How can I overcome the phobia of talking to people?

My Quora Answer to “How can I overcome the phobia of talking to people?

Warning: Pretty Damn Lengthy!

Came to this question through Dhakshitha Rao‘s answer in my feed. As always, she gave an almost perfect answer to the question.

But when I read through the question details, I almost felt like I was having a deja vu. Let me explain: I was also an IITian a long time back, with no real experience in any extra-curricular activities; the only hobby I had when I entered IIT was reading (and following cricket a bit, not much); I was (and still am) really naturally-bad at any sport I played; and I was basically an introvert, with maybe 3-4 close friends from school – finding it difficult to open a conversation with people I didn’t feel close enough to. Even some relatives – aunts, uncles, some cousins – were among those I found it difficult to talk to, even though they were the ones who started the conversation and even when they were really good at talking. I am not saying I didn’t talk – I did have loads of fun just shooting crap with that small group of close friends, or close cousins.

Then, I get into a hostel, in an IIT, with people I didn’t ever know, not even from the coaching classes – well, I’d seen one or two guys in my institutes, but never spoke much to them… as you can imagine, I had no clue what to do! Apart from the fear of what the seniors would do in the usual senior-junior introduction sessions (no “ragging” in our IIT, not even back in 2000), I was also wondering about how to get to know one-two guys well enough each in the hostel and in the department. That, I thought, should be enough, comfortable, to get through these four years.

What happened was that the group of guys in the rooms near mine, including one of my first-year room-mates, were of the more social, funny types who were great chaps (I hate writing this “great chaps” openly – what if one of them reads it all the way till here? 😛 ). Some of them knew one another, some of them knew some of the preceding batch seniors in the hostel… well, whatever combination of events happened (I don’t remember much now), I just went along for the general group-ish hangouts, and sat there without saying much – I was still too scared to talk thinking, “What would they think of me if I opened my mouth?” They just started to ask me point-blank for what I thought about things, and I started opening up… and soon, I made yet another group of friends for life! More importantly, I finally got to a place where I can now start a conversation with people I don’t know!

So, why did I stick with this group, and why did I start opening up to them? It was simple: Like I said, I wanted to make one-two close friends, max! There were these guys from similar backgrounds, who also seemed seriously social and actually wanted to get to know new people… that was the reason I got going along with them in the first place. Then, I realized some of them shared my interest in reading (nowhere near my almost-crazy level, though), so we had something to talk about… Then, they got me interested in other things that they were interested in: football (what some idiots call “soccer”) being the main one, movies by genre, GK in general, etc., etc. Basically, the reason I started opening up to them was not only because they were asking me for my opinion, but also because I sensed an opportunity to widen my range of interests/hobbies. This same thing later on led to me making good friends within my department (where I was exactly in the mid-tier of the class – basically, average), and other departments/hostels as well.

I know I have written a rather lengthy synopsis of my life in IIT. I wanted to basically give the full context of my story, and not just say that I know where you are coming from. I have been where you are now. I’ve gotten over most of it. I still don’t go talk to new people by myself, but that’s not because of fear anymore – I know that.  The basic points I want to highlight for when you want to overcome your phobia of talking to new people are the following:

  • First thing you have to do is, explore yourself: find what interests and hobbies you have. It is not a question of whether you are doing the things or not, or how good you are at them currently. About the football I mentioned above, I started playing it, even though I sucked at it. I improved a bit, but remained bad at it over all the four years – and yet, I played it because I love the game.
  • Second, keep yourself open to try new things. Yes, I know it is scary to get into something new, especially when you are an introvert – not just the fright of failing at it, but the far bigger fright of having to interact with new people in the beginning phases of trying these things out. But, you have to force yourself into this mindset. This is something I am telling you from deep personal experience. There is nothing that can help you in “overcoming” – or rather, working around, as Dhakhsitha put it – your fears.
  • You say you have two-three friends on campus, right? What do you do with them? I suppose, just hangout and talk? Stop that! Take the help of the friends you already have to expand your fields of activity. Join them in stuff that they do without you – this way you get to know other, new people.
  • Maintain a cheerful exterior. It doesn’t matter how scared or worried or negative you are feeling inside. Keep smiling, and show off a positive face to others. That way, the social people might approach you for conversations. And you know what? Having a nice, pleasant talk with someone, especially about general bullshit, actually helps alleviate your fear of being an introvert and might get you out of that zone – at least into the ambivert level (not a bad place to be at all, let me assure you). Who knows, it might be that your tension of approaching others is actually showing off as “don’t talk to me” to others
  • As Dhakshitha (and some others) pointed out, use common interests to start conversations with people, and to keep them going.
  • As for making more friends, start in your hostel. No better place. Just start with the group of people that sit and hangout in your corridor. Be honest, and tell them that you want to just make friends, and that you were an introvert & scared to join them till now. Be prepared to take insults, though. Trust me, that is how engineering students talk to each other for fun – no harm intended or even meant.
  • As for friends in the department, the best place to start would be your lab-mates. I am pretty sure there would be a few people who are usually along with you in almost all the labs. You already have something common to talk to them about. Take it slow – start with one-two of them, casual remarks in the lab, and then, more than casual conversations outside. Once the others (if there are more than 3-4 in the lab-groups – I come from mech., we had 7-10 people in each lab group) notice that you actually talk, and others talk back not-in-a-stiff, to-the-point manner, they might open up too. This is a long process, though – lasting at least the whole of a semester.
  • The main thing you have to remember is this: When someone approaches you, to talk, for help, for anything… don’t get nervous and run away. Even if you are nervous, talk to them like you’re perfectly normal. If they need help, help them out, and you can fret over your tensions later on. Doing this will make them want to come back to you. And it is such repetitive interactions that lay the foundations for friendships.
  • As for interviews, I already covered that in two points above: maintain a positive exterior, and the preceding point.

Phew! A rather lengthy answer, even by my standards – and I DO write very long ones! Hope I did not bore you to death, and I do sincerely hope that this answer does something to help you out. All the best! 🙂

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