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How do I get over my social anxiety?
October 7, 2007 4:47 PM   Subscribe

How can I get over my social anxiety when at SO's work gatherings. OR how do I fake proper behavior?

My social anxiety is high when I am at my SO's work parties. I try to avoid them, but I have to go every now and then. One reason that I am anxious is that I am a doctoral student and as such am out of shape, have crappy clothes, bad hair and nothing "normal" to talk about except my research. Meeting new people isn't a priority for me right now. How can I get through these events?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Drunk.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 4:51 PM on October 7, 2007


Klonopin or Xanax.
posted by sugarfish at 4:56 PM on October 7, 2007


Develop at least some kind of relationship with some of your SO's co-workers. The relatively minor amount of time it takes to go out in a small group once or twice a month would seem to be a good trade off for a happy relationship with your SO, and would ease the pain of being at large gatherings since you'll have people you know how to talk to there for you to talk to.

Buy one nice outfit. This can be your weddings and other unexpected but important invitations outfit, and doesn't need to be all that fancy--but the time spent in getting the correct fit is non-negotiable.

Find a hair style that hides how much your hair sucks. For long hair, up-dos hide split ends AND look great. Maybe also keep a tube of anti-frizz stuff around for special occasions (consider it an investment). If your hair is short, then just arrange to have your hair cut/trimmed directly before one of these things.

Read the news (hint: NYT subscriber barrier just came down) every day for two-three days ahead of time. This will give you something to talk about, even if it's somewhat boring. Or just talk about your research, most people have nothing to talk about but themselves anyway, and frankly if you're even slightly interested in your research you're doing better than people who are only interested in the mirror.
posted by anaelith at 5:21 PM on October 7, 2007


Don't drink. Behaving inappropriately because of alcohol will add to your misery.

Before you go, browse a few news sites and find non-political but common topics to discuss. When introduced, say the person's name, and ask, what do you do here? Or What do you do for fun? or what are you doing this weekend? or what do you think of this weather we've been having (okay, that's not so good, but you get the idea).

Once you hit on a topic they care about, listen enough to ask useful questions. Pretend to yourself that you're looking for a connection between their business and your research so that you can write an appropriate paper. That might getting you thinking in the right direction.

When they disengage from you, if they do, don't take it as a slight. They may have a plan to mingle or network. If they're total bores, you can leave them, excuse me, I'm just going to get a drink, go to the bathroom, or whatever.

Try not to hang around with the partner - it makes it too easy NOT to mingle. Set a goal for yourself - tonight I will speak to 3 people I don't know and find 3 I do. Once you've done that, take a break, walk outside, find a dark corner to recuperate in.

Oh, and so long as you're neat and clean, anyone who judges YOU for your appearance is not someone you need to consider the opinion of.
posted by b33j at 5:22 PM on October 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ugh. Work events are the worst. I find them much easier to handle if I do some prep work first. I bone up on who the key figures are, their spouses names, their kids' names and ages, any big life-changing events that have happened since the last gathering, etc. That way, I'm not at such a disadvantage when it comes to conversation. Being able to walk up to someone and say, "Oh hi, Betty! I hear your daughter Ann is off to college this year. Harvard, right? How's she adjusting so far?" really helps. People like it when you seem interested in them and if you can get them talking about themselves, the pressure is off you.
posted by jrossi4r at 5:27 PM on October 7, 2007


No one is judging you ("hmm... out of shape, I see") -- if anything, they just can tell that you're uncomfortable with yourself. So, just learn some conversation skills (there are a lot of good past threads on AskMe about it) and consider your attendance and conversation-making as an act of courtesy you're performing (as opposed to the moment of judgment for the current state of your wardrobe), and you'll be fine.
posted by salvia at 5:36 PM on October 7, 2007


out of shape

I would say don't worry about it, but if you're worried about it in this context, you're probably worried about it in general. Look into doing some exercise, but it should be for your own sake, not to impress SO's co-workers.

have crappy clothes

Go op-shopping, and to garage sales. Stylish secondhand clothes are usually cheaper than crappy clothes bought new from the discount store.

bad hair

Just wash it and comb it, and leave enough time for it to dry before the party. If it's long enough, put it in a ponytail. If you really don't care about your hairstyle, get it cut down to 0.5" all over. (This is easy enough to do yourself with clippers equipped with a length gauge.) This will pass for a deliberate attempt at a good haircut, even if you're balding (assuming you don't have pattern baldness, in which case the only way to fix it is shave it all off).

and nothing "normal" to talk about

Google for advice on how to make small talk. This will be useful to you in many, many more situations. You can go for a long, long way in social situations just by asking questions that require open-ended answers, and asking further questions about what the person seems pleased about.

"Hi, I'm Sarah Connor's boyfriend."
"Hi, I'm Pete."
"What do you do at BlahBlah Co?"
"I'm the post-lamination meerkat reduction specialist."
"I've never heard of that, what does that involve?"
...

except my research

Lots of people, particularly smart ones, find science in general interesting. At some point in your academic career you will need to find a way to explain your research in terms that make its purpose comprehensible to the intelligent layman; this is a good opportunity to practice that, before you have to explain it to people who will decide whether or not you should be given money. Particularly emphasise ways this could be part of people's lives, maybe in ten years; tell an interesting story about how the principle(s) were discovered. Also, gossip about your advisor, and your fellow students, and your university. Someone you associate with is bound to be doing research that will interest lay people; bask in their reflected glory.

Very importantly, ask your SO. Your presence at these functions is towards one purpose: making her (or him) look good. You're playing a role. Don't get drunk until at least 10% of the party are plastered. Show--even if it's not completely true--that she has a stable home life, that you love her and are impressed by (and unthreatened by) her success at her job, and that she is a worthy partner for a future academic researcher, you. Whatever she wants you to do, do it. If she wants you not to talk to Bill, and Bill insists on buttonholing you and trying to pump your for information, extricate yourself - ideal way to do that is to keep a vague eye on the bar, and when someone else comes up to it, down your drink and say you need a refill, then go off to the bar and start a conversation with that person. If Bill follows you, introduce the two of them, and excuse yourself to the gents. If he follows you into the gents, have a quiet word with him along the following lines: ("Look Bill, my SO thinks you're a bit weird, and frankly, following me into the toilet is pretty much proving it. I'd like you to leave me alone, I'd like you to leave her alone, and if you cause any more problems for her, we'll take it up with management. Just chill out."

(Anything else is pretty much standard for parties.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:38 PM on October 7, 2007


Also, I know how it feels to feel like the frumpy one. I've had to hang out with a lot of trophy wives and there's just no competing with them. If you're female (I can't tell from the question), it can help to dress simply (a black pants suit, for example) and have one interesting accessory like a funky brooch or a unique handbag. It keeps you from looking like you're trying too hard, but gives people something to compliment you on and compliments can make great conversation-starters.
"I really like your brooch!"
"Thanks. I bought it on vacation in ___/from a local artist/because it reminds me of___."
posted by jrossi4r at 5:44 PM on October 7, 2007


Aeschenkarnos, do you reckon the clippers/shaved look works for women as well? Because i've had quite negative reactions when I've done it.
posted by b33j at 5:47 PM on October 7, 2007


"I'm the post-lamination meerkat reduction specialist."

First of all, I have to say that all business speak sounds just like this to me (only not hilarious).

As a fellow frumpy, unfashionable, not-for-profit academic -- and goddamned proud of it, my friend -- I Feel Your Pain. The reason we often feel this way and feel awkward and as if we have nothing to talk about at business functions is that those people don't get what we do, are openly hostile to it, and act in a boorishly self-important manner.

Considering that you do want to be supportive of your spouse, then I'd go with my standard defense mechanism: buying right into it and (non-effusively) flattering the fuck out of these private sector types. Ask all about their meerkat reduction, insert the occasional vague platitude about what you do (if they even ask), nod at their condescending comments about academic research, etc.

Meanwhile, to stop yourself from going stark staring mad, contemplate the soul-suffocating emptiness of their cubicle-filling, pantihose-wearing, cog-in-a-Rube-Goldberg-device existence.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:55 PM on October 7, 2007


In short, get over it.

I still struggle from time to time with social anxiety disorder. My doctor prescribed Paxil which helps some but the best treatment I have had is realizing that everyone else is only thinking about themselves. Granted, some people are better conversationalists than others but the bottom line is that everyone is worried about what others are going to think of them and tailor their actions accordingly. Most people are too busy worrying about themselves to even make a judgment of you.

Your perceived lack of social skills may be there or it may just be in your head. Probably a mixture of both. Just go there and talk about what makes you tick. Listen to what the other person is saying and it will all flow from there.
There is so much more to it and if you want more of my opinion feel free to check my profile and shoot me an email.

If you just forget about everyone else and be yourself, you will be doing better than 90% of the people there.
posted by Bjkokenos at 6:03 PM on October 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ask your SO who the smart coworkers are, and gravitate towards them. There's probably a few non-social dorks in any group, and generally I can get along with them.

Despite what b33j says, I find moderate amounts of alcohol (1 or 2 drinks, not actually getting drunk) to help my social anxiety a lot. There's a fine line, that differs per person, where more drinks make it worse, though. Work your way up.
posted by JZig at 6:15 PM on October 7, 2007


Aeschenkarnos, do you reckon the clippers/shaved look works for women as well? Because i've had quite negative reactions when I've done it.

It's a lot more unusual for women to do it, but it can and does work for many women. Can't answer for you in particular without a photo, even then it'd just be my opinion. Ask your friends! :)

I assumed the questioner was male and suggested the clipper cut as the easiest, cheap, low-maintenance option for a person who doesn't care about their hair to get it under control and looking OK. YMMV.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:18 PM on October 7, 2007


Assuming you get along with your SO - what do you talk to them about? Pets, family, TV, etc? Use the non-private topics in conversations with other people.
posted by ruevian at 6:36 PM on October 7, 2007


I'm another hermit/socially-awkward narried grad student married who gets dragged to all kinds of work events. By just being my dorky, neurotic self and talking about stuff that interests me, I've made a lot of unexpected connections at social events I didn't even want to be at. When all else fails, I just kind of stand around, force myself to smile and nod when people are talking about their favorite tv shows or sports.

I hear you on the clothes topic. I'm assuming that you are female. Go shopping and get yourself a couple of new outfits. You don't have to spend a ton of money. Get a couple of nice things that you feel good in and that are comfortable. I have a rayon jersey empire waist dress from Max studio that is cute, hides my chunky grad student bod, yet shows off my boobage in a pleasing, yet non-tarty manner. You could wear this with black tights and a pair of mary janes. I am also a big fan of black dress pants, black V neck sweater and a funky necklace.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:47 PM on October 7, 2007


I have to go to my hubby's Republican things occasionally and I feel as you do.

I generally use them as an excuse to buy a new outfit and get a hair trim. Then I go look for someone else who looks uncomfortable, or barring that, someone who wants to suck up to my husband by being nice to his wife ;-)

(And if finances are limited, you really can find good stuff at consignment and thrift stores. It's worth the hunt. Go in the middle of the week for the best selection.)
posted by konolia at 6:54 PM on October 7, 2007


At gatherings like these I usually find someone who looks as shy and awkward as I am. They're usually good for conversation.

Failing that, find someone and get them talking about themselves. Then you can just blink, smile, and nod. Ask questions about the company or their position. You'll come off seeming interested, not awkward.
posted by christinetheslp at 7:02 PM on October 7, 2007


Major social anxiety sufferer speaking, in the midst of a sort of social rebirth, speaking here... A few thoughts:

(1) I never really thought about it until I read about it as a speech disorder, but alogia, or "poverty of speech," was a major problem for me. I'd always give exceedingly-concise answers. For example, in your situation, when asked what I did, I'd probably answer, "I'm a doctoral student," whereas, "I'm a doctoral student at Harvard studying the economics of botany... It sounds boring, I'm sure, but it's actually pretty interesting once you get into it" or something of the sort would be a much better answer. By giving really terse answers, people were forced to either keep asking me simple questions, or they'd think I wasn't interested (or interesting!) and stop talking to me.

(2) Most people love talking about themselves. If you're like me and don't like to talk to strangers about yourself much, you can easily redirect everything back to them, and most people will be all too glad. "I'm from Kansas. Where are you from? ... Texas? Really? What's it like there?" This can be slightly disconcerting at first, since you're effectively 'steering' the conversation, but it's at least a tactic to keep in your back pocket.

(3) I read Living Fully with Shyness and Social Anxiety, and found it pretty worthwhile. I think the takeaway was really just that there are tons of people out there in the same boat, and I was inspired to "practice."

It's easier said than done, I know, but don't think of it as a stressful situation: it's a way to practice with people who probably won't even remember you next time you meet.

HTH...
posted by fogster at 7:27 PM on October 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


DRINK!

make sure you're in the zone of "buzzed" and not "stupid".

I've got a lot of business this way.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 8:50 PM on October 7, 2007


By just being my dorky, neurotic self and talking about stuff that interests me, I've made a lot of unexpected connections at social events I didn't even want to be at.

When all else fails, I just kind of stand around, force myself to smile and nod when people are talking about their favorite tv shows or sports.


Bravo, Plucky Sparrow. And at the end of the day, that's all you need to do to support your SO. Anyone who remembers you will say, "Yes, I recall that SO. Quite pleasant, a bit quiet and shy." As long as you're being your sincere self, you'll do fine.

(My bizarre wording is because the poster didn't give any genders.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:24 PM on October 7, 2007


Lots of people, particularly smart ones, find science in general interesting. At some point in your academic career you will need to find a way to explain your research in terms that make its purpose comprehensible to the intelligent layman; this is a good opportunity to practice that, before you have to explain it to people who will decide whether or not you should be given money. Particularly emphasise ways this could be part of people's lives, maybe in ten years; tell an interesting story about how the principle(s) were discovered.

Do this. Please. I am one of those people wishing that I could just find someone with whom to have a real conversation but am stuck in the torment of nodding and smiling at the plastic twit in front of me.

Some of us are better at the social thing, but still find most of these people tiresome. Look for people who look like the sort of people you'd rather talk to. Your SO should facilitate the intro.

Upscale second-hand store and consignment shops for clothes. Just look for a few things that are simple and flattering and save them for these occasions-- nice dark-colored slacks or long skirt, a simple light-gauge sweater or tunic top or whatever your style, and shoes with a low heel will do you fine.
posted by desuetude at 9:27 PM on October 7, 2007


Oh, sorry. Assuming you're a girl. Substitute "pants not jeans," "clean button-down shirt tucked-in" and "dress shoes or boots, NOT sneakers" if you're not female.
posted by desuetude at 9:30 PM on October 7, 2007


Learn and repeat the mantra "interested people are interesting". This is useful in many, if not all situations: be interested in your spouse's work and the people they work with, use that information to then initiate conversations at these parties ("oh, hey, I heard you just got a promotion, blah blah blah") thereby expressing interest in what these people have to say, and talk a little bit about the interesting things you do ("I'm pretty excited about this thing that I yadda yadda..."). This is the way to eventually find yourself around other interested and interesting people. It may sound ridiculously simplistic, but it works. I know you said meeting new people isn't a priority for you, but feeling comfortable in social situations is 1) a relief 2) makes meeting people effortless.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:00 PM on October 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


The long-term answer is simple, in concept: you just need more practice in social situations. There's a reason that people in retail or restaurant work are generally pretty personable and confident in social situations -- they interact with people all day, every day. They get soooo much practice making small talk, tweaking their wardrobe or hairstyle, deflecting unwanted flirtation, etc., that they make us technical folk look like total goobers. PLUS, their co-workers are social people too, so they can learn from them! If you're doing technical work all day, you're not going to get much practice with human interaction. (I stare at a computer screen most of the day, so I have to make a real effort to socialize, or it's not going to happen -- and I'll get back out of practice, and lapse back into shyness... loneliness... depression...)

Shyness and social awkwardness is not a personal failing -- it's just lack of practice.

But here's a quick, concrete social crutch that has really helped me in the past: View a conversation as a tennis match. They say something. You respond, but ADD A QUESTION for them to answer. They respond, hopefully adding their own question -- or at least mentioning a point of interest. You respond, adding another question. Etc. Back and forth. Like tennis.

In the beginning this will feel forced and artificial. But after a while, after some practice, you'll be able to maintain INTERESTING conversations without any crutches. Eventually you'll move on to more advanced communications, such as evaluating subtle body language, opening conversations with people you don't know, etc. And you'll get to meet a bunch of interesting people in the process. The planet is FULL of 'em as it turns out!
posted by LordSludge at 9:39 AM on October 8, 2007


those people don't get what we do, are openly hostile to it, and act in a boorishly self-important manner... nod at their condescending comments about academic research, etc. ... contemplate the soul-suffocating emptiness of their cubicle-filling, pantihose-wearing, cog-in-a-Rube-Goldberg-device existence.

If you have an attitude like this, you'll almost certainly always be awkward and uncomfortable in these situations. There's no reason not to think that there will be people who are interested in your work, or glad to have met you in that context. Keep in mind -- those wacky business people who "don't understand" academia and seem so foreign or different? One of them is your SO.

You can't think of it as "getting through" the event without your conversations (and even facial expressions!) revealing that attitude. It is, as some have said above, a great chance to practice describing a layman's version of your work, which will be essential in getting others to recognize its value. You might even, you know, meet people who become friends or who are helpful for your research or your academic career.

A lot of the best, or most unexpected, mental stimulation can come from being in a foreign or unfamiliar situation. These events can be the catalysts for some of your best thinking, if you see them as sources of unusual influences.
posted by anildash at 10:19 AM on October 8, 2007


Get really good at small talk.
posted by philosophistry at 11:53 AM on October 8, 2007


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