Six years ago, when I lived in a snowy mountain village and paid my bills by cleaning high-end sinks and toilets, someone said something that prompted me to confront an uncomfortable truth about myself.
A well-meaning coworker mentioned that she had been talking to another housekeeper about me. Oh?
“She said, ‘David is a such great guy to work with, it’s just that he’s just so quiet.‘”
I don’t remember how I responded, but I assume I tried to disagree somehow, and went back to my work hoping nobody would ever say that to me again.
Quiet. As if I have nothing to say.
I remember the rest of that day. As I scrubbed luxury-suite shower stalls, I played out an imaginary rebuttal in my head:
“Maybe I don’t want to talk about what any of you want to talk about. I have plenty to say, I just don’t want to talk about TV shows or how much I hate my job, like everyone else does. Maybe all you people do is complain, and I don’t want to participate. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not quiet.”
My little internal rant echoed a common human pattern, though I didn’t see it at the time:
When people feel inadequate in some way, they tend to make up whatever prejudices or beliefs they need to feel okay about it.
Of course, nobody realizes it while they’re doing it. Forming beliefs out of self-defense is very common behavior, and it’s probably the source of most of the erroneous and destructive beliefs people carry. I knew my coworkers weren’t all complainers and ingrates. They talked about things I was interested in too, but they did it much more freely and comfortably than I could, and I hated that.
Another typical example of a self-defense belief: a person feels like he doesn’t make as much money as he wants, so he forms the belief that highly-paid people are greedy or materialistic, to defend himself from feelings of inadequacy about his ability to earn.
I told myself that everyone else talked too much, so that I could spare myself the rotten feeling of recognizing that I was really bad at something I knew was important. I was painfully shy and I knew it, but like so many other behavioral problems I had, I rationalized it away. I argued to myself that I had every reason for speaking exactly as much or as little as I did. That belief kept me slightly less uncomfortable, but also prevented me from ever fixing the problem.
The Black Hole of Social Anxiety
I suspect that most shy people are not hardwired to be that way. They don’t lack any innate social talent, they just had one or two bad social incidents early on, and in an effort to avoid further social pain they began to err on the side of silence. Where last time they said something and regretted it, the next time they said nothing, and did not regret it.
Unbeknownst to them, this seemingly innocent little lesson is actually the seed of a devastating habit. Every shy person knows that the safest thing to say is nothing. Once a person chooses this safe approach a few times in a row, an insidious snowball begins to pick up speed.
The default approach to conversation soon becomes minimalism. Say what is necessary, but don’t volunteer anything extra. Anything you say is a liability. Every statement makes you a target for scrutiny. Every question you ask reveals your ignorance. Every passion you confess opens you up to ridicule. Better to say nothing.
Silence seems to quickly become the smartest policy. And in the short term, it is. Humiliation happens far less often.
But the long-term consequences are brutal.
You always look to someone beside you to address questions asked of your group. You slow down your pace when you enter a restaurant so another member of your party will reach the maître d first. One easily sinks into the habit of deferring social responsibility in this manner, and that dynamic begins to influence other aspects of life, such as work and family roles. You never feel like a leader, and that’s because you’ve always avoided leading. To lead is to be responsible. And shyness, at its heart, is about avoiding responsibility for what you say.
Shyness is so devastating to a personality because its effects compound so quickly, creating an outward personality that does not match the person, and an anemic social skillset that makes it difficult to ever recover.
First you begin to avoid conversation, because it presents risk. This reluctance becomes habitual. Then, because saying nothing is the standard approach, the prospect of speaking up becomes scarier, which only makes you avoid it more. The thought of humiliation becomes a looming, stalking monster, who can only be thwarted by keeping your mouth firmly shut. The more you avoid disapproval, the scarier it gets.
Being shy just kills self-esteem. People begin to treat you like you have nothing to say. It’s not even that they’re trying to marginalize you. It’s just that when you consistently contribute little or nothing to the conversation, they can’t help but assume you have nothing to contribute. And if everyone seems to be treating you like that, you begin to believe it. You begin to play out the role that is expected of you, even if it isn’t who you are or who you want to be.
Does any of this sound familiar?:
- People you’ve already met introduce themselves to you multiple times. They don’t remember you because you didn’t say anything.
- People know they’ve met you, but forget your name every time.
- Somebody speaking to your party always looks to someone else for a response, never you.
- You often hope someone else in the group will say something, to kill the silence.
- You get nervous, or even resentful, when your friend departs to the restroom, leaving you with someone you don’t know well.
To make things worse, the consistent lack of practice prevents you from getting any better at conversing. So when you do find yourself wanting to speak up, it’s because you’re in a situation where it’s crucial to do so, such as at a job interview. Your underdeveloped conversation muscles make you much less likely to succeed in these high-pressure situations, which only creates more bad results and feeds the fear that much more.
This cycle is a big, slippery black hole, and once a person slides too far, they may never get out. Many come to a point where they give up on ever being comfortable socially. I wonder if this is what happened to Eleanor Rigby .
Public speaking still outranks death as most people’s greatest fear. No wonder.
Recovering From Shyness
I’ve spent a lot of time in online forums discussing ‘recovering from shyness’ with other people, and it’s comforting to know so many people have been in the same place I was in.
There are two primary pieces of advice I received, and now give. The first is watch how more skillful people do it. There are always opportunities to watch people interact. How do they begin conversations? How do they end them? How do they change topics? Even watching bad conversations can give you a great idea of what to do instead. Just watching people can give you a short go-to list of ways to open and close conversations. Make conversation-watching a habit.
The other piece of advice is, of course, to practice speaking up. And practice always means allowing yourself do something badly until you can do it not so badly. It means making habit of doing things that are uncomfortable at first. So when it comes to overcoming shyness, that means speaking more than you feel like speaking. If you’ve established a habit of leaving most of the speech to others, it will feel unnatural to open up. That’s good, do it anyway. Discomfort indicates growth. Always say a little bit more than you’re used to.
Everyone eventually recognizes that social muscles will atrophy if they are never exercised, so there is no salvation from social discomfort that does not include deliberately making conversation.
That was a huge sticking point for me: I hated the idea of making conversation. I thought it was phony to try to force something to happen like that. If there was something meaningful to be said, it would be said, right? Unfortunately that just isn’t true; it’s another false belief created for self-defense. I see now that making conversation is one of the most important life skills.
The bottom line, when it comes to overcoming fear of anything, is this:
Whenever you give in to a fear, it grows. Whenever you act in spite of it, it shrinks.
Luckily, it tends to shrink fast once you start opening up. You’ll find people have an easier time opening up to you. Uncomfortable people tend to make others uncomfortable, and open people tend to make others open.
However, when it comes to creating the habit of being un-shy, there is a roadblock almost everyone seems to encounter, even after the anxiety of speaking up begins to wane.
The problem almost everyone seems to have is that they simply don’t know what to say. They may be no longer afraid to speak up, but they just can’t think of a place to start. Those who have been social butterflies their whole lives probably have an entire arsenal of conversation starters at the ready — an inevitable byproduct of experience. But for the rest of us, it is often a struggle to find something to say that isn’t either trite or self-absorbed.
The Three Stooges of Conversation: Weather, Work and Current Events
Making conversation is uncomfortable for many people, because “made” conversations so often turn out to be contrived exchanges about the weather. I heard it’s supposed to be nice tomorrow. Yeah, but I think they changed the forecast. Might be cloudy. Oh, that’s too bad. Yeah, it is…
Awful. Why did we create this banal monster? Surely silence would have been preferable.
The reason the weather turns up as a topic so often is because we know that it’s something that is relevant to the other person’s life. In that sense it’s somewhat ‘safe’ territory. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could think of something (anything!) else that might be a little more… engaging?
Even with good friends, I’ve often found myself scrounging for conversation fodder, offering up such winners as: “So how’s work?” “Man is it windy today.” “So what did you do yesterday?”
Sometimes these tired offerings do get the words flowing, but so often the conversation limps along on topics neither person really wants to talk about. Most people I know aren’t especially excited to spend their leisure time talking about their jobs, or spending today talking about what they did yesterday. We dutifully play out these dead-weight conversations because it seems to be more wholesome than a conspicuous, lingering silence. I agree that it is marginally better, but it sure is refreshing when someone offers up something specific to us as a topic.
When you bring up something the other person genuinely cares about, enthusiasm begins to flow. A sense of collaboration emerges, and bonds form.
Best friends usually have an easier time getting a meaningful conversation going, because they know each other so well. They each know what the other wants to talk about. With acquaintances or ‘second-tier’ friends, it is more difficult to peg a particular topic as a good one, and so we lean on the old standards: weather, news and work.
It really comes down to making the habit of discovering what other people value. You can connect with anyone, if you know what is important to them, and if you give them an opportunity to talk about it. Just ask about their boat/kids/trip to Mexico/new motorcycle/squash club/kitten/sustainable household/homemade jam.
People are so grateful to get a chance to gush about their pet topics. They’ll remember the conversation, and they’ll certainly remember you. And that’s because you gave them a tremendous gift: you gave them a chance to be themselves with you. You rescued them from the slow agony of a dead-end work or weather conversation, and you let them feel good about being who they are. Don’t underestimate how profound an effect this has on a person. You can be the best part of a party for a lot of people.
It doesn’t really matter if you’re not interested in the topic. Just become interested in their interest. We all know what it’s like to be in our element, subject-wise. Help them to get there. Once the enthusiasm gets flowing, there is usually such openness and understanding that it becomes easy to work in virtually any topic you like. Then you can be in your element, if you want.
When you’re in a conversation with somebody, (or better yet, when you’re just watching a conversation) see if you can pick out what you think they really want to talk about. Everyone has their own pet topics that excite them What makes their eyes light up? Here’s a quick hint: all parents love to talk about their kids. And they’re so impressed when you remember what sport they play or what university they go to.
It’s not such a terrible idea just to sit down and write a list of friends and acquaintances, and for each, a few things you know they’d be happy to talk about. Then there you have it: starting points for any conversation you might find yourself in. If you can’t think of anything, make a point of finding out next time you speak with them.
Now I don’t suggest getting creepy with this, creating folders and pie charts about what the people in your life are interested in, but there certainly is something to be said for just being aware of what is important to other people. When you’re going to some kind of get-together, and you know certain people are going to be there, can you think of one or two topics each person might like to talk about? Again, not to get too stalker-y, but Facebook is a great resource for this if they’ve added you as a ‘friend.’
In any case, generally avoid asking about people’s jobs. It’s just too easy, and it almost guarantees a dull conversation. They will remember their encounter with you as dull and typical, and that’s the type of emotion the will associate with you.
If you do sit down and brainstorm what people in your life get excited about, you may realize there are people you don’t really know at all. You may know how they get paid, but if you don’t know what makes them smile, you don’t really know them. So find out.
I am far from a brilliant conversationalist, but there is no fear in it for me anymore. It did take consistent effort to get comfortable, and I still feel a bit behind where I’d like to be in terms of beginning and steering conversations, but I feel like I’ve got the most important part down: Learn what others get excited about, and give them a chance to get excited whenever they speak to you.
So next time you find yourself looking to the Stooges to save you, ask yourself “What excites this person?” If you don’t know, then you know what to ask.
Photo by Deapeajay