A few weeks ago, I attended my good friends’ wedding. I didn’t have a date, but we have several friends in common, so I when I arrived, I expected to see at least one familiar face. Instead, I saw fifty or so beautifully-dressed strangers. I felt completely overwhelmed, so I got a drink of water from the bartender, and pulled out my phone, wondering who I could text for reassurance. A few minutes later, a girl I didn’t recognize said, “Hi, I think we’ve met before,” and from there on, everything was OK.
In retrospect, I know exactly what the problem was—I hadn’t prepared. I often have social anxiety, but I mistakenly thought I’d be OK at the wedding, since I knew other people who were going. After all the years I’ve been dealing with this, I should know better. When I’m going to be surrounded by strangers, I have to be ready for it, and that day, I wasn’t. In the hope of making networking events, birthday parties, and other terrifying social occasions easier for other anxious souls, I’m going to share my usual routine:
Know what you’re getting yourself into.
If you’re going to a place you’ve never been before, look it up on Google Maps. Check out the street view to see what it looks like from the front. Then, if it’s a business, go to their website and look for pictures of the inside. I swear, it helps if you can picture the place in your head. If you’re going to a networking event that’s part of a series, check their website, social media account, and related hashtags for pictures from previous events. That’ll give you a sense of everything from how people dress to how crowded it’ll be.
Think about what you want to wear.
When I’m nervous, I sweat like crazy. If I want to look even slightly attractive and/or professional (depending on what kind of event it is), I have to wear something that keeps my sweaty armpits out of sight. I also have a habit of spilling things on myself, and I deal with that by only drinking white wine, water, or seltzer, so the wet spots are harder to see.
Add an accessory you love.
I’m partial to weird, colorful shoes (I love Irregular Choice), but maybe you have a great pair of earrings, a colorful patterned scarf, or an amazing statement necklace. Whatever it is, if it’s noticeable or memorable, wear it. Think of it as conversation bait. The truth is, I don’t even need crazy shoes, because I have pink hair. Anywhere I go, people who want to start conversations with me can use that as an excuse. They say something like, “Great hair,” or “My sister’s hair was blue for a while,” and the next thing you know, we’re having an actual conversation. It’s that easy. People want to talk to you, so as Bonnie Raitt sings, “Let’s give them something to talk about.”
Have business cards.
As a freelance writer, I work from home for several different companies, so my cards aren’t technically business cards. (I got them printed up on Moo, and they have my name and contact information.) Texting or emailing someone to exchange info can get confusing in a crowd, so cards are still the easiest/quickest way to exchange info. Active on social media? Include your usernames on the card, too. If the place where you work doesn’t provide personalized cards, shell out the $20-or-so bucks and buy your own. It’s worth it.
Have a plan.
If you’re going to a networking event in the hopes of advancing your career or building your business, think about what you want to get out of it. Set yourself a goal, but be realistic. Challenge yourself to give your card to five people who might be good to know. If even that feels too intimidating, dare yourself to talk to three people before you leave.
Act like you can handle it.
I’m not a brave person, but I’ve discovered that I can fake it for short periods of time. If you’re afraid you’re going to chicken out of an event altogether (I’ve been there and done that, so I’m not judging), try faking some bravery for 20 minutes or half an hour, just to get yourself in the door. If you hate it once you’re there, you don’t have to stay.
Give yourself permission to leave.
Social events can be intimidating, but the nice thing is, you aren’t trapped there. You can leave any time you want. I find it helpful to remind myself of that before I go to an event. “If I feel totally out of place, I can walk out the door and come home.” Somehow, knowing that I can leave early, or even really-really-really early, makes it easier for me to show up in the first place. (One caveat to this: Make sure you have a safe way to get home. If you’re driving, it’s probably a good idea to avoid alcohol.)
Get there on time.
I know what you’re thinking. “No way. The place will be empty. That’s even worse.” Trust me on this. If you’re as scared of strangers as I am, it’s much easier to handle them when they’re arriving one by one, or in small groups. I realized a few years ago that several of my friends hate being the first one at a party. Being first isn’t a problem for me—I’m going to feel awkward no matter what time I get there—so why not be on time? Not only do I make it easier on everyone who hates being the first guest, I get to hang out with the host a little, and usually, he or she introduces me to other people as they arrive.
Get over yourself.
This one sounds a little bit harsh, but I don’t mean it that way. I just want you to stop stressing about what you look like and how you feel and think about the other people at the event instead. Put your phone back in your bag, and look around. Do you see anyone standing alone? Maybe they’re leaning against the wall near a potted palm tree with a slightly panicked look on their face? Take a deep breath, go over to that person, and say something. It doesn’t have to be smart or clever. It can be as simple as “Have you ever been here before?” or as honest as “I don’t know anyone here and I feel out of place. Can I stand by you for a minute?” If the person replies, introduce yourself. Ask how their day is going. If a conversation results, you can exchange cards. If it doesn’t, you can say, “OK, I think I’m feeling brave enough to venture back out there,” and walk away.
On the way out, give yourself a pat on the back. YOU DID IT!
Congratulate yourself on surviving the total nightmare of spending time in a room full of strangers. Hey, maybe it wasn’t even that bad? Maybe you could even do it again sometime? (Just make sure you prepare.)
BONUS TIP FOR REALLY ANXIOUS TYPES:
Still freaked out? You can still do this. Just bring someone with you. If you absolutely can’t get yourself to go to a social event alone, ask a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker if they’d be willing to accompany you. Sometimes, it helps to have a wing-woman, especially if she’s someone who’s familiar with your talents and will talk you up to potential business contacts.
BONUS TIP FOR EVERYONE WHO READS THIS:
If you’re ever at a social event, and you see a tall woman with pink hair standing alone, please come over and say hi. It’s probably me, and I’m just as nervous and anxious about this stuff as you are. We should totally talk.
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