Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to a Shy Person

Don’t let them get away with hiding in the bathroom

Jessica Pan
Forge
Published in
6 min readNov 21, 2019

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Illustration: Dan Woodger

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

TThere are two types of people at holiday gatherings. There are the guests who are extremely excited by this social event, who open the door and say, “Hiiiiiiiii! We’re here!” and immediately proceed to hug everybody enthusiastically and slap their backs and laugh and talk merrily. In my head, I call them the Katies and the Gregs because Katies always seem confident and chatty, and Gregs seem like easy-going dudes who can talk to anyone.

And then there’s the other type. People like me. You’ll find us less chatty— well, actually, you might not find us at all, because we’re often sitting in the bathroom to avoid stilted conversation or on the floor behind the sofa, petting the family dog.

When I’m not petting any animal within reach, I’m perched on the end of the couch, flipping through a magazine I found on the coffee table, sipping my drink while eavesdropping on a conversation that I cannot think of anything to contribute to. As soon as I think of something relevant to say, I get anxious about how to gracefully break into the conversation. And often, while I wait for an opening, I start to fear that the thing I want to say is really stupid and just go back to the magazine.

The odds are decent that you know exactly who I’m talking about. Up to 60% of people think of themselves as shy, according to one widely cited statistic from research conducted in the 1990s. (Feeling shy or socially anxious is different from having social anxiety disorder, which will affect an estimated 12% of people at some point during their lifetime; for people with the disorder, the discomfort of new situations doesn’t go away once the novelty subsides.)

Stefan G. Hofmann is the director of the psychotherapy and emotion research laboratory at Boston University. He reassures me that as lonely as it can feel to be a shy person in a Katie-and-Greg world, it’s also exceedingly normal. “We are social animals, and we want to be accepted by our peer groups,” he says. “Evolutionarily, it would be disastrous if we were rejected because we…

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Jessica Pan
Forge
Writer for

Jessica Pan’s memoir, SORRY I’M LATE, I DIDN’T WANT TO COME: One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes is out now. She lives in London. www.jesspan.com