What’s the big secret to living and traveling well? To a journey overflowing with unique opportunities and impactful connections? Strong social skills. I can’t emphasize enough the value that you’ll get out of being approachable, engaging, and able to strike up a conversation with anyone.
For the introverts and the socially anxious out there, I know exactly what you’re thinking…
‘It’s not that simple. It’s a natural ability and not all of us have it.’
I know. That’s why it’s called a skill. Skills are honed through practice. There is such a thing as an introverted extrovert. You can train that part of you. I did it. You can too.
Most people would never guess the level of my social anxiety growing up. I had a crippling fear of interacting with people I didn’t know. I couldn’t call to order a pizza because of the stranger on the other end of the line. I would literally beg my sister to make the call by offering to do her laundry for the week. Seriously tragic. I couldn’t make eye contact with strangers without wanting to run away. If I saw a cute guy, I would look away immediately and never look back. It was very much awkward and uncomfortable and prevented me from experiencing the world and the people in it.
Today, I am sitting at the bar of a waterfront restaurant, chatting with the bartenders, and observing the other people in the room. Being alone in a public place used to be one of my biggest fears, but today? Not even a shred of hesitation. I am comfortable right where I sit. I relish this time to enjoy my own company, focus on my work, and interact with the world around me on my terms.
I still encounter those hits of anxiety, sometimes needing extra time in the safety of my car to prepare myself mentally to venture out into the world. I often need to give myself a pep talk before I can walk into a room with confidence and energy. But I never let the anxiety take me down. I’ve developed these tools and techniques to an expert level, and I look at each and every instance of social anxiety as a challenge… an opportunity to grow.
I’m going to share a few lessons I’ve learned, and issue some challenges to you so that you can start (or continue) developing your social skills.
LESSON 1: Everyone is too caught up in their own shit to actually care.
No one cares more about what’s happening in your life than yourself. And maybe your mom. Harsh, right? It’s true. It took me a long time to really understand this principal, likely because I wanted people to care about me. Wasted energy! Once I finally understood that I am my own biggest fan – and of course loudest critic – I could take expectation out of all of my interactions, whether it was with friends or strangers. Take the pressure off yourself. No one will notice your unique brand of weird.
LESSON 2: Embarrassment is temporary. This moment will pass.
Did someone actually notice you being kind of a weirdo? Don’t worry, they’ll forget soon. This moment will pass. Look, it already has! And now we’re in a new one. Yep, still going. The thing about embarrassment is that we feed it. The more we think about what we should have said instead, or what we should have done, the more attention we give to that negative emotion. Embarrassment, shame, and anxiety begin as little beasts, and they grow the more you feed them.
Here’s how I get out of these moments. I say/do something stupid. I’m embarrassed. I can feel it. It feels hot, in my face, on my neck. I feel an urge to go back into a safe place, back into my comfort zone. And then I go through a little self-check. It sounds a bit like this:
“Oooh, that was weird… why’d you do that?! Because you are kind of weird. Hmm… yeah, true… true. What can I learn from this? Be less weird. I can’t, that’s kind of who I am. Okay, own and love my weird. Yes! Have I done something I should apologize for? Yes? Apologize. No? How will this affect me in 10 minutes? How about tomorrow or next week or next year? It won’t? Cool, well that was fun. Next?”
Acknowledge. Learn. Move on. The moment passed ages ago!
LESSON 3: It’s worth it.
Being out of your comfort zone suuucks. For a while. And then it gets really good. You start enjoying that little adrenaline rush that comes from starting a conversation with a stranger and winning. What does winning mean in this case? It changes. The first attempts at engaging with strangers were successful if they didn’t give me a funny look and walk away. The next were if they answered whatever question I may have asked. Beyond that was when they would ask me questions in return, and take an interest in the interaction. I’ve leveled up a hundred times since then. Now, a win is if I can share a bit of inspiration and joy with the person I’m talking to, or if I can learn something from them. Every once in a while, I hit the jackpot and find a future client, or get an invitation to something totally exceptional.
Start putting in the work today. Hard work pays off. Here’s an example: When I first started learning tricks kiteboarding, I’d inevitably wipe out, crash my kite, lose my board, wash up on the beach pissed off and embarrassed, and have to hoof it back up the beach picking up the pieces, suffering under the amused or pitying gaze of my witnesses. Fast forward 6 months and another 50 kiteboarder walk of shames? I was standing front and centre on the podium of an amateur kiteboarding competition. Hell yeah. Developing skills takes work, and failure, and perseverence. But you can do it. Long story short? Start today.
Now for the challenge…
Are you inspired? Take action, right now. Here’s a few ideas in varying levels of difficulty. Feel free to try them all, you won’t regret it! Or if you do, remember that regret doesn’t last unless you feed it.
- Get on MeetUp and find a group built around an interest that you have. Commit to attending the next event. Actually attend it.
- Start a few conversations on Facebook. Think of a few contacts that you are interested in learning something from. Ask them each a question and see what happens. Keep your expectations low. If you get a response, see if you can extend the conversation a bit. But just a bit! Social interactions work much better when they end at an appropriate time. If you don’t, don’t take it personally. Try someone else.
- Is there a movie in theatres you’ve been wanting to see? Go see it. Alone. “Ticket for one, please!” Isn’t it nice watching a movie when you can just enjoy what’s happening without distractions? Making your own judgments on the movie without letting the opinions of your friends affect you? Yep. It’s good stuff.
- Go to your nearest coffee shop (or one in the next neighbourhood if that feels less threatening), and start a conversation with someone in line. If you failed? Find out what you can learn from the experience, and try again tomorrow. Disclaimer: If you’re in the beginning stages of developing your social skills, you may want to warm up a bit before you begin approaching people that you find attractive!
- Go into a bar, and claim a seat at the bar… right in the middle of the action, preferably! Start a conversation with the bartender or the people around you. A few tips? Avoid peak times. A conversation with the bartender is often a lot easier than with a patron. Bartenders are technically obligated to interact with guests, and those conversations are great practice. Ready to widen the net? Find a bar near the hostels or tourist hotspots in your city. Talk to strangers. If you’re a local, you may be able to share some of your local favorites. What?! Did you just add value to someone else’s day? You are well on your way, my friend!
- If one of your new stranger friends or an acquaintance invites you to something and your immediate thought is ‘no’? Give yourself a few moments to answer. Try to understand where the no is coming from. Is it the fear of being outside of your comfort zone? Recognize that extending an invitation to someone takes effort and courage, and appreciate the person who did that for you. Consider saying ‘yes’ instead.
- Are you ready for some expert level social challenges? Book a trip. Alone. Put yourself out there every single day. Just see what happens!
How did you feel reading those challenges? Are you stressed out? Let yourself be, and then move past it. The challenge is worth it, I promise.
The biggest failure that you can experience in these challenging social environments is not even trying.
There is no greater failure than failing yourself. Start investing time and energy into developing your social skills. It’s an investment that will pay off in spades. Don’t let fear win. You are in control of your life.
If you’ve got a few more minutes, I’d like to share three stories from my journey that will hopefully offer you some inspiration. Remember, I’m someone that couldn’t make eye contact with a stranger or order a pizza, and now? I can make a new friend in five minutes flat!
ONE: Someone I’d met one time – but had an incredible conversation with – invited me for a yacht party when I was passing through his home turf of Sydney, Australia. I didn’t know a single person on this boat except for the host. Everything in me told me not to go. I didn’t know what to wear. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think I would fit in. How the hell was I going to handle being stuck on a boat with a bunch of fancy strangers for several hours? Not being one to accept failure without even trying, I went for it. Aaand, when I first met them, I tripped and fell down a couple of stairs in front of all of them. The worst case scenario had happened. But I stuck it out. At the end of that trip? I was still alive. I had been recognized as a totally unique and interesting person, because I was an anomaly. A traveler bold enough to go it alone. Years later, I’m still friends with a couple of people from that boat. Worth it.
TWO: When I was taking kiteboarding lessons in the Philippines in 2015, I was staying in a hostel on Boracay Island. It was uncomfortable being on an island full of lovers and families, and wandering down the beach alone. And yet, it worked. Solo travelers attract other solo travelers. Simply being alone or being in a hostel is enough to get a conversation started. While learning to kite, I almost took out another kiter because I was pretty awful at it, and unaware of the people around me. When I found him on the beach later to apologize? I was invited to watch the UFC fights with his crew. I didn’t really want to. But I knew the urge to say no came from my social anxiety. So I said yes. When I was wandering around in the street looking for their house, I thought about cutting and running. But I found the house, knocked, and they opened the door. Today? Still friends. Still trying to one up eachother at kiting. Worth it.
THREE: I was living in Cabarete, Dominican Republic a couple summers ago trying to hone my kite skills. There I was at Kite Club Cafe plunking away on my laptop, when I glanced up and saw another girl plunking away on hers. I got up and asked her what she was working on. A fellow digital nomad! The lovely Kara (The Flight Attendant Life)… traveling, blogging, kiting, living life. It was a simple and immediate friendship. Sometimes people of a similar breed are drawn to eachother. This wholehearted, vulnerable, intense, and wonderful human? I’m proud to call her my friend. And while we’ve only been able to reconnect in person once or twice, we are here for eachother, wherever we are in the world. Sharing stories of love and loss, success and failure, joy and sadness. We are a part of eachother now. So, so worth it.
I am touched and inspired by each of these experiences. Even recalling them brings a sneaky little tear to my eye. If you get out there and challenge yourself, and meet those strangers, and feel something powerful? I’d love it if you shared that with me.