Today I nearly watched someone die because the awkward feeling of standing next to a group of people at a crosswalk was too much. It was during the early morning walk to the Microsoft Ignite conference.
Myself and a group of other attendees were waiting for the all-clear to cross a highway when I saw someone join our group briefly. This guy quickly eyed our group nervously and then immediately begin to cross the road with a definite degree of determination. As he crossed the four-lane highway, I couldn't help but think about his choice to sprint across a busy road risking his life rather than waiting a couple of minutes.
Was it because he was, in fact, too uncomfortable to stand amongst strangers or was he simply in a hurry to get to an early morning session? The way he was acting led me to believe he simply didn't want to feel awkward standing around with a bunch of strangers for just a few minutes in silence.
Are you the introverted daredevil in this story? If so, read on.
As an introvert myself, I struggle with many of the same anxiety-provoking situations that all introverts sometimes do; schmoozing, awkward silence, direct eye contact, etc. but it's something I've managed to overcome to a degree.
Tech conferences mainly used to be one of the most anxiety-fueled experiences I dealt with especially when I would attend by myself. Familiar coworkers were my crutch. They were my safe-place amongst the crowd of strangers that I would stick to like glue the entire time. But, it's not like this anymore.
Tech conferences typically consist of three main components:
- Conference sessions (large keynote and smaller breakout sessions)
- Shared meals in large halls
- After-parties in the evenings
Can you guess which one of these areas that introverts like the best? I can. I love the sessions! The sessions are the time to where I can sit quietly in the back of the room on my laptop pecking away fulfilling all of my personal goals for that time. Sessions are the time that does not include that awkward silence amongst strangers. Even though you might be sitting right next to a stranger, it's fine! Afterall, it's rude to talk while the presenter is talking. I wouldn't want to be rude, of course.
Sessions allow me to geek out on the latest technology and it's perfectly acceptable to not talk to anyone. Oh, the relief!
Even though sessions are great and you can potentially learn quite a bit, chances are you're only going to go back to work with a few nuggets of information. By that time, you may have even forgotten what you thought was cool at the time anyway.
Session content is ephemeral. Anyone new to attending conferences thinks that the sessions are the only part of the conference but are, in my opinion, the most over-hyped part of a tech conference. The real value of a conference is the human connection gasp!
Typically, at a tech conference, all attendees are invited to join in meals together. Round tables are usually set up and are meant to encourage communication. Mealtime is one of the most awkward times for an introvert. Meal-time can go a few different ways for an introvert.
The Exclusionary Groups of Introverts
Sometimes there are no other tables to sit at so the introvert much sit at a table with what is, of course, other groups of friends. These introverted friends all talk amongst one another and never look to you for any feedback. They are most likely also introverts and are as scared of you as you are of them. They are hiding in their familiar co-worker bubble and makes you feel excluded. Sometimes this is a good thing, but often it makes you feel left out even though it's easier just not to talk. You feel awkward just sitting there alone as you attempt to scarf down your bland conference food as fast as you can.
The Table of Phones
Other times the introvert sits down at a table of other introverts that are alone with a phone in hand. Their eyes do not come up from their phone under any circumstances while they munch on food without looking. These tables are relaxing since you're amongst others' like you with no risk of anyone attempting to spark up a conversation.
The Extroverted or Determined Introvert
An introvert sits down at a shared table and immediately is asked the dreaded question, "So, what do you do?". At first, the feeling is of dread, but as the conversation begins, that feeling soon starts to fade as the introvert soon realize that human interaction isn't as bad as it seems! Plus, you now have a familiar face at the conference! You've already got that those awkward introductions out of the way!
The Lone Ranger
The Lone Range is the introvert's favorite table at any conference. It has no one else at it! The introvert can casually sit down, begin eating at a leisurely pace while lurking on Twitter, forums and browsing Reddit all without the interaction of those anxiety-provoking humans. Oh, the life!
Just hearing the word "party" can send any introvert into a cold sweat. On top of that, an after-party at a tech conference that's typically sponsored by a vendor is a dance party. Oh, helllllll no!
I've come a long way during my struggle to overcome my introverted ways, but I still don't do dance parties. Dancing, socializing with strangers while yelling over the loud music sounds like pure torture to me. As an introvert, don't feel like you have to attend these parties. They are purely optional.
Tips for the Introvert
I've been to dozens of tech conferences over my career and have developed some strategies for all of the components of a typical tech conference. These strategies have not only helped me forward my career but have also allowed me to open up to others in my life while reducing anxiety.
The most important tip I can give is to start small. We introverts vary in our ways, and some have an easier time opening up than others. This is why it's critical to start extremely small. You're not going to be attending every after-party and being known by everyone your first conference. Don't try! Don't push yourself beyond your limits at first. Make tiny steps in opening up. A good first step is simply being the conversation starter at a meal. Be the first one at the table to ask "So, what do you do?".
Quit caring about what others think
For a long time, I cared way too much what others' thought. I'd get invited to an after-party and would attend immediately regretting it. I'd stand next to a group of people and expect them to include me in the conversation automatically. They wouldn't, and I'd feel more awkward than ever. This increased awkwardness then prevented me from trying again. Quit caring so much. It's much harder said than done but there's always other things to do. Find a spot to interject a comment in the conversation and gauge their reaction. Do they seem to include you? Great! If not, just leave.
Do you not go to after-parties and head back to your hotel to watch Netflix? That's OK! Don't feel guilty that others' are out partying. That's what they like to do, but that's not you. People will understand that and those that don't can go !%$# themselves. But, try to go to at least one evening activity if you're up for it. You'll never know until you go. Dip your toe in on occasion but never feel guilty that you didn't go.
Create your own meetups
It's a tech conference. There lots of others like you there. Create a meetup for them! Offer to coordinate an informal meetup somewhere relatively quiet just to chat and socialize; no dancing required! Meetups can be doing conference time in a small room perhaps or an evening event.
Just be amongst people
If you have no sessions to go to, don't just sit in the hotel and work. Find a comfy place in a highly-trafficked area and just sit. Taking out a laptop is fine but don't put your headphones on and zone out. Just try to be amongst the people and the energy of the conference. Getting used to the atmosphere is a great, low-stress way to get accustomed to everything. It's also an excellent way to people watch!
Get involved online
One of the best things I've never done is get involved in the community by blogging, Twitter, etc. Connecting with others online is so much easier than in-person. Once you make that connection, you'll have a "warm" connection when you meet face to face. You won't have to overcome that awkward "So, what do you do?" conversation. You've already done that online and by the time conference time comes around, you'll feel like you've known some people forever.
Tech conferences, just like any social activity, can be tough for some introverts. But realize that it's not OK to stay in your bubble your entire life. You are significantly reducing your opportunities to make new friends, new connections and limiting your career progress. Conferences are like building a snowball for introverts. The first conference can be terrifying but start small; meet just one new person and start there. That friend will introduce you to the other friends preventing you from making a "cold" connection.
By the time the next conference comes around, you'll know people immediately. Repeat this a dozen times, and you'll begin to know alot of people to talk to. People in your group tend to attend the same conferences year over year, and you'll be accumulating your "conference" friends. Those friends will never know you're an introvert in sheep's clothing!
Don't ever be down yourself for not being extroverted. Don't think you have to meet someone else's expectations but do understand that being an introvert is completely fine but don't allow yourself to be cut off from others completely. If you do, you are severely limiting your career and personal success. Extroverts have it easy. Us introverts have to work a little harder for it, but it's so much more rewarding when we do.