September 22, 2018

An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Team Lunches

According to Accounting Today, “Accountants secretly yearn to lunch with coworkers.”

As an introverted accountant, I respectfully disagree. The only thing I “secretly yearn” for lunch-wise is a quiet half hour alone with my food. Team lunches make me feel awkward and uncomfortable, and I often think to myself “Why should I even bother?”

Unfortunately for introverts, team lunches are often a necessary evil in this extroverted, team-based profession of ours. Studies show many benefits to team lunches, including building rapport and serving as excellent networking opportunities. Cornell University found that firefighters who ate in groups demonstrated “increased cooperation…[and] work-group performance.“ Likewise, Business Insider claims that lunching with coworkers is “smart office politics,” which could be helpful for the 2% of you who are destined to make partner one day. Group lunches can be a form of politicking where “you're creating your reputation…You're handling your own PR." Given the many benefits, introverts should probably go along with the team to grab Qdoba. Sigh.

While introverts might never “secretly yearn” for a team lunch, they can still maximize the benefits of group lunches while minimizing painful awkwardness with the following tips.

Make a list of neutral conversation topics beforehand
Small talk does not come naturally to me, and as a result, I've settled upon some really uncomfortable lunch topics in the past. During my first (and last) client lunch with one partner, I told a story about how I got stranded after my Plymouth Neon lost a tire while I was driving it and subsequently caught fire on the side of I-94. Not appropriate, it turns out.

Fortunately, introverts can learn the art of lunchtime BS small talk. If work-appropriate conversation topics don't come naturally to you either, prepare some topics beforehand. Does your area obsess over a particular sports team? Here, we all love the Detroit Red Wings, so hockey gossip is usually a pretty well-received topic. You can always use GC articles as conversation fodder, too. What are your new years' resolutions to make busy season less awful? What does your partner or manager think of using blind interviews to increase diversity? You know, the ushe.

If you can find work-appropriate topics (other than your now-abandoned, burned out Plymouth Neon), you can steer the conversation in an interesting direction. That way, you won't feel quite so awkward responding to conversation topics that nobody cares about, like the weather.

Remember: People love to talk about themselves
If you run out of neutral conversation topics halfway through lunch, always remember that your senior manager's favorite subject is herself, so…ask her about herself. She'll even start to like you more if you seem genuinely interested in her answers. Inc.com says that “Well-liked people know that people enjoy talking about themselves, and they ask questions to prompt them to do just that.” You can avoid the awkward small-talk and build your likability at the same time! Win.

Lunch can be an adventure
Another unexpected benefit of a team meal is adventure. If you're on the road, the group lunch might be the only time you actually venture off the client site or outside the hotel. I'll admit that my audit team dragged me along to a burrito joint in Detroit's Mexicantown once, and I loved every last splash-dash of salsa. So that $3 burrito meal deal could pay off in the long run with a well-bonded team, networking with work buddies and a bowl of salsa from a taco stand that you'd never have the balls to explore on your own. I guess that (inexplicable) “secret yearn” to eat together isn't ALL bad.

You're not alone
The world –- and probably your firm –- is full of introverts like you and me. Sometimes when everyone around me seems so comfortable with lunchtime BS small talk, I feel like the only person in the profession who hates it. Don't fret, you're not the only one who dreads the daily trudge to Qdoba and subsequent “What'd you do this weekend?” conversations, and that's okay. You don't need to be an extrovert to be successful — some famous introverts who don't “secretly yearn” to lunch with your audit team include JK Rowling, Warren Buffett, Rosa Parks, and my personal hero (“The Goonies” creator) Steven Spielberg.

Know When to Skip
While most accounting firms focus on the “extrovert ideal” that thrives on teamwork and group meals, “introverts require a certain amount of solitude, not all the time but some measure of it.” Sitting crammed around a conference table, passing around the tie-out binder, doesn't really count as personal time. That's when solo lunches can really help. Susan Cain's book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking emphasizes the importance of “'restorative niches'” for introverts – “places to go and time to be our real selves.”

I create my own "restorative niche" on my lunch hour when I can eat my sandwich solo and act like myself –- the auditor who doesn't care whether your child has teeth or what you did over the weekend. Because of the benefits, I usually go along with the group lunch thing, especially if the partner is around or the manager is paying. But when dealing with people gets too overwhelming, I'll stay behind and recharge for a half hour with a book and my homemade lunch. I don't do it all the time, but when I do, it helps me reset.

With these tips, even an introvert can survive the dreaded group lunch while minimizing the awkwardness and maximizing the networking benefits. Does your team do the group lunch thing regularly? What other tips do you have for introverts trying to survive?

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