If you respond to invitations to social and business gatherings with a sense of dread--and you're tired of melting into the wallpaper--there is help.
Brenda Blackman teaches singles how to break through shyness, initiate conversation and hold the other person's interest.
"For some people, just walking up to a person and introducing themselves produces fear," says Blackman, who teaches at community colleges throughout the county. "Others get tongue-tied thinking of something to talk about."
Blackman believes that being shy, or characterizing oneself as shy, is the armor a person wears to shield himself or herself from facing fear. And she says it's common for shy people to believe that those who appear to be confident are normal--and that their own shyness is abnormal.
"Nearly everyone is shy sometimes--the difference is that the person who appears confident and outgoing has made the effort and broken through that barrier," she says.
She contends that shyness is a form of self-centeredness. "The shy person is always thinking and worrying about how they are being perceived by others," she says. "If you are constantly thinking about yourself, you will be mentally paralyzed and therefore unable to initiate an interesting conversation with anyone. So I tell people to get off themselves and develop a genuine interest in others."
Blackman recommends a three-week exercise for those who are afraid to talk with strangers:
"Week 1: Smile at every stranger you see. You will get one of three reactions--people will smile back, they will ignore you, or look at you like you're crazy. Most people will smile back, but even if they don't, that's not important--it's the process that's important."
During Week 2, she continues, "smile and simply say 'Hi.' And during Week 3 smile, say 'Hi' and make a short comment. Any remark will do: 'Nice day,' 'Looks like rain.' . . . Again, it's the exercise that's important."
The best greeting at a social gathering is also a simple one, Blackman says. "Just smile and say 'Hi.' It's friendly and immediately puts the other person at ease."
When you're alone at a party, she advises, "sit next to someone who is also alone. Once you've said 'Hi,' you are practically assured of a conversation. He or she will likely be relieved and appreciative of your company."
Next she recommends that whatever words follow be sincere. "Compliments are good openers, but only if you mean them. You can say, 'Nice jacket' or, 'Pretty earrings.' Don't worry if you think you sound trite--what counts is sincerity."
To keep the conversation going, Blackman suggests creating a common bond. "People like others who are like themselves," she says. "Find something to which the other person can relate. If they are keeping time with the music, comment on how great the band is."
Once rapport has been developed, natural conversation can begin to flow. "From there you can say something like, 'I really love the saxophone, don't you?'--and that can lead to finding out if the other person plays a musical instrument, and so on." Such exchanges of "free information," Blackman says, allow people to reveal themselves slowly, thus maintaining a "conversational comfort zone."
Blackman warns against conducting an "interview," which often makes people feel like they are being interrogated. "Avoid asking someone what they do for a living, the kind of car they drive or whether they own or rent their home. These are money questions. It's like saying, 'Tell me, and if I think you're good enough, we'll talk.' That information can come later."
Once conversation is running smoothly, personal questions--"Why have you never married?" "Why did you get a divorce?"--should also be avoided, according to Blackman. "These questions put a damper on the personal magnetism between two people. Whenever you make someone else uncomfortable, you undo those upbeat moments you have shared."
She also discourages revealing too much about oneself at a first meeting. "Avoid talking about the past," she advises.
And she urges people to avoid talking about personal problems. "Don't talk about dilemmas involving your kids or your boss," she says. "Everyone comes with baggage, but don't drop it on someone else's doorstep when you first meet them."
And droning on is a cardinal sin. "Remember, if you find yourself saying, 'Well, to make a long story short,' it's too late."
And the best remedy for a conversation lull? "Smile brightly and say, 'And what shall we talk about now?' Or ask the person to dance."
Ending a conversation can often be awkward. For this, she suggests a straightforward approach. "If you would like to see the person again, tell him or her that you enjoyed chatting and suggest making future plans to get together," she says. "Depending on their response, ask for a business card or phone number. If not, simply thank them for the conversation and move along."