This piece is a follow up from my advice last week to go to social events. Going to your first social event may seem completely overwhelming at first, but sooner or later, you need to do it. There are different kinds of events, ranging from what I call “micro events” (with one or two trusted friends or family members) to large events with multiple conversations going on at once. This piece is for anyone who isn’t really used to attending social events, or who hasn’t attended them in a long time and is looking to rejuvenate their social life. (As with my article last week on shyness, these instructions are not for you if you have a confirmed diagnosis of social phobia or agoraphobia. First see a qualified mental health counselor in that case; contact me for help in getting a referral.)
Are you hoping to advance your career, find a mate, or just expand your social circle? Your first choice of event is going to be determined by the type of goal you have in mind. If you’re new at this, choose an event where you’re unlikely to know anyone or to meet anyone again by chance — i.e., not an employer-related event or an industry event, unless you work in a large field. There are all kinds of cool events in most parts of the country, and these are publicized in different ways. A good start is the Internet: meetup.com is the site that people use most often to find events that suit their interests. Urban areas will have all areas of interest represented, from knitting clubs to rooftop bar meet & greets.
Your goal the first time you try this is to have lots of brief conversations that cover a wide range of topics quickly — what most of us know as “small talk”. A lot of people are uncomfortable with small talk, but it serves a useful function on a nonverbal level. Specifically, it helps people place each other in a social context and gauge their comfort level with each other. Questions like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” are meant to elicit responses that give us a general idea of what someone is about. The content of the answers to those questions is an opportunity to explore common ground; how they’re answered helps us decide whether we feel comfortable around a specific person.
It may help, first, to have your answers to these two questions worked out in advance of your first social gathering. By reducing the number of decisions you need to make during those early phases of an interaction, you’ll be able to concentrate on nonverbal elements such as relaxing, eye-contact, and tone of voice. You can decide on very simple answers to those questions. Practice in front of a mirror, taking special care to make eye-contact. Choose answers that leave room for the conversation to continue. Focus on emotions rather than facts, and get creative.
It also helps to have a nonverbal conversation-starter — what author Leil Lowndes calls a “whatsit”. This should be an article of clothing or piece of jewelry that sparks a conversation. Choose only one — don’t cover yourself in eye-catching items. Preferably your one conversation-starter should have a story behind it. It can be from someplace you’ve traveled for example, or something someone made for you. Again, pay attention to the emotions you hope to spark as you tell your story.
The most important elements of nonverbal communication are:
1. Eye-contact. When I first started working on my social skills, I discovered that, instead of looking people in the eyes, I was watching their lips move — as though I were deaf and had to lip-read. My coach subsequently asked me to tell him the color of the other person’s eyes with every interaction and, as a coach, I now do the same with my clients. Be sure to look directly in the eyes of whoever you’re talking to. Looking at some other part of a person’s face is not enough.
2. Slow down your speech. You should talk at about half the rate you think you should. Don’t worry about being interrupted — interruptions are not the worst thing in the world, and it may happen anyway, no matter how fast you talk.
3. Stand or sit up straight. We may have brushed off this advice from our mothers, but it’s important. Having an open front communicates openness and ease to the people around you. Get a friend to help you in private and make corrections as needed. There are also body practices, such as the Alexander technique and rolfing, for more serious posture problems.
The most important thing is to try to relax and have fun. If it’s a crowded event, very few people in the room will know everyone, and if it’s a mixer people are definitely there to be social and meet new people. Check in with your feelings often, assessing your comfort level, and make decisions based on leaning just a little out of your comfort zone. Your goal is to find a balance between challenge and comfort. Remember to breathe, smile, and slow down. If you’re relaxed in the situation, there’s a good chance that others will relax also. Know that you’re not alone — others have overcome shyness, and you will too!