Social Minefield: How To Deal With Shyness

Being shy makes almost any social event more difficult — and it can keep you from getting what you want out of life. But some simple tips can make shyness less of an obstacle.

Anyone who's ever felt shy knows how much it can suck: the fear of approaching people, the feeling that everyone's judging what you say and do, the intimidating parties where all you can do is hide in the bathroom or pretend to be super-interested in the hummus. When I talked to Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci, professor of psychiatry, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, and author of Shyness: A Bold New Approach, he made the following distinction between shyness and social anxiety: people with social anxiety disorder often avoid social functions, while shy people often still go out and try to talk to people, but aren't sure how to go about it. People suffering from clinical anxiety disorders can often benefit from therapy — but if you're someone who just wants to be less shy and doesn't know how to start, the advice below might help you.

First, know you're not alone.

When you're feeling shy, it's easy to think that everyone else is a total master of social interaction whose life is basically a neverending parade of back-slapping and bonhomie. But according to Dr. Carducci, about 40% of people say they're shy (you can take his quiz to determine your own shyness here) — "so when you go to a social function, chances are half the people are just like you, looking for someone to kind of help them get things started." Just knowing this can make you feel like less of a loser, and help you put some of the other tips into practice.

Be prepared.

A lot of people think every social interaction has to be spontaneous, but if you're shy, a little prep work can actually be a great idea. Says Dr. Carducci, "Before you go to social event, look at news sources, go online, read magazines. What are the issues of the day? If you're going to an art reception, know something about the artist, know something about the gallery." He adds that "the biggest mistake people make about conversation is they assume that it's random," but it's "actually pretty structured," and having some things to talk about ahead of time can actually go a long way.

Dr. Carducci also advocates preparing for potentially difficult interactions like asking for a raise: "The thing is to practice. How are you going to ask for this raise? Practice doing this in situations that are comfortable for you." He suggests role-playing the conversation with a family member or friend. Dr. Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook, advocates an even simpler form of practice: if you're one of those people who does avoid social events because of shyness or anxiety, just go. He explains, "one of the most powerful ways of reducing fear over time is to confront feared situations [...] People who are anxious around other people, who feel uncomfortable in groups, the best thing they can do is spend more time in that situation." He warns that at first, this can be unpleasant, but over time shy people can "build up their skills in those situations, they'll get better at small talk and things like that, and also they'll just get used to the situations, and discover that the things they're afraid will happen often don't happen."

And Meghan Wier, author of Confessions of an Introvert: The Shy Girl's Guide to Career, Networking and Getting the Most Out of Life offers this getting-ready advice:

When approaching a group or individual for the first time you need to first make yourself as comfortable as possible. To do this you might first check your appearance in the mirror, grab a cup of coffee, or even grab a friend to come with you if possible. Know what you are going to say, before you get there, and when you reach the group, smile, speak strong and confidently and make eye contact. Confidence will mask your shyness, and at give you the opportunity to make the best first impression.

Know the structure of a conversation.

Dr. Carducci says satisfying conversations can be broken down into five steps, and shy people can get more comfortable talking by learning to perform all of them effectively. The first — getting started — sounds simple, but Carducci says it's one that often trips people up, which anyone who's ever hovered around awkwardly trying to think of an opening gambit will understand. An opener doesn't have to be fantastically witty — says Dr. Carducci, "the best opening line is something that is simple and that reflects the shared environment or the shared situation. That's why 'nice weather we're having' is such a great opening line. As trite as it may sound, what that actually tells the other person is, 'I want to talk to you. Do you want to talk to me?'"

The next step is introducing yourself — and Carducci says you can actually do so in a way that moves the conversation forward. Instead of something simple like "I work at the mall," he suggests something like, "I work at the mall selling cell phones, and you would not believe the reasons people give me for wanting a cell phone." Obviously your introduction might be totally different, but if you can think of something interesting about yourself to offer people, the conversation will go that much better. You may even easily segue into the next step, which is selecting a topic of discussion. Here, Dr. Carducci notes that you shouldn't get discouraged if no one responds immediately to a topic you throw out — they may need time to think about it. And if someone else throws out a topic, don't feel like you have to "say something critical or brilliant" — sometimes a simple question works just as well.

After that, it's time to build on the conversation topic, a process Carducci likens to "brainstorming." For this part of the conversation, you need to be alert and able to see connections — Carducci recommends that shy people avoid alcohol for this reason. This is a tough area — a stiff drink can calm some people enough to let them make that opening in the first place. But too many will confuse you and slow you down. And if, like me, you worry about saying the wrong thing, drinking too much can make things worse — I start to worry that I'm saying dumb things because I'm tipsy, which can make me even more self-conscious. Bottom line: good conversation requires you to be in possession of your faculties, so do whatever you need to in order to maintain that state.

The final step in Carducci's conversational model is "ending the conversation but maintaining a sense of connectedness." This can be tough — the end of a conversation is always a dicey time, and shy people can be tempted to just scoot out as fast as possible. Instead, Carducci recommends the following approach (also found on a tip sheet based on his book):

Let the person know you'll be leaving soon, express gratitude for the conversation, summarize some of the major points,
and set the stage for future conversation. For example, you can say, "I really must be going soon, but I had a great time chatting with you. I really appreciate your comments about that new movie. Here's my card. Call me if you know of any other movies you think I might enjoy."

Obviously, every conversation is different, and it may seem reductive to divide all of them up into five steps. But just because conversations have the same general structural elements doesn't mean they're not individually fascinating, or that a really good one can't go on for hours. Having a mental model for how conversations often go doesn't have to be limiting — instead, it can let you know what to expect, thus helping you chill out and actually enjoy yourself more.

Think about other people.

Says Dr. Carducci,

Shy people tend to be highly self-conscious. And when you are self-conscious, what happens is you become self-focused. This sense of self-consciousness — how do I look, how do I sound, that kind of stuff — that gets in the way of making conversation. [...] The first thing that you need to do is be sort of aware of that, and one of the ways that you can help reduce that sort of self-consciousness is to realize that when you're trying to engage others it's not about you, its about them. Be focused on the other individuals — what can you do to make them feel more comfortable?

A shy friend once told me that when he feels tongue-tied, he often asks other people questions about their own lives, which is a great way to take the pressure off yourself and give other people a chance to talk. And people tend to like someone who's interested in them just as much, if not more, as someone who's being insightful or hilarious. Wier has a specific recommendation for professional settings:

When attending a networking event, try to get a "job" — even if it is self appointed! Be the greeter, or the name-tag person—even the "goodwill ambassador" - By saying hi to each person as they come through the door, helping them with their name-tags, or even working to hook them up with the people in the room THEY would like to meet, you will distract yourself from feeling awkward, and you will get to meet everyone too!

And, says Dr. Carducci, "if you're at a social function and you want to deal with your shyness, find someone who looks more shy than you and talk to them."

But don't sell yourself short.

Dr. Antony points out that shy people often overestimate how badly they come off in social settings: "a lot of people who are shy, their skills are better than they think they are. Their social skills are fine, but they feel like people are judging them negatively." And just because you're not always comfortable socially doesn't mean you're not awesome. Wier offered this advice for shy people asking for raises, but it's applicable in almost any situation where being shy might hold you back:

You have to learn to be your own cheerleader — especially when you are shy! If you don't think you deserve it, no one else will. And if you do — you need to let everyone else know. There is nothing wrong with being strong and confident, and when it comes to asking for a promotion or raise, or even just recognition, first you need to believe it, and then you need to graciously, but confidently get what you want.


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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Shyness: A Bold New Approach
The Shyness And Social Anxiety Workbook
Confessions Of An Introvert: The Shy Girl's Guide To Career, Networking And Getting The Most Out Of Life

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