116

I've been at my current job for a few months now, and the lack of conversation is starting to really bother me.

Besides me, there are four other employees, and we all sit in the same open office area. My co-workers do not talk to me. And it's not just to me, they don't talk to each other except rarely about technical issues. We all work on separate projects so technical discussions are few and far between. I've tried to chat about mutual interests or the weather or lunch or commuting or anything. No one seems interested in any conversation. I've asked folks to get coffee or lunch and no one has agreed.

My problem is that I am a social person. I like to be able to bounce ideas off people when working on technical issues and I really thrive on social interaction. I have an active social life, date, and bartend a few nights a week. I'm not socially awkward, and people seem to enjoy chatting with me outside of my office. Heck, people on other teams talk with me.

But at work with my team, it's an 8 hour stretch of isolation. The person I sit directly next to wears headphones all day so it's an imposition to ask them to discuss anything because they have to take off their earbuds any time we talk. So I've stopped trying. I can easily go an entire day without speaking a word to anyone on my team and it's driving me crazy!

Does anyone have any ideas? I am planning to look for a new job because I feel like I am in solitary confinement 8 hours a day. My last job was not like this, people chatted with each other and socialized. They stopped by my desk to run technical problems back and forth or just plain say hello.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jan 19 at 7:23
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    Have you considered asking this question to your manager? It is a perfectly legitimate issue to discuss with a manager. – Stian Yttervik Jan 21 at 9:10
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    Adding a comment to show there is another side to the coin: I'm (fairly) introverted, a software developer, and feel I need the "space" to concentrate - get in the "flow" - without distractions to get my work done (either coworkers chatting with each other or asking me either work-related or social). I have left employment before where the open-plan chicken coop was a big contributing factor in the decision. Headphones are a sub-optimal solution for me. – fr13d Jan 21 at 13:00
  • SilentOfficeSolitrayCoder -> SilentOfficeSolitaryCoder – Peter Mortensen Jan 26 at 19:01

13 Answers 13

185

It sounds like you're not a good fit for that office. I wouldn't force the issue with your cowokers as it's not their problem. If they want to work in silence with headphones on for nine hours, and that is how they're most productive, then fine.

What you need to balance is if this is acceptable for you. I have worked on teams like you describe, and I find it difficult. I find the silence can be claustrophobic. Personally, I decided that it wasn't the place for me, and I found a different job.

The only small thing I would add is that if their lack of communication is actually causing you work issues, such as if they're failing to inform you of things you need to do your job, then maybe you have an issue that needs addressing.

  • 1
    Thanks man, I appreciate the feedback. You are correct, I am not going to change the fundamental workplace preferences of my teammates, and would not even try. There is a hurdle for even bouncing small technical question off my teammates who wear headphones, because any conversation with them is an imposition. A new job is appropriate. – SilentOfficeSolitrayCoder Jan 17 at 18:28
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    Thats a good point. Maybe ask the team lead to set up coffee breaks (where everyone "has" to attend) - you could discuss work related things, or have a team lunch or team building activities? any of those things might break the ice – vikingsteve Jan 18 at 8:13
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    @SilentOfficeSolitrayCoder Good Luck, I really feel you'll be better off in the long run. It's hard because these things can be difficult to judge till you start and it's a difficult thing to phrase right in interview if you want to ask about atmosphere. – Dustybin80 Jan 18 at 9:21
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    @SilentOfficeSolitrayCoder: Have you tried using an asynchronous channel for those ideas: Discourse, Slack, Mattermost, ... any kind of "team chat" where you could put your question out and any of your team mate can answer at their own convenience? – Matthieu M. Jan 18 at 10:29
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    I like @MatthieuM.'s idea of using an async channel. I wouldn't go as far to say I hate it, but I don't appreciate ~~constant~~ interruptions at work especially if they're not work related. I very much prefer to talk or respond to inquiries when I so decide, not when colleague X feels like popping up at my desk (unless it is something that needs an immediate response). – Daniel Jan 20 at 16:39
35

People who hired you with the thought to put you into that silent office failed to take your and your future coworkers' personalities into account. There's no right or wrong with chatting or no chatting (both can increase and hamper productivity), but you definitely don't fit in with your team. I think it's a serious concern.

If I were in your shoes, I'd try to get a different job in the same company (with the team I know I am on the same wavelength with) or change my employer altogether. You spend most of your waking hours with these people (as they do with you). It is worth trying to make these hours as pleasant as possible, even if that means a major change.

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    I was very talkative and chatty during the interviews, and I wonder if perhaps my manager thought I would be a good contrast to add to the taciturn mix... Either way, it definitely did not work. – SilentOfficeSolitrayCoder Jan 17 at 18:29
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    There are so many things to consider when hiring. You were probably the best fit based on knowledge and experience but the manager didn't think about the personality angle (and the HR person didn't know your future coworkers well enough)... – E.S. Jan 17 at 18:37
29

I am the quiet guy, but I recognise that I'm often too quiet, and have a strategy to increase socialising at work. The same strategy may be of some benefit to you, it has certainly helped me in the past.

Go and buy a large glass bowl, and fill it with candy. Good candy, not like full sized snickers bars, just not the cheap stuff. And only candy with a wrapper.

Sit the filled bowl on your desk.

Wait.

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    "with a wrapper"? Why should the candy have a wrapper? – Coomie Jan 18 at 2:06
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    Unwrapped candy, left open to the environment, can be kind of gross. Flies could contaminate it, people touch it with their grotty fingers, etc. – user5151179 Jan 18 at 2:13
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    I like the idea of this on paper but depending on how shy your coworkers are and the culture, they might not ask you for some or start up a conversation. Also this doesn't resolve OP's issue keeping 1 going despite many solid attempts/topics). This could be a solid strategy to start 1, but following through is still in the air. Otherwise dunno how you hope not to disturb anyone else around who prefers to work in silence. Finally beware of allergen concerns! – user1821961 Jan 18 at 20:00
  • I wouldn't eat unwrapped candy from a bowl. Also, if someone's buying candy, I prefer they buy less and get something good instead of getting a gigantic bag of cheap candy. – Daniel Jan 20 at 16:42
25

We hear the phrase "good fit" so often that It has practically become a cliché.

This, however demonstrates how important it is to fit in not only with the skills, but with the culture.

IN THE FUTURE

Always ask about things regarding the culture. It sounds like a quiet group is not a good fit for you, and vice versa. Since this sounds like it is a big thing to you, always ask.

FOR RIGHT NOW

  • See if you can get an internal transfer if you like the company
  • Float your resume, get interviews, and ask about the culture in the interviews
  • Be prepared to move on if you don't find a good fit within your company.
  • See if you can schedule time with your coworkers to chat. (break time, lunch, after work, et cet)
17

If you are part of a larger company, you can explain to your boss that you work better when there is some noise and chatting going on. And then ask if it is possible to be moved into a different grouping where that is happening.

You've already said that you work on different projects, so the lack of collaboration won't cause any issues.

Point out that there could be some benefits to the company if you move, as well. You will get some understanding on other aspects of the company (a programmer in the midst of the accountants, for instance, will get ideas for helping the accountants in ways that the isolated programmer would never think of). And there may be someone in another group that is always complaining about all the noise, and who would work better in the quieter environment. Both of those changes would help tear down barriers and reduce silos, which helps the company, not just you.

12

Sounds like you're in a room with people that can't or won't be distracted by chit chat.

See if you can keep working there or, if a different climate is important for you, indeed find another employer.

Many people, creative or technical are actually deeply involved in their work and the thought processes coming with it and consider idle talk nonsensical and very disrupting to their process.

Be considerate,.

If they don't engage, let them be.( you've made your effort, they didn't reciprocate)

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    Thanks for the feedback. Like I said, I have stopped trying to initiate conversations because I am aware when people don't want to be bothered. – SilentOfficeSolitrayCoder Jan 17 at 18:25
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    Easily the best answer here. – Fattie Jan 17 at 18:35
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    OP, you mentioned technical discussions. Many technical things take lots of focus and are right on the edge of overwhelming to "fit in your brain" so you can work on them. Writing software is an example of this. Interrupting someone working on something like this for 30 seconds can cost them 5-15 minutes of productivity. – Azendale Jan 20 at 14:42
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Before looking into changing team or even changing job, I'd first see whether you can find any middle ground in your existing team.

I'm also a natural introvert, and find it hugely frustrating to be distracted in the middle of concentrating on a technical issue.  (Here's an excellent illustration of that.)  And I sometimes find it awkward talking to people, especially if I don't know them well.

But… that doesn't mean I never talk.  At times when I'm not concentrating hard, and when there's something worth talking about, I can be sociable enough.  It depends on the situation — and that can change.

So is it possible you just haven't found the right time/circumstance to get your co-workers to open up, or the right subject to talk about?  Have you tried engaging them at the start/end of the day, or before/after lunchtime, when they come to a natural pause and don't have earbuds in and won't mind the distraction?  Have you tried work-related subjects (specific technical issues or more general company-related ones), current affairs, TV, your latest gadget or activity, &c?  Simply asking people if they had a good weekend can be a start.

You're not going to turn them into constant chatterers, but you might get to the point where you're all more comfortable together.

If it doesn't work out, then of course you have more drastic options.  But I'd try this first.  What do you have to lose?!

  • I work in a similar environment. Some of my colleagues have been working together for years and they don't really talk about anything personal even during lunch. So I think OP should focus on work-related topics, otherwise OP's colleagues might think that OP is trying to violate their privacy. – Simon Jan 21 at 8:08
5

Is your job to socialize or is your job to code?

If it’s your job to code, then you should code and stop taking this personally. The majority of coders work best in quiet environments.

Seriously, I have read over—and even edited your question for grammar and clarity—in an effort to be empathetic to your posted issue, but I am finding it hard if not impossible to understand how this is at all a workplace issue. This all seems like an interpersonal issue on your part that ignores the fact that programmers predominantly work best in quiet environments or somehow isolated from distractions in the prevailing work environment.

You also contradict yourself when you say; bold emphasis is mine:

I've tried to chat about mutual interests or the weather or lunch or commuting or anything. No one seems interested in any conversation. I've asked folks to get coffee or lunch and no one has agreed.

And then you say; again bold emphasis is mine:

My problem is that I am a social person. I like to be able to bounce ideas off people when working on technical issues and I really thrive on social interaction.

In one case you are talking about—essentially—gossiping about non-work issues. And in the other case you are talking about work-related technical issues.

So I’m not inhuman, but the reality is most people go to work to work and social interaction is what happens on the side—not the core—of the job. Of course non-work interactions happen during down time and such—if possible—but work is about work. The whole crux of your question seems to be that you want your co-workers to be something they were not hired to be: Your “endlessly available for your needs only” friend.

You also say:

I've been at my current job for a few months now…

So you have barely been at your new job for any significant time, but now you are complaining about the environment you are in and your co-workers? Well, maybe—as others say—you should find a new job. But will you be happy in any new job?

Also, while you are complaining about your specific team, someone who hired you is at the top of the pyramid, right? Nothing in your question indicates that you have talked to your direct supervisor about this.

It seems like you want to land in a new job that perfectly fits your non-work needs which to me seems… Disconnected at best, entitled at worst. It honestly sounds co-dependent of you to desire your co-workers be a part of your personal social non-work needs in the way you describe.

The reason I state this is it’s pretty well known that coders tend to prefer silence and quiet to conversation. Heck, Jeff Atwood—a founder of Stack Exchange—clearly states the following in “The Programmer’s Bill of Rights”; again bold emphasis is mine:

Every programmer shall have quiet working conditions

Programming requires focused mental concentration. Programmers cannot work effectively in an interrupt-driven environment. Make sure your working environment protects your programmers' flow state, otherwise they'll waste most of their time bouncing back and forth between distractions.

3

Success is almost never about finding the best situation … most of the time, success comes from about making the best out of the situation you have and that usually entails getting out of your comfort zone and displaying the patience to listen, understand, maybe even motivate or encourage colleagues [without getting paid/recognized for your efforts].

Kudos to you for noticing these differences between your skills and those of your colleagues; it's useful to be able to process and articulate the difficulty you face in a sensible manner as you have … just don't sweat it, the situation is not especially abnormal … learn what you can from carefully observing, noticing, listening to people and look for opportunities to reach out, learn quirks, understand -- those skills will make you a better manager some day in the future [if you want to be a manager] and more immediately, they will make you a more valued contributor to your team.

Obviously, it's always a good idea for a variety of different reasons to keep your eyes open with respect to better opportunities and situations where your social nature is better fit, ie you shouldn't tolerate this indefinitely and it might serve as good motivation to network, look more aggressively, take risks in a new assignment … but in the mean time, make the most of the opportunity … consider the social difficulty or minor aggravation in the same way as one might consider weights at the gym … "heavy lifting" in a social sense might not be fun, but adapting to a social situation that you find uncomfortable and using your differences from others to make your team function better will strengthen your "muscles" in the realm of emotional intelligence.

2

Well, you got a lot of answers telling you to find a new job, in or outside of the company.

I agree insofar as in my experience you will not find a way to get your colleagues to talk with you. From your name I assume you and your colleagues are developing software, or more strictly coding. I have met a lot of people who prefer to do that quietly all day, and also those that do not ever talk a word to a colleague; or talking in a very functional way only. Sometimes it's just introversion, sometimes they get distracted by chatting, etc. Not bothering people is a meme in many places; people invent signs to signal guys walking in to not start chatting, etc. - it seems to be human nature.

There are other archetypes out there - myself, I have coded a lot in my life, and I can be extremely focused to the point of accidentally ignoring someone standing right next to me, but at the same time I have no problem at all chatting on the side, or taking a small break to chat with someone walking in. But that is the exception, in my experience.

I concur with you that being in a team where people usually don't speak can be quite uncomfortable for us. So don't let them get to you - don't think you're somehow worse because of it. Quite a few of the quiet ones are rather aggressively so, insisting on their right to not be disturbed. The question is not whether they are right, or you are right, but it is just how it is. People are different, and hard/impossible to change.

One further advice I have for your job interviews is to actually talk about this with your next company. I just had an applicant who (and that was a first for me) actually asked not whether he could work from home (most people seem to ask that...), but whether our teams are usually sitting together, and that he is a social person who finds that important. Absolutely do that, be open with it.

2

You need to quit and get a new job.

I tend to work silently, and I can tell you that conversation is a massive distraction for me. It's at the point where I've given up on intense focus at work in my office. The thing is that the other people in my office need to talk for technical and social reasons. Not talking would harm their productivity.

Your situation is the reverse. Your talking to your coworkers is going to throw them off or distract them in ways they don't want to be thrown off or distracted. You've also made it pretty clear that you can't go on working like this. The solution for you is simply to leave and find another office that you can work in well. That's really all you can do.

If you try meetings, then they're just going to act the same way they normally do in the meeting. Stand ups might help you, but I wouldn't bet a lot on it.

2

Based on this:

We work on separate projects

...and this:

Heck, people on other teams talk with me.

...it sounds like the problem is ultimately which desk you sit at, not the entire company or job itself.

It doesn't sound like there are business reasons why you must be at that particular desk, or that silence is the norm across the company.

There's probably someone who prefers quiet but has chatty neighbours, who has the opposite problem to you. Swap desks, two problems solved.


How to make it happen depends on your manager and your relationship with them.

If you get on well with them, maybe you could simply explain the problem (making it clear that you respect your colleagues' preference, but nonetheless find the silence distracting), and see if they could ask around other managers to find a desk swap where you and the swappee would be more productive.

Some managers would be happy to make the office happier and more productive like this, and might immediately think of somewhere that is a better fit or someone who might want to swap. Other managers might be frustrated to be troubled about such a thing (especially if they're overworked). In that case, you find someone who could sit where you sit, who would be happy to swap.

Just be tactful about it all - be careful to not come across as someone who is fussy, difficult, disruptive or who causes drama.

1

If you've tried breaking the ice, and it didn't work after repeated efforts, there's not much more you can do other than to accept it or move on to somewhere else.

For what it's worth, the situation as described seems very unusual. You stumbled into a very uncommon workplace where everyone has put a shell around themselves. It is far more common to have lively interaction in a workplace where people are next to each other. Even in sweat-shop environments people talk and keep each other company.

The good news is that you're likely to not see this problem again if you switch jobs.

  • Good point, this is a very unusual workplace environment. I've been in my profession for 20 years now and I've never run across a situation like this. There is little chance that the next place will be a room full of people who don;t say a word to each other all day. – SilentOfficeSolitrayCoder Jan 17 at 18:31
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    Are you sure it's "far more common" in modern tech. development offices, where everyone is wearing noise canceling headphones, etc? – rogerdpack Jan 18 at 12:19
  • I think it's human nature. Humans are social creatures. This answer touches on what I feel to be a valuable insight. I tend to be the more insular type but I share a cubicle with someone (they're literally two feet away) and every once in a while they'll reach and bug me or goof around. (we have a good relationship) and it lightens the mood and helps relieve stress. – ShinEmperor Jan 18 at 14:39
  • We recently moved to large open offices. All our tech are now wearing headphones to block out the noise and we put in as many plants as we can to block all the visual distractions. So yes, I guess this is more common in a techworld where you have to focus on work. I think it is also the reason why working from home is so much more efficient in some places. – Hennes Jan 20 at 22:07
  • @Hennes, I get your point, it is quite common for folks to put on headphones when they need focus, but the OP is describing a situation where these coworkers won't even interact with him at lunch, or perhaps during interstitial times when they're not "in the zone". That special "zone" time, according to research, can only occur ~4 hours a day at an absolute maximum. Speaking from experience is is very unusual for people to reject all human interaction for the entire day. If they do, it means there is something very wrong. – teego1967 Jan 20 at 23:54

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