This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.
There 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 couldn’t survive without other people.”
Then he says something else, that feels to me like a hug (and not the overwhelming kind sprung upon you by some distant relative): “If people do not have any social anxiety, something is seriously wrong with them.”
Some people, though, are better at hiding their shyness than others: Some research suggests that only 15-20% of shy people appear that way, while the rest can reasonably fake their way through a social situation without cluing anyone in to the stress bubbling below the surface. For those of us who are terrible at masking it, the internet is chock-full of articles about how to learn to be more outgoing.
I know this because I spent the last year reading all of them as part of a grand experiment: For my book, Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come, I spent a full year living as a gregarious extrovert, going on friend dates, taking improv classes, and generally embracing the stuff of my shy-person nightmares.
But the onus shouldn’t only be on shy people to change. After all, even the most outgoing person can’t have a conversation alone (unless they’re a Leo). If the person seated next to you at the dinner table appears to be silently counting their peas, here’s how you can bring them into your conversation.
Make the first move
Breaking the ice is often the hardest thing for shy people, so if you make an effort to connect, you’re halfway there. We may be too nervous to insert ourselves into a conversation, but we hate feeling excluded as much as anyone else.
Go ahead and say hi, but maybe don’t swoop in for a bear hug. Overly enthusiastic greetings and goodbyes can stress us out. My favorite hello? A friendly wave from across the room — like “Hey, Dave!” — and then a gesture while shifting over to make some space in your group. (An important note: Do this subtly! Don’t make a big scene about it or announce it. Calling others’ attention to your benevolent move here will only make a shy person more uncomfortable.)
Ask open-ended questions
Your job doesn’t end once you’re face to face. Often in group settings, shy people need an explicit invitation into the conversation — like a softball question lobbed directly to them — to feel comfortable opening up. We can sometimes otherwise feel that it’s rude to chime in or that no one wants to hear from us if no one has asked us anything, so this is a crucial step.
Also, don’t push quiet people out of the circle. We might actually be doing this other thing called listening. Don’t assume we’re not interested just because we’re quiet.
But speaking of circles, shy people generally are more comfortable one on one. So even if we are super quiet in a group, we often warm up if you chat with us alone. Share things about yourself to make them feel comfortable — you don’t want the conversation to feel like an interrogation.
During my year of extroverting, I took a class called “How to Be Sociable,” and the main takeaway was this: If you share things about yourself with someone first, they will be put at ease and more willing to share back.
Don’t force shy people into the spotlight
Even if the two of you already have a pretty good rapport going, do not single out a shy person in front of everyone during a lull at dinner. Examples include shouting, “Brothels?! Well, Cassandra would know about that, wouldn’t you?” and then everyone whips their head around and stares at poor Cassandra, who has a mouth full of mashed potatoes and who actually knows nothing about brothels but once spent a weekend in Amsterdam and has now died of humiliation.
Stay in their orbit
If you are bringing a shy person to a party — say, your new partner who’s meeting everyone for the first time or a friend who has nowhere else to go for a holiday dinner — then for the love of god, don’t immediately abandon them.
Set them up for success. Go with them to grab a drink and some food and introduce them around. Help get them going in a conversation with someone else before you wander off to do your own thing. Periodically come back over and check on your person, or better yet, bring them with you to meet someone else after they’ve been chatting with the same person for a while.
This applies even if the shy person in question isn’t new to the group. I know my in-laws, obviously, but I still hate when my husband abandons me for too long when we’re at their house. More than once, I have followed him to the bathroom to get out of an awkward conversation that has run its course. In darker moments, I’ve considered hiding his drinks to limit his need to pee.
If you see a shy person trying to hide the fact that they’re hiding (signs include texting with a furrowed brow to imply that they’re typing out something important or hovering by the bar and studiously examining all the drink options for way too long), go check on them. You can say something like, “Hey we’ve got some apple pie over there—want to have a slice and join us?” Then walk with them and find them a little space to sit in a group. Hand them the pie and sit by them while bringing them into the group conversation. Voila! And now they’re also eating pie with Greg and Katie. Win-win.
Don’t overthink it
We’re not a different species. Shy people usually just need some time to warm up, and once we do, we usually become much more talkative. We can be as interesting or funny as any Greg in the right circumstances and with the right pie. And all that listening we’ve been doing means we can be pretty great conversationalists.
So just — be normal. Follow the basic rules of socializing with a dash more patience. If you have asked someone a question, let them answer. Don’t cut them off or contradict them immediately. You’re trying to get to know them, not just waiting for your turn to speak. (Right?! Right.)
That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Looking forward to socializing with you—and probably petting your dog too—at a dinner party this year!