I still get nervous when I have to meet strangers
It happened a few days ago at a talk I attended on feminism, organized by the Concordia University Part Time Faculty Association.
I’ll be honest with you, I’m a bad feminist. If I was asked to describe feminism at gunpoint I’d be hard pressed to come up with anything more eloquent than “equal rights for women, too!”
Hence me attending talks on feminism. Working on it.
Needless to say, I was out of my element. It’s easier to meet people when you’re feeling confident and comfortable, it’s another when you’re out there pushing your comfort zone.
Meeting strangers can be nerve wracking. No matter how much practice I get at meeting new people, I still feel awkward.
I’m too in my head
I’m worried and filled with anxiety.
Worried about what they’ll think of me. Or that I won’t know what to say when there’s a lull in the conversation. Or that people don’t want to talk to me.
What about when someone says hello and I reply back “I’m fine, and you?!”
I’m anxious just thinking about it!
I needed a strategy to help me deal
I’m a strategy guy. I like strategies, standards, tests, and steps. I love steps. And lists! I need actions I can fall back on when winging it just isn’t gonna cut it. Winging it fine when you’re in the zone, but more often than not, I’m not in the zone. I’m pushing myself out of the zone.
I remember coaching a friend into doing 5 minutes of standup comedy at the local open mic night. I told him, “Just tell 2 stories. That’s all you need to do. 2 stories, 5 minutes”.
He did it and it was great.
Then he turned around and said “Shaun, you should do standup. C’mon. Just tell 2 stories. 2 stories, 5 minutes”. Fuck. I did. It was awesome. I’m going to do it again.
Back to meeting strangers, I came up with a strategy.
Find out 3 interesting things about them
That’s it. You’re a reporter and they’re the subject.
Works everywhere. First date, in line at the checkout, stuck on an elevator with your boss, your hockey coaches wife, that cute woman at the coffee shop, that cute man at the dog park. The mechanic.
Whenever you’re in a situation where you have to or want to engage with someone, do this.
I use it all the time.
Focus on them, not you
As long as people are talking about themselves they’re not thinking about me. Perfect.
Also, people love talking about themselves. The longer they keep talking the easier it becomes to find out three interesting things about them.
Every time I do this I get out of my head and I can focus on someone else for a change. It lowers the stakes of the conversation. I’m not looking for approval anymore, I’m just looking for a thread.
Find the thread, and pull gently
You’re not going to get along with everyone, all the time. Mitch Hedberg has a joke:
Y’know, you can’t please all the people all the time… and last night, all those people were at my show.
You’ll find yourself in situations when you have to interact with people you normally wouldn’t. Parents at your kids soccer game, your companies ‘team building’ picnic, an awkward get together.
Whatever the case, even people you normally wouldn’t chose as friends have interesting lives. It’s up to you to find the thread and pull on it gently. Then you can start building connection.
Connect with them
That’s the goal. Organic connection with another human being. We connect through storytelling and some people are better at telling stories. Good for them. The rest of us need a little help.
Help those people by trying to find the interesting stories in their lives. We’re not talking about where they live or what they do, though you can start there.
Be a reporter. Find out who these people are.
What dreams are you currently working on? How did you get that scar on your chin? How did you get into standup comedy? Why do you do what you do? Which country have you visited that you would visit again? If you could move to anywhere in the world, where would it be and why? What meal do you find yourself cooking over and over again?
These are examples, but you get the drift. Build a little intimacy, it won’t kill you.
One word answers
Some people aren’t going to play your game. That’s OK.
They’re tired or they’re not interested, it doesn’t matter. You tried to find out 3 interesting things about them. That’s more than most people do when they start talking to someone.
That’s the game
It’s simple. Be a reporter. Find something interesting. Find the thread and pull.
Do this and invariably the focus will come back to you. It’s OK though because you’re not in your head anymore. You’ve built up some intimacy and connection. It’s easier to continue connecting at this point.
There’s flow in the conversation now.
And if there isn’t?
It was really nice chatting with you, I gotta run. Ciao!
Charm School Friday is published every Friday.
Shaun Galanos is the The Love Drive. He lives and writes in Montreal.