have to pencil the event into your calendar. “Understand if there is actually a real need for you to attend a social event in the first place,” advised Hedger. If there are no (or minimal) costs to not going, then pencil in that date night with your cat. On the other hand, if there are benefits to going (whether personal or professional) then make it a priority, however much you’d rather not attend. “Once at a social event, understand clearly why you’re there—for example, if you are there because you have decided it will be good as a networking opportunity, focus on achieving this, above other expectations,” said Hedger. “Avoid trying to focus on aiming to ‘enjoy’ the event, and rather focus on doing things that will help you achieve your own objectives.”
Pretend you’re an anthropologist. “One of my favorite techniques (and one that I use myself) is to go into a social situation with the observing mind of an anthropologist,” suggested Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., author of The Awakened Introvert: Practical Mindfulness Skills to Help Maximize Your Strengths and Thrive in a Loud and Crazy World. “Pretend that you’re doing a field study of an indigenous population (and if the party is populated by lots of extroverts, it can feel like you are witnessing an alien culture!).” He recommended looking at the artifacts on the walls and on bookshelves, interacting with the wildlife (cats and dogs can be welcome distractions from party talk), and just observing the people without interacting (until you feel like doing so).
Give yourself time to recharge. For introverts, social situations are exhausting—which means all the Christmas parties on the calendar can be a major energy suck. “Plan to go to events when you can have quiet time beforehand to prepare and alone time after to recover,” said Kozak. “The best kinds of events are those where you can modulate your participation—engage when you feel like engaging and withdraw when you’ve had enough. Perhaps you just need a short break or you may be done for the night (it’s always a good idea to have your own transportation worked out so you are not dependent on anyone else).”
Consider hosting. It may seem like feeding yourself to the wolves to throw a party if you’re someone who is drained by social events, but playing host “always gives you something to do (pouring drinks, serving food, cleaning the kitchen) so you have built in breaks from all the chit-chat,” said Kozak. Just be sure to make sure you designate an ending time so guests know when it’s time to head home—or head to the after party (hey, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.)
Bring a plus one—but keep them at arms length. “Bringing a plus one can be a good strategy, especially if that person is more talkative and especially if they can be self-sufficient,” said Kozak. “He or she can provide cover, create points of entry into conversations with others, and always be someone you can talk with if you don’t feel like making new friends.” But, don’t latch on too much. “Sit near him but as far away as you can comfortably tolerate. You want to be supported without dependence,” said Walfish.
Manage small talk. Introverts prefer long, meaningful conversations. But small talk—the main activity at most holiday gatherings—can be tedious and draining for them. “Small talk is the bane of many of us introverts yet we can’t always go right to the meat of a conversation,” said Kozak. “Look for opportunities to connect to something that has meaning for you without being too intense too fast and try to take it in a direction that feels more authentic to you. Sometimes, though, chit-chat is the price of the admission ticket to an event. You know it drains you, but it may be worth it.”
Let people be self centered. Most people love talking about themselves, so use that to your advantage. “Keep the conversation focused on what’s going on with them—take an interest in them and ask a lot of questions based on how they respond,” advised Dr. Steven Brownlow, Licensed Psychologist and owner of ADEPT Psychology in Texas. “My best advice for an introvert is to be inquisitive,” agreed Rossi. “Asking questions and just having other people talk about themselves is a simple concept that will help an introvert deal with what is uncomfortable.” The more you keep people talking about themselves, the less likely they will be to start grilling you about your career, relationship status, or other personal information that may elicit unsolicited opinions.
Allow yourself time to warm up. Just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to offer to the conversation, said Brownlow. “They may just not feel comfortable saying anything right then. Given space and sensitivity, they’re likely to warm up and be entertaining. Most introverts are funny and they’re likely to have some pretty deep thoughts, but they’re very private about them.” So give yourself time to come out of your shell. (May we recommend a few spiked eggnogs to expedite the process?)
Don’t take things personally. Navigating cocktail-fueled conversations can be difficult for introverts. As wine intake goes up, inhibitions come down. And for many that means benching their filter and letting uninhibited opinions take the field. “Introverts need to stay far away from individuals who they know are expressive of extreme views on religion, politics and social issues and move to conversations that are not highly charged.” said Rossi. If you do find yourself in a highly-charged conversation, “the key is to not take it personally,” advised Brownlow. “Realize that any opinions are about [the other person] and not about you, so don’t take offense, no matter what they say.” Do your best to see the humor in the situation (again, spiked eggnog is your friend) and continue to steer the conversation away from yourself and your personal opinions. “The more you keep the topic off you, the less your interactions will feel like an attack,” said Brownlow.