Introvert Challenge: Work Conference

There was a certain research technique I’d been wanting to learn.  Our lab had been paying someone else thousands of dollars to do it for us, but the technique seemed simple enough to learn, and my boss thought it would be useful to have someone in our lab able to do it…and potentially charge other labs thousands of dollars to do it for them, too!

Some Googling revealed a 4-day workshop in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I could get hands-on experience with not only that technique but a whole range of useful procedures.  I proposed it to my boss, who approved it as a good use of our precious grant dollars, and with the help of our wonderful secretary I was soon registered and booked on flights.

In the days leading up to my trip, the only thing in my head was: What the Hell Was I Thinking?

I was faced with the prospect of four days in close quarters with complete strangers, including at least one social event of the type that I like to call “mandatory fun.”  And I got to kick it off by sitting for hours on a plane next another stranger, who would probably want to tell me about her grandchildren or something (best case scenario).

QuietIn the years since I’ve read Susan Cain’s book Quiet, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the side of my personality I now know as “introvert.”  I am happy to report that having a haircut is no longer a crisis for me, as now have a regular stylist that I can chat with easily (or not! silence is good, too).

Acknowledging and working with my introversion has reduced my anxiety (another side of my personality) in social situations.  During my work trip, I worked actively to get the most out of the conference while not getting overwhelmed.  I want to share some techniques I used and some revelations I had.

Introvert Survival Tips for Business Travel

  • Get a Kindle

Or some kind of e-reader.  Introverts tend to be readers, and I always take books when I travel, but it has never been more convenient to bring lots of reading material with you than with the current capability and ubiquity of e-readers.  I read four books during this week-long trip!

You can use e-readers on your flights as long as they’re in “airplane mode,” and nothing politely says “don’t talk to me” better than your nose in a Kindle.  We had all of our evenings free during the workshop, so heading to bed early and reading for several hours was a wonderful way to recharge after a busy day.

  • Make a good first impression

First impressions are important.  I know your flight was delayed two hours, and you fell asleep in the cab to the conference center, but pull it together!  Being polite and friendly at the outset will buy you goodwill later.  People will still think of you as nice instead of standoffish when you skip the nightly social events.

Keep a reserve of conversation topics for mingling; remember you are there for work, after all, so you can always talk shop.  At our welcome reception, I discovered another participant was actually from the same Ohio town as I am!  We got to be friends over the week and even shared a ride back to the airport.

  • Find the other introverts

You are not alone!  According to Cain, around one third to one half of people are introverts, and there are bound to be some at your event.  The best lunchtime I had at the workshop was actually not eating alone, but at a small table with 3 other researchers where we got have an hour-long, in-depth discussion of our various research projects, and how we hoped the techniques we were learning would benefit us.

Later in the week, I took a spontaneous trip into the downtown of Bar Harbor with this small group; we wandered together for a while, then apart for a bit, then reconvened for a stop at the ice cream shop before heading back to the conference center for dinner.  Bar Harbor is an adorable town and I might have missed seeing it if I hadn’t gone with a group.

Bar Harbor
  • You can always try again

So you don’t feel like going to the bar with your colleagues one night.  That’s fine!  They are (probably) not judging you.  Tomorrow they might go somewhere different, and you will join them.  Skipping one (or a few) social events to read in your room does not mean you are barred from socializing for the rest of the conference.  Networking is important, so do some schmoozing when you can, and don’t feel guilty when you need a break.


I’d love to hear more from readers about other ideas for dealing with business travel as an introvert. Leave a comment and we’ll have a nice, in-depth introvert discussion.

I am happy to say I had a wonderful trip.  I learned what I went to learn, and had a great time doing it.  Of course I did.  I don’t know why I was so worried.

(You can check out some pretty pictures from the trip here.)

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