I’m never going to judge someone who’s not the life of the party just like I wouldn’t judge someone who was dancing on a table (unless it’s a kid’s party, maybe…), but I think it happens all too often because women are quick to make assumptions on everything from body language to parenting decisions. Now that I’m a mom, it’s harder to sit in the corner and watch from a distance before picking the right moment to insert myself into a conversation or to get up and walk away. It feels like women keep tape recorders in their mind of all their encounters with others, and I hate to leave a bad impression, especially when there are so few opportunities for me, as a working mom, to forge new friendships with other mothers. So I’ve come up with simple tips for maintaining my shy personality without seeming uninterested, judgmental, or worse-snotty.
1. Make eye contact.
As a kid, I had a hard time connecting with people, because they thought my silence was a sign of arrogance. Does she think she’s too good for us? I observed others as they interacted with each other but rarely took the initiative to approach someone directly. And when they spoke to me, it was hard to contain my nerves from being the center of attention, even if only in a group of 4 or 5. Eye contact is so important. It signals to people that you’re listening and that you’re paying attention. The combination of those two make it appear that you care, and it gives them a good feeling that is more likely to not make them question why you aren’t as outgoing as them.
It may seem ridiculous to list this, but if you’re an introvert you know that the most welcoming part of hanging out with someone new is their smile. It lets you know that they’re happy and that things are going well. Usually, when we feel that the social situation is filled with happy people, we are more likely to dip our feet in and share more of ourselves. It makes us less fearful of what might happen or of what the other person is thinking. Introverts have a lot of anxiety, so our face is usually blank or stuck in a confused or displeased look. Others take this personally, so try smiling more even if you’re floating around in your head!
3. Speak up when needed.
This one is key. Don’t wait for social cues or verbal permission (like someone directing a question or comment to you) to make yourself heard. I used to be the type that didn’t speak unless spoken to, but the older I got, the more I realized that it’s okay to decide when you want to speak. That sounds silly, but it’s true. If no one was asking for my opinion, I was typically content not offering it. As a mom, with a child who often cannot speak for himself, I no longer ‘raise my hand’ in a conversation. That attitude has spilled from my mothering into my professional and personal life. Whether that conversation is with my boss or my doctor, I’ve become comfortable deciding for myself when it’s okay to talk. To my boss: You want me to do XYZ task but you contradicted yourself with these instructions. To my doctor: You told me I’m going to get this exam next, but you never said why, and I’m actually choosing to decline. The more I exercise this freedom, the more I notice that I’m actually not as shy as I used to be, because what others think of me has been subdued by my desire to make choices that impact my life.
4. Try something spontaneous.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being an introvert, but the more cozy you become in your little bubble, the less likely you are to explore things that you might actually find fun, even if you were too scared to try it before. Rock climbing, giving a speech, attending a social work function, hosting a party, sharing an idea in a group, volunteering, and are all things that seem to appeal more when you find confidence that allows you to let go of insecurities or apprehensiveness and focus on the activity at hand.
5. Avoid situations without avoiding people.
This one is tricky. For me, I used to be scared of stepping out of a room even if I had to go to the bathroom, because I knew that as soon as I stood up, others in the sitting audience would direct their eyes to me, and I didn’t want to cause a stir. It seems dramatic, but situations like these worried me to no end, so sometimes I didn’t even show up to classes in college because I was a few minutes late and knew the focus would shift from the professor to me as soon as I walked in-despite my best attempts to just hide behind a desk like a ghost. What I discovered is that it wasn’t people that scared me so much as what I might do to incite certain reactions like surprise, disappointment, confusion, disgust, etc. Instead of not going to a party, business meeting, school function, girls night out, family event, or other social gathering, I try to take control of what positions I put myself in. For instance, I participate in conversations that make me comfortable only. I go to theme parks but avoid rollercoasters. I don’t volunteer for something that scares me or requires me to be in a situation with too many unknowns. It’s still not ideal but it’s better than skipping out on anything where humans will be present.
6. Don’t apologize for being you.
Supposedly, about 90% of Americans consider themselves “shy”, which is normal. Some of us don’t like big groups or awkward situations, and we learn to pin point instances where we might feel irritated or uncomfortable so that we can avoid them. But there are others that have social anxiety, which is probably what I had (and might still have?) that caused me to avoid going to the bathroom, addressing a natural body function, just to not have anyone look at me. The people with social anxiety probably have underlying issues to handle relating to self-confidence, past experiences, trauma, and other factors. Starting slow is my only recommendation for those people. Good experiences can start to shadow bad ones as you get older.
However, if you’re just an introvert, and you really would prefer to not do that bar hop or go on that multi-day road trip with strangers, because you know the expectations and you’re not up for dealing with the teasing of not being super vocal or outgoing, then own it.
Don’t let others convince you that there’s something wrong with you. I sometimes still don’t talk much because I don’t have anything to say. I’m not going to make up words and talk about nothing just to satisfy someone or avoid being called shy. Show your child by example of your behavior that it’s okay to have your own personality, even if that personality isn’t as loud and sometimes needs alone time.