The illusion of social confidence
Whenever I own up to feelings of social anxiety (for example about networking or cocktail parties), I can see that people don’t really believe me. On the surface, they probably see a facade of confidence, or hear some Irish humour, from which they conclude I’m somehow in my natural habitat in these environments.
So, apart from some close friends, over the years I’ve learned to keep quiet about this form of anxiety. Partly to avoid misunderstanding, and perhaps above all to avoid even a hint of that “staged vulnerability” that seems to be the curse of our age. You know, the sort of cringeworthy self-disclosure (or display of staged emotion) that’s done with one eye shedding tears while the other carefully watches the audience for their reaction.
Yuck. Let’s move on. Whether you believe me or not, I’m not one of life’s natural networkers. Yes, I can play that game, but it takes energy to get started. Often, I’d much rather spend the evening with a good book or inspiring music. Or writing or going for a run by the sea. Sure, I’ve learned to go out and socialise – even to teach it. And I’ve learned to do so with relish and enjoyment – for good reasons. More on that in a moment. But to this very day, my default preference is to listen to music or have a quiet
dinner with a good friend. I need to muster the energy to go out… and I need some recovery time when I get home.
Creating value, one conversation at a time
So why? What’s a big enough reason to overcome that natural tendency to settle down with a good book? In one sentence, because it’s worth it. I don’t just mean it’s worth it in terms of opportunity, but because I also get to practice my own self-worth in the process. Whatever my misgivings, I have become a passionate advocate of talking to strangers. Not just for the discovery of opportunity, but for what I discover about myself.
I first learned this while hitchhiking around Ireland as a teenager. Yes, there were parts of Ireland in which I probably shouldn’t have been hitchhiking back then… but I did anyway. Perhaps my curiosity was greater than my apprehension or social awkwardness. I hope it still is.
As a teenager, I was rather shy. Much as I longed to be in the centre of a group, I was more often in the periphery, looking enviously in. While I would be more than happy to tell you that social shyness is a thing of the past, it isn’t, and I don’t believe it’s going to be. Nor is my impatience with certain types of conversation, like those that happen when a wannabe coach steps up and gives me “the lecture” on limiting beliefs, like the one I just described. Furthermore, I have a total horror of being trapped beside The Bore, who drones on through dinner oblivious to my keen search for the fire exits. Not surprisingly, my networking courses always contain a section called “Making your Escape!”
No, I’m not a natural networker. I can be impatient with story-tellers, bored with talkers, less than gracious with the garrulous and awkward with my timing. But even with all of those imperfections, talking to strangers is still worthwhile. As a teenage hitchhiker, getting into cars with total strangers, I had no role to play. I could just be myself… whoever that was. This turned out to be rather easy: all I had to do was ask a few questions and hence gauge the mood of the driver. Many wanted to talk which is why they were willing to stop their cars. Some were busy with their own thoughts. I don’t remember much of what we talked about all those years ago, but I did learn to socialise on these journeys, and somehow to feel better about myself.
In later life, conversations took a different turn. The chat in a jacuzzi, the conversation on the Eurostar, the business card exchanged in a car-park, a helping hand with luggage on an aircraft… the stories of opportunity are all there. But perhaps the most frequent benefits of all were the moments that were soul-food: moments of kindness, the genuine interest of a stranger, or the difficulties shared. The guy with tears in his eyes flying home to his father’s funeral. The pride of an immigrant mother travelling to
her son’s graduation. The fun-loving American lady, whose mother was an Auswitz survivor.
When we talk to strangers, we don’t just open doors to opportunity, but also to human connection and learning. Networking is so much more than self-promotion, or a hungry search for self-esteem. It is Self-Worth expressed as interest in others, with a genuine wish to contribute to society. It’s an opportunity to create value, one conversation at a time.
My friend Andrea Rees quotes me as saying “Never turn down an invitation”. I don’t remember saying it: I was probably talking to myself. But now, it’s time to walk that talk, to stop my writing and leave my comfort zone. What time do I need to be there?
To join John’s webinar on 21st Century Networking – a Self-Worth approach to meaningful networking go here to sign up!
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