Choose Your Battles
Anxiety tells you that the enemies you'll encounter at a celebration are your fellow partygoers. This is another lie. The truth is that you're always fighting on the same side as everyone else, because the real enemies are shame, fear, and cruel judgment, which hurt us all.
Unfortunately, most of us social-phobes guard ourselves against other people, rather than cruelty itself. This promptly creates what we fear. In social situations, people unconsciously observe very subtle signals to determine who is or is not approachable. When we're fearful, we send "go away" messages with our voices, bodies, and facial expressions: Being scared makes us scary. One of my favorite silly jokes is about a half-blind man who buys a wooden eye because he can't afford a glass one. He self-consciously enters a nightclub, breathing a sigh of relief when he notices a pretty woman with a false leg, sitting by herself. The man drums up just enough courage to ask her, "Would you like to dance?" She joyfully exclaims, "Would I! Would I!" But of course, what the man hears is "Wood eye! Wood eye!" Hurt to the core, he shouts, "Peg leg! Peg leg!" Both he and the woman flee homeward, to live out their lives in bitter solitude.
This is the dynamic of fear; it makes us overreact to imagined slights and forget to treat other people with simple kindness. If people do reject us, it's very often because they feel we've already rejected them.
Use The Right Strategy
I used to think that I needed a whole armory full of impressive weapons to survive a party—things like cleverness, thin thighs, social connections, and wealth, none of which I happened to possess. Now that I am older and...well, older, I've come to believe that only two strategies are necessary in any festive situation: reciprocity and honesty. Both are easy to grasp and readily available.
"The norm of reciprocity" is the sociological term for people's near-ineluctable tendency to treat others as others treat them. It isn't a moral principle, like the Golden Rule, but a compelling feature of our innate psychology. The "wood eye" story illustrates how reciprocity can make two vulnerable people treat each other abominably. The same dynamic can create powerful positive interactions. If you walk into a party brooding, They'll think I look terrible, you're guaranteed to trigger other people's social phobias. If you walk in thinking, Don't they all look marvelous!, your behavior will elicit kind judgments rather than cruel ones.
At a gathering, it helps to use a first-strike capacity. Be aggressively nonjudgmental. Notice impressive traits about other people, and mention them. Genuine admiration is incredibly powerful ammunition. Statements like "I love your haircut" and "Wow, you have a great voice" disarm other people's social anxiety. The norm of reciprocity makes them judge you positively. Boom! Your mutual enemy is slain at the outset of battle.
If you encounter someone who really is judgmental, remember this: Harsh critics are always people who fear criticism. At worst, kindness will confuse them; at best utterly disarm them.
Social-phobes dread party talk. We're petrified of saying something stupid, something that will reveal us as the jackasses we are, rather than the social maestros we wish we were. We overlook the fact that the conversational skill most effective at breaching social barriers is not eloquence but honesty. When you're at a loss for the right party words, I recommend the unconventional strategy of telling the truth.
I've learned to do this, for example, in matters relating to alcohol. When someone asks me to choose a wine for dinner, I sing out the embarrassing truth. "Sorry," I say, "I was raised Mormon. The only party beverage I ever saw anyone drink was Robitussin straight from the bottle. Help!" People seem to just love this. It makes them feel smart and special, which indeed they are.
Once you start telling the truth in festive settings, you may end up leaking the Big Secret: the fact that you have social anxiety. I recently—reluctantly—attended a party where you couldn't wave a spoon without hitting a rich, famous person in the eye. At one point, I found myself rubbing elbows with a person so rich and famous I nearly screamed.
"Having fun?" said the rich and famous person.
"Hell, no," I heard myself say. "I'm scared to death."
"So am I!" she beamed, and the two of us began an unexpectedly comfortable conversation.
After a while, our unbelievably rich, famous host came by. "Hey," he said, "you two aren't working the room. You should hobnob."
My new friend replied calmly, "Dude, I have hobbed my last nob." Our host looked shocked, then enormously relieved. Suddenly, instead of a blithering idiot and two rich, famous people, we were just three ordinary humans enjoying one another's company.
In his classic treatise The Art of War, the Chinese general Sun Tzu commented that the best way to win a conflict is to stop it before it arises. Once you have learned how to target your real enemies of shame and fear and fight them with effective weapons, the terrors of this party season may begin dissolving before they form. Holiday celebrations just might become what everyone tells you they should be: delightful occasions that warm, connect, and help us feel the goodwill that was present for us all along.
Keep Reading: 5 Pieces of Advice for Enjoying the Festivities