Physical Space, Mental Accessibility

This is a short post in which I’m going to make a request: if you organize events, run meetings, teach classes, or do anything else that requires getting a bunch of people to sit in the same room together, please give some thought to making sure that people have ample physical space.

I recently finished graduate school, which is a relief for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I will (probably) never have to sit in a classroom again. I found most classrooms really stressful because I never had enough personal space. Often there’d be only six inches (or less) between me and the people next to me, and we’d be accidentally elbowing each other and reading each other’s notes for two hours straight. Getting up to step out and use the restroom or get a drink of water turned into a disastrous mess of trying to wriggle out of my seat without touching anyone or disturbing the class (so, basically impossible). If I needed to make some notes about something personal (reminders, to-do’s, rants), I could count on at least two people seeing it without even meaning to. If somebody next to me was coughing and sneezing, I could count on it getting all over me, even if they were trying to be mindful of that.

Similar issues frequently come up at work meetings, conferences, and anywhere else I have to sit in a room full of people. I end up spending meetings and events that are meant to be educational, productive, and/or fun scrunched up with my knees pressed together and my elbows jammed into my sides, ignoring my need to use a restroom or get a drink of water, hunched over my notebook so that people don’t read my notes over my shoulder, and panicking like hell.

I’m sure some people don’t mind it, but by now I’ve had enough conversations with people about this to know that I’m far from the only one who finds it really anxiety-provoking to not be able to have a personal bubble at all. And that’s not even getting into the issue of mobility aids and people who use them. As uncomfortable as I must be in spaces like these, someone who uses a wheelchair or has difficulty sitting down/standing up must be even more uncomfortable.

I know that sometimes giving everyone sufficient space is impossible. I know that people have different norms about what’s “sufficient space,” and a lot of this is culturally specific. I know that it’s a trade-off between personal space and audience size. Yes, I know.

But often it feels like no thought is given to this at all, that people who organize or lead these events (even social work professors or professionals who ought to know) don’t even realize that having to sit very very close to other people can be really anxiety-provoking to some people, and that anxious people aren’t necessarily the most effective students, audience members, or meeting attendees.

There are some things you can do to make this better if you organize spaces like these:

  • Consider a maximum attendance limit, if you don’t have one.
  • Think about how you’ve arranged the seating. So often I hear “LET’S ALL SIT IN A BIG CIRCLE SO THAT WE CAN ALL SEE EACH OTHERS’ BEAUTIFUL SMILING FACES” and I feel that drop in my stomach. Yes, it’s nice to sit in a big circle so that we can all see each others’ beautiful smiling faces, but some spaces/audience sizes cannot accommodate this comfortably. Consider arranging the chairs in rows instead.
  • Do not, do not, do not pressure people that you see have chosen to sit in the back, off to the side, or somewhere else that’s not close to other attendees. I’m so sick of hearing “BUT DON’T YOU WANT TO SIT UP HERE WITH EVERYONE,” which is not something to which I can reasonably say “no.” Assume that people have a legitimate reason for choosing to sit wherever they choose to sit.
  • If there are lots of rows of chairs, make sure to include aisles so that people sitting towards the middle of the room still have a way to get up and step out if they need to.

I’m sure this can never be fixed entirely and I’m not asking for a perfect world in which there’s always at least two feet between me and other people, but this would be a nice start. Accessibility has both physical and mental components–can people physically access the space, and also, can they actually feel mentally okay enough in that space to do what they’re supposed to do there? Both of these are important.

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.