Image by Cat Creative PhotographySocialising in the workplace and why it isn’t for everyone…

I like working to a clear structure. Having a set routine. Succinct and timely communication. I crave familiarity. Some good old-fashioned sameness. All within an environment that isn’t too loud, bright, nor has any strong smells. And that’s enough for me. This is exhausting and challenging enough. Because asides from all that the office environment can throw up, in addition to the socialising from being around other people all day, I don’t want to then socialise with my colleagues regularly outside of work. Once in a while, OK, fine. The odd lunch, great. But when it’s a regular occurrence derived around the notion of fun, bonding and getting to know your colleagues better, then you really need to understand that ‘fun’ is a highly subjective noun. And simply not for everyone.

What may be a simple few drinks in a bar after work with colleagues, can in fact be hugely energy depriving for me

I sound like a real bore? Maybe. But there are enormous sensory issues that I experience when in a bar; from the volume, smells of the place, to the social etiquette of how to behave - and then having to translate this into how it works from a team outing perspective. Each occasion calls for new rules to process; for instance in terms of how to order drinks, sit, move about and speak with different people. I have a set of rules that I have learned for each social scenario, and as an autistic person, it takes a lot for me to ‘switch’ into a new set – and especially with the rules I don’t regularly use.

There are also more social challenges, as you’re surrounded by increased conversation, and have to work doubly hard to decipher meanings and to pick up on sarcasm and jokes – which tends to be used more in social situations. I need to concentrate on making eye contact. This isn’t something that comes naturally to me, and yes: it is something I work on and think about when speaking with people. And don’t get me started with overlapping conversations! This is immensely tricky to navigate. I struggle with having background noise, as I need to focus on what each person is saying at a time. I appreciate that in team meetings more than one person may be speaking, but at least you don’t have the additional loud background noise to contend with. To then have lots of people speaking all over one another, the music, doors opening, closing, and the general intensity of a bar environment and having to concentrate so hard, my energy battery is quickly zapped and declines like a defused airbag. Ineffective. And this is especially hard after I’ve spent the working day using my coping mechanisms.

It’s tough work and simply isn’t for everyone. And you don’t have to be autistic to struggle.

Hopefully, this gives you a snippet of what can be difficult about some casual after work socialising.  It’s also worth pointing out that this is just my experience, and that you can ask a different autistic person who can tell you that they thoroughly enjoy socialising with colleagues. And that they don’t have such profound difficulties. But that’s why it’s called a spectrum.

A note on masking

And though there is better awareness now that autism can prevail in women, it tends to be less noticeable in females (e.g. women are known to mask more as a survival strategy). So, you wouldn’t know that I, and many other women, are autistic. Though this can be perceived as advantageous, it’s actually not, as it may be assumed that I am coping well and that I’m not affected by a bar environment (for example). But I am affected. A lot. As in I’m making an elaborate effort to camouflage my symptoms: I have to correct my posture, prepare to be ‘on’, have a balanced ‘pleasant and engaged’ facial expression, minimise my fidgeting, focus on nodding and being ready to drop in timely catchphrases that I’ve practised and learned over time. I’m essentially compensating and mimicking. Constantly. It’s very exhausting. And normally at such occasions, I make very little actual contribution to conversations – I’m simply focusing, listening and ‘keeping up appearances’. 

Alternative ideas for socialising

Yet what if I want my team to spend time together in a more informal environment getting to know one another? I get that. And there are certainly more sensitive ways to address this. Here are some pointers:

  1. Don’t make it mandatory. And ensure that there isn’t a culture of ‘egging people on to attend’. This pressure is unnecessary, and as a manager, you need to ensure that your team behave respectfully in terms of who wishes to attend or not. Allow people to attend freely as and when. Don’t act disappointed if someone doesn’t wish to attend.
  2. Research and use less socially charged environments. Quieter places. Spaces where you’re not so close to other parties of people. Or perhaps even phone the venue ahead of time to see if there are options for a separate room, or to be apart from other social parties.
  3. Do an activity. I’ve always found bowling quite a nice and inclusive activity to attend. I find having an activity gives a focus and a clear-cut template of what to expect. There’s that sense of structure readily available. And then you have the chance to leave afterwards - a clear exit point - if you don’t want to socialise further.

Just because I don’t go to all these social activities, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about my work or like my colleagues. Far from!

I’ve spent the day expending a lot of my energy and therefore need my evenings to retreat and recuperate. So I’m ready for the next day at work. This is to ensure I can perform well. I hope that this blog helps in holding up a flashlight on the specifics to why social events with work colleagues can be tricky to navigate, and to suggest some alternative approaches.

Mahlia Amatina

June 2021

* Image of Mahlia's artwork, by Cat Creative Photography