An Introvert’s Guide to the Coffeehouse Workspace
For many of us who labor at a computer screen, the workday is a movable feast. Some of us have offices; some don’t. In either case, we are no longer chained to our desks, and even the most committed introvert may sometimes venture out into the untamed world.
In general, working at the computer is a comfortable thing. There is no requirement to engage in face-to-face conversation. Thankfully, no one seems to use the telephone anymore, and emails, chats, and texts are considerably less disruptive than realtime conversation.
Unfortunately, at the office, live conversation seems to happen all the time. Your boss drops by to tell you something that could easily have been put in an email. Co-workers pop in to tell you about their upcoming medical procedures, their kids’ latest sports conquests, their in-laws bad manners, their home improvement nightmares, their pets’ diseases, their spouses’ sexual proclivities, their take on the election, the latest bit of office gossip, the chicken marsala they had for dinner last night, or the most recent management screw up. All the while you are thinking that, as much as you like your boss or your co-worker and as much as you might even be mildly interested in what they are saying, what you would really like do is get back to massaging the figures in your Excel spreadsheet.
Once one of these impromptu conversations begins, it can be hard to escape. If the office hierarchy puts you at least one peg higher than your visitor, you can politely assert your authority and brush them off. “Sorry, Wilson. I’m up against a deadline here.” But if, as is too often the case, you are of equal or lower status than your traveling raconteur, there is no easy way to scurry them along without disrupting the chain of command. In the worst cases, your visitor — who seems to have all the time in the world — descends into a slow rambling monologue that you can tell will not reach its conclusion before lunchtime, and you begin to feel the blood drain from your face and limbs as you enter a kind of foggy time warp. Your computer goes into a deep sleep, and tumbleweed blows through your office.
So, for the office worker, getting away from the desk can be a welcome relief from interruptions. In contrast, the home worker sometimes yearns for more stimulation rather than less. Unless there are other people there during the day, home is a comfortable refuge for the introvert, but even the coziest home office can wear thin after a while. We humans are a social species. At birth we appear as quivering blobs of flesh who have few skills beyond eating, making noise, and emitting bad smells. It takes many years before we are fully capable of functioning on our own. As a result, even those of us who grow up to be introverts crave the proximity of other people from time to time. During work hours, the ideal environment is one that simulates what developmental psychologists call parallel play: the presence of other people who are engaged in their own activities and unlikely to make social demands on you.
Thankfully the modern world provides an almost perfect location for a change of workplace scene: the coffeehouse. There are other places you could go. A public library, for example. Libraries are clean, quiet spaces that often include free wifi, but they usually lack the food and beverage options required for longer work sessions. Furthermore, the atmosphere in libraries can be a bit too monastic for the image of the hip modern worker. A good coffeehouse is a better choice.
Navigating the Social Landscape
For introverts, the social environment is always important, and when you plan to be in the same spot for hours on end, the behavior of your coffeehouse cohort is of critical concern. Ideally the place will be populated with people like you — polite, quiet, and busy. But, if that’s not the case, a few simple techniques will usually guarantee an enjoyable out-in-the-world workday experience.
The staff are there to serve, so they rarely create any unwanted interaction. However, if business is slow and the employees run out of things to do, there is an increased risk of being pulled into conversation. This is even more of a problem if you have been coming around long enough to be perceived as “a regular.” In doing so, you may have inadvertently recreated something similar to an office environment at the coffeehouse. The staff may come to see you as a kind of quasi co-worker, and the more sociable members may drop by to ask how things are going. Before you know it, you are listening to your barista give a long explanation of why love is such exquisite torture and how, despite a genuine depth of feeling for the beloved, marriage is just not an option right now. A friend of mine was chased from his preferred away-from-home worksite because the owner kept coming by his table making it impossible to get anything done.
In my experience, unwanted interaction with coffeehouse staff is a rare occurrence, but to minimize this problem, you should look for an establishment that does a brisk business and position yourself as far as possible from the counter area.
Contact with other coffeehouse customers is more common than with staff. Unlike the introverted worker, many people go to coffeehouses in search of social interaction. They come with friends to chat over coffee; they have meals with their families; they conduct tutoring sessions, business meetings, and play dates. All of this creates certain challenges for the coffeehouse worker. People who are already assembled in groups are not likely to engage you, but they tend to make much more noise than people sitting alone. For example, it can be very distracting when, just as you are trying to come up with a beautiful turn of phrase, someone at the next table begins to recount their partner’s latest infidelity or the slow spiraling death of a close friend. This is why earbuds are essential gear for the introverted coffeehouse worker. Music can both cover the sound of intruding voices and create a positive mood. Earphones are also a wonderful defense against the coffeehouse manager who insists on broadcasting an ‘80s playlist.
Although they produce wonderful sound, many introverts — myself included — consider the larger earmuff style headsets to be an overly ostentatious fashion statement. The last thing you want is for some passing hipster to comment on your audio hardware.
People in groups are a noise hazard, but they pose little threat of direct interaction. It’s the loners you have to worry about. One of the great benefits of being a contented introvert is that you are almost never lonely. Being alone is a happy thing.
Not so for the extravert. If you spend enough time in coffeehouses you will eventually encounter the person who seems to think that striking up conversations with strangers is a selfless form of public service. The kind of person who, given any opening at all, will ask you what you’re working on or comment on your clothes. “Hey, I like that scarf!” This is why the preferred coffeehouse attire is something nondescript that fits in with the crowd. Avoid anything stylish or unusual that is likely to draw comment. The grey flannel suit of the laptop worker is whatever everyone else is wearing these days.
A few simple strategies will help you avoid interactions with gregarious strangers. First, as always, you should monitor your eye contact. Try to remain focussed on your work or, if you need a break from the screen, stare off into the distance. At all times project an image of deep absorption, as if your mind is far away from the things around you. It is natural to want to look up at someone as they pass your table, but try to avoid this temptation at all costs. Making eye contact provides just enough encouragement for some talkative extraverts to engage with you.
If there is a chance of unwanted social interaction, it is a good idea to wear your earphones and make sure they are clearly visible. The larger headsets create the most effective social barrier, but white earbuds with white cords are also good for this purpose. Most people will not strike up a conversation if they think they are unlikely to be heard.
Working alone is part of the problem. If you are by yourself, some people have the mistaken impression that you are alone out of necessity rather than choice, and they get the well-meaning but false idea they can brighten your day by paying attention to you. However, it is less likely the extravert will approach a group of two or more people. As a result, another effective strategy is to bring a work buddy with you to serve as a decoy. If you are sure your partner is equally introverted and focused on work, you can engage in just enough interaction to be sure outsiders perceive you as friends (which may actually be the case) and are discouraged from trying talk to you. It’s like bringing along your own parallel playmate.
If you are alone and you work for any length of time, you will eventually have to confront a common problem for coffeehouse workers: The Ask, picking someone to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom. This is always a tricky maneuver — particularly for the introvert.
On the one hand, introverts bring an important strength to this operation. When out in the world, introverts are careful observers of other people. Typically, they hope to minimize their interactions with strangers, and so they keep their eyes open. As a result, introverts are well-suited to the task of selecting a good candidate for The Ask. But it is always an uncomfortable moment.
The primary goal is to have peace of mind as you head off to the bathroom. You don’t want to return from your errand to discover your laptop has disappeared out the front door. So trying to find a trustworthy guardian is of some importance.
Unfortunately, The Ask presents an additional dilemma for introverts. Making this request necessitates a short conversation, “Hey, would you mind watching my things?” The introvert would prefer this interchange not be the start something bigger. Making The Ask to the wrong coffeehouse neighbor can easily give the impression that you are looking for a friend. Once you return from the bathroom, your neighbor may harbor the belief that you owe them a favor — which is fine, as long as they redeem it by asking you to perform the same service for them. But in the worst cases, your neighbor attempts to redeem the favor by starting a conversation. So, for those of us who are just trying to get our work done, the best candidate for The Ask is another introvert. Someone who appears to be trustworthy and approachable but comfortable in their solitude.
The Coffeehouse as Social Microcosm
All of this should make it clear that introverts are not really antisocial. Look. Here we are. Out at the coffeehouse plugging away at our laptops in the middle of a crowd.
It’s a funny word, antisocial. A kind of oxymoron when applied to homo sapiens. Unless you suffer from a social phobia and are fearful of contact with other people, it is difficult for anyone to be genuinely antisocial. We all need a little help from our friends. True introverts are just as socially skilled as other people. They are fine with small talk and are not afraid of public speaking. But they are loners by preference. Given a choice, we spend more time by ourselves than our extraverted peers. This attitude isn’t anti anything. It’s just a different way of being.
The beauty of the modern coffeehouse is that it creates a comfortable little world where, as long as everyone adheres to a few social customs, we can all get what we want.
Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association, and Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money. His work has appeared in Observer, The Atlantic, The Good Men Project, and Tablet. He writes the “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
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