Public speaking: no problem; Private socializing: unpossible
August 21, 2018 8:17 AM   Subscribe

Is there a Toastmasters except instead of for public speaking it's about small talk with different types of people and other forms of one-on-one communication? I've realized that what is holding me back in multiple areas of my life is my discomfort with talking one-on-one with people I don't know, outside of a few familiar contexts.

I'm a trainer and teacher and am very comfortable speaking in front of groups or having individual meetings where I'm teaching someone how to do a thing. People who know me personally and professionally would probably say that one-on-one I'm friendly, relaxed and funny. Where I've got discomfort to the extent that just thinking about it makes me want to punch a me-shaped hole in the nearest wall as I flee is encountering and interacting one-on-one with people I do not already know, outside of these very well-trod contexts. I have problems dealing with any conversation that does not go how I expect it to, people who have different cultural or personal communication styles to me, or people experiencing strong emotions. (Note: I am a woman, socialized to be conflict-avoident people-pleaser, and also SUPER suspicious of the intentions of, like, everyone but especially men until I get evidence to the contrary.)

I get so nervous in these types of interactions, I don't remember anyone's names or what was said to me, and I say weird shit I don't mean or just shouldn't say, and just generally make it as awkward as possible until I can run away screaming.

Is there hope for me? Are there programs or organizations that can give me a safe, scaffolded environment to unlearn this fear?
posted by soren_lorensen to Human Relations (9 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Hola, fellow sometimes shy person. I noticed my library has an English as a Second Language meeting every Monday night and I'm thinking about going. That should be a low pressure situation where I'm both helping someone learn English and interacting. Since these people will be from different cultures, maybe that would help ease you into it?

Sorry if this isn't helpful, I don't know of any organizations that specifically do what you're looking for.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:06 AM on August 21, 2018

I don't know any such orgs, unfortunately, however it might be efficient to address the underlying anxiety and trust worries.
posted by zippy at 9:42 AM on August 21, 2018

The title is somewhat embarrassing and there is a certain 1930s old timey hokeyness to the writing style, but Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People was a pretty helpful book me.

I know that the Dale Carnegie institute also do workshop seminar type things, but the book is a good starter for getting over the anxiety of these situations.
posted by wowenthusiast at 10:12 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

A group therapy setting might be helpful, particularly with being around people experiencing strong emotions.
posted by mcduff at 10:32 AM on August 21, 2018

I can address the hope-for-you part. Techy guy here, I grew up feeling much the way you've expressed, in that I was super uncomfortable making small-talk but I could address a class of motivated students and enjoy doing it. I can vouch for the value of what might be considered a new-agey approach, but has been used to improve athletic and life-skills performance since at least the middle of the last century. Specifically, re-visualize recent experiences and pre-visualize future ones, having had, or about to have, exactly the outcome you want.

For example, think of a recent social interaction that didn't go as well as you'd have liked it to, and find a place in the process where you feel, had you spoken or done something differently, the process would have gone better - even, perfectly. (Is there a place where you think "I wish I had ... instead!", that's the part to re-imagine! The parts of the scene that had, or could have, the most emotional "juice" for you will be the most effective ones to work with.) Play that interaction back but visualizing you actually doing or saying the "I wish I had". Go over it again. Do it often. Perhaps as the difficult point in the memory softens for you, another will rises to prominence. This is your video; edit it until it has the perfect outcome for you. You get to leave the edited pieces on the cutting room floor and walk away from them (i.e., forgive yourself for them, if you're feeling remorse or self-blame). The mental practice will translate into future reality (aren't brains amazing?).

For the future case, you're starting with a clean slate! The future experience hasn't happened yet so you get to have your picture of it going exactly the way you want it to. That mental practice will help you bring it about as a reality.

Need a more concrete example? Toss wadded up paper balls (sock balls, tennis balls, what have you) into a watebasket from far enough away to make it a bit challenging. Toss a dozen of them. Feel the weight of each one before you toss it. If you don't miss at least half your throws, it's too easy; move farther back.

Now take a few minutes to visualize another dozen tosses - how each one leaves your hand, its path through space, the place it enters the basket, the sound it makes hitting the basket, every feature you can imagine - with every toss landing dead-center in the basket.

Repeat the real throws, but this time, before each toss, visualize this toss landing in the basket, with all the technicolor details we used visualizing the dozen. Did your score improve? Either way, do it again (visualize a dozen; toss another dozen, pre-visualizing each one).

The reality of this technique is that we can teach our subconcious to toss paper wads, ski a given race-course, sink a golf putt, or have a freer flowing and more satisfying conversation; which then takes over in the moment to guide our actions. It just needs us to practice the skill, and the way-cool-mazing thing is: mental practice can work as well as, and amplifiy, the physical practice!
posted by TruncatedTiller at 10:37 AM on August 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

The way I got over this and got really good at chitchat (I now enjoy it a lot as a pastime!) is to work in bars and restaurants. Try to get a job as a restaurant host or waitress in a busy place. You'll have to learn to be intensely social while codeswitching between customer interaction, interaction with the front of house (waitstaff), and with the back of house (kitchen). Since they're all such social jobs (both back and front of house) and you're interacting with dozens of customers each shift, the standards for your social skills will be high -- and you'll rise to the challenge. Honestly, I thought for a long time that working in restaurants was pointless in the grand scheme of my life (aside from paying the bills of course), but it actually teaches you soft skills like nobody's business. You will not be allowed to stay in your comfort zone socially, and that's a good thing!
posted by rue72 at 10:59 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Kind of like rue72's suggestion, something that's been helpful for me is getting involved with the local chapter of a professional organization as a volunteer. I've been running registration and checking people in at our monthly meetings for a couple of years now and am surprised by how much more confidence I've developed without noticing it at the time.

One of the things that was helpful for me about this was that because I had a job I was actively doing, I had an "out" if I felt like a conversation was stalling awkwardly. "Excuse me, I just need to [check this person in/tell the venue manager something/give the presenter a message]."

We held our annual fundraiser last week and I found myself cheerfully greeting people and glad-handing right and left. "Allen, good to see you! Hey, David, how've you been? It's been ages, Myshell, glad you made it!" I spent most the day chatting with various people whom I know only slightly and had a great time, much to my surprise.
posted by Lexica at 11:12 AM on August 21, 2018

Hmm .. Im sure lots of the tips above will help. I came in to offer, if you want, that I could help you practice? I'd be glad to chat on the phone or skype with you, whatever you like - feel free to memail me. Source of offer: I'm female, mid 30s, can relate to social anxiety - though I know it in different forms than you (actually my struggle is with anxiety around writing and text-based communication) , and have been told I'm very disarming and easy to talk to.

My junior-high self had lots of perseverative self concious thought loops about how various social convos went .. I think the only sort of tip that might have helped me get over it basically amounts to a) make yourself practice (growing up in an era of phones a d not email and texting helped there for sure) and b) fake it till you make it .. I know that sounds trite but .. Well , re the "fake it" bit, try pretending that you are already good friends with your conversation partner and/or that you are already some one who is good at small talk .. Can't hurt might help? In particular a micro-tip -- asking "how is your day?" Or "what have you been up to all day" really puts the ball in their court more than "how are you."

I hear people say a lot that they hate small talk .. But if you are engaging with another human being from a place of genuinely caring about them and being interested in them -- even if all that interest boils down to is "here is a human I would like to be kind to because kindness makes life a little better for everyone" -- I really believe all of that will come across in a "petty" comment like "oh I love your sparkly nails there" to a bank teller or "good grief its a million degrees outside" or "i'm doing ok , hows your day going ?"

I also had a number of phone answering and phone bank jobs and volunteer positions in my 20s and after x amount of cold calling and so forth you do kind of develop a "persona" and a thicker skin. I guess thats the exposure therapy bit of part a). You could try volunteering to make get out the vote calls .. Or chatting with lyft or uber drivers. And .. also know that most folks are so caught up in worrying about themselves that they are unlikely to even notice what you're worrying over.. really truly : )

Anyway , don't hesitate to reach out. Same to any other mefites reading this as well as OP.

Apologies for typos, am writing from teeny tiny touch screen sans keyboard.
posted by elgee at 11:12 AM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I tend to be pretty empathic and I'll just ask the other person questions until I hit something I can tell they want to talk about and ask them lots of questions about that topic.
posted by bendy at 1:15 AM on August 22, 2018

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