Shy people do not know that shyness is a common trait in people. In any gathering, many shy people tend to feel that everyone else except themselves are socially competent and having fun.  Shyness is a painful condition that, if untreated, can hamper many areas of living, vocationally as well as socially.  Is there anything a shy person can do when confronted with a family gathering, a new neighbor, a potential business client, etc?

Here are some tips for coping:

  1. Realize that in any social situation, you are not the only shy person. Strong social confidence is a trait enjoyed by a relatively small percentage of extraverts, people with truly thick skins who are born natural leaders.Both shyness and social confidence are genetic inborn traits. There are many people in this world who have to wait for others to break the ice for them. Treat others as you would want to be treated:  talk to them, help them to engage, let them tell you about themselves. View yourself as one who can help those with skill levels below your own.  Realize that many, many people feel socially inept, and are socially inept.
  2. Visualize the group or situation you are about to enter. Before you enter a situation likely to make you uncomfortable (e.g., a business meeting, a school reunion, a neighborhood barbecue), visualize that the group will include shy people, and some nice people inclined to be nice to you. Of course, the group may also include some folks who are wrapped up themselves, and who might give anyone the brushoff, not just shy people.  Most people are decent—even the socially skilled are usually decent and willing to throw you a lifesaver.  Don’t hold their social skills against them; give them a chance to help you. Be prepared for being alone between chats. Use the time to survey the event.  It is natural for someone to run along after saying hello to you. Use the time to count heads in the room.  Use it to think who you would like to meet.  Use it to find shy people in the room. Do anything to take the focus off your own discomfort.   Make eye contact and immediately offer a smile or a slight head tilt,  and, if the gift of your gresture is returned, walk to the person, or maybe the person will come to you.  If not, so what. Remember that you, too, have power to help someone else feel at home and that being the first to reach out rather than waiting uncomfortably for someone to make an approach can distract you from your own anxiety at least for a moment, forcing a reciprocal response and even evoking gratitude for helping them to be comfortable.  Keep the topic simple and light. “Great shrimp.”  “How about those Phillies last night?”  “Aren’t you with Acme Drilling?  I have been meaning to contact someone at your firm…”   Always start by giving your name clearly.  Extend a hand if it is that kind of gathering.  No one objects to a handshake. But be sure to say your name, even if all you can get out is your first name.  
  3. Make a simple, small move, instead making yourself unapproachable by freezing or looking down or looking away. Head towards a lone person, perhaps of your own gender, and say, “Hi, I’m ___.”  Listen for the other person’s name.  Engage in some fail safe chat like, “what is your occupation?”  or “what company are you with?”  If you are talking to a man, you are pretty safe in asking about a sports team (yes, women follow sports, but it is not as sure a topic with women…) Whatever the other person responds with, go with it. Think of yourself as an interviewer who stays on the surface of things.  Let the other person talk about himself or herself. Don’t go too deep; keep it light. Think of contemporary subjects before you arrive, subjects likely to be known by the people you will be with.
  4. If you feel uncomfortable, or that the conversation is dragging or if feel you are monopolizing the person, wrap it up with a positive spin, and move on.  “Heh, I need to say hi to someone who just came in.  It’s been great talking to you!”  Or, “Excuse me, it has been wonderful talking you, but I see that I must greet my former colleage who just came in.”   Or, “Heh, it is great talking to you, but I don’t want to monopolize all your time. I am just going to take a seat for a few minutes.  Have a great evening…”  Then move on, to the bar, to a seat, to the food, to the restroom.  Do not mention that you are uncomfortable and hate gatherings, as that will put the other person in an awkward position.  Always treat the other as you would like to be treated:  make them feel comfortable and that you are really grateful to have met them and go with the flow. If rebuffed, it only reflects on the rudeness or insecurity of the other person and not on us because they really don’t know us.
  5. Remind yourself that many people at your gathering are not having a great time. Help them turn that around.  Find the lone person and have a simple, short chat.  Do not believe that every single person in the room is smoother and cooler than you are, or having a better time.
  6. Ask for a name, and try to remember it.  Make an effort.  It is always ok to say, “I know we have met, but your name is slipping my mind.”  People very much appreciate that you are making an effort to remember them. Everybody knows that everybody forgets names. Help others by always offering your name when you enter a group or are approached by someone.   “Hi, I am ____. What’s your name?”  If you are in a group bring that new person into the group.  
  7. Set a comfortable time limit for yourself.  Maybe you are not up to working a room for an hour.  Start by giving yourself the assignment of entering the group for ten minutes and having a conversation with one person.  Work up from there; next time, try fifteen minutes and meeting two strangers.
  8. Say goodbye when you leave.  Find the host, or someone working for the host company,  and say you had a great time, it was nice to be included.  Every host needs to hear that.   “Heh, thanks for including me tonight.  I am Jane Doe from Acme.  It was fun. Good night.”

When it comes to coping with shyness, one might say that the Golden Rule, “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you,” is a shyness tool.   

I hope this is of help.

Jerrold Bonn, M.D.
Psychiatrist & Talk Therapist
Greater Philadelphia

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