Everyone’s been there at some point—in a tense, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar social arrangement, forced to make small talk with people whom we share no common ground with. Maybe you’re the odd one out, the pacifist among soldiers, the chicken farmer among vegans, or simply a social fledgling trying to “fit in.”
Maybe you’re an introvert who avoids parties, or a person who needs a few cocktails to deal with the uneasy feelings that come from being out of your comfort zone. In studying Chronic Social Anxiety, which can be crippling for millions of people, scientists and psychologists have discovered ways that the mind can be retrained with adaptive or constructive behaviors, things that you train yourself to do when your worry or unease is triggered.
Instead of wishing you’d stayed at home, you can learn to use the time to open your mind, practice taking risks and stretching your mental habits a little bit. You might discover some of your inner resources, and create opportunities to grow and connect with other people, essential elements of mental well being.
Here are 10 things to help you get through the evening, the hour, or the next 15 minutes, which don’t involve crawling out the window in the restroom or using the time to read through all your junk mail on your phone.
1. Take Your Self Out Of The Equation
This is the simplest, and often the hardest thing to do because as humans we take our egos everywhere we go. Experiment with it anyway. First, don’t assume that people are judging you, or even focused on you at all. People are often caught up in their own impression-making worries and probably aren’t noticing what you’re doing or saying as much as you might think they are. Take your “self” out of the equation and try to focus on what’s in front of you—community, or food, or the reason for meeting.
2. Consider Everyone’s Humanity
Remove the label. People aren’t just conservatives or liberals, hipsters or drones, successes or failures. As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes. Avoid sizing someone up immediately or deciding that they’re not your type of person. Instead, listen to what someone has to say and use it as a learning experience. Remember everyone’s humanity and emphasize your own.
3. Remember That People Aren’t Always What They Appear To Be
Many people avoid their own feelings of vulnerability by creating a tough, know-it-all exterior. Often the haughtiest people are the most wounded inside. Introverts can come across as uninterested when really they are good listeners who need more time to ease in to a conversation. Practice compassion by trying to see through the way a person acts in public. You never know what someone has been through, or what great or horrible things have shaped the person you see in front of you. We are all people with stories to tell, only some people don’t know how to tell them.
4. Interview Someone
When you are forced into small talk, ask questions. Pretend the woman or man next to you is someone you are interviewing for a newspaper profile. Connect in a one-on-one way. Ask where they grew up or how they ended up in the city you both live in. Geography is great way to connect with people. You can learn a lot about someone by finding out more about where they came from, and use it as an opportunity to find out about places you’ve never heard of or are unfamiliar with.
5. Ask Questions About Who People Are Instead of What They Do
Many people find it easier to talk about themselves one-on-one, so give them an opportunity to be heard. You don’t have to go directly to questions like “where do you work?” or “what do you do?” Remember that people are more than their jobs. If someone mentions a vegetable garden, use it as an opportunity to ask how the person got interested in gardening. Or find out more about their relationship to the person or event bringing you together. Sometimes you learn more about people you thought you knew well by talking to their friends or coworkers about the other parts of their lives.
6. Acknowledge Cultural Differences
Cultural diversity in a social situation is a wonderful opportunity to open your mind and learn about unfamiliar experiences, customs, and opinions firsthand. If you are talking to someone whose lifestyle, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is different from your own, you don’t have to avoid the subject. Our individual cultures or lifestyles are what make us interesting and have the potential for creating real conversations that change us.You don’t have to say, “I noticed that you’re gay,” or “Wow, your skin has so little pigment compared to mine!” but by listening you can notice how people refer to their own identity in conversations, and let it guide you to ask questions.
That said, it’s also important to remember that there can be cultural differences in the way that people communicate and approach conversations. Some people grew up in families that listen to one another politely, others among people who interrupt frequently and get emotional quickly. Raised voices might look like a conflict to some people, and the same conversation could be intriguing and familiar to someone else.
7. Let Neutral Subjects Subdue The Elephant In The Room
Is there an elephant in the room? You don’t have to feed it. Don’t let an awkward experience or a thoughtless remark someone made suck all the air out of a room. If you encounter a person starting to rant about a subject that is obviously offensive or hurtful to someone in the group, steer the conversation in a different direction with more neutral subjects. Political arguments can easily get ugly if they are not diffused early on, and diatribes about that annoying neighbor with the self-righteous bumper stickers or religious views shouldn’t be what ruins an evening. Turn the talk to movies or the TV series you love, or go back into interview mode with someone you don’t know.
8. Don’t Let the Bullies Take Over
Sometimes there is one person who likes to stir the pot, who baits people with comments intended to start an argument. Alcohol can make some people more aggressive and give them the fuel they need to belittle others or put them on the spot with inappropriate remarks. Ideally, you come to the rescue of the person being bullied by showing your support as a fellow human. If you’re the one being bullied, try responding with a neutral dismissal such as “Maybe we can find another time to talk about this.” Or, alternately…
9. Insert a Little Laughter
Having a sense of humor can be of great service in awkward moments and can take the edge off of a too-serious moment that is making things hard for everyone. It can also help you quickly transition into other more neutral subjects. This doesn’t mean you have to tell jokes or start up your clown routine, it just means acknowledging that things could lighten up with a change of tone. If you’re the host, it’s your job to keep the peace if you can, and often you can encourage this with a little levity. Give everyone a chance to shake it off, as Taylor Swift keeps reminding us to do. A lighthearted nod such as, “Now that we’ve solved all the worlds’ problems, let’s have pie!” or “If everyone is ready for the cannoli eating contest, I’ll bring them out.”
10. Show Appreciation
Take a moment to thank the person or people who brought you all together. This makes everyone feel gratitude and can move things in a positive direction. Make a toast, or reiterate the reason for gathering. Find a moment to celebrate something positive happening in the world!