How and Why to Make Small Talk

Shy? You’re in good company. Here’s how to cope.

Women chat while drinking Champagne at a party
By + More

It's Saturday night, and you're invited to the ultimate party, one with the rare trifecta of heavenly food, sensual music, and the kind of people you'd like to meet. What do you do?

A. Get there at least an hour after it's started so you can slip in without calling too much attention to yourself.

B. Get there whenever your mood strikes, wear "look-at-me" everything, and drown out the DJ with your own anthem: "The party don't start 'til I walk in."

C. Party? With strangers?!! You're freaked out just thinking about that! First you gotta work on leaving the house.

If you answered A, you're shy, and your game plan's all wrong. If you answered B, you're a celebrity or think you are. Either way, this article isn't for you, but one on narcissism may be. And if you answered C, you have a social phobia. We want to help all of you. But for right now, we're dealing with straight-up shyness; in other words, feeling extremely self-conscious in social situations. (To find out how shy you actually are, take this quiz.)

[See How Your Personality Affects Your Health]

About 45 percent of Americans identify as "traditionally shy," says Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast and author of several books on shyness, including The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk. Those who fit this description feel anxious in certain situations, often among people they find attractive or who have more power or knowledge than them, he says.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with shyness, except if it gets in one's way. And it often does, since shy people are so skilled at being self-critical­—flagellating themselves over what they should have said or done instead of what they got right. As Carducci explains it, feeling shy is like perpetually seeing yourself in the mirror, where we all tend to notice blemishes over beauty.

See 8 Ways to Become an Optimist]

But that negativity also skews one's perception of others. For example, the shy person at a party sees a crowd of people schmoozing and flirting and overlooks the many others who are similarly struggling to connect, Carducci says. "Shy people, unlike introverts, truly want to be social. They want to be at the party. That's why they're there ... They just don't know what to do, and that's the pain of shyness—is wanting something that you can't have."

According to Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, 4 out of 5 people are afraid to chat up strangers. In fact, it's the second-greatest social fear in America, after public speaking, she says. Why the panic? Fine points to a loss of control and the fear of rejection. "Whether you are an attorney, a nurse, mechanic, or teacher, the skills we are trained in, we have confidence in." But take the teacher out of the classroom or the lawyer out of the courtroom, and the rules have changed. "We are not sure what will take place, how it will go, if we will hit it off. That is what makes us nervous," she says.

So what's a shy person to do?

• Accept, and embrace, who you are. "One of the best ways to cope with shyness is to accept this as part of who you are. The less you focus on your shyness, the easier it will be for you to relax around other people and let your inner qualities shine," says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. "The key to high self-esteem in people who are shy is to focus on your positive qualities. It also helps to have people close to you who value you for who you are."

• Don't try so hard. "You don't have to be brilliant. You just have to be nice," Carducci says. When it comes to meeting love prospects, for example, shy people will think "they have to have an opening line that's going to knock you out when, in fact, the opening line you need is not an extremely powerful line." Moreover, continually trying to wow someone is unsustainable, he says. And once you're no longer "on," will that person turn off? Talk about performance anxiety.