Holiday Survival for the Ultra Shy (cont.)

"One thing shy people can do is pick out a friend or family member as a coach," Cheek says. "That person can then act as a bridge to the social world."

When considering invitations outside your comfort zone, focus on the possible benefits rather than the risks. "Going to an office party might make you feel anxious, but it has the potential for the rewards of human connection," Cheek says. He advises shy people to avoid the "all or nothing" trap. "They tend to think, 'Either I've got to stay home or I've got to be the life of the party.'" Showing up at the office party doesn't mean you have to hang out under the mistletoe. Give yourself permission to enjoy being an observer.

Forget "Fashionably Late"

In the days before a big party or daunting social function, do some reconnaissance. Find out where to park, who will be there, what type of food will be served and how much money you will need. Knowing what to expect may remove some of the stress on the day of the event.

When the date arrives, don't make the mistake of showing up late. Carducci explains that shy people need time to warm up to a new situation. "Shy people think, 'I'll go to the party late so there will be lots of people there. I'll blend in.' But it's harder to break into ongoing conversations. Rather than showing up late, we tell shy people to show up early. You get to meet people on a one-to-one basis."

Another common mistake is leaving the party after just 15 or 20 minutes. Carducci says that while putting in a quick appearance may seem like a good compromise, it doesn't give you a chance to get your bearings. Those who tough it out longer may find their initial discomfort fades. This strategy works well for Nan, who is back on the social circuit with the help of counseling and medication. "When I get to a party, I give myself a few minutes to survey the situation and see where I can ease into a conversation. I usually find the people I know and talk to them first."

Keep the Small Talk "Small"

According to Carducci, the No. 1 concern among shy people is starting and maintaining conversations. Shy people often worry they won't have anything smart to say -- a fear that stems from a misconception about the purpose of small talk. "The purpose is just to let others know you are willing to talk," Carducci says. "It's not to show people how brilliant, sophisticated, or funny you are. It's not designed to help you find a soul mate. The basic rule is you don't have to be brilliant, just nice."

"We call it small talk, because it is small," Cheek says. If you need ideas for things to say, try watching the news or reading reviews of movies or books. "A shy person can prepare for small talk by doing some 'culture of the day' homework."

Carducci recommends reading books or taking seminars on small talk, as well as practicing with friends. "You are not born with the gift of gab. It's an acquired skill, like learning to play golf or tennis."

People Don't Bite

For Ruggles, the opportunity to practice small talk comes with his job. "I'm always going to new clients' offices to fix their problems," he says. "The more social interaction I have, the better I get."

If your day job doesn't offer the chance to meet new people on a regular basis, Carducci suggests signing up for volunteer projects. He says the holiday season is the perfect time to start volunteering at a soup kitchen or an animal shelter, where you can meet people who share your interests. "You have the basis of conversation. You see [the other volunteers] again and again. They can become friends."

Volunteering backstage with a community theater group helped Nan expand her shyness comfort zone. Eventually she felt comfortable enough to perform on stage in three of the group's musicals. "I've started to realize my friends are going to be my friends," she says, "and I care less about what other people think."

While the holiday season can be challenging if you're shy, it can also be a time of growth. To make the most of it, Ruggles offers a sensible reminder. "People don't bite... and if they do bite, they aren't worth your time."

Published Nov. 8, 2004.

SOURCES: Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Indiana. Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, professor of psychology; and director of the Shyness Research Institute; author, Shyness: A Bold New Approach. Jonathan Cheek, PhD, professor of psychology, Wellesley College. Jeremy Ruggles, Davie, Fla. American Psychological Association. National Institute of Mental Health.

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