Your sweat breaks out, drops race off your back. Your cheeks burn as you blush intensely,… Damn,… now everybody knows you are anxious, and what to do with your hands? Why do they feel like two spaghetti tentacles? So you nervously play with your thumbs,… No, put them in your pocket,… No pinch your forearms, aaaah! Where do you leave your hands?
As you hazily gaze at the concrete floor you realize you didn’t answer yet. Shakily you look up, you want to answer:
“uuuuuh….yes, no, I don’t know”
Argh, why do you talk like an idiot? Why do you feel so uncomfortable around people? Especially strangers! It holds you back from talking and connecting to people. At college, work, the bar, the store,… most places actually.
You somehow become a mumbling mess, blanking out like ‘an idiot’ standing there. People pierce you with their judgmental looks. What are they thinking? Do they think you are a loser? No, right?
Oow man,…These feelings suck!
All those nerves, all that friction,… why can’t you get over that hump and feel relaxed around people. If you knew how to be comfortable around people, there wouldn’t be so much pressure. You would feel worthy, maybe even cool. It would change the world! Talking to strangers would be nice!
Many people have feel like you. There was a time I felt like shit around people. Now I talk to people every day. Chatting to some new guy at the gym, meeting new clients for work, or just blabbing to the cashier because it’s nice to make her smile.
But it definitely wasn’t like this before, the extent of my vocabulary towards strangers was ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’.
Going from anxious discomfort to intuitive ease takes time. But it can be done. I’d love for you to become a person that not only is comfortable chatting away, but also makes other people feel comfortable around you!
Does that sound like a goal to strive for? Great! I have loads of insights to dive into, so let’s just get started!
- 1. Be the first
- 2. Smile
- 3. Stand up straight
- 4. Easy Eye Contact
- 5. Grooming
- 6. Bring a positive presence
- 7. Interest and focus
- 8. Grace
- 9. Embrace the chaos
- 10. Relax
- 11. Mirroring
- 12. Lose the filter and be honest
- 13. Be okay with silence
- 14. Illusions and perspective
- 15. Accept yourself
- 16. Define your own values and boundaries
- 17. Training & Overcoming the fear of making mistakes
- Your turn
1. Be the first
Encounters are often a bit vague and uncertain. Recently I got invited by a buddy to join him and his team watching a game. Cool! But he starts chatting with his mates.
The group eyes me as newcomer in their midst. So who introduces me? Do I introduce myself? Who does what in which order? This ambiguity induces anxiety, it’s pretty uncomfortable. How do you solve that?
You take the lead. So I introduced myself to the group and the tension faded.
If you meet someone, be the first to smile, approach and introduce yourself. It takes away all the suspense of people wondering: “Who is he?” “Do they acknowledge my presence?” “Am I noticed?”
Often other people have the same kind of narrative in their head. Being as shy and hesitant as you. But assertiveness dissolves anxiety. Don’t overthink this, just go for it. You will feel better!
Someone enters the office that you don’t know? Get up, say hi and introduce yourself. Someone joins your group? Reach out say hello and introduce yourself.
Bridge the gap of expectations. You create comfort by creating certainty. It takes some guts, I know, but you are repaid immediately.
Your smile can make someone’s day!
Remember when last getting a smile? Imagine it, feel it. Was it a nice warm fuzzy feeling? You can give that feeling to other people, and often you get it right back.
Go ahead, starts smiling more. Maybe it feels a bit forced at first, still try. Even when you are alone. A smile releases endorphins in your blood, making you relax. Other people also react to this signal, becoming more at ease.
You communicate towards yourself and others that things are okay. Sure there are some of cultural differences. But physiologically we all enjoy smiling, making us feel comfortable around others.
3. Stand up straight
Like smiling, a lot of our physical behavior is a response and a signal. Not only to yourself, but also towards others. That is why you should practice standing upright.
The person who feels confident and comfortable isn’t hunched over, he’s stands up straight. Shoulders back, a little relaxed. If you choose yourself in this posture, the feedback will be – I’m comfortable and confident.
Your body isn’t a one-way system, but a complex network. If you feel confident you stand up straight, but also the other way around. Besides other people notice your confident posture as well and treat you accordingly.
Recently this concept has been popularized in Dr Peterson’s work, but it is of course as old as humans are. If you feel insecure, remind yourself, to stand and walk upright. You will immediately feel a bit better and your standing (ba-dum-tsss) among people improves.
4. Easy Eye Contact
As you realize now, communication is more than words. If it would be just that, why would you feel judged and anxious? Why would you have trouble figuring out what people mean?
A lot of your discomfort comes from not getting people. But what people really mean is embedded in their face, especially in their eyes. Overcome ambiguity by looking people in their pearly light sensors.
Instinctively you can already read most subtle emotions. It does require you to stop staring at the pavement though. But what if eye contact makes you uncomfortable? If you are not used to it, it can be intimidating. Try anyway, communication gets real here! Because seeing what people truly communicate makes conversations much easier and better.
“Aaah, but what eye do I focus on?”
“What is the right amount of time?”
Sure, these issues seem important, but it’s overthinking it. You’ll get the hang of it over time.
For now know use these guidelines: a few seconds of eye contact, then a few seconds looking away is fine. Focus by using the triangle technique. Draw a little imaginary triangle on somebody’s face. Between their left eye, right eye and mouth. Easily gaze from point-to-point, that will keep you comfortable focused and in the zone to read expressions.
Alright I’m not getting deep into fashion and style here, because obviously I’m not an expert. My style is retro 90s at best.
But there is something to be said for just being decently groomed. It’s amazing how much this matters. If you can just look proper, it will put yourself and other people more at ease. Though it doesn’t feel like ‘you’ at first, it is worth going down this path. Let me sketch out the opposite result.
During college, there was this one peculiar guy in class. He was very timid, unfit and ungroomed. He was bad at taking care of himself, which didn’t help him at all to make friends.
Stained hoodies were his staple garment. On top of that he wore a multilayered aura of stink. Two meters off, everyone would notice an acrid sweat smell – one meter off the sour smell would deeply penetrate your nose. Causing puke to slowly creep up your throat. If you stumbled even closer, you would inhale a pungent foul stench that almost made you faint.
I’m not kidding, this was how bad he smelled. Was this a bad guy? No, not at all! But no one would reach out to him, because he was so unclean. Walking around in stained clothes with hair like a bird’s nest.
This old classmate is an extreme example, but make sure you don’t have a similar situation. People will feel very uncomfortable around you, and you will suffer for it.
So make sure you don’t smell and wear clean clothes. Get something decent going on with your hair and/or beard. As for style, feel free to amaze people with yours, there are 1000s of options.
6. Bring a positive presence
One of my old roommates is a friend-magnet. Everybody just loves being around him. Why? Well, at his worst he is neutral to people, normally he is super upbeat, but at his best he is amazing! He has a powerfully positive affective presence, naturally drawing people in.
I’m not sure if this is a natural talent, or if he learned it along the way. But he proves that people enjoy being around positive people. This guy blabs away in such a manner, that you have choice but to smile along. He really motivated me (hopefully more people), to always bring a positive vibe.
Create such emotional balance in yourself, that you can easily adjust to being positive (or at least neutral). Because what you give is what you get.
7. Interest and focus
My secret technique for great conversations is genuine interest. Well it’s not really secret, more a universal constant.
Instead of worrying about what to say, just show genuine interest! I can’t stress this enough. Be curious, ask questions, follow up. Focus on what people like to talk about. Then dig deeper by asking about their why’s and how’s.
Just this morning I had a great conversation with my barber. She told me about her coming weekend. She is going to a wedding and starts renovating her house. Just by asking 5 questions we’ve had a 20-minute conversation.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy, I still remember it now. Because I was interested. Granted there are levels of interest, this won’t make it into my memoirs. But, I saw her as a real person worth listening to. (It’s much better than the droning criticism of my nervous thoughts.)
Show your interest in people, focus, don’t look away or stare at your phone. Make that eye contact and stay engaged. End of a subject? Reach back to an earlier subject. For example, eventually I heard enough about the wedding, so I asked more about the renovation. Or tell something on a similar note. Share about your upcoming wedding feasts, or whatever is going on that you can relate to.
So if you ever feel lost and uncomfortable in an interaction, just put your focus and attention back on the other person. Think about how you can make them comfortable.
Other people also feel uncomfortable, just like you. What if you make their day. Be nice, give a compliment (this is like a cheat code), make them smile with your generous grin. This takes the pressure of you, making yourself feel comfortable around others as well.
What does grace mean? It’s not necessarily daintily floating through the room as a princess. It is knowing the norms, mores and etiquette for the setting. Getting the unwritten rules plus vibe, and adjusting accordingly. This shows respect and sensitivity towards the setting and people.
Not sure about the context? Research in advance, ask who you are with, or take in cues around you. Be conscious of your surrounding and how people interact.
This is all a bit vague, I know, but that is because (sub)cultures are so varied. Simple example, don’t be blunt in delicate settings or vice versa. Imagine a biker roughing it up, at a high tea party – he won’t be seen gracefully. Formal business attire usually doesn’t get frowned upon. But wear it at a full moon party and feel the cringe.
An example is the different customs how people touch and greet. For example, in Holland men and women kiss 3 times on the cheeks, in France it’s twice. Small difference but it counts. (In the States I imagine people headbutt each other.)
The simple act of me adjusting to two pecks on the cheek when meeting a French girl – that’s grace. It’s all these small and big adjustments that make interaction smooth.
So depending on what setting you’re in, give that hug, box or shoulder bump. Learn to be you adjusted to the setting. Your identity is not just your native cultural role.
Be dynamic and don’t force your own ways – but maintain your core values and boundaries! Over time, you can grow charismatic enough to break cultural rules gracefully, but that does mean knowing the rules.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”Picasso
9. Embrace the chaos
One moment you talk about work, the next your commenting on the Champions League final and before you know it you discuss chess openings.
Conversations are chaotic and grow organically, roll with it. Sure there are patterns and the most mundane dialogues are always the same. But once you go beyond the smallest of talk, you’ll notice that there is always a different dynamic.
That is why preparing too much (“What is the perfect question or opener?”) doesn’t make sense. People always react differently than you expect. I know, I know,… it feels safe to know exactly what to say. Rather, focus on the conversation as it unfolds, instead of working on your perfect script.
Still need some guidelines? Use these elements to start a conversation: say hi [Greeting], introduce yourself [Introduction], ask how people are [Cultural what’s up], and show interest [Interest] ! That’s it. Use whatever order you like. So:
“Hi – I’m Timon, How are you? How’s your day so far?“
[Greeting] [Introduction] [Cultural what’s up] [Interest]
“Hey that is a cool watch! Where did you get it? Hi, I’m Timon btw, how’s life?”
[Interest] [Greeting] [Introduction] [Cultural what’s up]
Sometimes small talk can still feel a bit stunted. Remember that small talk is a warm up. A ritual for leveling out your egos to the same social level. Once there, you can connect and have more meaningful interaction.
Sometimes a conversations flows smoothly, sometimes it just kinda ends. That is totally fine as well. Don’t be too hung up about (bad) conversations ending. It’s just how it goes.
Need some more suggestions about what talk about? Check out my cheat sheet here.
Like being positive and upbeat, being relaxed is also important for a comfortable vibe. If you are all hyped up but very tense – it’s not great for comfort either. Learn to relax, being confident but at ease.
But how ?
To relax at the moment, use your breath to regain your ease. Check this guide out.
Use your (re)gained ease while talking. Pause between sentences, questions and answers. There is no reason to react immediately. I know nerves can make you ramble sometimes.
Just stop, take a few deep breaths, and move on. Talk slower than feels right, that is probably the right speed for you. Get used to that. Taking it slow helps you relax as well.
If you need to feel more relaxed in general, adopt a few new practices. First of all make sure to have time for yourself. Real time for yourself, not hanging out in the audiovisual mayhem of the internet, Netflix or gaming. So put aside the headphones and screens some more. The dopamine cage of entertainment can wait for an hour.
Let your chaotic thoughts and feelings jump around and settle. If you feel brave enough you can even adopt a meditation habit in these moments of peace.
Besides relaxing your mind, learn to relax your body as well. Use yoga, the gym, soccer or Wii Fit to train your body. Excercise will help relax your body. Besides it will make you less anxious and mentally stronger as well.
Monkey see, monkey do. Since we are (slightly sophisticated) primates, imitation is exactly how we learn. It is also how we relate and understand each other. This semi-automatic behavior is called mirroring. You level your tone, posture and energy to that of your conversational counterpart.
For some it is instinctual, but doing it consciously works just as well. It’s not about copying someone perfectly, but more following their general mood. Doing this makes you like each other more, you truly become more relatable.
Imagine talking to a random girl you just met. She is a tourist in your town. You offer her a drink to talk about the local sightseeing. She asks a lot of questions and listens intently. If she is leaning forward, lean in a bit as well. If she is talking fast with a pitch, speed up your talking a bit and pitch in. You both get on the same level. Creating a more comfortable setting both. Give it a try.
This works for temperament as well. If you meet rude people, don’t hesitate to bite back. Be brash and assertive in return (this can still be done politely). Rude people won’t respect it if you roll over meekly. Don’t accept people trying to dominate you, push back harder. This is what they respond to – you know because they act it out themselves.
Same goes for nice people, be kind in return! Don’t apply a different strategy, but use the same. People are polite and friendly, reciprocate with the same gift.
12. Lose the filter and be honest
As the thousands of previous words display, ‘how-you-say’ is much more important than ‘what you say’. But I guess you probably still filter what comes out. Stop this self-censorship. You can better be too honest than too careful. Play nice though, know HOW to convey your thoughts.
If a guy in front of you has blue hair, and you are just a bit weirded out by it. Don’t flap out, “Your hair is freaking weird!” Instead, use interest and tone to display your amazement. “Wow, that’s unique, so why did dye your hair blue?”
Totally honest, you show your surprise and twist in interest as well, without dropping judgements. Use this honesty to speak your truth, but use your interest and curiosity to frame it positively at the same time.
You can just blurb out your inner uncensored dialogue. Just talk about your quirky thoughts and feelings. For example, I connected with some new colleagues by being totally honest: “Wow I’ve just been thinking about cheese all day.” In response, we shared a laugh at my weird honesty, and we became just a bit closer.
You only created relationships by opening up and being a bit vulnerable. Sharing your honest thoughts and feelings are part of this. Your personal thoughts are probably what we all can relate to. Show that, be the first to open up. So we feel comfortable and can connect to you.
But, remember to play nice and thoughtful. Be open and respectful, others don’t necessarily share the same views. Respect their perspectives and opinions as well.
13. Be okay with silence
To make my point, I’m perfectly willing to leave a blank page here. But silence is just a bit less effective on the web.
Point being: Silence is okay!
When you are talking together, it just happens. Nothing to worry about. Don’t desperately try to fill that void. Feel it, learn to be okay with it. Know that it is okay. Silence is golden.
If you absolutely need to say something in some truly ‘awkward’ silence. Acknowledge the awkwardness.
“So this is weird right. What do you want to talk about next?”
Pointing out the weird silence scares away the awkwardness demon. It’s power dissipates and the conversation can turn to normal. Because stating the tension releases tension. Making is easier to resume your talk.
14. Illusions and perspective
Do you think people can see how anxious you are? The sweat? Your trembling gut? The panicky voice in your head?
It feels like your world is crumbling, but others don’t really notice that much. Most of it is in your mind.
We all sometimes suffer from this brain error. It is called the illusion of transparency. Somehow you imagine that everybody exactly knows how you feel and what you think. Not true obviously, you just imagine that.
Others might see that you are anxious, but people can’t assess the depth of it. Believe me, most people poorly notice you blushing or talking a bit shaky. Even if they do, they as hell don’t focus on it.
Because besides this illusion we have another weird bias: The spotlight effect. This causes you to think people constantly focus on you.
They are not.
Like you, most people are busy with their own insecure chaotic minds. Probably thinking about how much other people notice them. Most people are a bit self obsessed. (That is why showing interest works so well!)
For better or worse, you are mostly ignored by people. They just don’t think that much about you. Don’t believe me? Think of how much you focus on them.
Even if they are judging you – think about what drives that behavior in them. What impulses and demons drive them forward? Once you grasp how others are motivated, you’ll understand that worrying about their judgement is so pointless.
People don’t judge you negatively because they feel good about themselves. They judge because they are insecure themselves. They need some push off. Confident people won’t bother judging, they sooner help you up.
So accept your nerves. Nobody really knows how you feel and think, besides most focus isn’t on you.
15. Accept yourself
Healthy interactions are not based on seeking approval, validation or acceptance by others. You are you. Your sense of self should not be solely depended on what some individuals think and feel of you.
But it is a bit of a catch-22, especially if you have few friends. It feels more important to ‘secure’ the approval of your small social circle. But in reality, desperately seeking acceptance, will not get you it.
Socializing is for the act of being social. For you to enjoy the company of others. Not for getting a confirmation. If you do look for more, you put yourself below someone, which guarantees discomfort, awkwardness or misuse of your vulnerability.
But if you stop looking for someone else to make you whole, you will come from a place of confidence! So stop pretending to be someone you are not, don’t give a fuck and be yourself.
At the last firm I worked at, sometimes insecure colleagues would come looking for approval. They would suck up, giving meaningless compliments or pretend they had the same interests. But it only gave me an icky feeling. Not the feeling you want to induce. So I didn’t accept them, because it felt wrong. But people that came from a place of self-respect, I accepted much easier.
Don’t willingly put yourself in such a low position. The people who embrace your validation seeking will never be true friends. They often need you for their own confidence boosts.
Go out there and build the self-esteem to accept who you are. That will make other people accept you as well. Embrace your flaws, they make you who you are. Feature your insecurities until they become your strength! Yes I’m small, but that makes me cute. Yes I’m fat, but that squishiness makes me more hugable. Accept those insecurities, so they are yours! This way others and your whiny inner critic can’t use them against you.
“Let me give you some counsel, bastard. Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strenght. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”—Tyrion Lannister
16. Define your own values and boundaries
In accepting yourself, know it is hella important that you define your own values and boundaries.
Sure I talk a lot about going with the flow. That most risks are worth the leap. But I need you to know that your core is to be solid. What you stand for needs to be immutable. So define and protect your own values and boundaries.
Don’t use this as an excuse to not overcome some fears, but as a protection of yourself. Stand for what you value and don’t cross boundaries you set. If you don’t want people touching your 80s mustache, straight up don’t put up with that. If it is not doing alcohol, stand up, and don’t let people tell you anything else.
Let others choose their own limits (or not). Live and let live. But be sure you’ve critically thought about and deliberately chose your values! That also means not just settling for what you’ve been taught by parents and society. Critically examine those norms and values as well. If they fit your rationale, keep them. If not, think what suits you better.
I’ve been around plenty of people who use cocaine. They often offered the magic rush to me. But I know I’m easily addicted. So I defined my boundary, I’m never doing coke (or other highly addictive & toxic drugs). It is a big no-no, for me! I don’t care what other people do.
So sometimes people try peer pressuring me, but I will still say no consistently and explain why. This is easier because I defined my boundaries, I already made the choice. This has earned me respect and comfort in those situations. I’ve had the pleasure of getting drunk with cool rockers and random corporate managers. Both would tell me – with powdery noses – that they respect me for not partaking in the ensuing coke blizzard.
That is what I mean by knowing your own values and boundaries. Maybe an extreme example, but I wanted to emphasize this point. Sure at moments I felt a twinge of curiosity, but I have never regretting sticking to my code. Even drunk in a loose party setting I still respected my boundary. So should you, stand up for what you value.
In the end it will get you respect you deserve, even if only of yourself.
17. Training & Overcoming the fear of making mistakes
All this getting comfortable, making others comfortable; it is training. No single social interactions is a defining moment. It is just a game to get better at.
I used to suck at blending in groups. I was ignored and shunned. Maybe getting a line in, but instantly getting talked over. But over time, because I kept trying I got better and better. It was awesome. You make a small push out of your comfort zone, every time you become a bit better.
You might think, if your class or colleagues keep seeing you fail, they won’t give you a shot anymore. Don’t be so sure, they are better of if you become more social by relentless practice, than if you never try. If it is a healthy group, they will keep on giving you a shot to grow socially. If they don’t, they are not the right social group.
So relax, the world is big. Don’t take it all too seriously. It is just interaction, it is just people, you will get the hang of it!
Don’t get hung up on perfection, or doing it right at once. There is not one right way, and definitely not a perfect one. Practice, fail, get up, try again.
You don’t need an excuse to be you. Sure you are not perfect, sure you have a long way to go before you might be who you want to be. But you are who you are now. No reason to be ashamed for that. You just are.
That also means it is okay to make mistakes.
There is this huge hidden fear within us, that if we fail, we are shunned and outcast for life. This feeling fuels your social anxiety. In practice, it’s not such a big deal, you can come back from mistakes and make amends. Apologize, learn and grow.
Failures, makes us human and more relatable and likable. If you happen to make a mistake, and you know you hurt someone, own up to it and make amends.
Years ago, while studying abroad, I made a racist remark. I didn’t really grasp how offensive I really was. Two Asian girls who I deeply offended, were not amused to say the least.
I fucked up.
In my mind I was witty, instead I acted like a dick. But am I now banned from all interactions? No, of course not. My mistake was laid out to me by others. After some harsh constructive dialogue I realized what I had done. It was tough, but I discussed the issue with the girls and apologized deeply. They helped me understand what I did wrong and forgave me.
It was never my intent to be disrespectful. But by talking it out I overcame my flaw. One of the girls became a good friend afterwards. Despite me being stupid!
Was it better for me to not make that mistake? To not even stumble in my ignorance? No, we all need to fuck up sometime. Now I have learned a valuable lesson, I became a better person despite all of us feeling bad that day.
When exploring life and people it is okay to see where the limits are. You need to learn in life, that means pushing boundaries and making mistakes. If you do, fix it! You will grow as a person. Never trying anything, and never failing will get you nowhere.
That’s it for now, are there more insights and tactics? Definitely! Can I bring it up to write them down right now? No, my fingers are aching from typing. It is time you take action to feel comfortable around others.
Let me know, how are you going to take action? Love hearing from you dear madam/sir! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org