December 11, 2010 in Features

Gathering a bit of courage

Preparing for social gatherings can help ease party shyness
Jessica Yadegaran Contra Costa Times
 

Ingrid Mayorca wasn’t a shy child. In her native Nicaragua, she was known for her social, outgoing personality.

But since moving to the United States in 2003, the petite brunette has lost a bit of her spunk.

“I’m shy because of my accent, so I don’t really talk that much,” says Mayorca, 24, of Walnut Creek, Calif. “When I’m in a big group at a party, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t think people can understand me. I feel more confident one-on-one because I feel more in control.”

Many people suffer from some degree of shyness. And with the holiday party season in full swing, the thought of sipping eggnog and making small talk with strangers isn’t exactly a shy person’s idea of a good time.

Luckily, psychologists and experts have tips shy people can use to not only survive the barrage of parties, but perhaps even come out of their shells and enjoy the festivities.

Mayorca plans to instigate conversations in small groups and be the one to ask the questions so she has more control.

According to Menlo Park, Calif., marriage and family therapist Nancy Zucconi, lack of control is a contributor to shyness. So it’s important to feel prepared and have a game plan.

“A shy person could decide in advance which people are the safe ones to talk to,” Zucconi says.

“Or, if the party is at the office or in a home, use photographs on desks and refrigerators to strike up conversations. Ask, ‘How was Bora Bora? How old are your kids?’ ”

Another pre-party technique is to scan the newspaper or evening news before you head out for the night, so you have current events and movies that you can talk about, says Lynne Henderson, a Berkeley, Calif., psychologist and director of the Shyness Institute, a research and educational nonprofit in Palo Alto, Calif.

Henderson has been researching shyness for 30 years and does not believe in pathologizing it.

“Shyness is a normal personality trait,” she says. “Some people are just slower to warm up and sensitive to the needs and wants of others.”

Problematic shyness, like social anxiety disorder, occurs when you’re so concerned with other people’s evaluations of you that it prevents you from doing what you want, Henderson says.

Nobody has perfect social skills, she says, but anybody can develop them. As a consultant at the Shyness Clinic, an outgrowth of the Shyness Institute also located in Palo Alto, Henderson has developed techniques to help shy people shift their thinking patterns, behaviors, emotions and states of physical arousal in social situations.

“If you’re at the holiday food table, you can always make a comment about the food or ask someone, ‘Have you had that? Is it good?’ ” she suggests.

“Another easy thing that we often forget is compliments. Sincere ones. Something like, ‘Those are cute shoes. Where did you get them?’ ”

Sara Grant of Richmond, Calif., plans to attend a holiday party with her retirement group, but is concerned because she doesn’t know too many people who will be in attendance. She is going alone and says she gets particularly shy in large groups.

“You can strike up a conversation with someone, but it’s not that comfortable for me all the time,” says Grant, who is in her 70s.

“I think it takes a little more self-confidence. Sometimes, I’m not sure how to respond to the topic at hand or if what I say is wrong, if I’ll be judged by people.”

According to Zucconi, people who are shy often have low self-esteem and can be hard on themselves.

“Sometimes people project their thoughts onto others,” she says. “They think people are saying things about them, and they’re not. So it’s important to shift those behaviors.”

For starters, take a friend or spouse to a party with you. When that’s not an option, consider your timing. If you really don’t like large crowds, arrive at the beginning of a party, Zucconi says.

If you do linger, remember that it’s always easier to approach one person than a group. If people are standing in small clusters, just stake your spot next to someone and listen to the conversation until you feel comfortable enough to ask a question, Henderson says.

Here’s another easy behavior switch, according to Zucconi: “Shy people have a lot of problems with eye contact. So just giving a firm handshake, smiling and looking someone in the eye can be all the tools you need.”

That worked wonders for Al Remp of Berkeley, Calif.

Remp says he was painfully shy for the first half of his life. At parties, he used to stand in corners and try to look inconspicuous.

Now, at 57, Remp’s social life is fully charged. In addition to the smile and eye contact, he credits a Chicago Cubs jacket he began wearing about 20 years ago.

“A multitude of people began approaching me telling me that they were from Chicago,” he says. “It was so exhilarating to see the excitement etched across their faces. I literally could not leave the house without some stranger commenting on my jacket. I met so many interesting people just by wearing it.”

The beauty of it all, Remp says, is that he didn’t have to do a thing to initiate any of it. The jacket was his entrance into that large intimidating world of parties.

His advice for the holiday season?

“If you are shy, just find something that is a flag to wear, a provocative button or a ‘Kiss a Whale’ shirt,” he says. “You will ineluctably find someone that is eager to salute.”


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