How to make socialising easier if you’re introverted or shy
It’s Saturday night and you’ve been invited to drinks with friends. But in your heart of hearts, you’d rather read a book or simply not go.
You could tell your friends, but you worry they might not understand — or worse, try to drag you out, convinced there’s a party animal hidden deep inside you, just waiting to jump out.
After we published a series of stories on loneliness and social isolation, many of you emailed to say that you’d like to spend more time with people but often struggle, describing yourselves as introverted, shy or socially anxious.
One reader, Amanda, wrote: “I adapted to doing everything by myself. ‘[She’s] always been a loner’, people would say — never realising how I ached not to be a loner.”
In response to your emails, we wanted to take a closer look at introversion and shyness, and how you can enjoy social situations, whether you’re meeting new people or catching up with friends.
Know what introversion is, and what it’s not
Introversion might make you think of someone who is shy, sensitive and creative. While introverts can have these traits, they aren’t related to introversion, says Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.
Psychologists tend to view personality as being a mixture of five key personality traits: extroversion, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness and neuroticism.
While many introverts are shy — a combination of low extroversion and neuroticism — there are just as many stable introverts, who simply prefer to spend time by themselves, Dr Haslam says.
“One of the reasons why introversion gets a bit of bad rap in culture is not just because we value loud sociability, it’s also because we tend to misunderstand introversion as being some sort of pathological weakness,” he says.
While many of us pigeonhole ourselves as an “introvert” or “extrovert”, it’s more helpful to imagine introversion and extroversion as a spectrum, says Simon Boag, an associate professor in psychology at Macquarie University.
“Some people may be more introverted in a party situation, but they might be more comfortable in quieter situations. You have that personality interacting with the environment, which you have to take into consideration as well.”
But even if you identify as an introvert or experience shyness in social situations, there are ways to maintain relationships and spark new ones if you don’t want to be alone.
Start (gently) putting yourself out there
People with social anxiety or severe shyness often make assumptions about themselves that can make it difficult to relate to people, clinical psychologist Stephanie Rosser says.
“They might have ideas about being inadequate, or being flawed, or being uninteresting. They may have friends, but still have a quite negative idea of themselves,” she says.
“[Because] they don’t reveal themselves, it can be harder to have those connections.”
With her clients, Ms Rosser works to identify fears, the causes of inhibition, and figure out what’s being avoided and why.
To test the waters she suggests setting simple, straightforward goals. If you’re at a social event, it could be introducing yourself to one or two new people.
It’s important to remember if you don’t hit it off with someone new, it’s not due to failure on your part, she says.
When it comes to keeping in touch with existing friends, it’s all about regular contact, however small it may be, Ms Rosser says.
“It’s just about … dipping a toe in a bit. These days it’s so easy to do through email, texting or other technology. Just making that contact is really important,” she says.
Choose the right setting for you
A party might seem like a logical way to meet new people or catch up with old friends. But if you hate loud spaces and people talking over each other, it’s not going to be very conducive to connecting with other people and enjoying yourself.
“Often [those] noisy, confusing, overstimulating environments at parties, concerts, loud bars and other social events … [can] increase the level of social anxiety for shy people,” says Dr Haslam.
“If you can find situations where you can have a one-to-one interaction in a safe environment, where there isn’t a huge amount of overstimulating noise and complexity, that’s going to be easier.”
Ms Rosser shared some ideas for social settings that could work for you:
- Go for a walk. Walking side by side can be less threatening and stimulating than a face-to-face setting, which can make things easier, Ms Rosser says.
- Choose a gallery, sporting event or the weekend markets as an activity. Having something external to focus on can help if you feel uncomfortable being the centre of attention.
- See a movie together. “Just going for a coffee or a beer after a movie together might be a bit more achievable, particularly if it’s with someone you don’t know particularly well,” Ms Rosser says.
- Invite a colleague to grab a coffee with you. It’s the sort of activity Ms Rosser would set for socially anxious clients because it’s brief, focused around an activity and achievable.
Find offline activities online (or arrange them yourself)
If you are shy or socially anxious, the internet can be helpful for finding like-minded people. It also might be easier to express yourself in writing than in a fast-paced conversation, says Dr Boag.
While technology can’t replace face-to-face interaction, Ms Rosser says it’s a great way to organise IRL activities.
“A friend developed an interest in soccer, so he started organising events to meet up with people who like playing soccer each Sunday in a park,” she says.
These events can be less overwhelming because you might already know a few people, everyone has a reason to be there, and the focus won’t be on you.
If, like many introverts, you have a special interest, online groups and communities can be a great way to find your squad, Dr Boag adds, and many do real-life meet-ups.
Or you might be perfectly happy in your own company
Kevin, one of our readers, wrote to us and described himself as “alone, not lonely”.
He enjoys the solitary life, and finds it troubling that his personality and preferences might be interpreted as problematic by others.
“I’ve never felt lonely. I’ve never had the feeling,” he says.
“Some people need the company of others, but many of us don’t have that need.”
One of the reasons other people might not understand this approach to life, according to Dr Haslam, has to with our culture, which puts high value on personality traits like warmth and sociability.
“We see ourselves as outgoing, free-spirited people in this country. We see ourselves as people who contribute, who are warm and friendly,” he says.
“And people who are relatively quiet are seen as being aloof, or maybe they think themselves above other people.”
To Kevin, and those like him, Dr Boag simply says: “If you are introverted, and are happy, then there’s nothing to worry about.”