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In face-to-face social situations—whether a family get together, a conference, or a holiday party—it’s important that we disentangle ourselves from our devices to tune into the people who surround us and remember that emotions are contagious. If we exude a sense of interest, warmth, and caring, those folks we are spending time with are likely to reciprocate. The opposite is also true: should we enter a room with body language and facial expressions that appear to others as unfriendly, disengaged, or even just neutral, people will most likely feel the same when interacting—or not—with us. How we manage our feelings and the emotions we display to others has a direct impact on how people react and respond emotionally to us. That’s the power of our emotions. So, when coming together to celebrate family, friends, and community, it’s expected that we are mindful and take care of each other’s feelings. When we do, we are more likely to be embraced by members of our community.
Struggling to initiate social engagement
I recently attended an informal social gathering in a colleague’s home. Spirits were high, and folks were chatting, laughing, and eating in small, spontaneous groups. All, that is, except one man who was in the room, but sitting by himself, head down staring at his lap, looking entirely miserable. Over the years my clients have shared with me countless examples of attending social events, and their strategy for seeking social engagement is to stand by the door or the food and focus on their food or what they are holding, hoping someone will come talk to them. Based on this information, I thought this man wanted to be at that party, even though he didn’t appear friendly. There were any number of places he could have scooted off to escape the crowd had he wanted to be by himself. But no, as sad, lonely, and disengaged as he appeared, he was most likely sitting there because he was hoping someone would come talk with him. And I’m fairly certain he had no idea how unapproachable he appeared to others in the room.
I immediately felt uncomfortable sensing his isolation in a sea of engaged and friendly people, so I made my way over to where he was sitting, sat next to him, introduced myself, and asked what brought him to the party. The transformation was remarkable! Once I showed interest in him and initiated the conversation, it was as if a switch had been flipped. His whole body relaxed, and he provided nice answers to my questions, even though he wasn’t able to ask me questions in return. He also became a lively, funny, and attentive conversation partner as I added my comments and he then shared his further insights. He now appeared delighted to be there and looked, for all intents and purposes, socially competent. He obviously wanted to participate in the party because he was there in the room; he just didn’t know how to get over the hump. All he needed was that helping hand to cross the initiation divide—something that looks so easy yet is not as easy as it looks. His social anxiety and the power of his self-defeater voice will only increase over time in the spiral of failure if every time he attends a social gathering, no one makes the effort to include him. The reality is that each one of us feels anxiety about approaching a person who looks less than friendly. We humans are socially a bit risk adverse. Yet, as adults, when we take the risk, it often broadens our community and provides each of us with a connection—the big reward we all seek.
With the increase in use of portable devices, many of us are finding it’s easier to stare at our phones when out on our own than to greet those around us, engage in small talk, etc. When I am presenting at conferences, I often ask my audiences, “Why do many us of talk to people while we wait in lines or ask people questions about products in grocery stores?” They answer, “It helps us feel part of the community we are in at that time,” and by doing so, “helps us to feel included and connected.” It is in the DNA of humans to connect with others, whether one has the social learning ability or not, whether one is experiencing social anxiety or not, whether one feels less competent due to infrequent practice relating to others in face-to-face communication or not. Each of us lives in a face-to-face community that we will feel the best about when we feel included within it.
How can we each help others to feel included, while also helping ourselves constantly expand our own connections within our community? We can start by understanding that not everyone has the same ability to enter a group or manage anxiety. What seems so simple to many—such as turning and looking toward a person and saying, “Hi!” or asking someone “How’s your day going?”—feels so incredibly confusing and complicated to others. There is little risk in trying to be friendly toward those around you, even those who don’t appear friendly. There are large risks, however, when few of us reach out to build community; if we don’t work to create community then our community disintegrates. Acknowledging another person and having a quick chat costs us nothing yet makes an enormous difference for those who need it most.
Members of our community with whom I work include many teens and adults with subtle but significant social learning challenges. The nature of their learning disability makes it difficult for them to attune to the emotions of others and realize that others are attuning to theirs. It may never have occurred to them that others in the room find them unapproachable because of their facial expressions. Some of my clients are not even sure what “friendly” looks like on their own faces. Many have compelling social anxiety; when they most want to be with others, their social anxiety makes them appear the most withdrawn, the most unfriendly. Yet, what they would love is for someone to approach them with a smile, to ask how they are doing, to include them in a conversation.
Help build a stronger, more nurturing community
If you are born with a brain that makes it relatively easy to pop on a friendly face and adjust your emotions to encourage others to engage with you, remember that not everyone has this talent. Rather than shy away from the people in your community whom you perceive to be unfriendly or “different” or disengaged in face-to-face relationships due to possible social anxiety or being portable device-dependent communicators—lean in, make that small gesture. If at a social gathering, ask them what brings them to the event. Encourage them to talk about themselves while you also share information about yourself. They may not have the social competencies to ask you about you, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in making a social connection.
The next time you are out and about in your community—in a park, a coffee shop, a store, a church or temple, for example—notice that most people appear to be relating to others. Many of my clients have shared with me that they are rarely lonely when home by themselves; instead they feel the loneliest when surrounded by people who don’t appear to be lonely at all. Just a welcoming smile, a wave, or a gesture of friendliness is a validation of someone’s life. That’s all it takes to help others feel positive, welcome, and included; to ease their social anxiety, and your feelings of awkwardness! Caring for those in our community we know and those we don’t know is what a community is all about. Pay it forward!