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Daniel E.
Shy? Here's how to break the ice

Psychology Today

August 6, 2007

Social anxiety -- the distress we feel over being evaluated by others -- hits people at different times.

Alan, a mechanic, has trouble breaking the ice at parties.

"I just never had that ability to walk into a group and start talking," he says. "It always seems halted, and you get the feeling that people are drifting away."

Social anxiety can range in severity from mild (dodging invitations) to severe (agoraphobia, which can imprison people in their homes). Just about everyone, however, gets nervous in high-stakes situations such as a job interview.

"If you're alive, your nervous system is going to be going full throttle, or close to it, when you get up to present yourself," says Ron Hoff in I Can See You Naked.

Most shy people would be surprised to learn that 40 percent of all young people today describe themselves that way -- and the rate continues to creep up by about 1 percent every year. Researchers attribute the rise in self-identified shyness to reduced face-to-face communication and an impatience with the typically slow pace of building social relationships.

Shyness can also be inherited: In a study by Jerome Kagan at Harvard University, about 20 percent of infants reacted to stimuli such as new toys by squirming and whimpering. Many of these infants developed into children who were more fearful than others -- if their parents didn't expose them gradually to new and disquieting situations, through which the fear response was extinguished. In other words, even for babies who may have been genetically predisposed to shyness, gentle learning overrides genetics.

New research shows that some who are shy have a variant gene involved in the flow of serotonin, making them especially reactive to stress -- which may explain why, before a big event, some people respond to their increasing alertness with anxiety, while others stay cool. All this suggests that shyness may be a temperament that's unlikely to change. But even if shyness has a genetic component, and shy people never see their social anxiety slip to zero, there are proven strategies to help anyone interact successfully.

Public speaking: not worse than death

Start by giving toasts. Then captivate your book club. Soon, you'll be running for mayor.

Anticipate your stage fright. The amount of nervousness you will feel is determined by the importance of an event's consequences and your level of confidence that you'll succeed, according to psychologist Mark Leary. By evaluating these two factors, you'll know how much to prepare and you'll be less surprised by your body's physiological arousal on the big day.

Do a dress rehearsal. "Reviewing your notes isn't actually practicing," says California State University, Dominguez Hills, psychologist Peter Desberg. If the venue will be dark, have someone shine a light in your eyes while you speak. Wear the clothes you'll be wearing and learn to enjoy the adrenaline rush.

Go for laughs. As you deliver important information, take breaks to entertain the audience with an anecdote or self-effacing joke. Desberg has noticed that the more humor he employs in class, the higher the ratings he receives on his end-of-semester evaluations.

You're the one they need. If you notice the crowd waiting for you (even if it's only three people) and you get panicky, focus on how much they need to hear what you have to say. While you speak, if your pounding heart distracts you, practice grounding techniques like feeling your feet against the floor.

Think big. Audiences know when you've chosen to play it safe. Instead, commit yourself to exciting, provocative ideas, making sure your listeners know what essential role they have to play. But don't go rampaging off onto another topic. You can only start one revolution at a time.

Embracing your inner flirt

You don't have to be scared of people you're attracted to.

Create a carefree alter ego. Step outside your buttoned-down identity, so "you can say things you wouldn't ordinarily say and be more flirtatious," says Robert, who was a sought-after bachelor. "If you feel more playful, then you don't really care if they reject you or not." Pop star Beyonce, for instance, calls her sexy onstage persona "Sasha."

Be agreeable. "Show others where you have similar attitudes," say Ann Demarais and Valerie White in First Impressions. "Everyone prefers to hear 'you're right' rather than 'you're wrong.'" Doing this not only affirms their intelligence and values, but also shows that you find them likable, which makes people feel good.

Channel your infant appeal. When you were a baby, before you could ask or persuade, you would employ coy smiles and peekaboo eyes to attract loving attention. With only these charms, even strangers adored you. As adults, we shouldn't stifle our natural flirtatiousness, says Susan Rabin, author of How to Attract Anyone, Anytime, Anyplace.

Being friendly isn't teasing. Flirting just means letting other people know that you find them compelling. "When you show this attention, it doesn't have to mean that you intend to go any further," say Demarais and White. "It can be a way of creating a momentary world of 'you and me.'"

"No" doesn't mean never. When you show interest, you'll sometimes get rejected. Quickly review to see if you committed a faux pas, but then go ahead and use defenses to avoid taking it personally, such as blaming the other person's bad taste or assuming he or she must have had a bad day. "I want you to be spared pain and to make sure you continue flirting," explains Rabin. Now try your luck with someone else.

Standing out on the job

To be more visible and persuasive, show others how your goals benefit everyone.

What are you avoiding? Let's say that you need to confront someone at the office and assert your own best interests, but the prospect fills you with anxiety. To counter this, consider the costs of waiting, and compare those to the benefits of doing it, says Peter Desberg in Speaking Scared, Sounding Good.

A shortcut to stop procrastinating. After you've made a decision to stand up for yourself or your ideas, misgivings might paralyze you. If this happens, note why you've stopped. After you realize that you're writing down the same silly excuse over and over, you'll shame yourself into taking action, says Desberg.

Shrink your boss. If you feel intimidated in somebody's presence, try this suggestion from Erika Hilliard: Imagine your body growing until your head skims the ceiling. Now your boss looks like a 5-year-old child who wants a hug. See yourself smiling warmly, and the interaction is more likely to go well.

Network without seeming desperate. Focus on "how you can help the people you meet, rather than on what they can do for you," says psychologist Bernardo Carducci. By bringing people together, "you will become powerful and vital, like Don Corleone."

Set goals under your control. Before an important event, such as a job interview, list the anxiety-provoking factors. Then select the issues that you actually control, such as how you describe your accomplishments. Now tackle each issue, with methods such as a mock presentation, until your fears dissipate.

How to sparkle at a party

No more hiding behind the food table. With minimal preparation, you can engage with more than the appetizers.

Have a road map. Conversation with strangers typically moves through five stages, says psychologist Bernardo Carducci, from opening line (keep it simple) and introductions, to trying out topics and exploring for common ground, to closure, in which you tell that person that you're going, sum up what you learned and possibly exchange contact information. Once you internalize these steps, you will always have a mental map of where to go next.

Stay informed. "If you're going someplace next week, then know what happened this week, in local business, or on Lost," Carducci says. "You don't have to be an expert."

To help conversations flow, he adds, apply the two rules of brainstorming: Throw in comments without trying to impress people, and don't judge ideas as they come up. Others will participate more freely if they don't think what they say will be criticized.

Warm up. Arrive early at events so you can meet people one on one. Then, move on to "quick talk," Carducci says. "Talk to lots of different people for short periods, so you don't put a lot of pressure on yourself. Have the same conversation with eight or 10 people in your initial swing through the crowd --you're warming up, just like someone at a race. Then you can go back to the people who interest you."

Look approachable. When people conceal their social anxiety behind a neutral mask, others can become uneasy and interpret their faces as aloof or hostile. To develop warmer interactions, practice looking up with a welcoming smile in the mirror. When we hunch up and lower our heads, we feel more introspective, says therapist Erika Hilliard. When we stand tall and lift our heads, our attention moves outward.

The first 30 seconds

Approaching a stranger is nerve-racking, but the benefits can be worth the short-term anxiety.

Relive a confident moment. If you're feeling down on yourself, others will sense it. Pretending you like yourself doesn't fool people either. Instead, "remember the last time you were shining inside and out, and your body will be responsive," says therapist Erika Hilliard.

Eye contact shows respect. To make a good first impression, maintain a relaxed posture and warm, engaging eye contact. By meeting someone's eyes, you're showing that your mind is not someplace else. To soften your gaze, move your eyes lightly around the person's face, says relationship coach Susan Rabin.

Say anything. To break the ice, comment on some detail about the environment around you, says psychologist Bernardo Carducci. Your purpose is simply to signal your willingness to talk. "People think they have to be witty or urbane -- what they really have to be is nice."

Give extra information. To get a conversation humming, add details, such as "I live on Spring Street near that fantastic bakery." "This gives others more topics to run with, so the conversation doesn't drop like a lead balloon," Hilliard says. "It does not have to be deep and intimate to be a meaningful connection."

Don't just walk away. If the conversation stops for a moment, do you panic and rush off? Once you're sure it's time to conclude, summarize some points of connection, and express gratitude. That way, Carducci says, you'll be more confident about making plans for future contact.


Create a carefree alter ego

There are reports that some of the most successful show business performers are (were) very shy, introverted people.

An example that comes to mind is Johnny Carson. Perhaps one of the funniest and best intrviewers and performers on late night TV, Johnny Carson avoided public appearances and interviews of himself.

In a few of the recorded interviews of Johnny Carson, one could see his uneasiness and shyness through his responses and body language. This from the master of his own show.

Johnny Carson, it would seem, created a carefree alter ego that served him well.

What other popular figures are basically shy introverts who project a strong public personality?
Julian Clary, a comedian over here suffers with anxiety/panic attacks yet his stage show is out going and flamboyant and he is confrontational with the audience.

Jarvis Cocker who was the lead singer of the band called Pulp, is shy, nervous, has panic attacks but on stage again very out going. He wrote a song about how he felt called "The Fear"


Account Closed
Thanks so much for the article Daniel :)

In a former life I also did quite a bit of public speaking and yes I was nervous. Now I read an article like the one you posted and my stomach gets butterflies.

What I have been told, including myself is that when someone is good at public speaking the audience sees them as all put together, having great confidence and looking like nothing could ever be "wrong" with them.

Meanwhile, shaking in our boots. For me specifically, its the "if they ever found me out" kind of deal.

Thanks again.

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