How I deal with the awkwardness of meeting new people
I am comfortable spending time with myself. Keeping myself occupied is something I do without difficulty. I wouldn’t mind being a hermit monk in the Himalayas. Or a solo astronaut on a flight to Mars.
I do have friends. Friends, with whom I do stuff that friends do.
In the social context, it is too easy for me to stay in my comfort zone. There are many occasions where I do meet new people. Either by choice or by chance.
When I was younger, the awkwardness of interactions with strangers stressed me out. I would hesitate about what to say. I would overanalyze what the other person thinks of me. I would get freaked out by silent gaps in the conversations. I would grin for no reason.
As time passed, the awkwardness never completely disappeared. It subsided with time. I learned how to deal with it better. Internally and externally.
I even dare say that I am now excited to meet new people. Interactions with strangers are fun little adventures into the unknown.
I would like to share some of the ideas I use to navigate the awkwardness of meeting someone new:
Awkwardness is part of the shared experience
I used to fight hard to get rid of that annoying feeling of awkwardness. I wanted to feel completely at ease with talking to strangers. I tried everything from affirmations to breathing exercises.
Throughout the years, I have learned to accept the awkwardness.
To be honest, there was no defining Zen moment of enlightenment. I grew weary of fighting the awkwardness within myself.
I dropped the unrealistic expectation. The expectation that speaking to a stranger should feel like a conversation with an old friend. The degree of awkwardness will, of course, depend on the person I meet. It is easier to gel with some people than others.
I also keep in mind that it is awkward to some degree for the other person as well. It helps to see conversations as shared experiences. A conversation isn’t supposed to be a lonely weird experience in one’s head. After all, any interaction per definition involves at least two people.
I no longer see it as my experience anymore, I see it as our experience.
I make it about them
One reason I was awkward when talking to new people is that I overthink what to say or how to act. I kept asking myself if I am interesting, funny or charming.
I realize that I can reduce this burden by shifting my inner attention to the other person. When the other person talks, I immerse myself in listening. I listen not only with my ears but also my eyes, my mind, and my heart.
I notice that when I make it about them, it heightens my curiosity about the other person. A conversation driven by genuine curiosity rather than anxiety changes the whole dynamic. It is not a struggle anymore.
There is so much to discover about people. Getting to know someone is like exploring a whole new universe.
I sneak away to the washroom
In some interactions, I still feel overwhelmed despite all the things I try. Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the excitement of talking to an attractive person. Sometimes, I am affected by boredom. Sometimes, it gets to a weird point where the other person and I stand there with drinking glasses in our hands, staring at each other.
When I am overwhelmed, I take a break from the conversation.
Let’s take the example of going to a Meetup event in a restaurant. I can excuse myself by going to the washroom. Or I exit the restaurant for a few minutes for fresh air.
For group settings, one thing I like to do is switch it up by mingling around. I would talk to one person, then talk to another. I would then rotate back to the person I was talking to. A good interaction is like good wine, letting it breathe makes it more enjoyable.
I do not squeeze a friendship out of it
When I was younger, I expected every meeting with a stranger to be an opportunity to get a new friend. I presented the best side of me. I tried to be likable and funny. “Tried” being the operative word.
With time, I realized that with certain people, there is more chemistry than with others.
With certain people, I have more fun. We share common interests that we can talk about. Jokes and silly comments flow without much thought. It is easy to share details of my life without feeling judged.
I realized that I like some people and I dislike others. The same goes in the other direction. Some people like me. Some people don’t.
I figured out that there need not be logical reasons for people to like or dislike each other. Even if there were reasons, it would be hard to determine anyway.
I compare it to food. Some people like sushi, some people prefer pizza.
I also learned that trying to force chemistry would have the exact opposite effect. I would appear to be a “try hard”. Trying hard reeks of desperation.
If the interaction goes south, the worse thing that can happen is that we don’t see each other ever again. Big deal.
When I talk to someone new, I do my best to let go of all expectations. Expectations of an interesting conversation. Expectations of a new friendship.
Whatever happens, happens.
I monkey around
This is the one change that made the most impact for me.
I saw social interactions as something I needed to do to push the limits of my personal growth. Or something I must do to expand my social circle. I was out there to check off some task on my to-do list. Another step on the proverbial ladder of success. Or so I thought.
No wonder I was too serious, I was in work mode! Hustle and grind.
I don’t know what exactly caused the change. It could be the exhaustion from trying so hard all the time. I stopped treating conversations with strangers like job interviews.
I started to have fun.
I make random comments that don’t make sense. I make stupid juvenile jokes. I do those things for my own amusement. If amuses others as well, that’s cool. If not, that’s fine too.
We have mirror neurons in our brains that make us mimic the other person. If the other person is serious, we get serious. If the other person monkeys around, we monkey around.
Isn’t that the real purpose of meeting people though? To have a good time.
I’m still figuring this out by learning from new experiences. Every interaction is unique. That’s what makes it worth it. There is no ultimate goal. As cliche as it sounds, it is about the journey.
Meeting new people can be awkward to a certain degree.
Meeting new people is also exciting, amusing and refreshing. Furthermore, it opens up countless possibilities. You could meet your next business partner, best friend or spouse.
Soak in the entire experience. The good, the bad and the awkward.