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This isn’t another one of those shallow guides that tell you to “be yourself”, “be more confident”, or “not overthink”.
This is a guide written by an introvert who had big troubles socializing and spent years figuring out how to be really good at it.
I’m writing this specifically for you who blank out in social settings and don’t know what to say, especially around new people.
Let’s get to it!
1. People good at socializing with strangers know these 4 things about small talk
I used to dread small talk. This was before I understood that it’s not as useless as I had thought:
- Small talk DOES have a purpose: Two strangers need to “warm up” and just talk about something while they get used to each other.
- The topic isn’t that important, and therefore, doesn’t have to be that interesting. We just have to say something, and it’s actually better if it’s everyday and mundane because then it takes the pressure off to say smart things.
- What IS important is to show that you are friendly and approachable. That makes people comfortable around you.
- If you want to get to know people, you have to make small talk first. You can’t start off right off the bat with “what’s the purpose of your life?”
“But if I make mundane small talk, people will think I’m boring”.
Only if you get STUCK in small talk. But making a few minutes of mundane small talk is not boring. It’s normal and makes people feel comfortable around you. It signals that you’re friendly.
Later in this guide, I’ll talk about how to switch from shallow small talk into interesting conversation where you’ll actually start bonding.
2. You’ll feel less nervous socializing if you try to focus on the moment and the conversation
Instead of being in your own head thinking about what to say next or what people might think of you, focus on the conversation and your surroundings.
- Thoughts start coming up, like “Is my posture weird?” “They won’t like me”.
- See that as a cure to consciously choose to focus on the surrounding or conversation (Like you focus when a movie captures you)
- When you do, you’ll get less self-conscious, and the more you focus on a conversation, the easier it is to add to it.1
3. If you can figure out what someone is passionate about, the conversation stops being awkward and it’s easier to come up with things to say
People will see you as interesting if they think talking to you is interesting. Think less about what you can say to sound interesting, and more about how you can make the conversation interesting for both of you.
In other words, gravitate toward passions and interests.
Here’s how to do it in practice:
- Ask them what they like the most about their job
- If they don’t seem to like their job, ask them what they like doing when they don’t work.
- If they mention something in passing that seems to be interesting to them, ask more about that. “You mention something about a festival, what festival was that?”
You’ll often get short replies to your first question. That’s normal:
4. When you socialize and ask people questions, always ask follow-up questions if you want them to open up
People most often only reply shortly to your first question, because they don’t know if you’re just asking to be polite. To show that you want to talk about something, ask a follow-up question:
- What do you do more specifically?
- Wait, how does kite-surfing actually work?
- Do you go to festivals often?
This shows that you’re sincere and people dare to go deeper into talking about what they are passionate about.
5. When you get to know people, share related pieces of information about yourself, too
I used to make the mistake of ONLY asking questions. That made me come off as an interrogator.
Share bites of information about yourself. It shows that you’re a real person. It’s uncomfortable for strangers to open up about themselves knowing nothing about you.
It’s not true that people ONLY want to talk about themselves. It’s back-and-forth conversations that makes people bond.2
Here’s are some examples of sharing a little bit about yourself.
- In a conversation about work: Yeah, I used to work in restaurants as well and it was exhausting but I’m happy I did it.
- In a conversation about surfing: I love the ocean. My grandparents live close to the water in Florida so I was there often as a child, but I never learned to surf because the waves aren’t good there.
- In a conversation about music: I listen a lot to electronic music. I want to go to this festival in Europe called Sensation.
If you don’t come up with something to relate to, it’s fine. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Just make it a habit to share something every once in a while so they gradually get to know you better.
Then, after you’ve made your statement, you can ask them a related question, or they might ask you something about what you just said.
6. How to start a conversation with someone 1 on 1
Here’s how I start talking with a stranger:
1. I comment on something in our surroundings
At dinner, it could be “That salmon looks really good”. In school, it could be “Do you know when the next class will start?”
Instead of trying to fake something to say, I just let out my internal thoughts and questions. (As I said before, it’s OK if it’s mundane).
2. I ask a slightly personal question
At a party, it could be “How do you know people here?” or “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?”
(Here, I make some small talk about the topic we’re on by asking follow-up questions or sharing something about myself)
3. I gravitate toward interests
“What do you want to do after school?” “How come you wanted to go into politics?”
Read my full guide here on how to start a conversation.
7. How to approach a group of strangers
Often, at social events, everyone stands in groups.
I used to be intimidated by this. But here’s what helped me relax: Remind yourself that even if everyone looks super involved, most people there have just walked up to a random group and feel as out of place as you do.
If you walk up to 2-3 strangers, they usually acknowledge you after 10-20 seconds by looking at you or giving you a smile. When they do, smile back, present yourself, and ask a question. I usually prepare a question that fits the situation, so I can say something like:
“Hi, I’m Viktor. (Shakes hands.) How do you know each other?”
Listen in on the conversation (rather than being in your head trying to come up with something to say).
Ask a sincere question about the topic or make a thoughtful addition (rather than trying to break in with your own new topic).
Good to know
- Whenever you approach a group conversation, don’t “crash the party” but listen in and make a thoughtful addition.
- It’s NOT weird to walk up to a group even if you stand there quietly for a minute as long as you look like you listen. Pay attention, and you’ll start noticing that everyone does it all the time.
- If people ignore you first, it’s NOT because they hate you. It’s because they’re caught up in the conversation. You probably do the same without knowing if you’re really into a conversation.
- It’s easy to tense up and forget to smile. That can make you look hostile. If you have a tendency to frown when you get nervous, consciously reset and relax your facial expression.
8. Making it a habit to have small interactions with people helps, especially if you’re shy or an introvert
Make small interactions as soon as you have the chance. That will over time make talking to people less scary.
- Say hi to the bus driver
- Ask the cashier how she’s doing
- Ask the waiter what he would recommend
This is called habituation: The more we do something, the less scary it gets.3 If you’re shy, introverted, or have social anxiety this is extra important as socializing might not come natural to you.
9. Don’t write people off before you’ve made a conscious effort to figure out what you might have in common. It makes socializing more fun.
I used to assume that people were quite shallow. In reality, it was because I didn’t know how to get past the small talk.
During small talk, everyone seems shallow. It’s only when you’ve asked about someone’s interests that you’ll know if you have something in common.
Before writing someone off, you can see it as a little mission to discover what they are interested in.
10. How to look approachable when you socialize
When we get nervous, it’s easy to tense up.4 It makes us break eye contact and tense our facial muscles. People won’t understand that you’re nervous – they might just think that you don’t want to talk.
- Practice keeping a little more eye contact than you’re used to (cashier, bus driver, random encounters)
- Smile when you greet people.
- If you tense up, relax your muscles in your face so you look relaxed and approachable. You can try in the mirror.
You DON’T need to smile all the time (that can come off as nervous). But smile whenever you shake someone’s hand or when someone says something funny.
11. What to do if part of you wants to socialize, but another part just wants to avoid people
I often felt torn between wanting to meet people and also just wanting to be by myself.
- If you spend LOTS of time alone, ease into it. Read at a cafe, sit in the park, etc.
- Socialize based on your interests – join a group that does something you’re into. It’s easier to socialize with people who like to talk about the same things you do.
- DON’T put the pressure on you that you should turn people into friends. Just focus on practicing back-and-forth conversation, as I talk about in this guide.
12. Don’t be afraid to make yourself look silly or dumb, people tend to like people who put themselves out there
Here’s a quote I saw on Reddit:
“I have the tendency to overthink everything, therefore I usually don’t say anything at all in fear that it may come out sounding stupid. I’m jealous of the people who can talk about anything to anyone; I wish I was more like that.”
In reality, people don’t think more about what you say than you think about what they say.
When was the last time you were thinking “That person says dumb weird things all the time”. I can’t remember ever thinking that.
But let’s say that someone really does think that you said something stupid, isn’t that OK? Isn’t it completely fine that someone at some point think you’re a real idiot?
Here’s how to stop worrying about saying dumb things in its essence:
- Be aware that people think about what you say as little as you think about what they say
- If someone thinks you’re weird, that’s OK. The goal of life isn’t to make everyone think you’re normal.
There’s more to be said about this. Here’s my guide on what to do if you feel weird.
13. If you worry that people will judge you, it could be that it’s really you who judge yourself
We who are more self-conscious often worry excessively about sounding dumb or weird.
After studying behavioral science, I learned that this is often a symptom of low self-esteem or social anxiety.
In other words: When it feels like others judge us, it really we who judge ourselves.
What’s the best way to stop judging ourselves? To talk to ourselves like we would talk to a good friend.
Scientists call this self-compassion.5
When you feel judged by people, pay attention to how you talk to yourself. Replace negative self talk with more supportive.
Instead of thinking…
“I made a joke and no one laughed. There’s seriously something wrong with me”
…you can replace that with something like…
“Most people make jokes that no one laughs at. It’s just that I pay more attention to my own jokes. And I can remember several times where people have laughed at my jokes, so there’s probably nothing wrong with me”.
14. If you have trouble making yourself heard when socializing, there are some simple techniques you can use
I often had a hard time making myself heard in social settings and large groups.
It helps to speak louder, sure. But there are other things you can do to make people pay attention to you.
One trick is to do a movement with your arm just before you start talking in a group. It makes people subconsciously move their attention to you. I do it all the time, and it works like magic.
There are also many voice exercises you can use that are helpful. In this article, we recommend several steps to make yourself heard.
15. We who get nervous socializing often think we need to act flawlessly
In a study, scientists saw that people with social anxiety are obsessive about not making mistakes in front of others.6
We believe that we need to be perfect in order for people to like us, and flawless in order for people to not laugh at us.
In reality, making mistakes makes us human and relatable.
Ask yourself: Have you EVER disliked someone for making a small social mistake? Personally, I only think it makes someone more likable.
Small mistakes can make you likable. Saying the wrong name, forgetting a word, or making a joke that no one laughs at only makes you relatable, because everyone’s been through the same thing.
When you’re on your way to a social event, remind yourself of this: The goal isn’t to be flawless. It’s OK to make mistakes.
16. How to not be boring when socializing
Most people worry that they aren’t interesting enough.
Telling people cool thing you’ve done doesn’t necessarily make you interesting. Those who try to come off as interesting by doing that often comes off as self-absorbed instead.
Truly interesting people, on the other hand, are those who are able to hold interesting conversations.
In other words, they are able to talk about topics that interest people (Rather than bragging).
Read more about this in our guide on how to be interesting to talk to.
17. Know that people are self-conscious, nervous, anxious, and tend to take things personally out of insecurity
The biggest deal-breaker for me was realizing that beneath the calm surface, people are nervous, anxious, and full of self-doubt.
- 1 in 10 has had social anxiety at some point in life.7
- 5 out of 10 see themselves as shy.8,9
- 5 out of 10 don’t like the way they look.10
(Let that sink in)
The next time you enter a room full of people, remind yourself that beneath the calm surface, people are full of insecurities.
Simply knowing that people are more nervous than they look can be helpful to feel more comfortable.
18. If you can, put yourself in situations where you meet people (retail, hotel, server, extracurricular, interest groups, volunteers, etc)
If you work somewhere where you meet customers, or you do volunteer work, you’ll have a never-ending stream of people to practice on. It matters less if you mess up.
If you get the chance to practice socializing many times per day, you’ll be making progress faster than if you only have occasional interactions.
Here’s a comment I saw on Reddit:
“After working a shitty job where no one really socialized, I took a job in hospitality with people from all over the world, staff accommodation, and in a small town. Now I’m the sociable, outgoing person I thought I could never be.”
19. Use the 20-minute rule to take the pressure off yourself
I used to dread going to parties because I saw myself being tortured there for hours. When I realized that I only had to be there 20 minutes and then leave, it took the pressure off me.
Here’s another trick that you can use together with this one:
20. Use the haysack trick to give yourself a break when socializing
Another pressure I had on me was that I felt like I was “on stage” when I socialized. Like if I had to be an entertaining, fun person all the time. It drained my energy.
I learned that I could, at any point, mentally step back and just listen to some ongoing group conversation – like a haysack, I could just be in the room without in any way having to perform.
After a few minutes of break, I could go back to being active.
Combining this with the 20-minute rule above made socializing more enjoyable to me.
21. Practice a few conversation starters. It’s comforting to know you have the first minutes thought out.
When you’re at an event where you’re supposed to socialize (Maybe a party, a mingle, a company event, a class event) it can be good to stack up on a few get-to-know questions.
Like I talked about earlier in this guide, small talk questions shouldn’t be clever. You just need to say something to signal that you’re friendly and up for socializing.
Hi, Nice meeting you! I’m Viktor…
- … How do you know people here?
- … Where are you from?
- … What brings you here/What made you choose to study this subject/working here?
- … What do you like most about (what you talked about)?
Like I said earlier, small talk is about gravitating toward interests and passions.
Also, in between your questions, you share bits and pieces about yourself.
- Zou, J. B., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2007, October). The effect of attentional focus on social anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17521604
- 36 Questions for Increasing Closeness (Greater Good in Action). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/36_questions_for_increasing_closeness
- What Does It Mean to Be Habituated to Something? (2019). Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-habituation-2795233
- Facial Tension: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/facial-tension#anxiety
- Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007, May). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17484611
- A Neurobehavioral Mechanism Linking Behaviorally Inhibited Temperament and Later Adolescent Social Anxiety. (2017, October 13). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0890856717317732
- Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/social-anxiety-disorder.shtml
- The Cost of Shyness. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199511/the-cost-shyness
- Facts About Shyness. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/facts-about-shyness/
- Body Image in America: Survey Results. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199702/body-image-in-america-survey-results