How To Make Your Social Spaces More Welcoming To Shy, Socially Anxious, or Introverted People

Social interaction is hard for many people for many different reasons. Plenty has already been written on how these people can change themselves or learn how to better cope with social situations, so I have little interest in rehashing that. What I really want to discuss is how others can set up their social spaces and events in ways that make it easier for these people to participate.

A disclaimer: this post is written from my individual perspective (albeit with a few suggestions from friends). I’m just one person, one person who is an introvert and has struggled with social anxiety and shyness in the past. If you read this post and find it useful, discuss it with other people you know who might disagree with or confirm various parts of it.

It’s also important to note that shyness, introversion, and social anxiety are different things. Shyness is a personality trait that some people grow out of after childhood and others don’t. Introversion is a personality “type” that rarely changes much during a person’s lifetime and can involve a bunch of related traits. Social anxiety is a mental disorder that can be treated in various ways, but not everyone has access to treatment or is able to find one that works. The reason I’m lumping them all together in this post is only because people who have them can all benefit from similar social accommodations–not because they’re the same thing.

So, first and foremost:

1. Include them.

Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. Social events of all kinds, whether informal ones like parties or “serious” ones like conferences, are often attended by groups of friends. But they’re also often attended by people who come hoping to make friends and meet like-minded folks. If you’d like to bring new people into the fold of your group, you have to create an environment in which new people feel welcomed and wanted, even if they’re shy, quiet, or anxious around strangers.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked up and introduced myself to people–or, worse, been invited somewhere with a group of established friends–who then proceeded to ignore me and keep discussing their own inside jokes and gossip. When I was younger and more socially anxious, reaching out to people was almost impossible because I was terrified of this exact possibility and the awkwardness that ensues when you’re greeted and introduced and then ignored.

Now, as an adult who’s much more likely to be the one with the established friend group than the newbie, I sometimes catching myself doing the same thing and I try to make an effort to include the new person in the conversation instead.

Excluding people from conversation is rude at best and anxiety-provoking at worst, and it’s easy to avoid. If you’d like new people to come to your events and feel welcome there, you have to actually include them.

And on another level, it’s important to actually invite people to your event even if they seem shy or not very social. Give them a lot of information about the event–what will happen there, how many people there will be, who else they know is coming, and so on. As long as your invitation isn’t coercive (see below), they can decide for themselves whether they’re comfortable attending or not.

2. On the other hand, don’t try to force them into social interaction.

Social coercion bothers me, both in my personal life and on a philosophical level. If someone’s perfectly happy sitting off to the side on their own, there’s no reason for you to try to force them to mingle just for the sake of feeling like a successful host. Even if you think it’s “for their own good.”

If you see a person at your event who seems shy or anxious, you could come up to them alone and ask if they’d like to be introduced to others or to participate in whatever’s going on. (For large events like conferences, it can be helpful to have a person whose job it is to do this.) If they say no, that’s it. Say, “Okay, please let me know if you change your mind!” and leave them alone.

Note that some people with social anxiety wouldn’t agree with me on this, because they wouldn’t want to be approached at all. This is one great reason why you should seek other opinions, not just mine!

3. Physically organize your space in a way that allows shy or anxious people to have time alone.

We’re used to having to sneak outside and stand in the cold. We’re used to hiding away in the bathroom as people knock on the door and ask if we’re “okay in there.” (No, but not in the way you mean.)

Why not make that unnecessary?

An event should have quiet areas or rooms where people can go just to be alone and recharge. If that’s not an option, consider having things they can look at or fiddle with when they don’t feel like talking–coffee table books, those little mechanical puzzles, and so on. Introverts, shy people, and people with social anxiety often find that they need to get away from people for a bit after socializing for a while. Unless the venue allows that, this often means that they have to just call it a night and go home.

4. Try to avoid overcrowding as much as possible.

I know that sometimes having a crowded event or party is unavoidable, especially for those of us who are still young and living in tiny cheap apartments. If you can, though, make sure there’s plenty of space for the number of people you’re inviting. Ensure that people can easily get through aisles or to their seats, and that there’s enough seating. An overcrowded event is annoying for everyone, but for people with social anxiety it can be unbearable.

5. Provide activities for people to do instead of just talking.

This kind of goes along with not forcing people into social interaction (see #2 above). See if it’s possible to provide board games or other things that people can do with each other that saves them from the burden of having to come up with conversation topics, which can be really hard to do when you’re shy or anxious, especially if you don’t have any close friends at the event.

Another thing you can do is create opportunities for people to help out that don’t involve a ton of socializing. Ask for volunteers to record talks on video, serve food, etc. Some people who otherwise have trouble being social find it easier when they have something else to do too.

6. Pay attention to the way you have conversations.

Aside from actually including people in the conversation (see #1), there are various things you can do while talking to shy, anxious, or introverted people that will make it easier for them to participate.

First of all, decreasing the emphasis on small talk or avoiding it entirely can really help people who have trouble with conversations. It may seem counterintuitive, since small talk is often what we do when we don’t know what else to say. However, it’s also the type of conversation that many introverts and shy people have the most difficulty with, because you have to follow preestablished social “rules” and find a way to somehow make it interesting that you’re majoring in biology or spent the holidays in Chicago or have a daughter studying at Ohio State.

Instead, ask them something more interesting. Don’t be afraid to venture into “taboo” subjects like politics and religion. Many shy and quiet people will suddenly open up when asked about something they’re passionate about.

When you’re having conversations with people, allow for comfortable silences. Silence is a healthy, normal part of interacting with others. Sometimes people–especially shy or socially anxious people–need time to process what’s been said or to form a cogent response. I once went on a first date and the conversation had gotten pretty deep and interesting, so I paused for a few moments to collect my thoughts. My date immediately went, “Well, that’s an awkward silence!” No, the silence wasn’t awkward. That comment was awkward.

Trying to fill up every single silence makes us feel like we’re inadequate at conversation and makes the anxiety worse.

One last very important thing: please avoid loudly calling attention to people’s verbal slip-ups, mispronunciations, and so on. If you must correct someone, do it quietly and politely. “Oh, I think you might’ve meant genotype, not phenotype,” not “Um, what are you talking about? It’s definitely genotype, duh.” Or “Just FYI, it’s pronounced ‘salmon’!”, not “HAHA did you just call it SAL-mon? What’s wrong with you?” (You may think I’m exaggerating, but as a foreigner who got most of her English vocabulary from reading, my frequent mispronunciations have garnered some incredibly rude responses from friends.)

Changing the way you plan events and interact with people in order to include those who find socializing difficult may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Some of the most interesting people you’ll meet are very withdrawn at first, but welcome them and they may amaze you.

[guest post] You Are Not Alone: A Shared Story of Depression

Seth returns again to talk about the response he received to his speech about depression and spirituality. (This is his third guest post. Hmm, maybe he should get a blog already!)

A few days back, I wrote a piece titled “The Dharma of Depression,” wherein I talked about the experience of depression and the way my spirituality has interacted with that. I must confess myself quite overwhelmed and flattered with the response that it’s gotten.

But I’m not here today to toot my own horn. There’s plenty of other times to talk about how awesome I am. No, the thing that’s stuck out to me about the response I’ve been getting is how many people have said that I spoke to a personal experience in their lives. By contrast, I’ve only had one person tell me that they’ve never experienced what I was talking about.

This is important.

It’s important because depression is an incredibly lonely disorder. One of the many thoughts that depressed people tend to get stuck in is the idea that they’re completely alone—maybe there are people who care, but there’s nobody out there who understands what they’re going through well enough to be able to help them. This has been my experience, and it’s also something I hear a lot from other people who talk about the experience of depression. What seemed to be happening in response to my piece, based on the comments I’ve been getting, is that having somebody describe an experience similar to the one they went through suddenly challenged this sense of isolation and opened up the possibility of somebody else being able to relate to how they felt.

What’s ironic is that even in the middle of this isolated feeling, there are many more people
than you’d expect going through a more or less similar experience. Certainly, for me, there were more people than I could’ve imagined even just among my immediate friends group who could relate to my pain. I expected two or three people in my audience to be familiar with the feelings I described; based on the number of people who have talked to me, I’d rate the actual number to be closer to fifteen or twenty, out of no more than fifty.

So. To those of you who are all too familiar with the feelings I described, I have something to say to you. And despite my usual tendency towards wordiness, I’m going to be as concise and blunt as I can, because it’s incredibly important for you to understand.

You are NOT alone.

You are NOT some kind of emotional freak.

Most importantly, you are NOT a hopeless case.

You have a problem, yes. But this problem is not unique to you. It’s not a problem that
everybody will understand, but neither is it a problem that nobody will understand. It is a problem that has been lived through. It is a problem that has been studied. It is a problem that, at this very moment, thousands of individuals are working to find a way to treat.

You can find support, and you can find help. I know there are bad breaks and well-meaning idiots out there, but if you just hold on and keep looking, you will eventually find somebody who understands what you’re going through. There are more of them out there than you think.

You can survive this.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

Love vs. Work

“Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.”

— Lady Gaga

As much as I respect and admire Lady Gaga, this is some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard, because it’s incredibly misleading.

First of all, it’s probably just as easy to lose your career as it is to lose your partner. Here are a few examples:

  • a pro football player permanently injures his leg
  • a writer gets depressed and loses her creativity
  • a doctor loses a malpractice suit and is no longer allowed to practice medicine
  • a politician becomes disenchanted with the system in which she works
  • an artist starts losing his vision
  • a lawyer at a prestigious firm gets burned out

And so on.

Furthermore, if it were the case that everyone who puts aside relationships for the sake of their careers ends up doing what they love most and getting paid millions for it like Lady Gaga, perhaps her advice would hold up. But for most of today’s young people, who sacrifice love and dating for the sake of working 60-hour weeks and making comparatively little money, the choice isn’t really such an obvious one.

Second, it’s exactly this mentality that prevents people from making the sort of commitment that prevents relationships from breaking down. I’m not saying all relationships (and marriages) are made to last, but putting your career first every time is one way to make sure they don’t. I know students here who will break off perfectly good relationships because 1) they can’t deal with spending one summer apart, and 2) they’re so obsessed with getting the perfect summer internship that they don’t even try to end up in the same city together. Of course, one could argue that college relationships don’t matter much (though I’d never argue that, personally), but people keep acting like this long after graduation. For instance, by doing as Lady Gaga recommends and choosing careers over relationships.

I feel like sentiments like this one are an overblown response to the old-fashioned way of looking things, which was that a woman should sacrifice all of her ambitions for the sake of a marriage. Obviously, I disagree with that completely, but I feel like asking women to sacrifice all of their relationships for the sake of their ambitions is just as one-sided and faulty way of looking at things. Statements like this one construct these two aspects of adult life as diametrically opposed when they really aren’t. Plenty of women manage to have fulfilling careers and loving marriages. It just takes a bit of work, that’s all.

The truth is that nothing in your life is ever going to be perfect, all the time. When your relationships aren’t going well, an interesting and meaningful career can help you get through it. But what about when your career isn’t going well?

In short, yes, balancing love and work is difficult. That doesn’t mean we should just opt out of that balance altogether and pick one over the other. It’s unfortunate that people like Lady Gaga, whom many young women consider a role model, has made it sound like we need to abandon one of these important things for the sake of the other.