I'm a great public speaker, but painfully shy in every other situation. What to do?
March 10, 2007 3:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm a great public speaker, but painfully shy in every other situation. What to do?

I'm an extremely shy guy in social situations, but when it comes to public speaking, I'm very confident and bold. This issue has been bothering me for ages, so I'm looking for a way to solve it.

I'm able to do a great job in addressing groups in public speeches, as a big part of my work is making presentations about technology innovation in my company's products. I feel totally comfortable with it and my lectures are usually very well evaluated.

However, in every other social situation I'm painfully shy. Some examples: pretty much never talked to a girl on a bar, avoid going to parties where most people are unknown to me, don't like gyms, almost invisible in office day-to-day (there are people who've been sitting next to me for months and they don't know my name), etc.

One of the most bizarre situations of my life took place when I was in a "Presentation Skills" training class: every student had to do a taped presentation introducing himself, and after mine I was tagged by the whole class as the most extrovert and bold person in the room. If they only knew...

I have just recently realized that I'm most likely to feel shy whenever there are many women in the place.

How can I feel comfortable in social situations the same way I do when speaking to big audiences?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
A little alcohol can go a looooooooooong way.
posted by barnacles at 4:14 AM on March 10, 2007

That was a flippant response, but it's also my serious answer. I'd say I'm a bit like you (probably not as good of a public speaker, but I can get by), and I find that some liquid courage works wonders for being able to chat with people I would never ever talk to, otherwise. Don't overdo it. There's a fine line between chatty friendly guy and obnoxious drunk.
posted by barnacles at 4:16 AM on March 10, 2007

I used to skulk around avoiding eye contact and mumbling and nodding when people said hello to me. This eventually lead to people in my workplace thinking I was racist*. I don't hate anyone. I'm just shy. But when you avoid other people, they tend to think you dislike them.

Anyway, I started forcing myself to make eye contact and say "hello" to everyone, even just people I passed on the sidewalk, or stood next to in line. I put so much effort and anxiety into avoided the dreaded small talk. It was actually easier to just suck it up and smile at someone. After a while it doesn't become a chore. With enough practice I can even go to the hair salon without wanting to leap out of the chair and run for the door the second they start talking about the weather.

And no one at my new job thinks I'm racist.

*And I was the same race! They said "She wouldn't be the first one to hate her own kind."
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:27 AM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Why are you shy? Why do you need to change it? It's not necessarily bad.

I think it's a hoot that you have this symptom in reverse... most folks would literally rather DIE than speak in public. It is most novel.

Comedian Johnny Carson was rumored to have something similar... absolutely no one else on the planet had a more engaging public personna, but in private, reserved, sullen, withdrawn. Apparently, he was that way his whole life.

Are you actually hiding when publicly speaking... assuming a personality? If you can do it on command, can you do it for a crowd of one? That seems an easy way out of your dilemma.

Your discomfort may never go away, much like stage fright never leaves some very experienced actors, but you may be able to power through.

It's also perfectly acceptable to be shy and quiet. Smile, make eye contact, be accepting of long, quiet periods in small group interactions. A sure sign of friendship in my experience has always been when people are comfortable enough with one another not to say much. Coonsider yourself as having a head start in that area!

If you really need to get out of this mode, just solve it by asking sincere and probing questions of people. Let them talk.

Good luck with your interesting problem.
posted by FauxScot at 4:33 AM on March 10, 2007

Hello, mr. anonymous, the first step in overcoming your shyness is to stop being anonymous!

I'm going to echo Juliet's advice because it has helped me too. Force yourself to at least smile and say hi to everyone and I mean people on the street, people in the office, people at the bar, etc. That is your in, the icebreaker, a way to acknowledge people. Of course there are plenty of other icebreakers and many books have been written about using them.

Of course like FauxScot said, it is "perfectly acceptable to be shy" but it is a lonely life.
posted by JJ86 at 5:15 AM on March 10, 2007

Shyness and Introversion are distinct things. They are somehow related though.
The first step, for me as an introvert, was to accept that it is unlikley to expect to be an extrovert in the future. Introversion is one of the Big Five personality traits (actually extraversion is, but it's a dimension) which are known to be stable over time.
I'm surprised, that you are a such a good public speaker. It reminds me of the Introversion/Extraversion Pattern. Perhaps you can transfer the pattern to other social events.
posted by donut at 5:34 AM on March 10, 2007

I'm a very confident public speaker and teacher. I can hold my own in groups of three or more. But while I'm not as shy as anonymous, I am also self-conscious about dealing with new people one on one.

As FauxScot has said, there may be an element of performance to public speaking which makes this easier than one on one interaction. You have a role and you have a topic (which is almost certainly not yourself).

We're not talking Johnny Carson levels of dissociation here, by the way. It's not "fake" to be confident in one situation and not another. I think it's sheer self-consciousness. You can get into the flow experience in public speaking the way you can't in casual socializing because it's not about you, and it's not about learning about that specific person or that other specific person, and possible offending or boring them in the process.

Is it possible that you are aware of the kinds of things other people do when socializing, but are reluctant to act like that because a) you may make a mistake and appear awkward, or b) acting differently will seem fake and you don't want people who already are familiar with you to think that you're fake?

Juliet is right. Take baby steps and start talking to people. Like anything else, you get better with practice. You will probably always be a little more shy, introverted and self-conscious than than the heartiest extrovert. But you can, bit by bit, get more confident talking with people, even if you occasionally feel like an idiot. (Join the club!)

If you can post here with your real handle, that might help, too. Maybe there's something you want to clarify from your original post that would help us understand your situation better.
posted by maudlin at 5:50 AM on March 10, 2007

Thanks for all your replies! I'll stop being anonymous, but right now I feel uncomfortable about the possibility of you clicking my username, seeing the questions I've asked before and thinking I'm some sort of an idiot.

FauxScot, I need to change it because I do not feel well about this "condition", and because I want to be able to be able to better express myself in daily social situations, because this is 99% of my life, as I'm not making presentations all the time. Not being able to do this has stopped me from doing one of the things I like the most: travelling and getting to know new places. Look at my questions and you'll see two travel-related questions, one about Iceland and other about Vegas. Guess what, I ended up not doing any of those, for pure fear of having to interact with people if I intended to have some fun (I was travelling alone).

Maudlin, you hit the nail on the head when you say I'm a good speaker because the lectures are not about *me*, but about something the audience is actually interested. When interacting socially, you're expected to be some kind of interesting person (which I know I can be) but somehow I can't get it through so I end up using my invisibility tricks.

I'd be happy to be able to transfer the pattern from one situation to the other, but I have no clue on how to do it.
posted by dcrocha at 6:14 AM on March 10, 2007

I feel uncomfortable about the possibility of you clicking my username, seeing the questions I've asked before and thinking I'm some sort of an idiot.

This may be a symptom of the problem. Most people do not care. They are too busy thinking about themselves to wonder whether you are an idiot or not. And if they do care, you shouldn't. You shouldn't care about whether some random dude on the internet thinks you're an idiot because you ask questions about dachsunds and shyness.

It sounds like you can identify some good qualities about yourself. Focus on those. Even if some random person thinks you're an idiot (and this will happen much less than you probably think), it doesn't matter, you still have much to recommend yourself.
posted by grouse at 6:39 AM on March 10, 2007

Your worst fears have been realized. :-) I just clicked on your name and saw your earlier questions, and they were fine. Feel free to click on my name and see my questions, too.

You're obviously smart, and you may be something of a perfectionist, too. When you say you want to "transfer your pattern from one situation to another", how much of a match do you want? And how will you judge your level of success: by how happy you are to finally experience new things and meet new people, or by how much you will measure up against some ideal standard of sociability? It sounds as if you just want to be able to loosen up, which is great.

I don't have a full series of steps worked out, but here are some things to keep in mind.

1) Start small. Smile and greet every single "invisible" person who serves you lunch or sell you newspapers, even if they look grumpy. After a few days of this, you may find yourself having small conversations with them.

2) Be a weeble. A friend of mine in high school was known as "Weeble" (as in the toy slogan: "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.") He was smart, but otherwise had average looks and average wit. He was likeable but nor extraordinary. But what was notable about him was that he took chances socially. He'd talk to anybody about anything, no matter where they were in the school social hierarchy. He made jokes, some which worked, some which didn't.

I don't mean that he was the type who was desperate to jump into every conversation, or was someone who kept making jokes out of a deep desire to seem funny and likeable. He just plugged along not being self-conscious about being smart but otherwise average. He didn't assume in advance that he wasn't meeting other people's standards, or that he was guaranteed to bore or offend others. He did fine, that's all.
posted by maudlin at 6:44 AM on March 10, 2007

I think to expand on the why are you shy? question from upthread, I would explore what it is that is the source of your shyness and what the particular triggers are. I would consider a short, intense burst of therapy, especially using a therapist who is trained in a technique called EFT. It might seem flaky at first, but we use it clinically with some severe problems with really good responses (sure, it could be placebo effect, but hey, if it works...).
posted by moonbird at 7:10 AM on March 10, 2007

Be Yourself.
i'm serious.
posted by Dizzy at 7:31 AM on March 10, 2007

Therapy may be worth checking out. I had a friend who was painfully shy, and a course of Paxil helped him overcome it. Of course, if non-drug solutions work for you, all the better. Regardless, talking to a therapist can't hurt and could help.
posted by walla at 8:09 AM on March 10, 2007

Sounds like you need a gentle introduction to social situations, talking to people at parties and bars can be a bit tricky to get started with. Try being around people where there is more of a focus on an activity: hiking groups, volunteer work, classes. You can talk about the activity with the people you meet there. Also, people like to talk about themselves. Asking people questions that get them talking and listening to the answers will do a lot to convince them that you are interesting, although you do eventually need to talk about yourself a bit if you don't want to seem standoffish.

Juliet Banana and JJ86 had some good advice for you. It seems like in addition to being shy you are also girl-shy, so be sure to try this on women too. Choosing female cashiers at the grocery store, etc and saying a few words (Thank you usually goes over well) is a good start for this. Eye contact can be tough to get started on, practice on yourself in the mirror.

Oh, and you can take that daschund dog for walks, while practicing your eye contact and a smile. This might give you the opprotunity to practice some small talk with strangers, and can just talk about your dog.
posted by yohko at 8:28 AM on March 10, 2007

Ok, I was very very shy when I was younger. Nobody believes it but I still am inside. The thing is, I've forced myself to deal with it. Here's what I did. It may sound silly, but it worked for me.

I had a difficult time time talking to strangers and a really difficult time making natural physical contact with people (I do not come from a huggy family, and I didn't want to be like them). When I was about 17 I gave myself goals. At first it was that every day I had to say hello to 4 people. Didn't matter who. And I had to make physical contact with 4 strangers & make it as natural as possible. Even if it was just an accidental little bump into someone at the store I let that count (And then I'd apologize for the bump! wooo hooo! I talked to them too!) It sounds dumb I'm sure, but it was really terrifying for me at the time. I told myself it was okay if I was awkward at it, but I just had to do it. Every day. And that would make me less awkward.

Then I upped the stakes. I went to a mall and I made myself ask people questions. I would pick up a shirt and ask a woman if she thought the color was okay. I'd walk into a record store and ask where the used bin was. Whatever. Sounds simple, but it wasn't. I told also myself that when I saw or parted from good friends I had to try giving them a quick hug. At first I remember it felt awkward (partly because my friends didn't expect it) but within months I found that my friends were actually approaching ME for hugs and it felt totally natural. Then I got a night job as a waitress and I used each table as a new opportunity. It worked wonders. By the end I was forcing myself to have full conversations with people. And next thing I knew, I wasn't forcing anymore.

I would definitely not be a professional musician now if I hadn't done that experiment when I did. It really changed my life for the better. I kept it up for years and just took baby steps. Now, as I said, nobody believes me that I was ever terrified of people.

If you do ANYTHING enough, it becomes normal to you.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:44 AM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Go before your audience believing you love each and everyone one of them. Look at them squarely in their faces and and tell them you love them (in your mind, of course). It sounds corny as heck but it works.
posted by dropkick at 8:57 AM on March 10, 2007

"everyone one" - ya know what I'm sayin'
posted by dropkick at 9:16 AM on March 10, 2007

Smile training. Walk around and start smiling at things, then animals, then people then really good looking girls. Force yourself. Work hard to practice smiling at each thing. It will feel really weird at first, but pretty soon, you will get the hang of it. Spend a week on things, a week on animals, a week on people and the rest of your life on beautiful women.

I mean it.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:54 AM on March 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

On preview, kinda like what ms lynster said.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:54 AM on March 10, 2007

You say you're comfortable with public speaking because you're talking about something other than yourself. You can also make small talk about things other than yourself. "I read a really great article about XYZ the other day; here's what they said, what do you think?" or "That meeting we had today was really interesting, what do you think?" Don't lecture people, of course, just maybe throw out a weak opinion and ask what they think. (I find weak opinions are best, even if you're not particularly wishy-washy on the topic, because it gives people a chance to disagree with you without sounding argumentative.)

In other words, lots of small talk topics don't involve any degree of self-revelation; that's why people talk about the sports, the weather, tv shows, newspaper articles.

And with regards to travel: I actually found that it's much easier to be an "expert" on interesting topics when you travel -- you can talk about the differences between the city you're from and the city you're in. Many people, especially in tourist destinations, like to hear about different places, and like to talk about their own cities. I've always found it a really good starting place for conversations while traveling.
posted by occhiblu at 10:33 AM on March 10, 2007

I meant to explicitly say: I think if your underlying message is, "You seem interesting, and I want to hear what you have to say on this topic I'm interested in," you can do a lot of "small talk" that actually just lets the person talk for a while. I hate the idea of "ask questions of other people, because everyone likes to talk about themselves." But I do think that people like to be regarded as experts, or at least like to see that you think their opinions are valuable enough to be interesting and worth talking about. And that takes most of the pressure off you.
posted by occhiblu at 10:37 AM on March 10, 2007

Fifteen years ago I could have described myself exactly as you did. I hated it. I was in college--kicking butt in public speaking competitions but I could hardly use a telephone. So I read this book. The reviews on Amazon are mixed, and maybe it is simplistic and outdated, but it changed my life. I followed his recommendations and by the end of the year things had changed dramatically. I'll never be outgoing by nature, and social situations are still draining for me, but I can do everything outgoing people do, and that's what I wanted.

I don't remember if this is in the book or not, but at the time I was really into not just public speaking but acting, and had messed around with improvisational comedy. Part of my self therapy was deciding every now and then that "for the next hour I will act the part of an outgoing socially-secure person." And so I did it, thinking of it as real-life improv practice. And that helped a lot.

"Fake it till you make it" worked for me.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:50 AM on March 10, 2007

I'm just like you, dcrocha. I speak at huge conferences, I'm good at it, and I love doing it. I teach; I direct plays; I even act sometimes. But put me in an elevator with a stranger and I'm at a loss -- and painfully self-conscious. I agree that it's not inherently bad to be shy, but as with dcrocha, it is bad in my case, because I don't want to be that way.

I have a plan for improvement. I can't say that it will work, because I haven't started it yet. And I'm sure some here will say it's silly. But it fits well with my personality (a bit aspergers-ish), which likes to operate within a framework (which is why I like public speaking -- I'm not being fake, but I am working within a social framework that has specific rules and within which I'm fulfilling a particular function).

My plan: I'm going to spart playing a game for which I award myself points for certain types of social interactions. I haven't worked out the rules (to the obsessive level that I can live with) yet, but here's a rough draft:

Note: one way I'm different from you, dcrocha, is that I'm much more at ease with women than men. So that's why you'll see a "sexist" slant to my rules.

[NONE of the following counts if not accompanied by eye-contact. I also lose any potential point value if I make eye-contact but then get nervous and cut it off too early.]

Smile at a stranger: 1 point.
Hello to a stranger: 2 points.
Short smalltalk with a woman stranger: 3 points.
Short smalltalk with a man stranger: 5 points.
Conversation with a woman stranger: 10 points.
Conversation with a man stranger: 20 points.

I'm thinking it might be fun -- and it might spur me on to actually do this and keep it up -- to keep a blog about it. I need to figure out some sort of goal: a certain number of points per month that I'm shooting for.

I'm basically saying the same thing that others here are saying: force yourself. But if you're a total freak like me, you may be able to do this more easily within some sort of framework. Game/points frameworks have worked for me in other areas.
posted by grumblebee at 11:03 AM on March 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Funny. I read this - and I was going to email grumblebee (as he's a friend); we're both speakers.

You'd never know how much of an introvert I can be. I can easily, spend two days at home and talk to nobody and be content. When I hear things like "isolation" as a punishment, I think, "wow, vacation."

Realistically, part of it, is that you're *not* talking about yourself. Part of it, is that you extend your personality (sounds like frequently in front of groups,) that you may crave introversion after (I especially do.)

When I'm at a party, and I know maybe one person (likely the host), I realize that I'm not talking to anyone. Luckily, a switch in my head occurs. I make it a point to go up to someone/anyone and ask them about themselves. People like to talk about themselves.

If it was an office, where I was a virtual stranger (where I worked,) I'd ask the guy next to me, "Gee, I've been working next to you, and I know nothing about you - think we could grab lunch this week?". If it was a member of the opposite sex, I'd probably do this with two or three people (so they wouldn't think I was hitting on them, more 'trying to get to know a coworker.')

And then, yeah, you might even prepare some little smalltalk. Ask them how they like their job/manager/parents. See if you like the same TV shows. You do? Great, talk about that. You don't? Ask them about their favorite TV show, and why they like it.

Compliments never ever hurt - they often help others open up.

One last observation: You seem to care what I think about your prior questions.

Know what? Who cares what I think. Really. Some people are going to get to know you and dislike you. Some will like you.

You're a bit afraid of coming off weird. So what. There are people who dress up and go to star trek conventions. And speak Klingon. Obsess about being a good person, instead of what others think. You'll fail a bit (and you failed when you first tried to walk, and you managed that too!)

Best of luck.
posted by filmgeek at 11:41 AM on March 10, 2007

My first reaction to this question is that in the case of public speaking, there's usually a really clear reason why you're speaking, and it's actually easier in some ways because of that. You have to give a speech or introduce a speaker or present a set of facts, etc. So most public speaing actually has little of the awkwardness you find in person-to-person or small group interactions, where there's often no clearly defined goal or course of action.

In your case you seem to exactly describe this -- you're much more confident in well defined settings (tech presentations or your classroom self-introduction).

So: this might seem counterintuitive, but just as an experiment have you thought about framing personal contacts in terms of goals or courses of action, just in human terms? (e.g. "My objective in this party is to talk to two people and find out what's been making them happy recently" -- or "My goal is to talk about my hobby with a female.")
posted by lorimer at 11:59 AM on March 10, 2007

I should also mention I support your desire to post anonymously even if it's just to keep the field pure. I've had some responses to my questions, both here & elsewhere, that were clearly colored by opinions the poster had formed based on my unrelated previous questions. People here are sometimes bad about interjecting their irrelevant opinions... and bad with the logical certainty that issues you've posted about in the past may have CHANGED.....
posted by lorimer at 12:25 PM on March 10, 2007

I can really relate to what you situation. I am quite happy to do presentations, teach groups of people, talk to clients etc. - all of which I am good at. But I hate being in social situations where I don't know anybody!

Strangely, I find that I have a much easier time talking to older people than to younger ones - both strangers and people I have known for a long time.

But I do find that I can work up to things. I can now chat to people on the bus, the hairdresser, the people at work. I still find it impossible to initiate conversation with people I find attractive at the moment - but for me it does take a conscious effort to engage in social interaction. Like somebody else said above I am quite happy to spend days at a time without talking to anybody.

This year I set myself a challenge - I have booked myself onto a trekking holiday in June which will involve me travelling with a group of 10+ complete strangers for two weeks. I will share hotel rooms, tents etc. The experience will undoubtedly be enjoyable but stressfull because of the amount of social interaction it will require. At the end of my two weeks I will be desperate to be alone and have treated my self to a 'reward' - a single room for two extra nights to allow me to explore that city before travelling home.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:25 PM on March 10, 2007

A little alcohol can go a looooooooooong way.

Booze is a rather good social lubricant. I find myself much more chatty after a drink or two.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:37 PM on March 10, 2007

There's not much to compare between public speaking and approaching a woman at a bar. For one thing, in "public speaking" you've usually got permission to be at the podium speaking. To approach a woman at a bar is a risk, because you don't necessarily have permission.
posted by scarabic at 1:11 PM on March 10, 2007

I sympathise, dcrocha - and, like many others here, I identify with what you are going through. I have the exact same abilities and inability, although perhaps not as socially crippling, in the sense that I can achieve limited social interaction.

In addition to the excellent suggestions above, I have a couple of tactics that have helped me:
  1. In a social situation, I'm a lot more comfortable if I'm in control. I have to be very careful with this, since it can be taken as pontification by some people: but if I have the ability to "hold court" and lead the conversation for a little while, using the same skills I have lecturing in the classroom, I can be a lot more at ease. I'll listen to the feedback, develop the conversation to a point at which I'm no longer the focus, and then gracefully withdraw. As others have mentioned, I am very aware that this is a forced performance, but it allows me to "fake it" long enough to not be a social anchor at a gathering.
  2. Time yourself. Social gatherings with more than two or three people in them are often very difficult for me. I think of it as immersing myself in a social ocean: holding my breath, doing the weird mating dance that people do, and then coming up for air, finding a quiet place for myself, and recovering before diving back in.
  3. I treat one-on-one interactions with people I don't know in a similar way. I can't make small talk, but I usually do need to learn something, even if it's just directions. So I'll keep that goal in mind, get through the conversational shuffle, and get out.
  4. Most people are boring to me. But everyone has at least one interesting feature, one unique experience. Make that your goal to find out.
  5. I find I'm more comfortable talking about things than feelings. As conversational fodder, it's a lot easier to talk about Great Ideas In Philosophy or Wonderful Books than My Life and Loves. Making that the basis of your interaction might be supportive.
I wish you the best of luck. If nothing else, I hope you've learned that you're not alone out there. :-)
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 2:02 PM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

The tough thing for me about smalltalk is its smallness. I can have a long conversation with filmgeek, and I could even before I got to know him, because we could talk shop. We had something specific to talk about! I can also exchange "idle gossip" about so-and-so getting divorced or whatever, because, again, it's common ground with people I know.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons why celebrity gossip is so popular. "Sophisticated" people make fun of "US Magazine readers," but those readers are loading themselves up with something really valuable: social currency that they can use with strangers. A stranger is not going to know anything about your aunt Fanny, but he probably does know something about Anna Nicole.

I really cripple myself this way, and you should use me as a cautionary tale: I don't watch much TV; I don't watch movies until they come out on DVD; I'm not interested in politics; I'm not interested in sports. I pretty much only listen to music composed prior to 1950.

Sure, I can find cool people with whom I can discuss history, philosophy, Shakespeare, Mahler and Caravaggio, but I'm unlike to run into these people on the bus every day.

If you're willing (or if you already do) take an interest in current events, sports and celebrities, you already have what it takes to make smalltalk. My problem is that there's a war going on inside me. I'm really not interested in those things, so when I have an hour to read, I'm torn between social-currency material and something I'm really interested in. And the more obscure topic usually wins. Here's why.

Smalltalk isn't about the subject. For a literal person like me (and you?) that's really hard to get. Someone will walk up to me and say, "Can you believe Brittany just shaved her hair off?" and my gut reaction is, "Why did you just ask me that? Have you really never seen anyone shave their hair before? Do you think I haven't? And why would you imagine I'd care about Brittany?" I don't say that, of course, and my confusion only lasts for a fraction of a second, but this IS my first reaction. Then I realize that the other guy was just trying to connect with me.

When I'm sitting at a bar, and the guy next to me says, "Hot, today, huh?" I have the same reaction. "Duh! Why would you make such an inane remark?" But of course he knows that it's hot and he knows that I know it's hot. He's just trying to be friendly.

I'm the opposite. I'm never "just trying to be friendly." I am a friendly person, but I don't think that way. I'm always trying to start a conversation ABOUT something. If I can't think of something specific and interesting to talk about, I find it really hard to talk at all. And usually when I can think of something specific, it's way too specific, too technical or too deep for casual conversation.

People like me need to:

1) get over it and talk (what seems to us) nonsense anyway. I partly don't do this, because I feel like if I go up to someone else and say, "rainy today, huh?", they're going to turn to me and say, "What the fuck is wrong with you? It's obvious that it's raining, so why did you waste some of my time saying that." He's almost definitely NOT going to react that way, but since that's how my mind works, I project that mindset on others.

I also don't think "hot today, huh?" A lot of people seem to vocalize their fleeting thoughts -- "that sure was a loud noise!", "man, the service in here is slow" -- and this really helps them with smalltalk. I don't do this. So I think I have to fake it. I have to learn to do it even though it's not natural.

2) This is harder, but I have to get over worrying that my interest in Anselm's Ontological argument (or whatever) is wrong to bring up in casual conversation. It IS a bit odd, but if that's who I am, that's who I am. Some people will be turned off ("Doesn't that guy EVER relax?") but others will be interested. And I'll get more social millage by being myself than by repressing my eccentricities.

Sorry that I've made this so much about me. I'm hoping that you're enough like me that some of my thoughts will be helpful to you.
posted by grumblebee at 2:59 PM on March 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Meditate. An effective non-mumbo-jumbo-ish practice: http://www.amazon.com/Deep-Meditation-Pathway-Personal-Freedom/dp/097646554X
posted by jimmyjimjim at 3:07 PM on March 10, 2007

so when I have an hour to read, I'm torn between social-currency material and something I'm really interested in. And the more obscure topic usually wins. Here's why.

That was meant to be:

so when I have an hour to read, I'm torn between social-currency material and something I'm really interested in. And the more obscure topic usually wins. Here's why.

It's a link to a wonderful essay called "Why Nerds are Unpopular"
posted by grumblebee at 3:14 PM on March 10, 2007


You've got a ton of good advice from all these fine folks. Wonderful, insightful, revealing, interesting questions and suggestions from exceptional, normal, shy, outgoing folks!

All for the cost of one question!

Damn, I have to think if you walked up to someone at a social situation and said, "Hey, I've got a funny situation I'd like your opinion on..." and dropped this on them, you wouldn't come up for air for an hour.

I've found folks mostly like to help. One in a hundred is a creep, but the other 99 are looking for interesting people, problems, conversations, relationships.

Since you are good at presentations and public speaking, I also wonder what it might be like to work it into your next talk somehow and enlist the audience post-talk to chat with you.... in smaller groups? Someone will bite! You are already popular and audiences WANT to interact with the speakers, usually. Help 'em out!

I love your problem, and wish you all the best in working your way through it. Just try a bunch of stuff and keep what works!
posted by FauxScot at 4:07 PM on March 10, 2007

I can be quite shy and I found it really hard to navigate San Francisco when I moved here. People here talk to EVERYONE. ALL THE TIME. I love this now but for a loooong while I felt very uncomfortable iving in my itty-bitty super local neighborhood because I knew if I left my apartment, I'd have to talk to the cashier, the coffee guy, the wine guy, the petstore lady. It was exhausting.

Then I dated a man who was great at talking to everyone. He's chatty and interesting and memorable. As we hung out more, I watched his conversations and basically learned how to do it. I realized later that I was overthinking what to say and what not to say. Watching him interact so naturally led me to do the same.

So, short of moving to San Francisco, find someone in your life who embodies this trait and spend more time with them. It's honestly changed my life and I'm rather proud that I overcame my shyness. I love the cashier and the wine guy now!
posted by juliplease at 4:12 PM on March 10, 2007

Observation, preparation and practice. Watch other people doing small talk. Prepare yourself for it by having say 10 standard openings - How about this weather we're having then, how's your family, what do you do for fun - and then practice.

As a veteran shy person who also doesn't mind public speaking, I can tell you it's much much easier than it used to be, even though I still dislike the thought of social events and choose not to participate in many.

Most people are nice, and most will think you are too.
posted by b33j at 5:31 PM on March 10, 2007

I read this and wondered how I could have wrote it a decade ago and posted it into the future.

I had a similar issue, mostly because I'd had a sales and then a tech&training job that caused me to spend a lot of time interacting with people. So I was comfortable in professional situations but not personal ones. I HATED going to parties, couldn't strike up conversations with strangers, etc.

So one day I just decided I was going to get better at it. I didn't wake up comfortable in professional situations - I just had been doing it for so long that I was accustomed to it. So the next time some friends took me to a shindig where I didn't know many people I picked a few to say hello and ask a few questions of, and tried to think of it as a work task.

It wasn't easy and there were a few stinkers - times I just had nothing to say to a person or a person who was cranky or standoffish - but I just kept practicing. I don't think I'll ever get to the point where it's completely natural to me or be something I whole-heartedly enjoy, but when the subject has come up with people in recent years they've looked at me like I have three heads when I claim I used to feel that out of place socially.

It's doable, and the worst you'll suffer for it is some discomfort which fades pretty quickly.
posted by phearlez at 12:15 PM on March 12, 2007

It occurs to me that reads a bit wrong - when I say I may never whole-heartedly enjoy it, I am thinking in more the traditional introvert/extrovert definition of it (not) being energizing. Learning to talk to people I don't know in social situation has been a great joy and the source of a lot of great conversations and new knowledge, and often a lot of fun along the way. I'm glad I forced myself to get better and it was well worth the past discomfort and the occasional slight anxiety I still feel from time to time.
posted by phearlez at 12:21 PM on March 12, 2007

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