How to Approach Strangers at a Party – Free Ebook

A party at the house of a friend, eleven o’clock,

on a still-warm evening. A metre away from you, a group of people are chatting animatedly.

Someone is telling an anecdote, it might be something about a train ride they took or

the mishaps on someone’s bicycle, and their companions break in occasionally with rich

laughter and stories of their own. The group as a whole seem confident and attractive and

the main narrator especially so. But there
may as well be a high solid brick wall or

a lamprey-filled moat between you and they. There is resolutely no way you could ever

move in to say hello. You smile your characteristic weak, loser’s smile, pretend to study the

bookshelf – and leave the gathering ten
minutes later. Much of the advice is about

what one might say in the circumstances. It could be better to start somewhere else: with

what one should think. Chronic shyness is
a guess about what other people are like.

Though it doesn’t feel like it when it has
flooded us, it reflects a rationally-founded

assessment as to the nature and intentions of other members of our species. It is not

a chemical imbalance or an impulse: it’s
a philosophy – albeit a deeply unhelpful


Its essential assumption is that other people are self-sufficient, that they do not lack

for company, that they are not alone with
anything, that they understand all they need

to know – and that they do not share in
any of our frailties, hesitations, secret

longings or confusions. This echoes, in an
adult form, the assumptions a child might

make of their teacher, a competent stern grown-up who appears never to have been young, silly,

tender or interested in a pillow fight.This
lack of faith in the humanity of others is

a natural tendency of our minds. We go by
the external cues – and few people feel

safe enough to display their vulnerabilities. We therefore come to assume that we are living

among superior, metal-plated cyborgs rather than fragile, water-filled uncertain entities.

We cannot believe that most of what we know of our own minds, especially the self-doubt,

the anxiety and the sadness, must exist in
those of strangers too. We forget that we

also give off few signals as to what we’re
really like. We too are filled with emotions

and interests that we inadvertently end up
hiding, that others might not normally expect

of us – and that could easily lead a stranger to misjudge us and feel intimidated. But we’re

slow to convert this crucial insight into
a social strategy, into a confidence-inducing

knowledge that others must also, as we do, harbour requisite doses of warmth, longing,

curiosity and sorrow – the ingredients from which new friendships are built. A seemingly

happily-married person might have a lot of agony around the course of their relationship;

a pugnacious sportsman might suffer from chronic anxiety and shame; a CEO might have vivid

memories of their struggles and a lot of space in their imagination for people whose careers

have yet to take off. A very intellectual
person might – internally – be longing

for a new friend who could patiently encourage them to dance (or forgive their inept girations).

Our error is to suppose that the way a person seems is the whole of who they are: our anxiety

closes off the core fact that we are all much more approachable than we seem. The key to

self-belief – and to the mindset of being
able to talk to strangers successfully – doesn’t

lie in strenuously insisting on our own merits; its source is a more accurate and less forbidding

mode of imagining the inner lives, and especially the inner troubles, of strangers.

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