On Meeting People

My comfort zone is a lot like a wool jumper–cozy, hard to get out of, and liable to shrink without warning. So last week I stretched it a bit.

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Last week, I stayed with family friends who live the kind of farming lifestyle that involves butchering pigs in the spring.

Pig butchering, believe it or not, is actually inside my comfort zone, nestled between cooking from scratch and hunting rabbits with a BB gun. What’s not in my comfort zone is meeting new people. And pig butchering involved a lot of people. Four families, to be precise: some twenty-ish children. About thirty voices. Around a hundred and twenty arms and legs.

Now, I like people. I can handle two at a time for a couple of hours, with a few days of solitude before my next exposure to humanity.

…okay, slight exaggeration, but I do have reclusive tendencies, and meeting new people is on my list of most terrifying experiences ever.

So last week, I stretched my wool comfort zone, put on a smile, and met new people. For those of you who are, like me, introverted or prone to social anxiety, here are some ideas for your next comfort-zone-stretching situation.

Smile. My mother always told me to smile when I was a kid, and apparently mothers know everything, because it works. You smile, and your brain shoots off chemicals that say, “Hey, it’s cool, I’m happy.” Plus you look nice, not creepy, so people like you better. Win-win situation!

Ask questions. People like answering questions. If you’re doing something (like pig butchering) that you aren’t familiar with, ask how to do things or why things get done certain ways. People in general like sharing information and tips. Let’s be honest–we all like feeling like the expert for a few minutes, and everyone wants to feel needed.

Keep small-talk small. The weather happens to everyone, so it’s a nice starting point if you need one, but we all see it out the windows, or else we all walked through it to get here. We know what the weather is. Move on. Don’t immediately dive into divulging dark secrets, and don’t start asking for creepy amounts of information, but talk human to human. Ask people where they’re from or why they’re butchering a pig in the first place. Compliment them on their adorable children–people love talking about their children.

Jump in. People like you better if you don’t just sit on the sidelines. So there are ten small children with knives already taking care of all the meat. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a job. Probably something needs to be washed, or someone could use another hand in some aspect of the job. Maybe you can find your own niche–I earned the official parsley-chopper designation, which was kind of cool. (And, if you’re not into social-ness, like me, having a specific niche gives you a safe place. You can make friends from behind the cutting board, with your chef’s knife tight in one hand for protection.)

Use names. People like you if you use their names. Introduce yourself, try to remember people’s names, and then be willing to use direct address. For some reason, I find it hard to use people’s names until I know them well. No idea why; maybe names just feel more intimate than I’m comfortable with–but if I can recognise that discomfort and then put it aside and use people’s names, everything goes smoother.

Fake confidence. I know, I know, genuineness is important. But in uncomfortable situations, people will mirror your discomfort. If you act confident, pretend you’re comfortable even when you’re not, people will react with confidence and comfort, and everyone will slowly help everyone else feel more comfortable. Trust me; it works. Stop crossing your arms, straighten your shoulders, look people in the eye, and smile. Turns out those strangers in the room are mostly just normal, nice humans who also feel a little uncomfortable and who want to make a good impression just as much as you do.

So actually, once I got past myself and started being friendly, I discovered all those other humans were pretty great. I got to hold one of the world’s top ten cutest babies (it’s not official, but I’m pretty sure she’s in the top ten). They shared humour and good food, welcomed me into their homes, and hugged me when I left. And my “wash cold to avoid shrinking” comfort zone managed to stretch far enough to include four families: some twenty-ish children, about thirty voices, around a hundred and twenty arms and legs…and more smiles than I could count.

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About Elizabeth Syson

While consuming tea and coffee at an alarming rate, I read and write everything I can and pursue my unnatural love of copyediting. My hobbies include learning new instruments and languages, riding horseback, sketching very badly indeed, and periodically recommitting to doing yoga regularly. View all posts by Elizabeth Syson

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