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Why We’re Hardwired To Be Anxious At A New Job

Turns out we are set up to freak out on the first day, but luckily there are a few things you can do to ease your anxiety.

Why We’re Hardwired To Be Anxious At A New Job
[Photo: via Pixabay]

You know that feeling you get when you’re new? The anxiety and general awkwardness of being in an unfamiliar setting? Well, it turns out we’re hardwired to respond that way in new situations. In fact, that feeling of alert was something that used to protect us.

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“During the hunter-gatherer days, encountering a stranger usually occurred when you were moving into another tribe’s territory, and that was stressful and potentially dangerous,” says Keith Rollag, associate professor of organizational behavior at Babson College and author of What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Confident, Comfortable, and Successful in New Situations. “Humans had to quickly decide whether the stranger was a friend or foe and take appropriate action.”

The trouble is that we’ve retained our nervousness even though we no longer have to hunt and gather. “Humans have moved from a world where they met only a few hundred people during their entire lifetime, to encountering that many strangers riding the subway or attending a conference,” says Rollag. “We are out of our element from an evolutionary standpoint, and our minds and cognitive abilities are still catching up.”

Whether you’re starting a job, taking a class, or attending a meeting, you’re going to be the new person at some point. Rollag says mastering simple skills can help you overcome your inborn anxiety, and he shares tips on handling three situations that often make being new feel stressful.

Introducing Yourself

Successful relationships start with introductions, but it can feel awkward to introduce yourself to someone. Whether you’re approaching a new teammate, the office receptionist, or someone you frequently see in the elevator, the best way to handle an introduction is to practice what you’re going to say first.

“We’re often reluctant to introduce ourselves because we’re worried we’ll violate the norm, and so we wait for others to introduce us,” says Rollag. “It becomes more and more awkward when you never get introduced but are aware of each other. At some point, you’ll both feel embarrassed, and that can lead to missing out on a good relationship.”

There’s an easy formula you can follow for introducing yourself without feeling awkward, says Rollag:

  • Start with a greeting, such as “Good morning,” or simply, “Hello.”
  • Follow with your name.
  • Establish the interaction as an introduction.
  • Provide a reason why you’re introducing yourself.
  • Give the other person a chance to respond.

For example, “Good morning, John, my name is Marilyn Perkins. I just started last week as marketing assistant on the EduToy account. I understand from my boss that you’re the creative lead on the account and I wanted to introduce myself.”

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Introducing yourself can actually improve your happiness. University of Chicago behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder conducted an experiment asking train commuters to introduce themselves to the person riding next to them. Commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who sat in solitude.

Remembering Names

When you’re new, you have a lot of new people to meet–and a lot of names to remember. The problem with forgetting a name isn’t so much that you forgot it; it’s what you feel and do when you realize you can’t recall it, says Rollag. “You often leave a situation feeling guilty and embarrassed,” he says.

Unfortunately, our brains aren’t hardwired to remember names. For much of human history, people interacted with only a few dozen people at one time, and remembering names wasn’t key to survival, says Rollag. In addition, our brains process and store names differently than everything else we learn about people, and the one-way neural connection between what we know about people and their names is weak. Without mental effort, the connection isn’t strong enough to trigger recall of a name when we meet the person again.

But there are a few tricks you can use to help your recollection, says Rollag:

  • Repeat someone’s name upon meeting them and use the person’s name twice during the conversation so your recall lasts more than a few seconds.
  • Study the person’s appearance, especially their face, and look for distinctive features you can associate with their name. The objective is when you see the person again, their face will trigger recall of their name.
  • After you meet someone, write down his or her name so you can commit it to memory later or refer to it if you need it.

Asking Questions

When you’re new, asking questions is the only way you get up to speed and get the information you need. “We spend our lives as children being taught that you had to raise your hand if you want to ask a question,” says Rollag. “This doesn’t work when you’re an adult, and most of the information you need in a new situation isn’t found on Google.”

Not asking questions, however, is an inherent trait; in prehistoric times, demonstrating a lack of knowledge could reduce your status in the group and put you at risk of being rejected. Research has found, however, that the more questions newcomers ask and the more they seek help, the better they will perform and the more satisfied they will be, says Rollag, who adds that there’s an art to the asking:

  • Keep it short. The longer you take to ask a question, the harder it is for the other person to make sense of it. And avoid multipart questions, as most people will forget to answer your first one.
  • Explain why you’re asking. Simply saying, “I’m new here,” can relieve the awkwardness.
  • Listen to the answer. Sometimes when we’re busy thinking about the next question, we don’t pay close enough attention to the reply.
  • Ask follow-up questions if necessary.
  • Don’t overstay your welcome. Thank the person and close the loop.

“When I ask people, ‘If you could go back in time and be new again, what would you do differently?’ The number one answer is, ‘Ask more questions,’” says Rollag. “The best way to get over the stress around asking questions is to ask more questions.”

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