I’ve always been shy. I tend to keep to myself, and I’m rarely the first one to talk to a stranger. I also hate talking in large groups; I usually just listen, and only give my opinion when asked. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I was an introvert and shyness was part of my personality, but I’ve always envied people who are friendly and outgoing.
Turns out about 40% of adults believe they’re shy, according to research from Indiana University Southeast. While knowing I’m not alone was comforting, I wanted to see what being like the other 60% felt like. I decided to pretend to be extroverted for a week with the thought that it was temporary. I could go back to being "myself" when it was over.
First, I had to understand the difference between being shy and being an introvert. "On the surface, a shy person and an introvert look exactly alike," says Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. "The critical difference is on the inside."
At a party, for example, an introvert stands to the side because they prefer to be there. "There’s less social stimulation, and they have a more sensitive nervous system and prefer to get away from noise," says Carducci. "They withdraw from the social world because they’re minimizing stimulation. They have friends, but they prefer social functions that are smaller and more sedate."
Shy people, on the other hand, stand to the side at a party because they feel they have no choice, says Carducci. "They want to socialize, but they don’t know what to do," he says. "They are self-critical and think that in order to be successful at socializing, they have to be brilliant and the life of party. That’s not true, and this is where they shut themselves down."
I definitely identified with being shy, and Carducci told me it would be okay to pretend to be outgoing and extroverted, but it might be better to learn how to be "successfully shy"—true to the person that I really am while also feeling comfortable meeting new people. It would just take practice.
The first thing to do was to realize that the conversation process is not random. "It follows a specific process, like a golf swing," says Carducci. "It’s an acquired skill; people are not born with the gift of the gab. You can learn this."
Here are the five steps:
- Get started. Prepare an opening line that reflects something you have in common. "‘This line is longer than I expected,’ or the classic, ‘Nice weather we’re having,’" suggests Carducci. "When you say something simple, you’re sending the message, ‘I’d like to talk to you. Do you want to talk to me?’"
- Introduce yourself. If the other person is open to a conversation, a personal introduction comes next, says Carducci. This includes telling them who you are and something about you. "Help yourself and be prepared for this," he says.
- Fish for topics. The next step is to throw out topics for possible discussion. Carducci says you could mention a recent vacation, an item in the news, such as the Olympics or elections, or something going on in your town. "You shouldn’t feel like a failure if people don’t respond to the topic you tossed out," he says. "It may take two or three attempts."
- Expand on a topic. When you throw out a topic that gets a response, use it to expand into something related, suggests Carducci. For example, if you’re discussing your vacation, you might talk about the food you ate or the music you heard.
- Terminate the conversation. The final step is a gracious end to your talking. "Make sure that you let the person know the conversation is coming to end," says Carducci. "You could say, ‘I must be going soon, but I had a great time chatting.’ Express gratitude and set the stage for future conversation."
Shyness also involves excessive self-consciousness, excessive negative self-evaluation, and excessive negative self-preoccupation, says Carducci. Paying attention to my self-esteem would be the second half of my challenge. I had been teased in high school, and some of that negative talk still lingers.
Surprisingly Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector, can relate. She was bullied in junior high school and felt like she didn’t have much to offer people. "I didn’t feel like I fit in," she says.
Robinett made a plan to overcome her shyness when she entered the corporate world and saw that others were getting job promotions even though they weren’t working harder. "Behind the corporate org chart there’s a whole other grid," she says. "The power players' network are influential in recommendations. I wanted to be in that circle, so I worked on improving my emotional IQ skills," says Robinett.
The key is awareness, planning, and practice, says Robinett. She started by smiling and saying hello to others. Then she would break the ice by offering a genuine compliment. When she attended events, Robinett would identify the connector in the room and figure out a way she could help that person, knowing that they would most likely introduce her to others.
Robinett also learned to join groups by looking at people’s toes: "If you walk into a room and see a circle of people with their toes inward, that’s a sign it’s a closed group and you can’t interrupt," she says. "If people are not quite so tightly grouped," she explains, "they’re open to having someone listen or join."
It helped Robinett to keep a "victory log," a list of your accomplishments to review weekly when you start to feel like you’re not good enough. "These are things that can boost your self-esteem and prove to yourself that you’re the kind of person who takes action," she says.
Armed with a conversation blueprint and a victory log, I ventured out into the world ready to connect. For a week I looked for opportunities to meet new people. I struck up conversations with cashiers and waiters. I volunteered to partner with a new member of my class at the gym, and got to know her. And I voluntarily sat with a group of strangers at an event even though I knew someone at another table. I collected a few business cards that might lead to new work. I even connected two people I thought should meet.
For someone who is outgoing or extroverted, my week probably sounds like normal life, but for someone who is shy, it was a big step. I thought I might feel tired or overwhelmed, but I was actually energized by the experience, which means I may not be as introverted as I once thought. I’ll be attending a conference in a couple of weeks, and instead of dreading the networking part, I’m looking forward to making more new contacts.
Being successfully shy takes regular practice. "Change what you do, and not who you are," Carducci says. "Eventually, you’ll be the kind of person who feels comfortable talking to others. When you start doing that," he says, "people will see you as somebody who lots of people like to talk to, and they will start coming to you."