The introverts-at-Google story

Here’s a story from my early days at Google, circa early 2005. Content warning for criticism of a particular set of extroverts (which is not to be confused with criticism of all extroverts). Also content warning for discussion of the desirability of interacting with people in person, which is a fraught topic for a lot of people these days.

At the time, Google and I were not a good fit for each other. One of the many ways in which that was true was that I was (and am) an introvert, while the vast majority of the other people who worked there were extroverts. (That part has changed; these days, the company employs lots of introverts.) Which would not have been a problem in itself, but some of these particular extroverts didn’t seem to understand or even believe that anyone might have a different experience than theirs about what interacting with people is like.

(Note, to head off certain kinds of responses: That’s not true of all extroverts. I know plenty of extroverts who are very aware that some people are introverts, and who work hard to be careful when interacting with introverts. If you comment on this post, please do not criticize extroverts in general (or introverts in general).)

During that period, I sometimes called Google “the largest collection of extrovert geeks in the known universe.” One example of how that played out: at other tech companies I had worked at, the engineers mostly didn’t want to be talked to in person. At Google, however, they really enjoyed talking in person, and strongly preferred that over (say) answering email.

So with all that as background, here’s the story:

One day during my first six months or so at the company, I was having lunch by myself in the cafeteria, feeling grumpy about all sorts of things about work, and an extrovert colleague stopped by the table where I was eating. He asked me how things were going, and I was so frustrated with various things that instead of just shrugging and saying I was OK, I told him some of the things that I was unhappy about, including the difficulty of being an introvert surrounded by extroverts who didn’t seem to be aware of the existence of introverts.

He looked thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said, “I can see how that could be a problem.” (All quotes very approximate.) “You should start a group: Introverts at Google. It could meet once a week and talk about what to do to make life better for introverts at Google.”

I laughed, because that was a good joke; but then I realized that no, he was completely serious. I thought about it and said, “Yeah, maybe I should start a mailing list.”

And he, still perfectly serious, said, “No, it ought to be in person. After all, just ’cause someone’s an introvert doesn’t mean they don’t want to get together with other people in person.”

That moment, I felt, perfectly summed up the problem I was having.

(Again: Please don’t bash extroverts (or introverts) in comments on this post. It is perfectly valid to be an extrovert, an introvert, or an ambivert, or to have any other kind of reaction to interacting with people. My post here is about a particular situation and context.)

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