Some of us are just shy — we may feel, awkward, tense, or worried when approaching or being approached by other people. And some people have physical symptoms when they feel this way, like blushing or sweating or getting an upset stomach, which surely makes it much harder to want to deal with other people. And the fact is that almost all of us have moments of feeling shy, dreading those moments when we just feel awkward or want to withdraw from social interactions.
Though it is possible to be both shy and an introvert, they aren’t the same thing. Introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments and has its own impacts on how to build and sustain friendships. Being shy can come from feelings of self-consciousness or fear of judgment or rejection. It’s not hard to see how that can make it hard to speak up and to make new friends. Shy people often, probably without really realizing it, make social comparisons. And compared to someone outgoing or very confident, they view themselves as lacking that confidence which can cause shy people to avoid social situations. And, since a lot of learning to deal with social situations comes from practice, this avoidance can only reinforce the shyness.
Strategies to make friends
Like so many things in life, the first step to overcoming the social challenges of being shy is to acknowledge the shyness and understanding how it’s impacting your social relationships and friendships.
- Before attending a social event, come up with a plan that includes thinking of questions and talking points ahead of time, so you don’t have to come up with something in the moment. And practice in the mirror, with a trusted family member or friend.
- Think about subjects and topics you like and the type of conversations that work for you. Maybe you like books and intellectual conversations, or maybe you like talking about sports or TV shows. Look for events with themes you enjoy, as they will attract people who also like what you like. And sharing an interest makes it easier to start a conversation with a stranger (who could be a potential friend).
- Make yourself comfortable, including wearing clothing that makes you feel good about yourself and are appropriate for the event.
- Wearing jeans to a formal event will make it more difficult to feel a part of the crowd and will likely increase your shyness. Wearing a formal gown to a (socially distanced) picnic in the park will also make you stand out in a way that may not feel comfortable.
- Wear a statement piece—a sports team or band t-shirt or a dramatic necklace—that may start conversations.
- Observe others before speaking. Listen to what is being said, the topics being discussed, so you can contribute something to the conversation. This can be easier when you are attending an event with a specific focus, like a bird watching trip or a networking meeting; you’ll already know some of the topics people will be discussing.
- Look for events where you may see the same people more than once, such as work, networking events, for example, or clubs, MeetUp groups, or a volunteer opportunity, which will attract people with similar interests.
- Expect a positive outcome. Instead of thinking that an interaction with a new potential friend will go wrong or will be awkward, imagine it going right and the person you’re speaking with accepting you for who you are, not judging you. This may be easier said than done, but it is a good strategy.
These approaches are all possible and helpful for shy people. Admittedly, in today’s world with the pandemic limiting our options for gathering in person, it definitely takes more effort and may involve some virtual meetings, which come with their own set of social interactions. Fortunately, the principles are the same virtually as they are in person. For some people it can absolutely be harder to connect with people over a video or phone call. For others, it may be easier to be relaxed in a virtual meeting—you’re in your own space and comfortable, and it’s relatively easy to disengage when necessary, in some cases much more so than in person.
Making friends is about spending time and sharing interests. It doesn’t happen right away for most people. And, by understanding your shyness, and being open to change, it is possible to make new friends.