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Newly married at 28, I was looking forward to a cozy first Christmas with my husband when he uttered the dreaded words: "Hey, let's have some friends over for dinner on Christmas Eve!" I started to sweat. For many people the idea might sound fun and festive. Me? I hated, hated, hated dinner parties.
I'd been almost pathologically shy since I was a kid, and dinner parties were a diabolical combination of everything I either feared, loathed, or simply wasn't any good at: cooking, making small talk, and public speaking.
"Public speaking?" my husband asked as I attempted to explain myself. "These are our friends. You love talking to them."
"Sure, one-on-one," I answered. But dinner parties force you to address a group, I told him, even though it's a small one. For me that's enough to morph innocent gabbing into the thing that most Americans list as their number one fear in life: speaking to a crowd.
I was on the extreme end of the shyness spectrum, it's true (I'm a lot better now!), but it turns out I was in good company. Most people are a little shy sometimes. And while a dinner party with close friends may never have fazed anyone but me, I'd bet most of us feel a bit nervous walking alone into a gathering full of laughing strangers dressed up in their holiday best.
"Shyness is a basic human condition," says Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and codirector of the Shyness Institute, in Palo Alto, California. Throughout the early '70s, Dr. Zimbardo and his colleagues undertook what became the landmark study on shyness. Of 10,000 American adults, 95 percent described themselves as currently shy, as having been shy in the past, or as being shy on occasion. A hefty 40 percent said they were shy with a capital S -- "chronically shy," researchers call it -- and when the Stanford team surveyed other countries, the numbers were similar. "Not to be shy is the exception," Dr. Zimbardo says. "Only 5 percent of the people in the United States believe they are never socially anxious."
In fact, shyness seems to be on the increase, says Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany, who attributes this spike to the rise of the virtual world. As more of our lives come to be lived online, we have fewer opportunities for in-person interaction. If you're shy, there's less pressure and less motivation to get out there and get over it.
But, I used to wonder, Why should I have to get over my shyness? Like most shy people, I flunked the classic test for extroversion: Does social contact energize or exhaust you? Do you come home from a party buzzing with positive excitement or depleted and haunted by the echoes of every stupid thing you said and did?
Depleted and haunted, that was my usual post-party hangover. Besides, experts like Drs. Carducci and Zimbardo are quick to say there's nothing intrinsically wrong with being shy. Shy people are often empathic and sensitive, good listeners and keen observers of human behavior (many writers and actors, from Emily Dickinson to Julia Roberts, identify themselves as shy). And a shy person's desire to spend time alone can be a very positive thing: It is doubtful that, had Albert Einstein been a party animal, he would have been able to shut himself off from the world long enough to give us E=mc^2. So wouldn't it be better if I just honored my shy nature and kept to myself?
Not really, experts say. Shyness is a barrier to social contact, and social contact is a basic human need. Research has shown that those who don't have enough of it tend to "experience more physical and emotional difficulties than well-connected individuals," according to Dr. Carducci. And in other studies, aspects of shyness have been linked to depression, cardiovascular disease, and reduced life expectancy. Gulp. Aren't sweaty palms and a pounding heart enough? Besides, it always felt as though I was born shy.
Perhaps I was. Some mental-health professionals have long theorized that a tendency toward shyness is at least in part a genetic predisposition, as natural as blue eyes or brown hair. Now we're starting to see proof: In a March 2008 study by the Massachusetts General Hospital's psychiatry department, researchers reported that they'd spotted a gene linked to shyness in children and introversion in adults.
It turns out you can fool Mother Nature, however -- shyness can be overcome, experts say. Psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard University and psychiatrist Carl E. Schwartz of Harvard Medical School have followed a set of shy people from age 2 to adulthood and found that about half of them eventually overcame their inhibitions. "Parenting, environment, and social opportunity -- all of those had enormous impact," says Dr. Schwartz.
Brain scans done by Dr. Schwartz on these formerly shy people suggest they had not permanently changed their nature, they'd simply learned social skills and coping mechanisms. When shown the faces of strangers, the subjects still had high activity in the regions of the brain that trigger the release of fear/flight hormones. That flood of adrenaline and cortisol accompanies the experience of intense emotions such as fear and anxiety in shy individuals when they encounter situations they find threatening -- talking to strangers, for instance, or entering crowds. Notes Dr. Kagan: "If you're born shy, it may be hard for you to become an extrovert, but you can move toward the middle."
Dr. Carducci gives the best advice any shy person could ever receive: Quit thinking about yourself! "Shy people are very self-focused," he says. We worry about whether we're good enough, smart enough, or likable enough without stopping to consider that others might have the same insecurities we do. "Be other-focused," Dr. Carducci recommends. Once shy people stop focusing on themselves, he says, their shyness no longer controls them.
It was precisely this idea that saved me that Christmas Eve. I realized the evening was about my guests, not me. "You don't have to be perfect," Dr. Carducci says. "You just have to be nice." And since nice is what shy people specialize in, when we're playing host we're actually playing to our strength.
I wanted to throw that dinner party, both for my husband and for myself, so I set about gearing up for it emotionally. I remembered visualization, a tip from my required high-school speech class (the teacher took pity on me and passed me because I was so hopeless). This time I was motivated to actually try the technique. I imagined a table set with my Battenberg lace tablecloth, wineglasses, and silverware. I saw myself swirling shellfish into a broth savory with wine and basil to make cioppino, the fish stew that's my family's holiday favorite. I could almost smell the nutmeg in my homemade eggnog.
For me the visualization technique -- "cognitive extroversion," Dr. Carducci calls it -- did the trick, helping to calm my nerves. Christmas Eve arrived and the cioppino and eggnog turned out perfectly. The centerpiece was a marvel of holiday greens and hand-strung garlands of cranberries. And I was able to turn my focus toward my friends and really play hostess. My guests left feeling that they'd been cherished. I even had a pretty good time myself.
Feel a little intimidated in a crowd? Leil Lowndes, author of Goodbye to Shy, shares her techniques for not just surviving but triumphing at holiday events.
1. Arrive while it's still a small party
You don't like big parties? Most Shys don't at first. And normally they wouldn't dream of showing up early, because they prefer to disappear in the crowd. Yet crowds are the big threat! Solution? Get there when there are just a few people milling about. It's the perfect way to "make a big party small." You'll meet everyone there, so you will know people who can introduce you to others later. speak first All that's required is, "Hi, my name is____. And yours?" Remember, people form an opinion of you in the first 10 seconds. Why waste the first five in uncomfortable silence waiting for them to greet you?
2. Sound dazzled over the dullest things
No matter how boring your acquaintance's words may be, respond as though that person just made the most enthralling revelation you've heard all week. Then you'll sound interesting to your listener. Conversely, no matter how boring you think your own statement is, present it in a this-is-the-greatest-thing-since-Velcro tone. And guess what? It will sound interesting to the other person.
3. Use names -- in moderation
Say someone's name in greeting and parting. It makes him or her feel more connected to you. But beware: If you use it too much, it will sound fake or come across as a nervous habit.
4. Ask "keep talking" questions
Leave uh-huh and okay behind and throw out some who? what? when? where? why? and how? questions. Your conversational companion will be thrilled that you want to hear more -- and you won't feel pressured to come up with convivial and clever responses.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.