But I Don’t Know How to Talk to People

My buddy Rock was facing a common young man’s dilemma: what do I say to a girl? Our school lunch group, all of us 15 or 16-years-old, had little experience in that department. Fewer than half had been on a date. I will let Rock and our friend Harmon provide an example that applies even to adult variety women and men with Social Anxiety Disorder.

Keep this in mind if you share the same worry: you might be better at talking to people than you think.

Rock’s problem was set up by asking out a comely classmate. She said yes, not the outcome he prepared for. A little bit like the dog who chases the speeding fire truck and somehow overtakes the juggernaut. Now what?

The date was scheduled for Saturday night, so Rich (his real name) had time to create a plan. Harmon, playing the role of our comparative dating veteran, was consulted. He listened as Rock asked for help with the talking business:

First, you need to think of girls as – like – real people. Like one of the guys. You talk to friends with no problem. Talk about the same stuff with your date: school, teachers, movies, tv, music. Try this: make a list of topics to bring up. Then, if the conversation gets slow, consult the list. You’ll do fine.

Note the confidence and authority. Those of us who overheard the lecture were impressed. This was better stuff than we were getting from our teachers.

Encouraged by Harmon’s advice and pep talk, Rich proceeded to work on his agenda. “I can do this,” he said to himself. By the weekend, a formidable and fairly lengthy itemization of topics existed. He even memorized it.

Saturday evening arrived.

Rock took the Lincoln Avenue bus to the stop closest to the girl’s home. From there he walked two blocks to the address. Deep breath. Front door. Several repetitions of the agenda had been carefully rehearsed. The document was as clear in his mind as the chiseled version of the Ten Commandments was to Moses. Rules to follow to the letter.

The door bell was duly rung. A brief conversation with the mom ensued, then off with his date for the short walk back to the bus. Movieland and the wonders of time spent with a pretty girl beckoned. Houston, we have lift off!

Meanwhile, in various homes in West Rogers Park, Chicago, friends of Rich were all wondering some version of the same thought: what might be happening now? We hoped, after all, to get tips from our chum come Monday’s lunch. Perhaps enlightenment awaited us. A strange new world beckoned. As they say on Star Trek, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Rich arrived at our noontime meal looking like the person we’d last seen on Friday. No remarkable transformation. No bigger muscles, no greater height, no glow. He sounded the same, too. Finally, the question:

What happened?

(Pregnant pause, no pun intended. A sober look came over Rock’s face).

Well, by the time I’d walked the two blocks from her house back to the bus stop, I’d gone through the entire list.

Imagine now the collective sigh of a group of 10 young men: the air making a half hearted escape from a large balloon. Rock continued:

Yeah, I’d keep asking her questions and then … nothing. Silence. And I’d made especially sure that I didn’t smell bad. She did say she liked the movie. Oh, wait, she asked me one question:

Do you like Sugar Shack?

What’s Sugar Shack, I answered?

She tells me its a new song. That was it.

Some men are called to greatness, others have it dumped on them. Or not.

What is the point here? Rock did everything right. He made fine conversation, showed interest in his companion, and still … nothing worked. Moreover, before long he realized the date disaster wasn’t the fault of poor social skills.

Take the lesson to heart, my friends. If you’d like to learn more concerning the ease of drawing the wrong conclusions about your social skills; and about the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), read this:

I’m Not Very Good at Making Conversation/

Remember: sometimes it’s your fault, but not always. Maybe even less often than you think.

The top photo below is called Young Love at the Malt Shop by Kevin Simpson, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Next comes a Cover Illustration created by Livia De Simone for Dream Hunters, published by Astro Edizioni. It was sourced courtesy of Bubysan and Wikimedia Commons.

The Danger of Objectification and the Surprising Pleasure of Talking to Strangers

We live in a country where most of us decry the objectification of females — a vision of them as body parts. Playthings, not people. Yet, I suspect some of us are also guilty — to a limited degree — of a different variety of objectification. Less damaging, but still injurious. Moreover, in the act of divesting another of her humanity we lose one of the joys of routine human contact.

We go into a store and pass before a checker on the way out. The person scans your purchases, gives you a total, bags the products, and takes payment. How often do we enjoy a verbal exchange that goes beyond a greeting, a question related to price, and the ubiquitous “Paper or plastic?” and “Have a nice day”? This man or woman has become a series of tasks to be done with speed and without error, defined by our attitude as something like a robot. We are facing another human we can’t escape fast enough, who has the knowledge of our desire for a quick-get-away, and who experiences hundreds of such mini-rejections every workday. We have added one more.

I asked a liquor store associate named Christian how frequently people address him by the name on his name tag. “Oh, I guess about one in 10.” Granted, not a scientific survey, but I can’t imagine the percentage reaching anywhere near 50% in a metropolis.

And so, we dehumanize a person by ignoring his name: making him anonymous and thing-like or simply invisible. Moreover, we rob ourselves of a pleasant way to pass the time — a chance to watch some of those sales associates brighten because we have recognized them as something other than a machine.

In a large grocery I was in the line of a 30ish woman whose ID said Beata. It is pronounced Bee-ott-uh. The name derives from the Latin, beatus, meaning “blessed.” She looked anything but. Her face seemed vacuumed clean of any emotion and life-force. Not unpleasant, but beaten down. I said, “Hello, Beata.”

“Oh my God, you pronounced my name right! You can’t believe how many people get it wrong. Most don’t call me anything at all.”

“I just got lucky,” I answered. “By the way, you have a lovely name.”

“Thank you,” she replied, with a big smile. For those few words and few seconds we both felt a little better.


During my teens I worked briefly in a small market, so I know a bit about the dehumanization of being a faceless drone, not to mention the mind-deadening repetition of taking care of one customer after another. Back in yesteryear name tags weren’t commonly used. Now they are. Why, then, do we ignore them?

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues may offer us a clue. They evaluated how the image of the “other” impacts us. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos while their brain activity was recorded. She and Lasana Harris predicted the experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced the brain activation characteristic of viewing furniture, not people. Perhaps some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. Though the folks processing our purchases are not (usually) homeless, I wonder whether keeping a distance is now habitual.

Do we lose our humanity in the process? Do we also deprive ourselves, as social creatures, of one of life’s simple pleasures?

This was not always so. As a boy in the ’50s, the days before shopping malls, you walked to the local grocery and recognized the same employees and neighbors. You had no phone in your hands, increasing the chance of noticing a familiar face. Smiles, brief conversations, and names were more common then, or at least I’d like to think so. Have we become similar to Robinson Crusoe before Friday turned up, despite the risk-free opportunities for innocent contact? Have we created a class of women and men within reach of our touch, without being in-touch; whom we face, but treat as faceless? Or, we do take a look and see another human — only to become uncomfortable without our electronic intermediary, be it the iPad or iPhone, the real thing we place between ourselves and the other?

I suppose I should blame air-conditioning too, the 20th-century wonder that still keeps us cool, but at the loss of evenings sitting on the front stoop talking with the person next door or sleeping in public parks. Both practices were common before A/C contributed to our seclusion. I repeat, we are creatures who need the society of others to fulfill ourselves, create a community — indeed, to create a nation. We need eye contact and conversation to be reminded there is a fragile creature before or beside us, one with the same desire for love, respect, and encouragement; a fellow-mortal on life’s complicated path; like the grass, a living entity in need of sunshine.

Shylock says in the The Merchant of Venice:

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Ah, but I hear you saying you won’t enjoy speaking even briefly with a stranger; that you’d be happier if you didn’t. Research suggests otherwise. We are often poor “affective forecasters:” making wrong predictions about our future emotions. The research link is specific to the question of whether you’d be happier talking to strangers — even if you are an introvert.

I’ll admit, however, that for people with social anxiety a word to the checker or some one next to you in line can be difficult. But since the world is too often perceived as a zero-sum contest — one winner and one loser — here is a game where all are winners: the one who smiles and the other who smiles back.

Therapy needn’t only be about an epiphany, a once-in-a-lightning-bolt moment after years of treatment. Happiness doesn’t always require the purchase of a counselor’s time.

There is worse we can do than “drop” names as a way of boasting about our prominent friends: it is to drop names from our vocabulary. Don’t drop names, say them.

Sprinkle them, like magic fairy dust, wherever you can.

The No Name Road street sign can be found in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The photo is the work of NatalieMaynor and is sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

Fooling Yourself Into Failing Yourself: The Trap of Anxiety and Avoidance

File:Fear of a blank planet.jpg

“But I just don’t like to do that.”

That is what she told me — the young woman who said she didn’t want to go to a restaurant alone. “Why should I do that? I’d much rather eat with someone and be able to talk at dinner. Eating alone wouldn’t be any fun.”

True. Most of us would prefer a dinner companion. It probably would be more enjoyable to dine with a friend. But there is an important distinction here. It is between being able to do something that you might prefer not to do, and being unable to do the thing because it is uncomfortable for you; maybe even frightening. And, it is between deluding yourself into thinking that the activity might be boring or stupid when the truth is that you are afraid to do it.

Deluding and denying. We do it all the time. “I don’t like to do that. Why would I want to do that? Why do I have to do that?” And so we persuade ourselves that we can live without certain experiences, side-stepping the things we don’t know about or haven’t done — the small and large challenges of life.

But what are we really doing here?


For the young woman in question, her repeated need to be accompanied to places — her fear to act alone — caused her to be dependent upon people, especially boyfriends. As a result, she found it difficult to be without a male companion for very long and, when she did find one, discovered that she wanted (and needed) to be with her lover more than he wanted and needed to be with her. Thus, her insecurity about being alone and her avoidance of doing things alone made her dependent upon others.

Eventually, the “clinging” drove her boyfriends away. Then she really was alone. Finding herself abandoned and rejected, she turned her reliance on family or friends; if she had those friends, that is, because she had spent so much time with her boyfriends that she’d neglected making platonic friends, along with the work required to keep them.

Some people who are avoidant don’t realize how anxious they are — how much fear dominates their lives. After all, if you turn down invitations to parties because of underlying social anxiety, you manage to avoid getting nervous as you think about the party, dress for the party, drive to the party, walk in the door, and then try to fit in.

The fact that you don’t feel anxious doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have anxiety problems. In fact, sometimes a better way to determine whether you have a life-compromising form of anxiety is to make a list of the things you will not do unless forced to at gun point.

  • Things like giving a public speech, raising your hand in class, traveling to the downtown area of a big city, driving on the expressway, making a phone call, going to a party where you know few people, and eating at a fancy restaurant or any place where you are not familiar with the cuisine.
  • Things like going to a movie, play, lecture, or concert alone; flying, sending a poorly prepared dish back to a restaurant’s kitchen, saying “no,” returning an item at the store, etc.
  • Things like trying some new activity on your own or voicing a strong opinion that just might be criticized by someone else; and not looking for a new job for fear of the interviewing process.

Please notice that I’m not talking about some of the very commonly experienced fears such as spiders, high places, and confined places: the phobias we call arachnophobia, acrophobia, or claustrophobia and the like. Rather, my focus is on the anxieties that make for daily difficulties — that make a life so narrow that it begins to look a little bit like this:


To the avoidant, anxious person, the narrowly confined life seems safer. It is fraught with fewer frustrations and failures. It demands less. It feels less foreboding.

If you are heavily invested in social media, you can even persuade yourself that your electronic social life of texting, instant messages, blogging, tweeting, role-playing games, and hundreds of Facebook friends is better than the real thing. And what might the real thing be? Dedicated time unmediated and uninterrupted by technology spent with a person who is right in front of you and within the reach of an outstretched hand.

Can you approach social situations without a preliminary drink or joint? Are you certain that the alcohol or marijuana you use to unwind is recreational rather than an effort to self-medicate your anxiety? Yes, we are pretty good at talking ourselves into just about anything rather than seeing ourselves as we really are.

But if we are avoidant, there is a price:

  • The same things done over and over and that can be done only in the same places and in the same way; and sometimes only in the realm of electronically achieved distance and safety.
  • The need to rely on others who provide an emotional security blanket, or substance use upon which one is also reliant.
  • The self-doubt and the worry that accompanies thoughts of leaving our “comfort zone.”
  • Too much time spent looking at a television or a Smart Phone or a computer screen.

Avoidance offers no growth and no “life,” only the illusion of safety and the temporary relief that we all know from our school days when the teacher was sick and the test was postponed. I suppose that you can try to postpone the “tests” that life offers until the end of your days. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. I’m talking about a life of challenges unmet, mastery unachieved — the narrow life that Thoreau described when he said:

The  mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

And, in a companion quote often misattributed to Thoreau:

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.

But he also wrote:

Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf

Than that I may not disappoint myself,

That in my action I may soar as high

As I can now discern with this clear eye.

We live in “The Age of Anxiety” according to W.H. Auden. In any life there is a first time — a clumsy, unsure time — for everyone and every thing. We fear the judgment of others, the embarrassment, and the mortification of taking a chance and stumbling in public. We compare how we feel inside to the apparent (but not always real) serenity, calm, and self-confidence of others as we look at them from the outside. We condemn ourselves for lost time and opportunity, say to ourselves that we are “too late” or “too old” to take on a new challenge, and thereby guarantee that even more time will be lost; perhaps all the time we will ever have.

We tell ourselves that we can’t try a thing until we first feel better, calmer, and more confident; not realizing that “trying” is just what we need to do in order to feel better about the thing; failing to grasp that anxiety is not the biggest part of the problem, but that a failure to act in spite of the anxiety is.

If you are anxious enough or avoidant enough you might well avoid counseling, too. That is a shame, because there are very good treatments available in the realm of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). For a discussion of therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder, for example, you can look at this: Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment.

Only if you fully realize that your avoidant coping strategies are costing you something of value will you call a therapist. Are you afraid to call? Is it less distressing to email? Did I hear you say, “Maybe tomorrow?” You may not detect the sound, but the clock is ticking.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”



The top image is described as Fear of a blank planet, cover by Lasse Hoile Porcupine Tree Band 2005: http://www.porcupinetree.com/ “OTRS Ticket 2006082110002647.” The Illustration of a Shocked or Frightened Woman has been altered by AdamBMorgan from the original that appeared in Wierd Tales (September 1941, Volume 36, Number 1). The next image is One of the narrow streets in the old part of Toledo, Spain by Allessio Damato. Finally, An old style alarm clock captured by Jorge Barrios. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment


Social anxiety isn’t unusual. Since you are reading this, you might well be wondering whether your own experience of anxiety (or that of someone you love) constitutes a Social Anxiety Disorder.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), such a condition exists when someone experiences a “marked and persistent fear of one or more social and performances situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others. The person fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.”

The essence of this condition is a preoccupation with what others might think of you.

Now, we all are concerned with this some of the time.

Think of hoping to get a job promotion or wanting to impress a potential romantic partner. But consider the language of the diagnostic manual carefully, especially the words “marked and persistent fear.” One hallmark of this disorder is avoidance. When the anxiety is so great that you do your best to get out of doing something (e.g. asking someone on a date, giving a speech, attending a party, returning an item to the store, etc.) then you very well may have a clinically significant condition that can benefit from treatment. In effect, you are trying to avoid both the uncomfortable situation and the feelings that you believe will come with it.

In addition to avoidance, the individual will commonly be aware that his fear is greater than that which would be experienced by most people in a similar set of circumstances, and that the condition is very distressing and/or interferes with his life in significant ways. In fact, one of the ways that Social Anxiety Disorder complicates one’s life is by making it difficult to do the things and have the relationships that would make that life interesting, enjoyable, and fulfilling.

Is it hard to take a compliment, be the center of attention, or talk to a stranger? Do you worry what others will think of how you look and sound? Is it hard to be spontaneous in a conversation and are you too distracted by your own worries to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying? Do you get tongue-tied when trying to make an impression or have the sense that your voice is quivering or that you are perspiring too much?

Do you hesitate to state a strong opinion for fear of sounding stupid or being rejected for your ideas? Do you try to prevent others from getting to know you very well because you believe they will eventually conclude that you are inadequate and reject you? These kinds of preoccupations are typical of Social Anxiety Disorder.

The good news is that with persistence, an accomplished therapist, and the right program of treatment, you have an excellent chance of significant improvement. On the order of 80% of those who receive a systematic cognitive-behavioral (CBT) program will likely experience such change.

A good CBT counselor first makes sure that social anxiety is your major problem. For example, its not unusual for people with a Social Anxiety Disorder to have had one or more panic attacks. If those episodes occur outside of social or performance situations and lead the person to focus on their physical health, they likely indicate that a Panic Disorder is present and that the panic itself should be the focus of treatment.

However, about 50% of people who have clinically significant social anxiety also have had panic attacks. Therefore, if your preoccupation is more about how you look to others and what they think of you than it is about the symptoms of panic, treatment is likely to target your social issues.

CBT assumes that bodily sensations (such as shakiness, blushing, or a lump in your throat), behavior (such as having difficulty making eye contact or avoidance), and thoughts (such as the belief that others will reject you or that you will lose your job) all interact to fuel your social anxiety problems.

Thus, for example, the more your thoughts focus on the belief that you need to be perfect or the likelihood that you will fail, the more you are likely to experience physical manifestations of your anxiety and behave in a way that betrays your insecurity. As a result, CBT attempts to help you change physical symptoms, behavior, and cognitions.

A good cognitive behavior therapy program for social anxiety will help you learn to counter irrational thoughts that tend to be self defeating (this is called cognitive restructuring), and gradually practice with the therapist (this is called role playing) those situations that are difficult for you, beginning only with those that produce a relatively small amount of anxiety, and then try out your new skills in the real world, again beginning with relatively easy kinds of social interactions and working toward the ones that are harder for you.

And, you will discover that if you can tolerate small amounts of anxiety rather than flee them, you will “habituate” to the anxiety in much they way that your nose adapts to a foul odor by adjusting so that after a short amount of time the smell is not nearly so strong; similarly, your anxiety will weaken if you stay in the uncomfortable situation, usually within 45 minutes.

Treatment typically takes somewhere in the neighborhood of three to four months, although it can take longer if other issues also need attention. When it is successful, the patient usually finds himself less troubled by physical symptoms, more assertive, less preoccupied with other people’s opinions, more optimistic, less awkward, able to receive compliments without discomfort, able to look people in the eyes, and less avoidant.

It can feel enormously freeing and lead to much better things in life, including more and better friendships, greater vocational success, and a more satisfying romantic life.

Persistence is essential and the program takes some courage. But if you want to change your life and be less encumbered by social anxiety, CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder has much to offer.

The image above is described as Template: VER model created by Braintest. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.