Imagine this: you rock up to a party, looking your best, feeling your best, until you enter the crowded front room and realise you’re the first of your friends to arrive. This once happened to me and I panicked. A hero, in the form of a DJ, stepped in to try save me:
DJ- You alright? You look lost.
Me- Haha um I’m just trying to find my friends.
DJ- Ah, fairs...
(I respond with silence, but continue to linger)
DJ- ...Got any song requests for later?
(More silence. The clock is ticking. I have forgotten every name of every song in the world.)
Me- Erm... no, I’m uh… not into… music.
Fucked it. Who isn’t into music? Immediately full of regret and, frankly, confusion at how my brain led me to that sentence, I quickly and wordlessly left to hide in a toilet under the stairs.
If you’re like me, talking to strangers can feel pretty awkward. While I’m constantly told that the best way to handle these moments is to be yourself, it’s not the most useful advice when you cringe at the very thought of a sober chinwag. It is difficult to learn how to switch on the best, most confident version of yourself, but luckily, I’ve learned from my mistakes- it is possible to prep for these meetings to remove the anxiety from the situation. So, if you’re starting a new job, going to a networking event or taking a new class at university, here’s how to fake it till ya make it:
Prep Some Good 'Ins'
If that DJ taught me anything, it’s that initiating the conversation takes the potential to panic out of the equation, as you won't be the one who needs to ad-lib the first response. It’s handy to prepare some basic conversation starters to take some pressure off yourself in the moment. Start with questions around the setting or the host, as these are things you already definitely have in common with your conversation partner. Try, ‘So what do you think of the lecture?’, ‘Have you worked here long? How was your first day?’, or ‘How do you know [host’s name]?’. These are natural openers that give you and your conversation partner a lot to work with.
Your Face Says A Lot
My body language at that party was the immediate giveaway that I was uncomfortable and it did me no favours in coming across as a happy, chatty person. It’s also an unfortunate truth that shy people often accidentally come across as rude, as our awkward lack of eye contact is commonly mistaken as 'resting bitch face'. So, to avoid this, stand up tall, relax your shoulders and smile - I read one study that said fake smiling makes us actually believe we are more confident and comfortable in our given situation. This cool outer appearance lets people immediately know you’re an approachable and chilled person before you’ve even had a chance to chat.
When You Have Nothing Nice to Say, Don’t Say Anything at All
In my experience, when there’s a long silence, people often awkwardly resort to moaning. It’s like we all return to being babies, going on about being bored, tired and hungry, but it’s hard to be endearing when your attitude is negative and uninviting (see: “I’m not into music”). Try adjusting your complaint to say something more interesting and open, like “I’m so tired, I got no sleep last night because I was watching Black Mirror”. This is especially important when you’re entering a group of people who already know each other.
Have an Easy 'Out'
When you’ve had enough of a conversation, it’s good to have a line that will grant you a smooth exit. A fail-proof go-to that works in nearly every instance is, ‘Well anyway, I’ll let you go’. It’s perfect because it’s polite, but not too forward, and just the right amount of flattery. Then, once you’ve made your getaway, feel free to congratulate yourself on smashing that interaction.
Give Yourself a Time Limit and a Reward
If you find that the event and the company you’ve met are truly unbearable, set yourself a manageable target, say, ‘If I talk to seven new people by 7pm, I get to go home early’. Doing this, you’ll be far more motivated to get the socialising over with.
I may have a full-body cringe every time I remember that awful encounter, but it’s been an invaluable lesson for improvement. When you’re not born with the gift of the gab, every event can seem daunting. But in my experience, the hardest part is showing up. It takes confidence to go to new things solo, so even if your only input to a group conversation is a few cordial laughs, be proud- that’s a victory! And your success will grow every time you try.