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Summary: I am looking for software development jobs in South Africa. Many companies offer a "free lunch" perk. I want my workday to be very formal, without mingling, or developing personal relationships. Is it possible to work at such a place with free communal lunches and not develop close personal relationships?


I'm at the beginning of searching for Web Development work. I see a lot of things that give me the indication that these places are a lot more informal than what I would like. One of the things I see a lot of are job postings on LinkedIn that mention that the company provides free lunches. Now, at face value this just seems like something nice that appreciative companies may do for their employees, but I have some concerns.

I just think that my work as a web developer has taken years of preparation to get to the point where I can do it for a career. If I do land this dream job then my work will be very important to me. It is not a game to me, it is very important.

Part of this would be that I would always be extremely formal during my work hours. I will not ask any colleagues about things like how their weekend was. I would just really prefer not to talk about personal issues at all.

This may come off as impersonal or rude, but it is actually because I respect the people I work with, that I have the desire to keep working relationships professional in terms of what I consider the word to mean.

Now when the issue of eating together comes up I will find it hard to regularly eat food with people and not build some sort of personal relationship with them. The prospect of this makes me uneasy because I do believe that the more personal a working relationship becomes the harder it becomes to keep things professional according to my definition of the word is.

Should I just get over it or do these concerns of mine have weight? In South Africa just like in most places in the world a job as a Web Developer would give me the financial freedoms I have always dreamt of. I really would not like anything to affect that negatively.

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    I think this question should be updated to indicate that you wish to avoid social interactions due to socially awkwardness, as seems to be the case from the discussions to answers below. Based on 25 years in SW dev experience in ZA+Europe+America, I would say your premise is flawed: Web Dev offices are informal and mingling with colleagues ("networking" in an informal manner) is an unspoken professional requirement (lunch, coffee, Friday afternoon drinks, team building...). Not disparaging your situation, most techies are there to some degree and still do professional work. All the best!
    – frIT
    Aug 18 '21 at 11:15
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    Being formal and being professional are two very different things. Like, completely different things. One can be extremely professional without acting like a businessman from a TV Show. One can also be extremely formal while being a complete unprofessional scumbag. It isn't chatting and making friends with others that will make you unprofessional. Quite the opposite - it will hurt you a lot in the short term.
    – T. Sar
    Aug 18 '21 at 12:37
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    It's not clear why specifically the free lunch aspect seems to be the problem: even if the company serves free lunch at an on-site cafeteria, you can just not go there - you can still bring your own food and eat at your desk, or go outside and eat at a nearby restaurant.
    – Egor
    Aug 18 '21 at 17:58
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    you're confusing "formal" with "asocial"
    – njzk2
    Aug 18 '21 at 20:56
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    @PhilipKendall that amplifies only positive feedback, see eg this complaint: Users arriving at a bad Hot Network Question should be able to express their dislike
    – gnat
    Aug 19 '21 at 9:49

11 Answers 11

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What you're defining as a "professional standard" is at best very outdated in the modern world. Sure, there are bounds to any professional relationship but that doesn't have to mean you have to completely exclude any form of social interaction with those people.

If you would rather exclude any social interaction from your professional life, that's your choice - but...

  1. It is going to make your life harder. You will come across as cold and uncaring. Workers are not robots, we are humans who do sometimes like to talk about stuff we did at the weekend and things like that.
  2. Trying to present it as making you "more professional" as you are doing here is honestly very arrogant - you're not "better" than other people because you do this.

Stepping back a bit and from the comment you've made below ("the problem is that social interactions are very hard for me"), I think you probably have an X-Y problem here: you are anxious about the social interactions which will happen in the workplace, and to avoid that you have come up with a view that avoiding social interactions is somehow more professional, thus leading to your question. Rather than thinking of it that way, I'd encourage you to think of it as "how can I minimise my dislike of social interactions on my professional career?". There are a number of questions on this site already about this kind of thing (e.g. What are some steps I can take to overcome social anxiety while working?), but if you feel they don't address your situation, feel free to ask a new question on this site.

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    the problem is that social interactions are very hard for me
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 17 '21 at 11:35
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    Sorry to hear that - but the way to handle this is to be honest about it, not to try and present it as some fake form of "professionalism". Aug 17 '21 at 11:38
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    The whole idea of getting into web development was because I thought it was an industry where a lack of social graces would not penalize you
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 17 '21 at 11:40
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    A lack of social graces will penalise you in just about any job, although maybe less in technical fields than some others. However, what's much more important is how you present that - being the quiet one that sits in the corner and doesn't say much is okay, deliberately ignoring people and claiming its due to being more professional is not. Aug 17 '21 at 11:51
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Aug 19 '21 at 20:28
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Often stuff such as 'free lunches' are perks to attract people to their company. They don't expect it to be a bonding experience or for you to use that perk. They still expect you to be professional in the workplace. I would go to the interview and ask what it is like to work in the company and decide based on that, you can get a better feel for what the workplace is like from the people.

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    thank you, this would be my first forays into the corporate world
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 17 '21 at 11:36
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    @NeilMeyer I wish you good luck in the corporate world. As others have already mention, being professional means being kind and friendly but does not mean you have to engage in long conversations about someone's personal life. Aug 17 '21 at 12:18
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    I'm not sure that's accurate. Many of the places that offer "free lunch" type things expect to get some benefit out of it similar to an open floor plan, where casual mingling facilitates teamwork and knowledge transfer. Basically it's easier to go talk to Bob in Marketing about something that's a work problem if you have already talked to Bob in Marketing about the weather and which sandwich you prefer, so you already know Bob. Aug 18 '21 at 15:02
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    I strongly disagree with this, especially at smaller companies. When lunch is provided, it absolutely is expected (usually implicitly) that employees will use it as team bonding time. You will torpedo yourself by not participating.
    – josh3736
    Aug 18 '21 at 20:48
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    I work for a start-up, free lunches are absolutely expected to be a bonding experience. I do see why people with introverted personalities in particular find these environments challenging. We had a developer who was particularly introverted and stayed at his desk at lunch, everyone respected that - but I'm not sure that would be the case everywhere. Aug 18 '21 at 22:28
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Remember that acting professionally has different meanings and implications depending on the location, the industry, the job, and that it constantly evolves.

If you want to know how to act professionally in a role you should look at the people practicing the profession in your region, see how they act, and act like them. If that involves having lunch with your teammates and talking about your weekend, then that is in no way unprofessional. In fact, you may be seen as unprofessional for actively avoiding activities that would help you become part of the team.

Should I just get over it

Yes. If your concern is about being professional you should not be worried about negative effects of making friends in the workplace.

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I see three very different points to Free Lunch, keeping in mind of course TANSTAAFL.

  • Simple Benefit to Employees

A free lunch saves each person a few dollars a day. How much depends on how elaborate the lunch is and how much each person would spend if they did not get a free lunch. Even if due to medical or religious reasons you can't take advantage of the entire lunch, you can likely make use of beverages (water, juice, soda, coffee, tea), fresh fruit, etc. So it becomes an unofficial (i.e., not on your paycheck) benefit. If that benefit is worth $5 per day x 200 days per year, it is like a $1,000 raise. Of course, the company has to pay for it, so they are looking for two benefits to the company:

  • Less Time Wasted Getting Lunch

I have seen many places where it is a big deal every day ordering lunch. 1/2 the employees bring their own lunch and are happy with that. The other 1/2 would rather order from a local restaurant. Every day it becomes "Chinese? Mexican? Pizza?" and then someone spending a good chunk of time gathering everyone's orders, collecting the money, ordering, picking up (unless the restaurant delivers), etc. All while on the clock. So that can easily take an hour or more of employee time, which the company is paying for. If the company has a standing order (perhaps even something different for each day of the week), they are still paying for it (somebody has to organize it all) but it is more clearly managed and the time is a designated employee rather than taking an hour of a different (possibly much higher paid) employee each day.

  • Socialization and/or Collaboration over lunch

This is OP's concern. But while I would see the "socialization" part as a big concern for "Company BBQ Day" and "Holiday Party", if the company encourages everyone to eat lunch together (and giving them free lunch can be a way to encourage that), that may be to encourage socialization, but I suggest it would be more likely be to encourage collaboration. Using a web development company as an example, you may have groups such as:

  • Web developers
  • Graphic designers
  • Database administrators
  • Marketing
  • SEO

All these groups meet, of course, when they need to. But a group lunch allows them to talk about projects in a less formal way and throw ideas around. An occasional productive idea that would not have otherwise been communicated can be worth a lot to a company, easily paying for the cost of the lunches. It also gives different groups a better appreciation for what the other people do, which is good for morale.

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    Sadly, you're probably completely correct.
    – Theodore
    Aug 17 '21 at 21:45
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    @Theodore Why ‘sadly’?  (Seems like a win-win to me.)
    – gidds
    Aug 18 '21 at 8:53
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    "sadly", because one's lunch time is commonly unpaid, and any attempt from employers to steer their staff towards company-related activities during that time is at best a poor attempt at squeezing more out of your staff than you're willing to pay for.
    – Xano
    Aug 18 '21 at 15:28
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    @xano Exactly. If I'm going to be productive on my unpaid lunch hour, it will be to benefit myself! Exercise, time outdoors, pleasure reading, hobbies, etc. Also, a lot of what's called collaboration or group work is really just reinforcing group-think, and giving voice to the individuals who are already loudest.
    – Theodore
    Aug 18 '21 at 17:21
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    @Xano Software development jobs are often salaried, so the idea of paid or unpaid time is fairly meaningless. Of course that's not always the case, but it's probably common enough that I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that lunch is unpaid time.
    – David Z
    Aug 19 '21 at 4:33
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On the subject of office socializing: I just saw in your comment on another answer that "social interactions are very hard for [you]". You are probably an introvert. While extroverts are energized by social situations with new people, introverts generally need to manage the frequency, duration, and participants in such exchanges so that they do not become drained by them.

(Regardless of whether you consider yourself an introvert, I highly recommend this book on the topic: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. You could also watch the TED talk given by the author, Susan Cain.)

My point (and a point made in the book/TED talk) is that it's OK to be an introvert and state it directly, without trying to describe it as a form of professionalism. Employers and managers are starting to learn that introversion is not a pathology.

You also needn't entirely shun workplace socializing if you learn how to manage it better. I am fundamentally an introvert, but I have learned to use some extrovert's behaviors or characteristics as they suit me.

As to the free lunch, I could see how it might be seen as manipulative, but I would still assume good faith and not expect they intend to use it to control your social connections or the use of your free time. There should be no harm in turning down the free lunch. Imagine you were on a medically-directed diet: You wouldn't expect your employer to meet the doctor's requirements, and they couldn't expect you to go against it to enjoy a company benefit.

(Edited after I saw OP's comment.)

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I don't know whether or not you have any conditions that might affect your feelings toward social interaction, but you should consider looking for a role that allows you to work remotely. Even if you can be approached on a messaging software or by e-mail or a phone call, it will limit having to interact physically with the others.

If it's not an option, you can attempt to briefly explain that you don't want to participate in small talking. Something like:

Excuse me, but I don't want to take part in small talking, for personal reasons that I'd rather not talk about. I hope you'll understand me. Thanks.

Chances are it will appear as rude to some, but at least you'll be straightforward and clear that you have your reasons.

I have no problem interacting with other people, but due to my atypical life style, I've had my trouble interacting with some who found me strange on some occasions, because of my different ways of behaving. But I'm doing some effort, and my colleagues understand the fact that people can be different.

If they're considerate, they will respect your decision. If they want to force you into taking part, then you will probably have no choice but to either endure it through or, if possible, to find another company, hopefully one where they will respect your decision, whether or not it pleases them.

Edit: As user T. Sar suggested in the comment section, you can also just tell them something simpler in the line of:

Sorry, can't chat right now, I need to finish a few things

Which will make it clear that you gotta stay focused, without making it look like you're rejecting them. In my opinion, the drawback is that some might keep insisting later on, but at least you won't risk appearing rude like the first suggestion could.

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    I can't really agree with the suggestion of saying "I don't want to take part in small talking because reasons". There are better ways to avoid that, and one of them is just saying "Sorry, can't chat right now, I need to finish a few things". The way your suggestion would be taken would result in the person you're talking with thinking you have some personal issue with them, and this will make you look incredibly petty. Don't do it.
    – T. Sar
    Aug 18 '21 at 12:45
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    @T.Sar Actually, what you're suggesting is better, yeah. The only risk is if someone decided to keep insisting, like: "okay, then I'll come back when you have free time". Unless they eventually understand that you're very busy and decides to not try again.
    – Clockwork
    Aug 18 '21 at 13:27
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I think you should try to adapt your job search and rather seek positions that offer work from home / remote (as perks or by nature of the job), which will negate much (but not all) of the problems you anticipate.

I've been developing software, most of that web apps for more than 20 years (not web sites like you unfortunately, so maybe a bit less customer interaction for me? I don't really know.) Most of that time I've been working in South Africa, but also in offices in Europe and North America.

I've gone through a job change start of this year and a lot of companies mentioned 100% or partial remote working ("We were already switching over before the pandemic" was heard a lot). I have never seen the "free lunch" being offered as a perk, let alone seen it in a workplace - and I've been at a few of the biggest names in South Africa. Closest was a certain contracting house that supplied free snacks. (I personally don't consider it a perk as all the candies are not that good for health, one tended to loose out on the more popular items (feeding frenzy/FOLO), etc. I prefer to pack my own lunch and snacks according to my preferred diet.) I'm sure if you search discerningly, and ask any agents you contact to do likewise, you could get a position with less personal interaction.

It could also be possible to get fully remote gigs overseas, even if on a freelance basis. A few friends have done websites on their own, but the drawback is that you still need to interact with clients to get the gigs in the first place.

If your social anxiety or maybe a disabilities like dyslexia are officially diagnosed, you should be eligible for "reasonable accommodation" under the Basic Conditions of Employment act (if I'm not mistaken) - but unfortunately I'm not knowledgeable about the practicalities of that.

All the above said, my experience from offices in those locales has been that IT tends towards being pretty informal, the more so in more modern workplaces. This means that people do chat in the corridors and over coffee or lunch (paid or free). Modern companies do teambuilding events, company functions, time during working hours for more informal activities, and even do something like drinks at the start of the weekend (perhaps taking 1 or 2 work hours for that too). You're not expected to become best friends with everybody, but normal friendly smalltalk or banter is helpful. Some people are quiet and some are boisterous, it's expected. It helps so that people are more at ease when they have to work together on some task. Making "work-friends" that appreciate your skills, staying in touch with them on work-focused social media, and having them recommend you (and doing likewise) seems to be (a small part of) the modern way to advance professionally. Don't need to become personally involved but some touching on the normal things of life like kids, pets, hobbies are fairly innocuous.

I won't try to estimate your level of social anxiety from your post, but I'm pretty introverted myself. It has helped immensely that some colleagues have invited me to their lunch table when new at a workplace - some superficial introductions, some basic chat, and now when you meet those people in the corridors, you smile and say hello. Gradually it becomes easier - you'll not become friends on day 1. Basic thing is to also be interested in the other person as a human and ask some questions - "what are you working on?", "what in that project is the most interesting?" etc. In the end we're all just people with similar needs and faults :-)

Then again, now we're remote (at my current job) due to C19, we still need to interact a lot with colleagues over web calls. Those hard-learned social skills still are handy.

Best wishes for your job search!

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  • "I have never seen the "free lunch" being offered as a perk," I can't speak to South Africa, but I've seen it in Australia (with attendance being mandatory for "team building" reasons).
    – nick012000
    Aug 21 '21 at 4:10
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I think this is not too complex of a problem. Simply do not share much about your personal life and shrug off questions about it, but let other people talk about theirs. Learning to deflect questions in a friendly, normal manner is a must-have skill.

An example conversation:

Them: Hey Neil! Did you do anything fun this weekend?

You: Hey so-and-so! Not much, what about you?

Them: Oh, I went hiking! Let me tell you all about it...

Another:

Them: I just got into this really interesting TV drama. Hey Neil, what shows do you like to watch?

You: Haven't watched anything good recently. Tell me more about the show you like!

You can get along well with your colleagues without having your personal boundaries violated by overly gregarious or nosy ones. If they start pestering you to divulge really personal information, then you may have to say something like this:

Them: Come on Neil, tell us all about your love life.

You: Haha, sorry fellas, I'd like to keep my personal and work life separate. I hope you won't begrudge me that! Nothing personal (pun intended!)

99.9% of adults are going to get the message right then and there. The other 0.1% are people you can talk to your manager about.

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    @NeilMeyer I think being coerced into friendship is an imagined concern. Has that ever actually happened to you? It's not easy to do because it's so easy to get out of. You just don't hang out with them outside of work. Bam done. That pretty much puts a stop to anything no matter how friendly you are with each other at work. Heck, you can still text chat outside of work after you both have left the job and it STILL doesn't mean your friends because it's so easy just to drift away. People have their own lives. They aren't going to follow you around trying to make you their friend. They
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 18 '21 at 20:30
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    @NeilMeyer being friendly isn't the same thing as committing to a friendship. I had a very friendly conversation with a security guard responding to an alarm call today - we talked about family, life, the pandemic, all sorts. Very friendly. And I'll probably never see the guy again. Of course work colleagues are people you will see again, but you don't have to spend a second thinking about them outside work!
    – topo morto
    Aug 18 '21 at 21:47
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    @NeilMeyer i'm really not trying to be a jerk, but a lot of your comments display a very unhealthy way of viewing normal human interaction. if you want to improve on that, it will almost certainly be helpful to talk to a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. you don't have to, of course, but not being able to be friendly and make small talk / "shoot the shit" will almost certainly be a detriment to your career advancement. people are social creatures and being good at that side of things is nearly, if not just as, important as technical competence when it comes to advancing.
    – eps
    Aug 19 '21 at 1:29
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    @Clockwork Try not to mistake people trying to be friendly with being coerced. If they are just trying to be friendly it's super easy to just duck out. I've been invited out to lunch multiple times and after a while they would still invite me but often just follow it up with a comment to those around that they know I wouldn't come but would still extend the invitation just in case so I wouldn't feel left out. Here's a tip the more seriously you take not going out, the more they will worry about you.
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 19 '21 at 13:20
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    @Clockwork Yeah, if they're pressuring that's different. But you should only react super serious if they are pressuring. If you react that way to everyone assuming they are pressuring, that's what makes you come off as a jerk.
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 19 '21 at 13:24
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Part of this would be that I would always be extremely formal during my work hours. I will not ask any colleagues about things like how their weekend was. I would just really prefer not to talk about personal issues at all.

The problem is that this is a sub-optimal approach for dealing with other human beings.

Communication is a key part of almost any development job. Communication of technical requirements, of business requirements, of use cases for different types of users, of test cases, processes.... the list goes on and on.

Now, you might think that those can always conveyed in an entirely dry, impersonal, 'professional' way - and between two given individuals who like communicating in that way, that may be true. But you will deal with many other people who are not able to communicate in that way. Perhaps they'll expect to start a conversation with a bit of small talk about family, work, sports, the latest news, or whatever. Perhaps their team stand-ups will be peppered with a little good-natured 'banter' and gentle jokes at each other's expense. Perhaps there will be a group of people trying to solve a very difficult technical problem, and they need to cultivate a little camaraderie to find the strength to work through to a solution. A manager or team lead may need to know a little about their reports' personal lives to understand what will motivate them. The list goes on and on.

None of this means that you need to delve into personal issues you don't want to; there are many expressions and techniques for presenting a friendly face without exposing your inner soul.

In any case, in many organizations, you'll probably find that the 'small talk' often goes into areas that are, professionally speaking, very relevant: Reimagining how the architecture of a product should be; Expressing frustrations about work that don't have another forum; talking about new technologies that aren't being used in the business yet; the list goes on and on.

I just think that my work as a web developer has taken years of preparation to get to the point where I can do it for a career. If I do land this dream job then my work will be very important to me.

I'm repeating myself, but a huge part of doing something for a career is that you have to communicate about it. And a huge part of communication is building relationships.

I do believe that the more personal a working relationship becomes the harder it becomes to keep things professional

There's some truth in that, but it's generally only something you need to consider for relationships like a manager and their direct or once-removed reports. Even then there are ways to be personally friendly and still having a more professional 'mode' of communication.

The whole idea of getting into web development was because I thought it was an industry where a lack of social graces would not penalize you

Relatively speaking, that's true. It should be possible to be a valuable and respected employee and have a satisfying career without having to spend the bulk of your energy on about interpersonal matters - most days, at least. But the approach suggested in your question of not wanting to even bother with small talk seems very extreme.

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TL;DR : Yes you can. But you shouldn't.

Keep in mind that i'm french working in luxembourg and I don't know the south african work culture. I am also a web developer.

Also, please excuse my poor english. :)

I think by going with the "full formal behaviour", you're going to shot yourself in the foot.

Informal discussions, coffee/smoke breaks (even if you don't smoke !), lunch time, after work drinks... All those events are important. You may hear about something your coworker did and offer him a better solution, or use that to improve your work. You may hear some feedback from the sales about your product or a competitor's product.

Also, by learning to know your coworkers better, you may get a better glimpse of their mindset, and understand why they work the way they do. You may also understand why some coworker is underperforming... Lots of little stuff.

There is a lot of added value to interact with your coworkers during those events, for you, for them, for the company.

I'm sorry I'm deviating from your initial question, but I prefer to give you my honest opinion and, what I believe is, the best answer for your career.

In any case, welcome to the world of web development, I hope you'll enjoy your career.

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You can avoid personal interactions (asking about their weekend etc.) in a natural way by simply not doing it. If you get asked, you can answer as friendly as you can manage (noting how you mentioned that personal interactions are generally difficult for you) while being noncommittal.

Your colleagues will pick up on that, and then it depends on the local culture whether this will be a problem or not. If they are all super outgoing and boisterous, and constantly nagging at you, then it's probably time to move on, but they may just as well pick up on it and learn to appreciate you for your technical skills while more or less leaving you alone.

You can still go to lunch with them. It is normal for a group of professionals to consist of loud and quiet persons, and no natural law says that this cannot be so. Of course, you can also just not go to lunch if you prefer, or sit alone if there is only one place for lunch. If you're uncomfortable with telling them that you're a loner, then just bring your headphones and some podcast, and tell them "thanks, I use lunchtime to wind down with my favourite podcasts/music/...". That shouldn't offend anyone, and also will not incite them to try to change your introvert character.

I suggest to completely ditch the approach of somehow trying to seem "professional" as a layer of defense. Try to be natural, and if your nature is being an introvert, then that's it. You're not the first nor the last. Try not to overthink.

Finally, you commented somewhere:

I thought it was an industry where a lack of social graces would not penalize you

You will probably not get openly penalized for being an introvert, but having good social skills is, in my experience and opinion, specifically important in IT (compared to other technical industries). I would highly encourage you to work on these things in the mid- and long-term (separately from the question where you go to lunch) and not expect to find ways to turtle down as much as you can. A lot of this is learning by doing, so just jumping it in and gathering your own experience is not the worst you can do.

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