My friend Michelle can strike up a conversation with anyone. I've often watched her in awe at parties as she flutters around the room, eagerly chatting with bigwigs to busboys.
My idea of a good time is staying in and opening a bag of ketchup chips. I recoil whenever "network" is used as a verb.
I'm not alone. Around 43 per cent of the population is shy, up from roughly 37 per cent in the 1970s, says Dr. Bernardo Carducci, a professor of psychology and director of the Indiana University Southeast Shyness Research Institute.
And at least half of us are introverts, according to Susan Cain's 2012 bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
Being introverted isn't the same thing as being shy, of course. Introverts are most comfortable with lower levels of stimulation, including social stimulation, while shy people fear how they're perceived by others, according to Cain.
Whether introverted or shy, quiet types have become better appreciated in recent years, thanks to defenders such as Cain. At the same time, the need to get out there and socialize is arguably now greater than ever. More than 66 per cent of Canadian postsecondary students reported feeling "very lonely" in the past year, according to a 2016 National College Health Assessment survey. A 2012 Statistics Canada report observed about 20 per cent of seniors feel lonely.
In an age when people are often more engaged with their smartphones than with others around them, many of us are losing spontaneous, in-person conversation skills, Carducci says. An increasing reliance on digital communication may be a relief to those who dread small talk, he says, but it comes at a cost.
"Online, it's structured; you can calculate your response. Online, you can tailor your audience to people who are exactly like you," he says. "So we're losing that ability to talk to a wider range of people."
The good news is anyone can learn to schmooze successfully, Carducci says. It's an acquired skill, he says, and one that gets better with practice.
So if I don't want to wind up as a miserable Grinch, spending Christmas alone with red-stained fingertips, I'd better RSVP to some invitations. To help me break out of my shell, I sought the advice of experts and former small-talk shirkers on how to survive a party from start to finish.
Dare yourself out the door and set a time limit
The party starts in an hour, and I know what you're thinking. Hanging out with your cat Fernando seems infinitely more enjoyable than surrounding yourself with a bunch of strangers. But get moving, and set yourself a minimum amount of time to stay at the party. Who knows? You may end up not wanting to leave.
For six years, Earla Dunbar avoided leaving the house, shut in by agoraphobia, a fear of stepping out in public. As a young adult, Dunbar, who is now 62, recalls she had always relied on drugs or alcohol to get her through social engagements and, as she grew older, she simply declined invitations until she stopped getting them altogether.
After seeking help from a psychiatrist, the Toronto resident gradually emerged from her social isolation, working her way up to attending her first party, sober, in her adult life at around age 45.
What enabled her to accept and attend that party after a long period of social withdrawal was a change of perspective, says Dunbar, now 62. Sure, she was scared. But rather than dwelling on that fear, she approached the evening as a challenge. "I thought: 'Okay, here's the time for me to … see how I do,'"
She promised herself to stay for three hours to prevent herself from retreating before she had a chance to settle in. "If I didn't give myself a time limit, I might just say, 'Okay, I'm out of here in five minutes. I've got a headache. I've gotta go!'"
In the end, she was glad she went.
"Every time I even just talked to somebody, I felt so excited, so happy," Dunbar says. "When I came home, I felt so good because I had accomplished something I'd probably never done in my life."
Play to your strengths
So you've made it to the party. Congratulations! But let's face it. You're no Bill Clinton. The idea of working a room makes you want to curl into the fetal position.
Before you park yourself next to the crudités for the night, try striking up a conversation with just one person instead of inserting yourself in a group. Better yet: find someone who looks even more shy or introverted than you.
Introverts are typically good at having one-on-one conversations, says Michaela Chung, an introvert author and coach based in Nanaimo, B.C. She advises focusing on having a meaningful conversation with one or two people, rather than painfully go through meet-and-greets around the room.
"Focus on quality rather than quantity," she says. "One meaningful connection is worth way more than just kind of saying 'hello' to a bunch of acquaintances. And that one person is going to remember, whereas the 10 other people you just mindlessly talk to, they might not remember you at all."
Don't be afraid of using standard openers, such as "How was your week?" says Chung, author of The Irresistible Introvert: Harness the Power of Quiet Charisma in a Loud World. There's good reason why they're standard, she says: They take the pressure off you to come up with some clever line (which you may then feel forced to follow with further witticisms).
Don't panic over awkward lulls
You've covered the weather. You've talked about hobbies, work, the Leafs. Now what? If your conversation has stalled, stay cool, advises Uluc Ulgen.
Ulgen, 27, says he was shy even as a child, and always felt self-conscious. Born in Turkey and raised in Minnesota, he learned to adopt different personas to try to fit in. But three years ago, tired of keeping up a façade, the New York resident reached a breaking point.
"You kind of reach this breakdown where you ask yourself, 'Who am I?' I was confused about how to conduct myself around people."
Ulgen embarked on a soul-searching hitchhiking trip in his native Turkey, where he found himself constantly greeted, welcomed and hosted by strangers. The experience inspired him to launch an experimental new podcast, called murmur, in which he invites strangers to his apartment to record spontaneous one-on-one conversations. His guests have ranged from homeless people to doctors and musicians.
Their chats don't always flow easily, Ulgen says, adding that, in the beginning, he'd spend hours editing each conversation to make it sound coherent. He realized he often scrambled to fill lulls in the conversation with nervous, meaningless chatter. "You just start saying things that you don't necessarily mean, but just saying things just for the sake of having something to say," he says.
He's since learned to stop trying to avoid silence. "Embrace the weirdness. Embrace the awkwardness," he says. "The moment you stop being nervous about it, and you're able to embrace it, it kind of opens up an entirely new dimension in terms of how you can connect with the person across from you and how you can bond with them."
Getting comfortable with strangers has involved shifting his attention away from himself and onto his guest.
"Don't even make the conversation about you. The only reason why … we as shy people get so anxious in those moments is because we make the moment about ourselves. We think, 'What do I have to say? What does this person think about me?'" he says. "Don't make it about you. Engage them."
Paradoxically, by focusing on his guests, he's finally become comfortable in his own skin.
Make a graceful exit
The night is winding down, and you're pooped. No, you can't just moonwalk out mid-conversation. An abrupt, "Okay, bye-ee!" is not going to cut it either. A proper termination is a critical step to a successful chat, Carducci says.
Carducci has been studying shyness and social connections for close to 40 years. Small talk, he has found, actually follows a very predictable structure, which he methodically outlines in his book, The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything.
In a nutshell, it involves five steps: opening with a simple comment about your setting or environment; introducing yourself and offering some detail about yourself that the other person can latch onto and ask more about; throwing out topics for possible discussion; expanding on the conversation by relating what you were saying to other topics; and, finally, terminating the conversation.
"If it's a good conversation … you want to let people know, 'I had a really good time and maybe we could talk again in the future.' So you want to end this thing in a way that maximizes that probability."
Whether you're extricating yourself from a good or bad conversation, you should first warn the person you need to go soon, signalling they should wind up their story, Carducci says. Then, let them know you've appreciated the conversation, and point out something you heard or learned so they know you've actually been listening.
And should you want it, Carducci says, create the opportunity for future contact by asking for their number or mentioning an occasion where you may meet again.
Once you've wrapped up, you're now free to make your retreat. Well done! You've made it! Now go on home.