Article: Tips for the socially awkward & shy at university

Originally written for The National Student here: http://www.thenationalstudent.com/Student_Health/2013-07-16/How_to_survive_at_university_if_youre_shy_or_socially_awkward.html

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University is a very different place for those of us who are shy or suffer from social anxiety. The idea of entering a new world where you are forced to confront one of or perhaps your biggest fear is terrifying. People often forget about the reticent student and they can often slip between the cracks.

Having experienced this myself I always wished someone would have given me some ideas about how to cope with the change and what I should have done to make it more bearable, especially at the beginning of my first year. It took me a whole year to feel comfortable at university so I have compiled a list of things that I found to be the most effective ways of creating friendships and maintaining them that will be helpful to those who find socialising a bit more difficult than most.

Magical elixir
Perhaps the most obvious suggestion of them all is the (mostly) wonderful invention of alcohol. It lowers your inhibitions so you’re more likely to feel relaxed and able to talk to people. The only problem with alcohol is it is easy to overdo or become reliant on in social situations so it’s best to limit it as a social lubricant to fresher’s week and nights out. It is also awkward if people get to know the outrageous drunk version of you and are confused as to why you aren’t talking to them when the last time you saw them you agreed to be their BFFL and buy a flat together in Paris.

“Laughing yoga? SOUNDS GREAT!”
I often found myself being asked along to activities in fresher’s week that I rejected due to lack of interest, but soon I realised that those who did go were bonding so I began to feel more left out than ever. Thus you must take a leaf out of Danny Wallace’s book and become a yes man, accepting invitations to things you may feel no passion towards yet allow you to build ties with other people. Even if it turns out to be a disaster at least you can laugh at how disastrous it was and vow never to do it again. Even going to the gym together with someone will strengthen your existing friendship and give you a point of common interest that you can always fall back on if conversation dries up.

“I’m vaguely familiar with the fact that ski slopes exist in Vermont…”
Find some common ground and milk it for all it’s worth. This is vital in getting to know new people and there’s always going to be some, be it watching “come dine with me” or a passion for collecting 18th century eggs. If you find something that people are passionate about do some research so you don’t come across as completely clueless in conversation and if you do it will make you seem thoughtful which,  it turns out, people really like in a person.

Soc it to me!
There is bound to be at least one society you are interested in and no matter how hard it is you have to force yourself to go to at least one meet-up of your chosen society. Even if you are nervous there will always be other new people who are probably just as nervous so you can always bond about being new and fall back on standard where are you from, what are you studying conversation. There is usually the opportunity for a pub trip in a society so if you’re really struggling you can always fall back on a bit of Dutch courage to get to know the people.

Spread your wings, man.
Going to places alone is scary, and I often find it helpful to have a wingman for new situations. It is nearly impossible not to get to know some of your housemates so ask them to go to societies with you if you are nervous and perhaps start something you both are interested in together to make it less daunting. The only problem with this is that it makes it less likely that you will branch out beyond your friend as it is easier to just talk to them, so if it involves group work perhaps try to alternate who you work with or involve those who are alone, especially when you know yourself how hard it is to talk to new people.

The good type of “third degree”
Questions galore! People love talking about themselves and if you aren’t a great speaker, being a great listener is just as valuable. Ask people questions about themselves, what their dreams and aspirations are, have they got any pets, have they got any brothers or sisters and so on. This will help you find common interests and keep the conversations flowing, but don’t over-do it as you may begin to sound like you’re interrogating them and go from interested well-wisher to overly eager beaver and this can give off the wrong vibe, especially if you’re talking to someone of the opposite (or same, respectively) sex.

“Chris, I’m going to phone a friend… and make them come here. Now.”
One of the best things I did to help me combat shyness was inviting a friend from home to visit me. It filled me with confidence as I started university knowing no one else and it felt great to be completely relaxed around somebody for the first time in months. If you go to university with someone you know then I urge you to take advantage of that, even if you aren’t particularly close with them.  People will notice how happy and at ease you are with your home friend and it will definitely improve your self-esteem and ability to socialise.

What’s up, doc?
If things are unbearable, there is absolutely no shame in going to the doctors for help. I went and they reassured me I wasn’t alone in my social shortcomings. There are loads of different solutions out there accessible via the doctors, be it medicine, cognitive therapy or even a bit of counselling to help talk things through or try to get to the root of the problem. The help available can be invaluable and is by and large free, so there is no reason to suffer alone. If things get too much going to the doctors will help you in the long run and make university a much more enjoyable experience overall.

I hope this guide will help my fellow introvert and don’t forget that there are people just as shy and socially awkward as you out there. Case in point, a girl once told me she liked my top, to which I replied “which one?” and she looked at me blankly and I replied “Oh obviously this one I’M NOT WEARING EIGHT!!!!!!!!” This was followed by an awkward silence and we never spoke again. There’s always going to be cringe worthy conversations you regret (it comes with the territory) but alas, life goes on and just think, next time you’ll know exactly what not to say.

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