In the first week at my new high school I dumped an entire bowl of chili on my lap. For a shy kid who didn’t know anyone, this was devastatingly embarrassing. After the chili incident, I resolved to never ever under any circumstances enter the cafeteria again. Through the rest of high school I ate lunch hiding in bathroom stalls, behind bookshelves in the library, or just ditched altogether.
I’m still a naturally shy and introverted person. If you meet me these days it might not seem like it, but I really am. Thankfully it’s possible to learn and even become good at meeting and talking to people.
Serving overseas generally requires lots of social interaction (read this post on how to survive all that). Now that we’re on furlough, I feel as though we’ve had to crank it up another notch. There are just so many people to meet and talk with. So, how do we do it?
Weird is good, too
When it comes down to it, I think the root of my shyness is insecurity. I worried about what someone else would think of me to the point it was easiest to just hide. I’m weird. I’m awkward. I’m not funny. I’m not interesting. I’m not pretty. All of these reasons kept me locked in fear, but the truth is it’s totally fine to be weird, awkward, laugh at stupid jokes, have my own interests, and have the body I have.
I still have a tendency to fall back into that kind of thinking, but generally can replace those “I’m not” insecurities with “I’m not” truths: I’m not mean. I’m not a gossip. I’m not rude. I’m not a liar. I’m not selfish. I’m a good friend!
You don’t have to click with everyone and that’s ok. Weird is good too, but it’s still important to identify and deal with the root emotions behind why you struggle to talk to people.
Bring an awesome friend
You’re booked to speak at a church or small group and dread the after presentation conversation. Bring an awesome friend! Ask someone who is naturally gifted at conversation to go with you and make a game plan with them ahead of time. At one time, I even had a code word to signal for help.
You can also copy what your friend says. Listen for their conversation openers and how they carry or shift the conversation along. A few key sentences and your confidence will increase by leaps and bounds. For me, copying the line, “Do you have an interest in (whatever type of mission you do)?” forever banished the awkwardness of manning a conference table and not knowing what to say to people who came up to look at our brochures.
Bringing along a friend who can help you initiate, carry, and bring conversations to a natural close is not only a huge confidence booster, but loads of practical help.
Arm yourself with information
Find out as much as you can about the people who will be there. If it’s a small group, see if you can get names and a general run down of what people do/are like. Church photo directories are a great help too. It’s not that you want to freak people out by knowing lots of details about their lives, you’re just trying to get a feel for who it is you’re mixing with. Saying, “I heard you have a new grandbaby. Congratulations!” is much easier than flailing about trying to find a talking point.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as, “This is Anisha. She’s a missionary.” Unless the other person also serves overseas, for most people this type of introduction is the inevitable destroyer of genuine connection. So to salvage the conversation, I’ll reach out for a hand shake and offer a quick reintroduction, “Yeah, we’re in Indonesia now, but used to live around the corner from here and are back visiting for a few months. What’s your connection to this town?” Now we have somewhere to go.
I can follow-up with even more questions to broaden the conversation:
If they are from somewhere else: “What brought you to this town?”
If they’ve lived here all their life: “How lovely! I’ve moved so much that having a solid sense of home is something I’ve always wished I had. But maybe you feel the opposite? Ever wished you could live somewhere else?”
We can branch out further and talk about about Indonesia, or places we’ve been or would love to go, or experiences abroad, or maybe we do circle back and talk about missions. However the conversation turns, it’s less likely to be forced or awkward because we’ve established common ground.
Make your exit
Some days I am totally on it and conversations flow and I feel great. Other days, it’s not so hot. That’s ok! If a conversation is a struggle or it’s winding down and getting awkward, I can excuse myself. I could go to the restroom, get a drink, or even smile say something quirky like, “Well, that was fun. But I need a nap so I’d better go home before I get grouchy and you stop liking me!”
Still not a natural
Although I’ve come a long way since that mortifying incident in the high school cafeteria, I’m still not super great all the time at conversation with people I don’t know well. It doesn’t come naturally and I have to work at it. Sometimes those old lies drown out the truth and I can’t do it at all. That’s alright. I know that trying is worth it. I’ve met some remarkable people, had amazing conversations, and am richer for it.