Q. Our two sons have inherited the shyness of their parents. Part of this trait is having trouble finding something to say to start a conversation. That makes it difficult to make friends. Somehow, my husband and I have forced ourselves to be more sociable, in order to be successful in our jobs.
My aunt refers to our shyness as being "backward." I don't think she uses that word to be hurtful, but it is just a term from many years past. I don't want my sons to be stuck with such a description, so we would appreciate some appropriate tips from you on this subject.
A. With one of my degrees being in social psychology -- and although "backward" may be one of the secondary definitions of the word "shyness -- I can assure you, that it is no longer commonly used to describe the trait.
Many individuals with very high IQs are sometimes shy when it comes to verbal conversations, yet extremely brilliant in written communication skills. (Hard to believe, but I was very shy until about 4th grade -- and it was not because of an extremely high IQ.)
I think many of you would agree when meeting new people, that some face-to-face conversations can be full of unimportant "drivel," but is a necessity in order to get to more interesting levels of conversation.
Don Gabor, who has written several very good books on this subject, might prove to be very helpful for you and your family. He writes his books in "everyday language" and not highly technical psychological terms that you must read and re-read to try to determine the meaning. I use many of his books as reference guides when teaching my classes.
In his book: "How To Start A Conversation and Make Friends" (revised and updated, copyright 2001), he mentions one of the very basic first steps: Put a smile on your face when meeting strangers. Such a simple effort can remove some of the apprehension and tenseness of the situation. Take a deep breath before you enter the room and tell yourself: "I can do this."
Another of his tips is making certain you do not stand with your arms crossed in front of you, which is a body language signal indicating you do not want to talk.
I encourage my students to practice talking out loud in front of a mirror to some person with whom they want to get to know better or make a friend. I also recommend writing down a few questions before starting the conversation or going to an event. Practice these in front of the mirror. Make them open-ended questions.
Some shy people find it difficult to introduce themselves and say their own name. Therefore, practice your introduction, again, in front of a mirror, watching your facial expressions: "Hi, I'm John Smith. I go to the John Doe school. I think I have seen you in the hallway."
Maintaining eye contact with the other person is also very important. Remember, you do not have to know everything about a subject when you are asked questions about it. It provides the opportunity to say something like, "I am not totally familiar with that, please tell me more."
Listen for the name of the other person and remember it. Ask yourself: What subjects do I like to talk about? Develop a question regarding one of those subjects, which you can practice to ask others.
Becoming poised and polished in this area of verbal communication requires practice by almost everyone, shy or not. Just like paying attention and practicing which fork to use or how to cut your steak when having dinner with your family, the more you practice, the more adept you become when in dining in public because it becomes second nature. The same applies to your verbal skills.
Taking time to role play introductions and various conversations with your sons, will also help them become more comfortable when meeting someone new.
Dianne Isbell is a local contributing writer. Send your etiquette questions to Lifestyle Editor Pat Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.