You’re likely to attend a social event in the near future – say, a wedding, a conference, or even a Zoom meeting with your coworkers. Sure, you may be a person who thrives on interpersonal interaction, but let’s face it – not everyone is a social butterfly. The isolation during the pandemic has made all of us a little more socially awkward.
If you struggle in a social setting, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. “Social anxiety is a common and potentially debilitating anxiety that we all experience,” says Romeo Vitelli Ph.D., a psychologist and consultant for Mom Loves Best. And it’s not limited; it can involve just about any social situation where we interact with other people, Vitelli says.
If you’ve ever come up against social anxiety, you may have felt anything from mild discomfort to debilitating angst. The good news? It’s possible to overcome your insecurities. Here, experts share tips for feeling less awkward in any situation.
Practice to Reduce Anxiety
In public speaking situations, practice is essential, says Vitelli. “It’s important to replicate the actual public speaking setting as much as possible, such as speaking in front of a small audience of supporters,” he says. Doing this will create positive memories to override thoughts from previous bad experiences.
Practicing in this way helps in many other social situations, too. Encouraging constructive criticism from your audience will provide you with valuable tips about things you can change about yourself to make any social situation easier, says Vitelli.
If you can’t conjure an audience, try videotaping yourself, Vitelli suggests. But don’t practice to the point where you feel paralyzed when the real thing happens. Instead, he says to acquire enough practice to make the actual social situation easier.
If you normally feel anxious before any big social event, try a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) technique called coping ahead, says Michelle Dunn, LPC, a mental health counselor at Michelle Dunn Counseling in Denver, CO.
First, imagine yourself in the specific situation you’re feeling anxiety about, says Dunn. Then, identify coping skills that you can use. Finally, practice guiding imagery. “Imagine introducing yourself to new people, things you’ll say, and how you’ll cope, such as practicing deep breathing,” Dunn says. Repeating this process until the event arrives will make you feel way less awkward.
If you’re introverted, walking into a crowded room by yourself can exacerbate feelings of awkwardness. That’s why being on time or arriving early can help lessen anxiety going into these situations, says Dunn. It may be easier to initiate a conversation with fewer people in the room.
According to Vitelli, talking to people early on at an event can give you the confidence to interact further as more people arrive. He suggests offering to help the host set up beforehand.
“This provides you with something to do to help with the butterflies in your stomach. It also allows you more time to prepare and gives you an opportunity to greet new guests as they arrive,” Vitelli says.
Make (Appropriate) Contact
When it comes to physical contact, be aware of the social climate around you – it can help determine what is appropriate, says Dunn. For example, what do you see other people doing? Are they shaking hands or perhaps hugging? Follow their lead.
Give a pleasant greeting of ‘hello’ with no physical contact when in doubt. Reading the interpersonal cues of the person you are talking to can help you determine what is appropriate, says Dunn.
Keep in mind that boundaries always exist, but they can vary widely depending on the setting and social culture, says Vitelli. “A good rule is not to engage in any social touching without the express permission of the other person. If you’re really unsure, look to the other people in the room and try to pick out some models to follow,” he says.
Always treat others as you would like them to treat you in return, says Vitelli. Give compliments, but make sure they’re sincere ones -you don’t want to seem too ingratiating. “Even if you are feeling awkward, try not to show it too much and work through your anxiety by enjoying the setting as much as possible,” Vitelli says.
It’s important to express interest in other people without asking awkward questions, says Vitelli. That means avoiding controversial topics such as politics or religion. “You’re there to socialize, not debate,” Vitelli says.
Pay attention to your body language – it’s crucial. If you are standing with your arms crossed over your chest, and your body appears tight and closed-off, people probably won’t want to engage in conversation with you, says Dunn. Simply smiling and having open body language can make people feel comfortable in your presence.
Team Up With a Social Pal
Dunn, a self-proclaimed introvert, says that pairing up with a more extroverted colleague helped her feel more comfortable during required corporate training sessions. “It made it less awkward and easier to engage in conversations,” she says.
Before you enter a social situation, it helps to equip yourself with an arsenal of ‘getting-to-know-you’ questions, says Dunn. For example, ‘What do you do for work? Can you tell me more about it? Do you enjoy it? What do you like to do for fun?’ “Finding a common interest can help break the uncomfortable silence and engage in conversation about that specific thing,” says Dunn.
While pairing up with a more social friend can work to some extent, make sure that friend doesn’t overshadow you or become a safety net, says Vitelli. “Don’t stick to your friend’s side at all times. Instead, allow them to introduce you to two or three new people who you can interact with on your own. You still need to do the work to become more social,” Vitelli says.