Question # 147: “I handle myself badly in large groups of new people.”

Mr. Darcy is a socially awkward penguin, ill-qualified to recommend himself to strangers.

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

Dear 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.

18 comments
  1. Is it bad that I was hoping the Emily Dickinson poem would be “Wild Nights”?

    • JenniferP said:

      Even better. Also you made me laugh really, really hard.

  2. Isabel said:

    Oh man, LW, not to ask the most cliche advice-column-fan question ever, but: are you me? Because yep: I don’t get nervous meeting new coworkers, even in large groups at once, I consider myself very outgoing and able to chat for hours with people I already feel comfortable with, but new groups of people, EEP. And actually, the Captain gave you advice along the lines of something my boyfriend recently told me. He is much more of a large group socialization than I am (my favorite socialization method is “dinner with one or a small group of friends”) so these situations are usually when I’m going to something with “his people,” and he told me the other day, when we were talking about my anxieties, that I don’t actually present as awkwardly as I feel. Obvs he is my boo, but he’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t say that if it weren’t true (instead he’d probably give advice on being less awkward). He also pointed out that being quiet is actually a pretty socially acceptable choice, which hadn’t really occurred to me but thinking about other people I know and the way I perceive them is pretty true. Maybe something for you to consider?

    One thing I’ve started doing, which you can’t always do but works for me when I can, is picking a set amount of time for me to be there — an hour or two, usually — and setting an alarm on my phone for when I will have been there that long. That way, I’ve made it okay for myself leave “early,” I know that however bad it is, it won’t last that long, and — and this is where the alarm comes in — I won’t be constantly checking my clock waiting for the minutes to drag by, so I can forget about it and know I’m safe to wait for my escape hatch to kick in. I find that usually when I do this, I wind up not wanting to leave when my alarm rings, because knowing that it would free me let me focus on other things than how stressed I was about being there.

    Good luck, fellow awkward person! I have faith in us!

  3. JenniferP said:

    Helpful suggestion from Twitter!

    @barnswallowkate says: “If you meet someone only once you don’t have to worry what they think and if you keep meeting them they’ll get to know you.”

  4. “I don’t actually present as awkwardly as I feel.”

    Nobody does! The advice to have a drink or two and then force yourself to chat with someone you don’t know is excellent. The perfect topic to bring up is the personal and/or professional connections that bring each of you to the social gathering.

    Hi! I’m Steve. My wife is a member of the heart association, and I’m here with her. What is your connection?

    That gets the conversational ball rolling very easily, because you are initiating things with a topic that is–by definition–relevant and interesting to both parties.

  5. Mimi said:

    This was so totally me. And YES: I wish I could somehow agree a bazillion times more on the “check with a therapist if possible part”. I’m not the letter writer, so I can’t testify to how bad it was for him/her, but all I can say for me is that…it was really bad. As in “I had screaming fits in social situations because the pressure of being around other people got too much and I completely lost it.” I ended up avoiding anything social that involved large groups of people. This was a decent coping mechanism…until college. Ah college, where you have to live in close proximity to others who may or may not be understanding of your “irrational” fear…

    Needless to say, my mental state got so bad that I nearly got put on academic probation. My academic counselor, who I am endlessly indebted to, talked me into talking with an on-campus psychologist. After many sessions, two psychologists, and TONS of soul-searching, hours of self-reflection, and a battery of testing, I discovered that I didn’t just have a social anxiety disorder. I had Asperger syndrome. Oddly enough, this didn’t come as a massive shock to me since I grew up with an autistic sibling and worked with autistic children so I had a small inkling, but it was still a huge eye-opener. Suddenly, everything I had ever done, every social situation I had ever ran from, I finally knew why. It wasn’t because I was wrong, crazy, weird, or a bad person, I was just wired a bit differently.

    My diagnosis (late due to parental denial; oh well, who can blame them after the first autistic kid) gave me a new lease on life. Even just knowing helped because I can say “Okay, this is the situation. THIS is how I can cope. MAYBE it will even turn out better than coping.” And you know what? Most of the time, it did turn out better than just getting along.

    I’m not saying the Letter Writer is possibly an antisocial Aspie; I am only sharing my story as proof that it is not shameful to seek professional help over social anxieties, and that with persistence in getting help, it can definitely get better no matter how bad it is.

  6. kate said:

    Essentially, you’re telling us that when you have something to say, you’re perfectly comfortable saying it. Your only problem is when you don’t have anything to say, and you feel you should be chattering away, anyway. Oh, if only more people would lapse into silence when they have nothing to say!!

    Stop comparing yourself to all the outgoing, laugh-a-minute people you know, as if that were the ideal and anything less bubbly constituted failure. The world would be a freaking nightmare if everyone were like that.

    The problem is not with who you are, but who you think you should be. Let that go, and thrive!

    • Fear of Crowds said:

      Kate, this makes so much sense, and yet it would never ever have occurred to me without someone telling me. Thanks!

  7. Here’s a quick strategy: 1) Give yourself permission to not go out. If you’re not feeling like leaving the house once and a while, don’t go out. Give yourself permission to say no. 2) When you do go out, give yourself permission to eat the food and have a couple of drinks. Allow yourself to enjoy the environment. 3) Allow yourself to just stand there and listen to people. You don’t have to talk, but if other people start talking, just let them go. Actively listen, though. Being engaged doesn’t have to mean talking all the time. 4) If it helps, set a leaving time before you go out. If not, just stay until you feel like you really don’t want to be there or wait until a large group of people leave and then just go, too.

  8. xenu01 said:

    I know this sounds sort of hopelessly dorky, but I try to keep a few current news items in mind to discuss. I try to check up on the news every now and then for that reason. Having some things to talk about might assuage some of your anxiety.

    • Ensign Perception said:

      You know, this is a good thought! It’s important to be self-aware enough not to go off on some total rant, or end up telling a pointless 5-minute long anecdote. But I too often find it helpful to be like, hey, have you heard about ____? whether that’s a new album, movie, or scientific discovery, and get the conversational ball rolling.

  9. kathleendonohue said:

    If it makes you feel any better, most people feel awkward in situations where they don’t know the people they’re with. It’s totally normal and good for you for trying to build some skills in that area and not just avoiding those situations.

  10. Beth said:

    I’m an awkward conversationalist myself, particularly when it comes to meeting people. I do force myself to be in social situations, but that goes only so far.
    I usually have three things to discuss lined up, if I know I’m going to be meeting new people–even if I’m going to be seeing acquaintances. It makes things less awkward, so we aren’t fishing for conversation. These can be current news topics (but I steer away from anything political, as offending people is the clearest way to make things more awkward). What you’re doing at the event, pop culture, etc., are all fair game. If you exhaust the three things, just move on to talking to someone else.

    I advise against introducing yourself as awkward. I’ve tried it, and it’s made people uncomfortable; they’ve stopped conversing with me before I’ve had a chance to say anything apart from “Hello, I’m Beth and I’m awkward.”

  11. Been There said:

    Hi. I am married to you. Or your emotional twin.

    When I first starting dating the guy who is now my husband, and started inviting him out with the people I knew, I actually had a friend pull me aside and ask “What the fuck are you doing with this guy?” My best friend said “He makes me uncomfortable. When he doesn’t talk, it feels like he hates me.” I got a lot of other similar, wary/negative feedback. So yeah, it doesn’t make a great impression when you freeze up in social situations. But you know what? It doesn’t DOOM you. Everyone has their Achilles’ heel. Congratulations, you know yours!

    [As an update, I will add that as my friends got to know him (which took time) they understand why I feel for him and why he is so marvelous. But he will never, ever be great in situations like you describe.]

    I don’t know what to tell you for yourself, but I can tell you what I do as the spouse to someone like you. First, I try not to force him to do things like this unless it’s unavoidable. Second, if they’re my friends we’re seeing, I re-set their expectations ahead of time–I warn them that he’s quiet, that he’s not much into big social scenes. Third, before anything like this, I coach him up a little, give him some useful phrases (like the awesome commenters here have done).

    Always remember this: there’s nothing wrong with being the quieter one who doesn’t talk. Typically there are a bunch of bigmouths like me competing for a chance to gab. We crave an audience. Thanks for being that audience! You should never feel awkward about joining a circle of people and just listening to what’s being said. You are a vital part of the social fabric, my friend.

    The bonus to listening, too, is that you might discover the common ground you have with someone else. One of my husband’s big challenges is that he lacks some of the small-talk talents that regular people use to uncover those commonalities that spark further conversation. Me, I can find out pretty quickly that a guy went to the same high school as my husband, that his wife works for his former employer, and has an awesome guitar collection. My husband would never find that out on his own (small talk is a skill; it would be great to learn but I don’t know if he really can). But he doesn’t have to, if he can let other people’s chit-chat do the work for him.

    Whether there’s any useful advice in all my yammering, let me conclude with this: Husband has never become Captain Smooth, but he has survived just fine. Most of life is not a party. Most of the time, his dislike of large groups of new people matters not one iota.

  12. Fear of Crowds said:

    Thanks Captain! Now that you say it, i guess it likely is more my anxiety than anything else. I haven’t gotten much explicit feedback from others that I am particularly awkward, but I do notice things like long awkward pauses (that might be awkward only in my head.) I guess I will try to work on being OK with being quiet as opposed to being less quiet. That definitely sounds easier!

    • isabel said:

      remember: it take two to have a long awkward pause! they’re not saying anything either. maybe they are standing there thinking “oh god oh god why can’t i think of anything to say.” and trying to fill an awkward pause with desperate babble is so much more awkward than learning to live with the occasional awkward silence.

  13. Madeleine said:

    On the Prudence thread, YES. I was so uncomfortable to see her casually suggest mental illness or sexual abuse when addressing the why of the situation wasn’t really necessary. And if she truly felt the need to do that, that wasn’t the way! And the rest of her advice was solid, that just left a terrible taste in my mouth. I suppose she was trying to find away that the relationship with the daughter wouldn’t have to be ruined forever, but still. Inappropriate.

    • JenniferP said:

      The e-diagnosis was both way out of line, and in the case of suggesting molestation happened, putting even more crap on the LW, like, “Maybe it’s your fault for not protecting her?”

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