Dear Captain Awkward:
Most of the people who know me would consider me a pretty outgoing person, and with people I know/am comfortable with, I am quite extroverted. I also think I’m pretty well-spoken and a decent
conversationalist when I’m among friends. But, when I’m in a social setting with more people that I don’t know than people that I do know, or with people that I only know peripherally, I don’t do so well. I get anxious, answer in mono-syllables, forget to ask reciprocating questions, don’t ever make a move to start a conversation and generally just handle myself poorly. I do really well in a professional setting; give me an assigned role and a task to complete and I’m golden. It’s just the more ambiguous situations that I struggle with: a new friend’s party where I don’t know most people, networking events/conferences, social outings with new coworkers, dinner with parents of my daughter’s friends (this one is probably the worst), etc.
My main issue is that I know what I’m doing wrong (see above), and I know what I should be doing (active listening, ask reciprocating questions, etc) but I can’t seem to get from knowing what to do to
actually doing it in the moment. Most advice I’ve seen on this says to just keep putting myself in these situations and eventually I’ll get better at it, but I’m in these situations with some regularity and it doesn’t seem to be improving. Any advice or tricks for how improve in this kind of awkward social interaction?
Fear of Crowds
How do you know you aren’t performing “well” in these situations? Are you getting outside feedback from people who do know you well and are observing you, or are you getting feedback from the people you are meeting that they uncomfortable with the interactions (for instance, if everyone you meet at a conference cuts the conversation very short)? Or is this more about your anxiety? Are you remembering every awkward pause or missed opportunity to ask a question afterward and going over and over it in your mind? Do you feel stilted and weird during the interactions?
There’s no right answer – it could be a combination of “both,” – but I’m working toward a Unified Theory of Cutting Yourself A Break. Assume that other people liked you fine, and that at worst their assessment of you was “a little awkward at first, but then, so was I. Once you get to know him, he’s great!” Better yet, assume that they didn’t notice any awkwardness at all! Assume that there was no perfect way for the evening to have gone. How it went was how it was always supposed to go. Get yourself out of the anxiety-loop where you second-guess yourself.
Being totally un-credentialed at anything except making movies, I’m leery of diagnosing psychological conditions over the internet (a qualm that Dear Prudence does NOT share this week) but if you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work, call them or talk to your GP next time you’re in and ask to be screened for a mild social anxiety disorder. Even if it’s just to rule it out. If it’s bugging you, it’s worth looking into.
Meanwhile, do whatever you can to relax and slow down at gatherings with new people. Take the pressure off yourself. Maybe make yourself a little list. ”I am going to have one drink, and try to meet and talk to one new person for 10 minutes. Once I do that, I can lurk and be silent, talk only to people I already know, leave, whatever.” I’ve found it really helpful at conferences to remember that this thing is going on for three days, I don’t have to meet everyone at one big event. I can meet them one by one and then the big events are less weird because there are a few people I already know.
If that fails, start introducing yourself a la Awkward Black Girl. “Hi, I’m _______, and I’m awkward.” Someone in that gathering will be grateful that you did, because they are awkward too. Together you can re-enact Emily Dickinson poems in the corner.
*Confidential to the lady who wrote to Prudence about her husband leaving her for her daughter: Step 1 is “call a lawyer.” Step 2 is “protect your assets/money so you are not broke as well as fucked over by people who are supposed to love you.” Step 3 is “call a therapist and all of your friends and get a support system going.” Step 4 is “some people are just really selfish, looking for explanations will only drive you mad.” Step 5 is “act as if (and grieve for them as if) they have both died.” Prudence is right about that one.