Walking into a room full of strangers is a challenge to me.
I am an introvert. Socializing for a long period of time makes me feel exhausted. I don’t like large crowds. I don’t like being the center of attention. I most definitely don’t like small talk; the ‘get to know you’ conversations we engage in, almost like a dance, when we try to figure out who strangers are.
I am not very good at small talk, and it often makes me appear like something of an idiot. See, there is this thing called The Silence. I’m sure you’ve heard of it; maybe even met it. The Silence, that descends on a conversation when you don’t know what to say, that awkward feeling of mild embarrassment where you wonder how you can possibly extract yourself from the situation without causing offence. That silence, it brings out the worst in me.
I find that people tend to respond to The Silence in one of three ways.
Some just magically keep talking, effortlessly and energetically, about appropriate topics. I don’t understand how, but I’d very much like to learn.
Some remain silent. I find there is something rather dignified about stoic silence, despite the social awkwardness that can follow.
Others launch themselves into a frenzy of words, also referred to as babbling. Unfortunately, this is my approach. There is nothing dignified about babbling. Sometimes, I imagine myself as an observer to the social interaction from above and all I want to tell myself is, ‘stop talking!’
Though talking to strangers make me feel a little stressed, I actually do it much more than I give myself credit for. Every time we move, I build my family’s social network more or less from scratch. When we travel, I try to reach out to people we meet.
I want to work on the move, and I know networking is everything. Indeed, a recently published survey on expats and dual careers name networking as the most important factor in expat partners’ ability to find employment on an overseas posting.
I know I need to do it, and I know it’s preferable if I can do it well, so I’ve taught myself. I’m still far from a natural, and I never will be – but I cope. Once I’m over my awkwardness, I enjoy meeting new people, discovering our differences and similarities. I especially like how meeting people forces me to reach up, and attempt to master something challenging.
Here are some tips on how to master walking into a room full of strangers.
If you belong to the first category above, you might find this hard to understand. I fully appreciate that; but trust me, it’s a thing. If you are prepared for small talk and networking conversations, you’re less likely to find yourself describing the relevance of the mothers-brothers-son kinship pattern or some similarly obscure topic to a bewildered conversation partner, just to avoid The Silence.
Know who you’re likely to meet. Anticipate conversation topics. If possible, do some basic research. For example, if you’re networking for work purposes, you can learn about people and topics/interests before the event.
Look up ‘small talk’ and ‘conversation starters’ online
I did this in preparation for an English class I taught on small talk and was amazed at the resources that are available. You could memorize a list of conversation starters for almost any social occasion.
Observe someone who does it well
As an anthropologist, I observe. In my quest to master small talk and networking, I spent some happy hours a few years back simply watching people who are great conversationalists. Find someone in your environment who is skilled at small talk. Simply observe, find out what they do.
Think about what you’re happy to share with the world
This is a big one for me. Because I am so terrified of The Silence, I have on occasion shared information that I didn’t intend to share. I like to remember what I tell my kids – don’t share your personal details without being sure it’s safe.
Engaging in small talk more often, I find, makes it no less uncomfortable but it does make it less of a ‘thing’, and therefore more manageable.
Know when to leave
You don’t have to be the last person to leave. Allow yourself a break. I like to set a time frame; I must attend, but it’s perfectly acceptable to leave after an hour.
Find someone to hold you accountable
This is my next target. Since my husband and I are both introverts and happy to simply not go out, we tend to allow each other to say ‘no.’ Find someone who will make you say ‘yes’, who will force you to leave you comfort zone (also known as the sofa) and mingle.
If you’d like to read more on this topic, Susan Cain’s Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking is a great starting point, with lots of references.
You can also find some helpful articles on networking for introverts here:
Networking for Introverts – Dorie Clark
Networking for Introverts – 7 simple steps – Michael S Solomon
Shhh;quiet. An introvert’s guide to networking – Kirstie Brewer