02/12/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Shvitz Happens

I recently attended a lecture by Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a fascinating look at introversion, its commonality yet stigma in our society, and potential advantages in school and the workplace. That got me thinking about an awkward life phase I documented in Quarterlife Crisis, as we make the transition from college to the "real world" of adulthood. The workplace throws recent grads in situations that are particularly uncomfortable for those with introvert tendencies. Job interviewing and networking are a couple examples of the necessary evils of getting ahead -- things that don't feel natural to anyone, but particularly to people who aren't used to putting themselves out there. It's not just introversion that can act as a handicap in these situations, but also discomfort with a communication style that works to your advantage in the workplace -- something that many of us are discouraged from this as kids: shvitzing.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Yiddish terminology, shvitzing, which literally means sweating, is a term used to describe showing off. The idea is that a shvitzer is trying so hard to impress another person, he or she actually sweats. Shvitzers like to talk about themselves and their accomplishments. For most of us, shvitzing is not something we aspire to. Yet if we want to get recognition in our careers, we have to do it, albeit in a subtle, artful way.

For me, and for many individuals I know with similar backgrounds, my discomfort with shvitzing is second nature to my upbringing and reinforced by the brilliance and humbleness of my dad and other accomplished relatives: doctors, CEO's, scientists, Ivy League professors, none of whom you would ever hear talk about their accomplishments, or IQs, and certainly not their salaries. I was taught to be humble and modest from a very young age, not that I have or will ever come close to the success and brilliance of my dad and other relatives from his and previous generations.

That humbleness and modesty I was taught doesn't work so well in job interview and networking situations. I feel very uncomfortable advertising so-called accomplishments, qualifications, and abilities. And I feel that. When I try to do so, it comes across as forced and unnatural. In fact I think it has the opposite effect -- because it's unnatural and uncomfortable, it probably comes across as not-so-subtle shvitzing, and I probably seem like a big-time shvitzer, the thing that appalls me most.

Any of my facebook friends reading this will probably be surprised that I claim to find shvitzing uncomfortable -- I post more pictures than anyone needs to see of my son of whom I am so proud, and I post public announcements about major professional milestones like new publications. The former I do because, well, shvitzer or not, my son is really, really cute (based on my completely unbiased opinion). The latter I do because to get ahead I need to get my work out there, and have learned that publicity pays off.

I wish shvitzing wasn't necessary. I wish we'd be rewarded simply for good work and a pleasant demeanor. But I understand, I get it -- other people need to know what's so special about you, and the only way for them to know is to tell them yourself, because no one else will tell them on your behalf. Everyone's looking out for their own interests. So maybe we shouldn't be taught that shvitzing's a bad thing. Perhaps we should be taught the fine art of subtle shvitzing at a young age, before it gets to be too uncomfortable.