Ever feel awkward going to a party where you don’t really know anyone? Or having to go to a networking event for work? That feeling of fear, of nausea and tightness in the chest. The next day ‘oh god why did I say that’ rhetoric, especially when alcohol is involved, can be overwhelming and can make us not want to put ourselves out there at all.
As expats, we are forced to put ourselves out there constantly. We have left the safety of our comfort zone and the relationships we have known for years and everything is new. Every new relationship is a potential best friend, or a potential rejection. People move on and leave constantly. It’s no wonder its anxiety inducing.
Humans evolved to live in tribes. We are keenly aware of how others perceive us both consciously and unconsciously. This comes from a need to survive. Back in our caveman life, if we got rejected by our group and left alone in the savannah we would likely die of exposure or starvation, if we weren’t eaten by a lion first that is. While we don’t live in the savannah now, our primitive brain thinks that we do. Our primitive brain controls our fight/flight impulse, our instincts for danger and several ‘auto responses’, for example see a bear, feel fear, run away. Unfortunately, this brain still thinks it’s 800 AD and is reacting to a weird look, or not getting a text back as if we’re about to exiled forever and die.
Professionally, I’ve been a relationship manager for the best part of a decade. Most of my job involves managing client relationships and cultivating new ones. In practical terms it means I’ve gotten REALLY good at going for coffee with people I’ve never met and chatting to them. But being comfortable with it has come from practice and experience. So, here are some things I’ve learnt over the years that help curb that anxiety.
I’ve noticed I tell the same five or six stories over and over again to new contacts. Let’s be honest there’s only so many ‘funny’ stories about your family holiday, or office life or your dog. The content of the anecdote doesn’t matter. Much like a handshake, these funny stories are an attempt at a smooth and enjoyable social interaction. It’s saying ‘I am making an effort to make this experience positive’. Whether the purpose of the interaction is to do business, date, or explore the possibility of friendship, having a few anecdotes that show some personality and give an insight into your life is helpful.
You can pick a few things, for example, that time you went windsurfing and got stranded, or the time your dog won a ‘cute puppy’ contest (bonus for photos), or a funny fancy dress party. Try to remember as much detail as you can. Now, when you meet a new person, you have a repertoire of ‘fun’ stories to break the ice and keep the conversation going without having to ‘wing it’. Those awful brain freezes and awkward silences? They come from both parties having nothing immediate to hand to discuss and will make you want to run away. Having a few things to say, especially if this is not your normal environment is helpful. What is interesting/different about you? Let them know.
Ask Questions and Reflect
If someone is talking about something they’re obviously passionate/worked up about, ask questions and reflect what they’ve said back. For example, someone is talking about a problem at work, and their manager is trying to get them to work overtime with no notice. They are visibly annoyed and frustrated by this. You could say:
‘That sounds really frustrating.’ Reflection of feeling
‘So, your boss just wants you to work late at no notice? Hardly seems fair.’ Reflection of content
‘What do your workmates say about all this extra work?’ Open Question
‘That sounds tough.’ Reflection of feeling
‘Would you consider looking for a new job?’ Open Question
‘What’s keeping you working there?’ Open Question
This not only makes you a better listener, but also allows the conversation to keep moving without having to come up with 29374920 new things to say and exhausting yourself. The reflection and questioning can be applied to any situation. Reflection, like looking in a mirror is all about repeating back what they’ve said in different words, it shows you’re listening, and you understand. Reflecting on a feeling shows empathy and understanding for what they are going through. Asking open questions (what/where/why etc.) allows the person to expand on what they are saying and continues the discussion.
Over 70% of all communication is nonverbal. What that means is, it’s not what you’ve said it is HOW you’ve said it. Eye contact, open body language, gentle tone and facial expressions all show interest and engagement without saying anything at all. Similarly, standing in the corner and looking at your shoes makes it challenging for people to engage with you. It can make us feel exposed to sit openly i.e., shoulders back and arms open, however it communicates nonverbally that we are open to conversation and comfortable, which in turn makes others open and comfortable.
When we use a gentle tone and open body language, it makes our social interactions a smoother, more positive experience and reduces anxiety around the next one.
Stay off your phone.
This is a personal pet peeve. Phones do not belong in a social environment. Now, I don’t mean sending a quick text or snapping a quick picture but sitting and scrolling is downright rude. A lot of people whip out the phone when they feel anxious in a social situation. It gives us something to do with our hands, and makes us look occupied, so we don’t just look like some loser no one is talking to.
However, it MAKES us that loser no one is talking to. Have you ever struck up a conversation with someone who’s face is in their phone? Me either. If you’re chatting to someone and they start playing with their phone, how interested do you feel they are in the conversation? Our immediate assumption of others is that they are uninterested and rude. So, it is safe to assume others will not know we are feeling anxious and will think we are rude. Put the phone away, it’s hard, but it is unfortunately necessary if you want to engage with those around you.
People don’t think about you that much.
Have you ever been at a party or a dinner and then spent 2-3 days thinking about the weird way someone laughed? Or the awkward joke they made? Probably not. But we do it to ourselves all the time. Awkward social interactions, or ones we perceive as awkward haunt us. But, honestly, nobody else cares. Everyone has their own lives, worries and anxieties. If someone is spending that much time thinking about the way you laughed at a joke one time, there is undoubtedly something wrong with them.
Unless you’ve said something seriously offensive (in which case an apology is necessary), or been hurtful or rude to someone, nobody will even remember. I’ve written before (here) about being more confident and watching our self-talk with a thoughts diary. If you’re finding your anxious thoughts are clouding your ability to interact, a thoughts diary is a great place to start.
If you are consistently struggling with social anxiety, please consider reaching out to a mental health professional as there may be underlying reasons for this. The Flawed Journey provides a FREE 20 minute consultation which can help in finding the best care for you.
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