Conquer your social anxiety by learning the art of small talk: How fake confidence and keeping eye contact for a few seconds can work wonders
- Polite conversation can help people overcome shyness, says psychotherapist-author Richard Gallagher
- Eye contact should be kept for 3.3 seconds, according to 2016 study by scientists from University College London
- If you fear people won’t like you, subtly mimic their posture, gestures or speech, as this signals a rapport
The festive party season is over for another year. And while some will have relished the chance to socialise, those with social anxiety disorder will, undoubtedly, be glad to see the back of it.
The condition, thought to affect more than seven million people in the UK to some degree, turns supposedly fun gatherings into torturous experiences.
The mere thought of trying to strike up conversations with strangers is enough to trigger nausea, sweating, heart palpitations and stomach upsets.
Some sufferers, say experts, prefer to feign illness or family emergencies rather than subject themselves to the agony of social interaction.
Experts say learning a few simple tricks can turn any shrinking violet into a social butterfly, comfortable and confident in other people’s company. Psychotherapist and author Richard Gallagher believes the key is to embrace the art of polite conversation
Others find the condition extends into everyday life – putting them off making phone calls in front of other people or chatting to fellow shoppers in a supermarket queue for fear of embarrassment.
But can you overcome your crippling shyness in time for the next party invitation?
Experts say learning a few simple tricks can turn any shrinking violet into a social butterfly, comfortable and confident in other people’s company. Psychotherapist and author Richard Gallagher believes the key is to embrace the art of polite conversation.
‘Small talk is the glue that binds human relationships in all walks of life,’ he says. ‘It’s something we all have to do if we want to interact with the people around us. But it is a skill some people have to learn, just like baking a cake.’
So what are the simple steps you can take to turn future social gatherings into occasions to remember, rather than ones to forget?
MAINTAIN THE RIGHT DISTANCE
Before we even start talking, it’s important to consider personal space. But what is the right distance to keep between you and a stranger? A 2017 study by psychologists at the University of Wroclaw in Poland found significant differences between countries.
In Argentina and Norway, people feel quite comfortable when a stranger is standing just 40cm (or 15 inches) away. But in the UK, the preferred distance is 99cm – about 3ft. Researchers said: ‘Overall, women prefer being closer together than men and young people are more likely to engage in physical contact than older people.’
Gallagher says: ‘When you first meet someone, step forward to shake their hand – then take a step back. If they move towards you, then they are comfortable being closer.’
As shy as you are, simply pretending to be confident in social situations can have a profound effect, says Gallagher. ‘Faking confidence can get you through the initial anxiety-producing moment of a conversation and lead more naturally into effective small talk,’ he says. (File image)
KEEP EYE CONTACT FOR A FEW SECONDS
Eye contact is an essential part of the human bonding process and successful small talk. But how long should you keep it up before averting your gaze? Too short and you might appear uninterested in what the person has to say – too long and it’s likely to prove unnerving.
A 2016 study by scientists from University College London came up with the answer: maintain eye contact for 3.3 seconds.
The findings emerged from a study where 500 people watched video clips of the same actor making eye contact with them for durations ranging from a tenth of a second to just over ten seconds.
Gallagher says: ‘Your eyes convey your level of interest, your comfort levels and how engaged you are in the person and the conversation. But there’s a balance. Aim for regular, periodic glances at the other person’s eyes as you are talking.’
APPLY THE THREE QUESTIONS RULE
Successful small talk is all about getting the conversation started. Standard getting-to-know-you questions include ‘How do you know the person throwing the party?’ or ‘Where do you work?’
Uninspiring, yes, but they get things going and help find a mutually interesting topic to discuss.
If you’ve started talking about something else, then these questions are just as good to keep the flow going later.
And keep the questions coming, says Gallagher.
‘I recommend what I call my three-to-one rule,’ he explains. ‘For every three questions you ask the other person, pause and disclose something about yourself.
‘This gives them the chance to ask questions about you.’
If you’ve heard a group talking about something you’re interested in, you can quietly manoeuvre closer, listen for a bit, then chime in with your opinion during an appropriate pause. (File image)
FAKE CONFIDENCE CAN WORK WONDERS
As shy as you are, simply pretending to be confident in social situations can have a profound effect, says Gallagher. ‘Faking confidence can get you through the initial anxiety-producing moment of a conversation and lead more naturally into effective small talk,’ he says.
‘With practice, you can trick yourself into feeling confident.’
Research suggests smiling – even a ‘fake’ smile – helps reduce the body’s response to stress and lowers the heart rate in tense situations, while another study linked smiling to lower blood pressure.
Confidence coach Jo Emerson asks her clients to consider the qualities they would like to embody in a ‘best’ version of themselves. ‘Then, start acting in ways that echo this,’ she explains. ‘If your best self would smile at everyone you meet, practise it until it becomes second nature.’
HOW TO BREAK INTO A GROUP CHAT
It is the nightmare scenario for many party-goers – especially those already feeling socially anxious. A group of friends are huddled in animated conversation while you stand on the fringes, waiting to be included.
Gallagher advises: ‘Stand near enough that they can see you and notice your interest in joining in but not so close that you’re invading their space. Relax and smile – if one of them catches your eye, give a slight nod.’ A good opening gambit might be: ‘Hi. How do you all know each other?’
If you’ve heard a group talking about something you’re interested in, you can quietly manoeuvre closer, listen for a bit, then chime in with your opinion during an appropriate pause.
It’s also OK to join a group and just follow the conversation for a while.
Just adding throwaway statements of agreement can help, such as: ‘That happened to a friend of mine too…’
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MIMIC THE PERSON YOU’RE TALKING TO
Social anxiety is often linked to an underlying fear that people will not like you, or not feel comfortable in your company. One way to ensure they do is to subtly mimic their posture, gestures or speech, as this signals a rapport between you.
Many people do it without thinking about it. For example, if the person you are talking to is leaning forward, you may find yourself doing the same.
Studies have suggested this goes beyond mere mimicry: the brains of speakers and listeners become ‘wirelessly connected’, reacting in synchrony. Psychologists call this the chameleon effect and experiments show that it makes people trust you more.
However, be warned: if others notice, they may see it as an attempt at manipulation.
BUT DON’T FLOG A DEAD HORSE
If a conversation is feeling forced, no matter what you say, it may be a sign you just weren’t meant to talk to that particular person. You might simply not have much in common.
Just let them know you need to go to the bar, and politely move on.
Stress-Free Small Talk, by Richard Gallagher (Rockridge Press, amazon.co.uk, £10.05).
What’s the difference…
… between a clinical oncologist and a medical oncologist?
Broadly speaking, clinical oncologists are trained in all kinds of cancer therapy except surgery.
This includes drug treatment such as chemotherapy, as well as radiotherapy.
Although their core training is identical to that given to clinical oncologists, medical oncologists are not trained to use radiotherapy.
In the UK, the distinction is not really relevant to patients as most are looked after by a team of cancer specialists with a lead oncologist, as well as other specialist surgeons who collaborate to decide on the best treatment.
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