How to Survive an Internship Where You Don’t Fit in

It’s awkward, it’s confusing, and all of a sudden you’re not quite sure what you’re doing in the workplace. Hello, and welcome to Awkward Internships 101: Identifying & Dealing. 

Don’t look at me like that–I know you’ve been in a similar situation. There is no way you got through life without feeling like a socially awkward penguin at some point or another (favorite memes!)

For starters, here are a few signs that indicate that you’ve gone and landed yourself one of those awkward duck internships:

  • Your work cubicle just happens to be located in an abandoned, haunted corner of the office no one wants to visit
  • Other interns and co-workers speak another language, forcing you to keep a Google Translate tab open at all times
  • Any attempts at conversation with others at the workplace result in blank looks or awkward silences
  • You find yourself spending long stretches of time thinking on how you should approach your boss
  • When you finally do meet with your boss, the conversation doesn’t go as planned and the idea for that blog you wanted to set up for the company dies in your throat, and you are left with the job of interviewing bank-owners as part of “an interesting angle the magazine is looking for”
  • Asking your manager for a complete list of duties results in a few shrugs, and an order to do some mindless task

It’s like high school all over again! You’re not sure how to approach the other interns who obviously know what they’re doing. And you’re not quite sure on what to do when there are no more tasks to be taken care of, and you sit quietly…

The big question lies here: how do you handle such an internship, where you just don’t feel right in the social scene?

Well, as a starting point, you don’t simply give in and don’t make up your mind that you’re just going to go about your work silently and not talk to anyone else. The deal with internships is that they’re supposed to be fun. And honestly – where is the fun in sitting in your cubicle all day long like the awkward penguin that you are?

You’re left thinking, “please remind me why the hell I signed up for this internship. Especially since it’s unpaid. Am I at least getting the experience I need?”

Sorry dear, but you’re really not getting any valuable experience if you aren’t getting along well with the people at the workplace. Where is the networking? Where is the making-new-friends part of the internship?

Let’s go over a few strategies you might be able to try out at your internship:

Check if anyone needs help

Repeatedly. Okay, not to-the-point-of-being-annoying repeatedly. But if you’re done with a certain task that you were assigned, ask other interns or co-workers if there is anything else you can help out with.

I ended up helping my boss write a resignation letter for a few advisory boards. Definitely not in my job description, but hey – I was free, and he needed help. Remember, an intern is always proactive, not reactive.

Make the kitchen your own

Eat, drink, and join others if they have lunch there on a regular basis. I sat with two other interns for lunch, and listened in on their Spanish. I found I understood quite a bit based on their facial expressions and hand gestures. Laugh with them. Give input. Eating with others is usually a good experience. In some countries, it’s a bonding ritual.

Chat people up, but don’t tell them about eating together being a ritual in some countries. That might just be a little strange for the first lunch conversation you ever have with them.

Handle floppy conversations like a diva

If a conversation doesn’t go according to plan, or if you cracked a joke which no one seemed to get and only resulted in you being stared at like a horse with two heads, pretend you’re Lady Gaga. Flip your hair. Give them an incredulous look and say, “Wait. You really didn’t get that?”

In short, fake it till you make it (often when you do that, it becomes quite real).

Ask questions

Ask, ask, and ask. One of the best things you can do is ask lots of questions. If you are part of a magazine internship (like I have been), ask them if you can see samples of previous work. Ask them who they interview. Ask about the way things are run in the office. Most importantly, ask them about people. Hear opinions and see what the real deal at the workplace is.

Go to socials and parties

Okay, this is such a simple suggestion. But it’s the one which worked best for me. The thing about the co-workers is that if you don’t see each other as people, just normal, everyday people, it’s hard to work with them. But once you’ve talked to them in a relaxed situation, things do look better at the workplace. Going to a Christmas social this past week was probably a life-saver for me because I got to make friends – really make friends – at the workplace. And my next day at work was the best day at work because I felt really comfortable around everyone. And the office fish felt a little left out because I wasn’t talking to them as much.

Just keep in mind that in order to change something around, you have to be the one to take a stand. Don’t wait to be approached or have other ask you questions, this is your internship and it’s up to you what you get out of the experience.

Like I said before, interns are always proactive!

Have you ever had to deal with an awkward internship experience? Tell us below.

Ayesha Zahid I've lived in Pakistan and I've lived in America. Seeing two extremes makes me so much more of a writer than I could ever be. And spreading that is the most important thing to me right now.

View all posts by Ayesha Zahid

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