Face your fears, overcome social anxiety

When changing and improving yourself, the only approach that works is small steps to big goals. Big steps will often fail and leave you disappointed in yourself. Small steps to small goals don’t make an impact, even if you reach the goal.

To reach a new goal, figure out if you’re lacking a skill, or the guts to just do it. Critical in getting better at the dating game is being able to have a friendly conversation with a stranger. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you can talk. So it’s not the lack of skills that’s holding you back. What needs to change here, it that you have to overcome a very basic fear, and create a new habit.

If you’re totally comfortable chatting away with random strangers, whether they’re old people, smart, crazy, ugly or stunningly beautifull, then go ahead and skip this post. Also, if you’re afraid to get out of the house, then this post is also not for you… you may need to consider professional help first. If, however, you’re like most people and enjoy a random chat now and then, but also feel some level of anxiety and fear when approaching strangers – it’s a good thing to start working on this first.

Good news: you know all there is to know to make conversation. You can talk and you can listen. Learning small talk is not like learning a martial art, or riding a bike. It’s not going to take years and years to master. It’s just going to take some practice and a lot of a ‘what the fuck’ attitude, to just get comfortable at speaking to strangers.

This is going to be cool. These little exercises are going to be super simple, but really entertaining. You’re going to meet new people, learn little things, and become a much cooler person. Trying these things out years ago, and focussing on getting comfortable with them – I certainly had lots of fun – and I still have, and it’s so simple to do.

Ok. Small steps to big goals. Goal: get comfortable with starting and having a random conversations with random strangers. Decide for yourself: where are you considering this skill? Do you say ‘Hi’ to people who look friendly on a bus? Do you often have a chat with strangers while you’re in a waiting room? When you’re on a plane, do you talk to the person next to you? Do you greet them? How many strangers do you talk to on a typical night in a bar? I’m not talking about the level of social interaction where you would, hypothetically be comfortable with, but the stuff you actually do, on a regular basis.

Once you know where you are now and where you want to be, think of small steps that will get you there. For example, let’s say you’re just usually walking with your iPod on, minding your own business. And in a pub or restaurants, you order your drinks and food and then just stick to the people you know. What would be some small steps to improve this?

Well, here’s a suggestion. Start by, every now and then, taking off your iPod. Look around and notice the people around you. Now, on your way home, smile and do a little nod to at least five random people. Then, the next day, do the same, but add a friendly ‘Hi!’. It’s simple stuff, right, but it’s like a warming-up. Connecting to people is on your mind, and you’re changing your habits in a small but significant way.

Now to actually start having conversations. What would be the easiest way? Find some people who are easy to talk to… what about… retail store clerks? They’re paid to talk to you! Go to some stores, and talk to these people: ask questions. First about the stuff they sell, then about store things: when do you guys close? Is this a franchise? Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. Have some fun! Be like David Wygant: walk into a Victoria Secret store and go like “You got any man’s stuff?”. Enjoy the mantra: “I don’t give a shit”.

Go on like this, make your own challenges, have some fun. Go to Starbucks and ask them where their coffee comes from, how long the training is to become a barista. Go to a store that’s open late and ask if the girl has to work the entire day.

Once you got this stuff down, and are having fun with this, move on to… semi-strangers. You know, collegues that are in some other department and you’ve never spoken to. People who are in your year in college but you’re not sharing any classes with. Friends of friends which you meet at parties.

An easy way to start a conversation is to start with statements, as mentioned before. The best way to do this, is to make observations – and don’t care they’re obvious. It’s best when they’re obvious! “That’s a sweet dog!”, “What a nice little plane”, “Boy it’s cold!”. Start with generic observations, and then try some more personal ones – “You look bored”, “Wow, your sweater looks like knitted vomit” – have some fun.

At some point, you will offend someone. You may freak some people out. You will make a fool of yourself. This is all ok – have a laugh about it. When you learned how to walk, you fell down, when you learned how to write you misspelled a lot (and some still do…). You can’t learn this stuff without failing miserably a few times. Accept it, laugh about it, shrug it off.

You’ll notice that once you start a conversation, the rest is easy. As I said before: talking is something you can do. Granted, some people will be easier and more fun to talk to then others, and in the skill of having an interesting conversation, there may be a lot to learn. But overcoming your fears of random banter – thank me later – is going to be a critical step. This is something you’re going to enjoy and have fun with for the rest of your life.