I am a shy person, sometimes painfully so. I am pausing now as I type this, because I can hear sighs of disbelief from a few people who know me. Because I facilitate meetings, lead workshops and have done public presentations (including a few keynote speeches), people who’ve seen me in action don’t believe that I am shy. Oh, but I am.
I have missed opportunities in my life because of my shyness. I couldn’t walk up and introduce myself to that interesting or special or famous person who was right there. My tongue gets tied. I think that what I have to say won’t be particularly interesting. I realize that my clothes aren’t quite what they should be and so I hang back, vanishing into the crowd, and often out the door. I am notorious, at least to myself, for making quick exits. “Time to go,” my shyness commands. “Back to the nest, the comfort zone, “’far away from the madding crowd’” into sweet anonymity.
I have learned to overcome my shyness when I walk as the presenter. I put on my “in-charge” mask, assume my presentation posture, and stride confidently front and center. Inside, I may be shaking – although I mostly get nervous the night before a meeting/presentation when I don’t sleep. I almost always crash the evening after a meeting/presentation. During the presentation, I am mostly calm with my notes to guide me and other props (markers, newsprint, post-it notes) to anchor me.
When, however, I have to walk into a room as just me, I am as apt to slink into a corner or stand off to the side. I usually do a sweep of the room with my eyes to see if there is anyone I recognize or with whom I sense affinity or even a welcoming look. Usually I head straight to the refreshments, grab a little somethin’-somethin’ and sit down.
This behavior doesn’t work for me, because I most often project aloofness and that certainly forms a barrier to people approaching me. When I am being my best self – I have learned a few tricks to work through the shyness:
1. I give myself an assignment to introduce myself to three or more people (depending on the size of the crowd); to pass out three or more business cards, and/or to collect a specific number of business cards. Once this task is done, I sit down.
2. I walk around the room and take a few moments to look at the art work. If the artwork is notable, it can often be a way to start a conversation with someone nearby.
3. I zero in on a view. Tall buildings downtown usually have great views going for them and gazing out a window as though stunned by the view of the city before me (which I often am), can draw a companion to share the view. It can also be a ploy to delay networking.
4. I search out other people who are sitting or standing alone and go introduce myself to them. I don’t actually ask, “May I join you?” because I don’t want to commit myself to them or deal with the awkwardness that results when they sorta, kinda really don’t want company. I’ll just ask something like, “How do you know so and so?” or, “This is the first time I’ve been here, isn’t the view stunning?” (or “the art work beautiful”) or some other small thing.
5. I choose a seat where I can make a quick escape if I need to.
6. I go to the powder room to freshen up. I’ve met a few companions for the evening in the bathroom who were doing the same thing I was.
7. I don’t pull out a newspaper or book to read because that just signals rudeness – and I don’t want to be thought of in that way.
8. I do bring a notebook so that if there’s a presentation going on, I can seem like I’m taking notes (which I usually do), unless the subject is of no interest or over my head, when I just doodle or write letters or come up with story ideas.
The most difficult groups for me to push through shyness around are those of affluent people and fashionistas. Being around them makes me tongue-tied and awkward. I feel like I’m back in high school trying to find somewhere to sit in the cafeteria. I used to have a visceral reaction of anger when in these sorts of crowds, but don’t so much any more. I accept the fact that I don’t feel that I fit. I’m not in with the in-crowd and never have been. (I’ve even gotten dissed by some of the beautiful people at events that I was in charge of.) Go figure.
Mostly, I’ve learned that there are lots of people in the shy club, intimidated by the prospect of having to work a room of strangers and people whose faces you recognize but who you don’t really know. I’ve received some invitations that had me wondering why I was invited and whether I belonged. I’ve recently decided that wherever I land is where I belong even if I have to push through shyness to play.