The Shy Person’s Guide to Making Friends at Work


I’ve been at Atomic Object for just over two months now. It’s given me new ways to use my strengths, but it’s also reminded me about one of my weaknesses: getting to know new people.

I’d forgotten just how gut-wrenchingly terrifying it can be to walk into a room full of strangers who already know each other — strangers with friendships and in-jokes and possibly a whole lot of messy politics — and make friends.

The Problem with Winging It

The funny thing is, I don’t usually think of myself as shy. I can be assertive in business meetings. I’m a decent public speaker. I was in theater and on the debate team in school.

The difference is, all of those are scripted situations — you know what’s coming (more or less), and you have specific, useful information prepared. That’s worlds away from making small talk with someone you barely know.

This distinction really stands out when I’m meeting people. I’m comfortable during introductions and first conversations because there’s a basic template. (What do you do here? Where did you go to school?) It’s the second and third ones that kill me. Why?

  • When I want to start a friendly conversation, I can never think of anything to say.
  • Joining other people’s conversations always feels like intruding.
  • I worry constantly that I’m being annoying or awkward or boring or…

Are these feelings logical? Probably not. But I think they’re extremely common.

Baby Steps

These last two months have been a challenge, but I’m making progress. I’ve been reflecting on what’s worked, and I’d like to share a few suggestions for other shy folks out there. I hope they can ease your way the next time you’re in a new situation.

1. Learn Names ASAP

Knowing someone’s name makes you more likely to initiate a conversation with them, more confident if they initiate one with you, and more able to follow along if other people are discussing them.

Fortunately for me, Atomic Object’s website includes photos and bios of all the employees. If I get an email from Kedron and I can’t picture his face, I look him up. If I have a conversation with someone and think, “Wait, was that Jason, Justin, Jared, or Jordan?” I check the directory.

If you don’t have an online directory and you struggle with remembering names (like I do), here are some tips from Lifehacker.

Above all, when you do forget, don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, what was your name again?” It shows that you care, and it’s much better than getting their name wrong.

2. Ask Questions

If starting social conversations is difficult for you, start a lot of practical ones instead. There’s a lot you don’t know about your new company and how they do things, so when you have a question, ask someone. They’ll probably know more history and interpersonal details than you’ll find in the company manual.

Once you have your answer, keep the conversation going for a minute to two with follow-up questions. Ask how their project is going. Get their advice on good restaurants in the area. Ask about their desktop wallpaper or something unusual in their workspace. When in doubt, ask them about themselves. It’s everybody’s favorite topic.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Hover (a Little)

You don’t have to initiate every conversation. But if you want to join other people’s conversations, you have to go where they’re happening.

If you see a group of employees standing in the breakroom or near the copier having a casual conversation, find something to do nearby (get a glass of water, look for paper clips, etc.) and listen for a chance to jump in. It won’t happen every time, but be patient. It will eventually pay off.

4. Attend (and Plan) Social Events

Atomic Object employees enjoy spending time together, so I’ve had a lot of chances to join people for lunch, go out for a drink, etc. I’m always nervous about these events, but when I get up the courage to go, I’m always surprised by how much fun I have.

When people are in big groups, it’s more comfortable to sit back, listen to them talking, and look for a comfortable chance to join in. It also feels much less awkward to walk up to someone you don’t know, stick out your hand, and say, “I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Lisa.”

If not much is going on, take the initiative and put together your own event. Last week, one of our newer employees brought in a favorite game, and a group of us spent the lunch hour playing it. We had a great time, and now we’re talking about starting a regular game night. If that wouldn’t work at your office, just ask a few people to join you for lunch.

Even if you don’t have a lot to say, attending and planning social events shows people that you’re interested in getting to know them and being part of the group.

A Few Reminders

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

I’m always very hesitant to insert myself in other people’s conversations. This is usually a good instinct (especially when people are talking about personal or sensitive topics), but it can also get in the way when it comes to making connections with new people.

The work day is full of casual conversations about TV shows, sports events, weekend plans, etc. If your co-workers are discussing one of these, and you can add an interesting fact or opinion, that’s not intruding. It’s contributing.

Remember, you have something to offer, professionally and socially. Your new company hired you because there’s something about you they like. You’re smart. You’re competent. You know what you’re doing.

Don’t start assuming that everything you think or say is brilliant and fascinating (that’s how you become a bore), but remember that you have plenty to offer.

Don’t Force It

There’s nothing wrong with planning a few questions beforehand, hanging out in the breakroom for a few minutes, or watching a movie because you know people will be talking about it. But don’t force it. Good conversation happens naturally.

And when it doesn’t happen, don’t take it personally. Maybe it’s the wrong time. Maybe the other person is distracted by something in their home life. Maybe the two of you just don’t have anything in common. That’s life. Stay calm, and try again tomorrow.

Pace Yourself

It takes a lot of energy to do something you find stressful. Challenge yourself to make a certain number of attempts every day, maybe one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Getting to know people takes time. Be patient and persistent, and don’t give up.

What About You?

If you’re a shy or introverted person, what’s worked for you? Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments.

  • Mallory Bartz says:

    Lisa, this is fantastic! I can come off as very confident and friendly but often feel that same awkwardness. It’s important to remember that most people feel nervous and if they don’t readily invite you into their conversation, it’s usually because they feel equally insecure. I believe we’re all a little shy and awkward at heart. Great tips and great post.

  • Mark says:

    These are all valid points. I agree that learning co-workers’ names is key to establishing a warm work environment. I think it’s important for folks to step away from her/his desk, even if it’s for a short while.

    On a side note, is that a photo of your employees taking a break, or stock photography?

  • Mallory Bartz says:

    Mark, this is definitely a stock photo! Thanks for thinking we might have such coordinated workwear though. (Un)fortunately, there are several developers here at Atomic with a certain fondness for loud Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. It’s pretty hard to convince them to go for blues, browns, and khaki. :)

  • Greg Miller says:

    Thanks for some wonderful ideas – and presented with great writing. Vulnerable yet comfortable. (If that makes any sense. Maybe what I mean is, it’s personally revealing, yet so not an ‘I Love Lucy’ moment. You know, where your cringe in vicarious embarrassment, but keep watching anyway.)

    What works for me is #2 (questions about them). However, sometimes I think I overdo it a bit and don’t let them ask about me enough. Perhaps even annoying the other person that I am controlling the conversation and not sharing myself at all. I’ve learned some more balance.

    Good time for me to read this. Just ended a 4 month at job 3 weeks ago. Today was my first day at a new job.

    • Lisa Tjapkes Lisa Tjapkes says:

      Thanks, Greg. That’s exactly what I was going for. Gook luck on you new job, both professionally and socially.

  • Danielle says:

    Nice post, Lisa. AO has a great network of spouses and significant others as well, and we’re looking forward to getting to know you! One thing that certainly isn’t lacking at AO is a pretty sweet social calendar – planned and unplanned :)

    • Lisa Tjapkes Lisa Tjapkes says:

      Thanks, Danielle. I missed the last Spin Down because of vacation. I hope I get a chance to meet you soon. :)

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