Are you the one who stands against a wall by yourself playing on FaceBook to keep from making eye-contact while in a social environment? If you are, have you taken the time to notice that this is not your habit alone? This is a common phenomenon these days. Social media is absolutely taking over as the most used medium for communication. We date online, wish everyone happy birthday online, order our food online… These days, most activity seems to be done online. While online communication is a convenient form of connecting, it can also hinder a person in social development. If you are naturally shy, it can be your crutch. While you may feel as if it were your lifesaver, it may be detrimental to your social development because it can keep you from swimming on your own in society.
I remember living in California in the 90’s. During this time, a lot of stories focused on teaching people how to be afraid of each other by making everyone seem a potential threat. I remember watching an interview on TV in which a psychologist was being interviewed. He stated that prolonged eye contact was naturally seen as a form of aggression among our species…crickets chirping. Yes that is right ladies and gentlemen, staring at another human being in the eye may incite the individual to become aggressive by your perceived threat. I say if you’re going to stare, just smile. It may control my natural need to physically assault you.
These lessons of fear mania are evident in our day to day interactions. How often are you at work walking down the hall and attempt to smile at a co-worker who is deliberately turning their head away from you as if trying to avoid eye contact? What about when you say hello to someone and they just walk past you without replying? Once upon a time, it was considered a commonly known fact that it was rude as to walk past another person without acknowledging their existence. The fact that this is now a common rudeness means that there is an attached stigma that is not being acknowledged.
I will not go indepth into the psychology behind social anxiety or awkwardness because I could write a whole chapter on it. My primary focus is to be proactive by helping anyone move past these issues.
The first step to moving past social awkwardness is to stop over thinking why you have trouble communicating with people. Thinking about it causes you to become more self-critical. I mean come on, how many times can you abuse yourself mentally and emotionally by thinking about all of the things that make you feel insecure? The first step to moving past these insecurities is to just simply chat in your mind… “Fuck it!” That is right, I was crude and I will emphasis on it again- just say, “Fuck it!”
Alright, so “fuck it” was step one. Now it is time to be action oriented. This may seem challenging but whatever you do, never ever say it is too hard. When you tell yourself that anything is hard, you have already given up and are merely going through the motions. Embrace the challenges you will face. Accept that you will make mistakes and keep on making them until you are comfortable- because you will never stop making mistakes as long as you live.
It may take time, but if you have goals and make an effort, you can do it. I used to be so shy that I never talked to anyone. Everyone used to ask my sister why I was so stuck up. Let me tell you a secret, I was not stuck up- I was so terrified of talking to people that I would have anxiety attacks sometimes. I would avoid looking at people because I was afraid of seeing judgement everywhere. This is what I did to work on my shyness.
- Join a theater group or improv class if you can afford it- try to find a free one if you can. I recommend searching on Meetup.com if it is available in your city. Being in a theatrical setting allows you to do everything in front of strangers against your better judgement and learn to trust that people are not laughing at you- they are laughing with you.
- Make a list of five questions to ask strangers. Go to a cafe, a park or anywhere public and ask a stranger if you can sit with them. Ask this stranger all five questions with the intent of sparking a conversation. This will be hard at first until you get used to it. Most people do not look at you as if you are crazy just because you are talking to them. Here is an example of a conversation that I forced myself to have with people:
Hello, do you mind if I join you at your table? Thank you, my name is Alethea. [Response] Are you here with friends of family? I came by myself. I just had to get out because I need to enjoy this amazing weather. Do you have any plans for the weekend to take advantage of this amazing forecast? I am always looking for things to do in [city], do you have any suggestions? That’s a great idea, last week I went caving at the Caverns of Sonora, have you ever heard of it?
Those were my five questions. They were open-ended, they allowed the other person to talk about themselves and yet engage me at the same time. Keep it at five and then tell your stranger, “it was a pleasure talking to you [name]. I am about to [task], but you enjoy the rest of your day. Then move on to the next stranger. Do this every day at every opportunity until this becomes comfortable or at least bearable enough for you to stop stumbling and avoiding eye contact. Talk to men, women, children- people of all ages. It took me a few months before this process helped me move past my shyness. The longer you do this, the easier it gets.
When I first started talking to people, I felt so awkward- as if I was being nosy and invading someone’s space. Over time, I learned that people actually enjoy the opportunity to talk about themselves if you show them that you are interested in knowing them.
Being able to initiate casual conversations with strangers without giving up is step one to conquering shyness. You may always be shy and that is perfectly acceptable. There is nothing wrong with who you are. Allowing your fears and negative emotions control your actions or decisions is the flaw. The next challenge is social engagement and making it through events without hiding from people. I suggest you practice the five question challenge before moving on to social engagement. I look forward to seeing you on the other side.