You're at your new next-door neighbor Sharon's party, and once again, you don't know where to put yourself. Your smile is plastered on, and you're counting the minutes until you can make a polite exit. Why do I put myself through this? you ask yourself. It's torture. I can't go up to people and start making small talk. I should have said I can't come.
Out of the corner of your eye, you spot your friend, Sara. She looks relaxed as she chats comfortably with someone you don't know. What is she talking about? you wonder. She said she didn't know anyone who would be at the party. How can she talk like that to a total stranger? How come she can do it and I can't?
"Hi, I'm Sharon's brother, Mark." Someone breaks your train of thought. "What's your connection to my sister?"
You feel a mixture of relief and anxiety. At least someone is talking to you… and it takes you a moment to realize he's kind of cute. You blurt out something about living next door and not really knowing Sharon yet, and you instantly you wish you could have said something wittier. But Mark doesn't seem to have a problem with your answer, and asks you something else about yourself.
I can do this, you tell yourself, and you feel very self-conscious as you reply to his question and are drawn into a conversation. Why is this so hard for me? you ask yourself as you spot Sara chatting away comfortably. I also feel this way when I meet someone new at a Shabbat meal or go on a blind date. What's wrong with me?
Does this situation sound familiar? This is a common experience for the many people who are introverts – who are by nature reserved, not very outgoing, and uncomfortable in certain social situations. Most introverts prefer small, intimate get-togethers, have a few close friends rather than a large social circle, and sometimes seem aloof or quiet in a group or with someone they don't know well. It may take an introvert a while to feel comfortable conversing with a new person, or to open up to someone they're just getting to know. Often, they look back and wish they'd said something else or had an easier time getting the words out.
The fact is that most of us are hard-wired since birth to either be an introvert, an extrovert, or something in-between. No style of interaction is "better" than another. However, many introverts worry that their reticent nature will be a handicap when they are dating because it isn't easy for them to launch into conversation or become comfortable enough to communicate on a deep level. They worry about keeping a dating partner interested and developing a meaningful relationship.
These are legitimate concerns for introverted daters. Now here’s the good news: You can learn how to open up to someone else and feel comfortable enough to date and socialize.
Many people feel intimidated at large social events.
The first step is to accept that you simply have a more reserved personality. However, you aren't the only one who feels uncomfortable at large gatherings and is shy about speaking with someone you don't know. Many people feel intimidated at very large social events. A better choice for you may be a small get-together like a Shabbat dinner or a gathering at someone's home. These also can be somewhat stressful, but much less so if you follow some of these suggestions:
- Plan what you would like to say, whether it be a few sentences to introduce yourself, a compliment to the hosts, or an observation about something in the news.
- Think about how you feel in each of the following situations: speaking one-on-one, with two or three other people, and in a small group. Try to visualize how you could make yourself more comfortable in each situation. For example, you might imagine that the others are already your friends, or that you're speaking with a neighbor.
- Prepare something pleasant to think about from time to time at the event, to keep yourself feeling positive. This can also remind you to smile when you meet people and talk to them.
These suggestions can also be adapted to make dating easier. They've been very helpful to someone we'll call Andy, who told us that he had only recently started dating and was very nervous about it. He felt he couldn't come up with answers to his date's questions fast enough and felt that his conversation was wooden.
We suggested that Andy rehearse for dates to feel more confident about going out. We had him prepare a list of topics to talk about on the first two dates. We suggested that he write down what he could say about each topic, and some questions he could ask the other person about it.
We also recommended that Andy practice being on a date with a friend or family member. We told him to treat this as a real conversation, in which each person tries to listen to the other and respond. We wanted Andy to get used to staying with a discussion even if it went off on a tangent. Andy role-modeled a few times with a trusted friend, and gradually the discussions got easier for him.
As he became more comfortable making "small talk," Andy also realized that he was able to pick up on nuances, facial expressions and body language. This awareness made him more confident about his ability to become a good conversationalist.
Andy also told us that when there were lulls in the conversation, he felt awkward and at a loss for new subjects to introduce. He didn't want to make his date responsible to manage the conversation. We advised Andy that this happens to most people on the first few dates, until the two people know each other better. We suggested that Andy keep a back-up list of subjects to introduce when the conversation stopped.
We gave Andy three additional practical pieces of advice:
- Always be well-rested before a date, and reschedule if you are ill on the night of a date.
- Choose a venue where you’re better able to have a good conversation, such as a quiet café rather than a busy restaurant, or a place where you are unlikely to see people you might know.
- Plan some interactive dates, so that the activity could be a focal point for some of the conversation.
Andy found it helpful to have a mentor to talk to before and after his dates. This was a good way to get feedback and to brainstorm topics to talk about. Andy also thought it was a good idea to tell his date that he was a little shy and it would take him time to open up. He felt that by sharing this, he took some pressure off himself and let his date understand him better.
Andy told us that what helped the most was his willingness to accept his own personality, and not try to be someone he isn't. He also understands that since dating is an individual process, rather than a group activity, it is easier to focus on a few tips to feel comfortable and converse more easily. Now, he is able to let his sterling qualities come through, and he is well on his way to building a connection with the woman he hopes to marry.