I’m not an introvert, but I am an ENFP, which (according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) means I need more alone time than other extroverts and I hate small talk with a white-hot passion. Actually, I consider myself an ambivert: I can identify with both the desire to close down every party and the urge to hide in the house for days on end.
One thing is for sure: being a mostly-extrovert doesn’t mean I don’t experience social anxiety. For years, walking into a cocktail party or business luncheon gave me serious angst and sweaty palms. I’d go straight to the bar to avoid having awkward conversations made up of niceties and clichés with strangers or acquaintances.
At the time, I thought I was helplessly socially awkward. But as it turns out, I’m not, really: I just need a little help getting through the first five minutes.
After having endured multiple cocktail parties and networking events at conferences and conventions, I realized the first five minutes of any event are the absolute worst for anyone who suffers from social anxiety, including me.
Once I’ve had a chance to warm up and get past the how- and who-are-yous?, I get so engaged that I simply forget to feel shy, awkward, or anxious. (Yes, even without the help of that plastic cup of house wine.)
It took me years to figure out how to get through the first five minutes of any social situation, but I finally did. Here are the strategies that worked for me as I hope they will for you:
Strategy #1: Give yourself some direction
I worked in retail and food-service industries for years and never experienced social anxiety, despite interacting with dozens of customers each day. But walking into a yoga class or a new book club meeting gave me hives. Why? Because I didn’t have a “job.”
When you’re taking a customer’s order or standing in the grocery store checkout, your role is obvious: recite the soup of the day and specials or pull out your shopper-loyalty key tag and swipe your payment card.
But at a party, class, or other unfamiliar situation, your “instructions” are a lot less clear. Where do I stand? Who do I talk to? Oh no, what do I do with my hands?
So these days, whenever possible, I give myself a clearly defined role and set of instructions before attending a social event.
Sometimes, it’s officially sanctioned. For example, when attending a fundraiser, I might ask a coordinator if I can help pour drinks or take raffle tickets.
But sometimes, I have to invent my own “job.” In the case of a cocktail party, I might give myself a set of instructions: first, walk to the bar; second, visit the buffet; third, find an empty seat; fourth, introduce yourself to someone.
By the time I’ve gone through all those steps, I feel like I have the lay of the land and can settle into conversation. Plus, the sense of knowing what to do and where to go calms me down and helps me feel less awkward.
Strategy #2: Ask leading questions
The funny thing about small talk is that hardly anyone really loves it. We only engage in it because we don’t know what else to say. Asking a leading question not only gives the other person in the conversation a gift—a chance to talk about something important to her and skip all the meaningless lead-up—but it also buys you some time to listen, get a feel for who the other person is, and find an authentic way to enter the conversation.
The trick to skipping small talk and getting to the meat of the conversation is in the kind of questions you ask. “How are things in your office?” isn’t probing enough. The other person will probably give you a vague, “Oh, going well,” and then you’re right back where you started.
Of course, forced conversation-starters can be almost as painful to utter as “how about them Bears?” So rather than chirping: “So, what’s going on in the Scranton branch right now?”, come up with a twist on a basic yes-or-no question: “Which speakers are you most looking forward to hearing today?” (Double points for this question because it also allows you to pull out the schedule as a prop.)
Or you could just jump into a tirade about the lack of protein at the breakfast buffet. Chances are, someone else at your table will have plenty to say about that as well!
Strategy #3: Get there early
If walking into a crowded room stresses you out, try getting there early. If possible, really early, when the tables are mostly empty and coordinators are still buzzing around the room, getting things ready.
Why? Not only will you be able to slip into a seat unnoticed and take a few moments to settle in, but you’ll also have a chance to get acclimated to the space without having to speak to anyone.
Best of all, you’ll be able to watch others with the knowing, confident eye of an old-timer as they enter the room. Or at least, they’ll perceive you as an old pro as they awkwardly look around, trying to find a place to land.
And you, the fifteen-minute veteran of Table Eight, will be in a perfect position to throw a “you can sit here!” lifeline to that anxious-looking newbie.
Then hurry up and ask her a leading question—quickly, for goodness’ sake, before she gets a chance to ask you about the weather.