June 21, 2024


ohn the day I received an offer from my first-choice university, I expected to feel excitement and exhilaration. I had spent years preparing for this moment, and yet, when it came, I dreaded the thought of freshman week and all the social challenges it would inevitably entail.

I’ve always been a bit of a shrinking violet and the fact that I now have a close group of friends at school hasn’t helped ease my social anxiety. I assumed it was a stroke of extreme luck – a one-off. The potential for rejection seemed immense, and I feared that I would spend the next few years in solitude.

I was wrong: I soon made new friends. Yet my shyness persisted as I began my career in journalism – a bizarre choice, I admit, for someone who felt nervous about meeting strangers and loathed the idea of ​​networking. I found ways to deal with those challenges, but it wasn’t until the past few years that I really started to enjoy the chance to meet new people.

If I had known then what I know now, my path might have been so much easier. As a science writer, I have witnessed a wealth of new research that has identified the psychological barriers that prevent us from building better relationships. Fortunately, my deep dive into the academic literature also identified practical ways to build social confidence.

Consider a phenomenon known as the “taste gap,” which describes our tendency to underestimate how much others have enjoyed our company and want to build a stronger connection with us.

In a series of experiments, psychologists asked two strangers to meet and talk and then asked each party about their expectations and perceptions of the conversation. Before they spoke, both assumed the exchange would feel awkward—but they ended up enjoying it much more than they believed they would. Over countless trials in all kinds of contexts, most people have found this much easier to talk to strangers than they initially feared.

If only that pleasure was combined with confidence. After a conversation, most people accept they liked the other person more than the other liked them. Or put another way: neither party fully realizes how attractive they were and they don’t believe the other person would be interested in building on that relationship with a future friendship.

The taste gap can persist for months. One study asked college roommates to report on their perceptions of each other during their first year of living together. It took each student an average of about nine months to overcome their self-doubt and correctly appreciate how much the other person liked them.

When I first learned about this research, I couldn’t help but cringe at all the times I’ve been plagued by the taste gap. Having met charming, funny and kind people, who I wanted to get to know better, I would doubt that it was reciprocated. Consequently, I would avoid any further contact for fear of appearing embarrassingly needy. I would even turn down party invitations from people I truly valued and admired, assuming they were just asking me out of politeness.

Delving into the scientific literature, I soon found examples of many other misplaced fears that stand in the way of deeper and more meaningful relationships. Many of us are too ashamed give compliments or express our thanks for others’ actions, for example. We assume they already know how great they are and we doubt our ability to express those compliments elegantly. We imagine our gestures will look funny and funny.

Those concerns are largely unwarranted. Most people are perfectly capable of distinguishing genuine praise from flattery and we consistently underestimate how much joy our words will bring. Provided we show sensitivity and common sense, our genuine appreciation will be welcomed for what it is – a small act of kindness.

Expressing appreciation for others brings joy not only to the person receiving the praise, but also to the person saying it; most people feel much better for expressing their warm feelings. Unfortunately, our natural reserve means that most of us miss these opportunities to cement our bonds.

We have similar misplaced intuitions about self-disclosure – we tend to hold back our intimate thoughts and feelings and instead engage in superficial talk when people tend to be much more interested in our inner life than we would expect. It’s a shame as that knowledge would be the foundation for a deeper relationship. And when we need help, we believe that people will resent our requests, when scientific research shows this they can enhance closenessby showing our respect for the other person.

Whether we often feel lonely, dread walking into a party full of strangers, or want to get along better with our coworkers, most of us could do with a little more faith in our social skills.

Based on my own experiences and the research I have read, I believe it is essential for anyone who wants to live well. Feeling socially connected not only brings great joy, it also soothes and reduces our stress responses our risk of many different diseases – from the common cold to cardiac arrest. The results of more than 100 studies all show that social connection is as important to our health as diet or exercise. Bigger connection can too increase our creativity. The more nodes we have in our social network, the more exposed we will be to fresh ideas and new sources of inspiration.

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I’ve found that simply learning about concepts like the taste gap can help us overcome our shyness, but it also takes perseverance if the effects are to last. As you will have found when learning any skill, greater confidence comes with regular practice outside of our usual comfort zones.

For me, an ambition to speak Italian gave me the necessary push. As my fluency in the language increased, I started arranging “conversation exchanges” with native speakers who wanted to practice their English. Needless to say, I made a lot of blunders, but I was touched to see how sensitively my interlocutors saved me from embarrassment and how easy it was to build a friendship despite the language barrier. Striking up new conversations in my native language suddenly felt a lot less daunting.

You don’t have to go to this extreme. One study took the form of a week-long “scavenger hunt” that encouraged participants to set daily goals to approach and talk to strangers. They may decide to find someone with interesting shoes or striking hair and then chat with them for a few minutes. Day by day, the participants realized the pleasure of being more sociable and were less anxious about the possibility of rejection.

We may still need strategies to help offset self-doubt when it kicks in. One tool I use is “defocusing,” which involves making a conscious effort to Look at the big picture instead of getting hung up on small details. If we think we have made a faux pas, we can remind ourselves of the many other things we exchanged during the conversation; the other person’s impression of us is unlikely to depend on a single rude remark, which is likely to be forgotten. We can also remind ourselves of past cases in which we immediately jumped to the worst conclusion, but later found that our fears were unfounded.

One of the best things you can do to overcome your shyness is to treat yourself with greater compassion. Many of us believe that self-criticism is essential if we want to behave better in the future, but the scientific literature suggests that the opposite is true. Beating ourselves up over a possible embarrassment only adds to our stress and reduces our ability to learn from the perceived mistake. A simple exercise is to imagine encouraging a friend or family member who is facing the same challenge or feeling the same concerns; you can even write it down in the form of a letter. Once you express those sentiments, you may find it much easier to be kinder to yourself.

At the height of my shyness, it would have seemed inconceivable that I would write a book about social connection – let alone back it up with public speaking and media interviews. I don’t regret those years of anguish; When I consider the past, my overwhelming emotion is one of gratitude to all the people who proved my fears of rejection false. But I wish I could go back in time and tell my 18-year-old self about what I learned. With just a little encouragement and practice, we all have enormous potential to connect.

The Laws of Connection: 13 Social Strategies That Will Transform Your Life by David Robson is published by Canongate on June 6th. £18.99. Buy it for £16.71 guardianbookshop.com



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