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Crippling Social Anxiety


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Hi everyone,

Does anyone else have social anxiety? How do you deal with it?

After recently accepting an offer of admission, I'm meeting my supersivor for the first time ever next week during a visit and I'm so nervous about this that I can't even sleep. We are meeting for coffee. My fear is that I will be on the spot, socially awkward and unable to come up with interesting things to say. I feel like the pressure will be on me to keep the conversation going. I am not very good with making small talk with strangers. We've talked on the phone and from what I can tell this person is a very nice and approachable.

Basically I get so nervous that I begin to sweat profusely - to the point where I'm dripping, my hair is wet, and I get giant pit stains. So embarrassing!

I have a prescription for a benzo but I would prefer not to use it, especially if my supervisor decides to order a glass of wine (I would be expected to drink as well).

Anyone else out there? Any tips? I've tried breathing exercises and they do work at calming me down, but they don't stop the sweat flood from coming.

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If you really do think that the onus will be on you to keep the conversation going, think of a few topics/questions in advance that you can utilize to do away with awkward silences.

I used to be pretty socially crippled in high school and this was the thing that saved my bacon. I'd even run through imaginary scenarios in my head, having fake conversations with the "scary people", over and over, until I started to feel a bit more comfortable with the idea of talking to them.

It takes practice, but it does get better if you're willing to put forth an effort.

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I wouldn't worry too much. Supervisors realize that this is your first time in this situation while they have (probably) done this many times before. That usually means that they will work to make sure the conversation runs smoothly. It's their job to do this, and presumably they are good at it.

It wouldn't hurt to think through what you want to ask them and write it down ahead of time. I always find it helpful to come up with a few questions related to their research ahead of time so you can sound educated.

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I have a prescription for a benzo but I would prefer not to use it, especially if my supervisor decides to order a glass of wine (I would be expected to drink as well).

I totally get it if you don't want to take meds. But as far as drinking goes, (1) I doubt your supervisor is going to order wine if he invited you for coffee [where are you going to meet him?], and (2) you certainly don't have to drink if you don't want to drink. A simple, "thanks, but I'll only have coffee. I don't drink alcohol." is enough. Some people just don't drink alcohol. I don't. And I certainly wouldn't drink just because my advisor drinks. So far (6 years, 3 of which during my undergrad) he never seemed to care what I drink or don't drink.

My fear is that I will be on the spot, socially awkward and unable to come up with interesting things to say. I feel like the pressure will be on me to keep the conversation going. I am not very good with making small talk with strangers. We've talked on the phone and from what I can tell this person is a very nice and approachable.

Many grad students are socially awkward! :P

Seriously, I'm sure you'll be okay. If your supervisor invited you for a coffee, he's probably a nice and understanding guy, and chatty enough to keep the conversation going. He's also likely to have a full bag of questions that he usually asks new students, in which case he's experienced enough to avoid awkward quiet moments. Awkward silences are awkward for both of you, and from what you've written about your supervisor, he probably has better skills to get both of you out of them.

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I have a prescription for a benzo but I would prefer not to use it, especially if my supervisor decides to order a glass of wine (I would be expected to drink as well).

Anyone else out there? Any tips? I've tried breathing exercises and they do work at calming me down, but they don't stop the sweat flood from coming.


First of all, don't worry about wine or coffee or food or anything else your adviser may or may not order. You certainly won't be expected to partake. I do undertand the concern, as one who must abstain to most foods and beverages due to allergies. This has been a recent adjustment for me and the social anxiety is very real. But truly, anyone sitting at the table with you won't be thinking about what's on your plate or in your cup nearly as much as you are.

Secondly, sweat is sweat. We all sweat; some more than others. Have you ever sat in a class with a sweaty lecturer? Sometimes they even spit. The previous posters are right - profs understand that new students are nervous. It's natural to sweat.

In my opinion, breathing exercises only work if there's a theory or philisophy behind them that goes beyond the desired outcome of reducing physical symptoms associated with anxiety. My recommendation for anxiety is mindfulness meditation. It is a practice that takes time and committment but yields countless rewards. Not only does it increase concentration, clarity, and memory, it has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and pain. There are classes in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction all over the country. Just google MBSR and see if it sounds like something of interest to you. It might be a good thing to do during the summer before beginning a program.

Everyone has something that works for them, though. This is what is working for me so I thought I'd share. I offer you my heart-felt congratulations on your admission. :)

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Basically I get so nervous that I begin to sweat profusely - to the point where I'm dripping, my hair is wet, and I get giant pit stains. So embarrassing!

Wear a black shirt. Black hides massive pit stains very well.

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Jeenyus, like the others said, the most important thing is to do enough research on the prof that you you can have some good questions to ask. If he/she has a website, you can also scope out some general background (not necessarily related to your research) and think about how any of that relates to something your interested in. (Example: For my school's interview day, one of the people I met with didn't have much in common with me or my research interests. But, she'd worked with kids on poetry slams, and I've done "story slams", so I made a note to put that into the conversation. She'd also done research on new media stuff, so I asked her her thoughts on kids & video games.)

The good news is that this person already LIKES you, which is why you're meeting. We academic types aren't known for our social skills, so I doubt you can do anything that will be new to your supervisor, and doubt even more that a social faux pas would be enough to hurt your relationship.

A while back I noticed that, when making small talk with all but the closest of friends, I had very deliberate thought patterns. I decided to try writing an algorithm of my small talk conversations. Not all of it will apply to your current situation, but I'll include a version of it below, in case some of it is useful and/or amusing to anyone (sorry it's so long -- but conversations are hard!):

Conversation Generator

1. Have you met The Other Person (TOP) before?

I’M NOT SURE – Go to 2.

YES- Go to 3.

NO – Go to 4.

2. Establish past history.

If, given the social context, there's a good chance you might have met TOP before and don't want to make things more awkward by introducing yourself to somebody that already knows you (funny story there...) squint your face like searching your memory and say, "we might have met before, but..." - at which point TOP will usually either say, "no, I just moved to town yesterday," or "yeah, we met at that one thing."

If spontaneous conversation does not occur, return to 1.

3. Ask an introductory question. (Old acquaintance version)

To determine an appropriate question, think about what you know about TOP.

The more recent information the better, as he/she probably has the most (new) to say about current events in his/her life. Example: Thought process- The last time I talked to A, she was going to have a job at a school... but I don't remember what. Now school has been in session for a few weeks. Question - "How's your new job going?"

If you only know general things about TOP, ask about that, or state a fact as a question, as if asking for elaboration. "So, you're a grad student...?" If possible, avoid asking questions with simple yes or no answers, as these only advance the conversation by one syllable, and then you're back to square one. (Or point 5, as the case may be.)

If you've only met once and don't remember anything, it's usually okay to ask something that will hopefully jog your memory, such as, "now what do you do again?" or "remind me: how do you know A?"

Listen for response.

If spontaneous conversation does not occur, proceed to 5.

4. Ask an introductory question. (New acquaintance version)

Although you don't know TOP, still think about what you know, given the context, and create a question from that:

If you meet at your friend's party, there's a good chance TOP knows your friend, too: "How do you know M?"

If you're on an airplane, there's a very good chance TOP is traveling: "Where's your final destination? Work or pleasure?"

Then there's the standard identity questions.

For kids, it's usually, "Where do you go to school?" and for college folks it's "What's your major?"

The standard for adults is, "What do you do for a living?" or "Where do you work?" The trick is that, with so many people in school, out of work, or stuck in a job they'd rather not talk about, this can get a bit awkward. Thus, I've created a variation: "So what do you do when you're not [insert current activity here]." This opens people up to talking about their job or studies, or if they're not in a position to talk about those, they can describe their hobbies, or what they do with their kids, or their favorite tv show, or whatever. I don't actually care about someone's occupation (or lack there of). What I really want to ask is, "What can I ask you about?" but so far that's not socially acceptable.

If you've exhausted all your options, think of potential shared experiences; weather and current events are the classics here: "So what do you think of this heat wave?" or "Have you been watching the playoffs?"

Listen for response.

If TOP asks a question, go to .

If spontaneous conversation does not occur, proceed to 5.

5. Ask a follow up question.

(This is a newish step for me. It’s a keeper, but it can be tricky on the fly.) Think of a question that relates to what TOP just said, ideally connecting what was just said with something else.

Let’s say the introductory question was a less-than exciting, “What do you think of this heat spell?” and TOP responded, “Oh it’s horrible.” Here’s some sample follow ups:

(a) Connect with something known about TOP: “You’re from Minnesota, right? Does it ever get this hot that far north?” Connecting past knowledge with the last part of the conversation reflects a degree of care, since it shows that you were listening to TOP on two separate occasions.

Connect with something about yourself: “In Michigan, we’d have occasional days in the upper 90s, but they were rarely in series; is this weather normal for you?” By sharing something about yourself, it can give TOP a branching off point to start asking you questions, which can ease pressure.

© Connect with something in the world: “I read that severe enough heat spells can decrease mosquito populations; do you think there are fewer of them this year?” This strategy makes more sense with more personal introductory questions. For instance, I met someone at a party who was doing neuroscience, and had just read an article about these things called mirror neurons, so I could ask him what he thought about that research. It turned out he knew a lot!

If the answer doesn’t lead to spontaneous conversation, repeat.

If you can’t think of a question, proceed to 6.

6. Give follow-up information.

This used to be what I always did, but since it’s not a question, it risks the other person not having a way to respond to it. The advantage is that it’s easier to come up with, because it doesn’t depend at all on knowledge of the other person. For me, it’s like I take a key word in the preceding conversation and do a Google search for it in my head to find related points. These can come in different forms. Instinct is to go with the first thing that comes to mind, but if you can filter for topics that have follow up potential, this will be more likely to spark spontaneous conversation. Let’s say you just learned that TOP is taking a British Literature class, asked what book TOP is reading, and find out it’s Jane Austen’s
Pride and Prejudice

(a) Personal anecdote: “It’s strange – I love the movies based on Jane Austen books, but I’ve only read one book. “ If you can get this far, can you figure out a way to bump this up to 5(
, a question that connects something about yourself? Again, the advantage of connect to yourself is that it gives TOP a baseline for asking you questions, so try to give them facts/stories that beg for follow up.

Current events: “I just heard a story about some of Jane Austen’s personal letters being found in an attic.” (I made that up, BTW.) I used to always start things like this by saying, “I heard on NPR that…” but I listen to public radio so much that
of my conversations became based on NPR, and I was sounding like a broken record. Plus, in some company, you don’t want to advertise right away that you’re an NPR nerd.

© General Trivia: “Did you know that
Bridget Jones’ Diary
is loosely based on
Pride and Prejudice
? I never would have noticed, but my mom pointed out that Colin Firth’s character is even named Darcy, just like in
.” Some people love trivia (myself included) but some don’t get the point of random facts, so this should usually be saved as a last resort. Plus, it can be hard to respond to trivia, making spontaneous conversation less probable.

Pause to give TOP time to respond. If spontaneous conversation does not occur...

Is it important to keep talking to this person?

YES – Return to 1.

NO – Go to 7.

7. Politely part ways.

If both parties have been trying to strike up a conversation and it’s just not happening, at some point you have to stop beating a dead horse. Instinct may be to just walk away and pretend it never happened, but this is generally frowned upon in our culture. By narrating my way out of a conversation, there is often a subtle opening for them to do the next thing with you, if they really want to, so you’re not abandoning them. Some possibilities:

(a) Food: “Well, I’m going to go see if the snack table still has some goodies.” I like food, and so do most Americans, so food is usually around and can be a good distracter.

Another person: “Oh, I see John. I should go say hi.” If you’re lucky, someone walks by that you can pull into the conversation, doubling your chances of getting a conversation going.

© To-do list: “Well, I should probably get going. I have a lot of laundry I’ve been putting off.” Use this when it actually makes sense, like after church, not when you’re at a late-night party.

Sometimes, it’s possible to add, “Do you want to come with me?” and get the same effect without actually parting ways. Once you are both on your way to the buffet table, you’re excused from conversation and can put off talking until you can comment on the food, for instance.

Now, am I actually think about steps 2,3, or 4 while talking to people? No, but I do often have to think about what I can say to people. For some people, talking to others is automatic, and like a car with an automatic transmission, they are able to change pace or terrain, and even start on a hill, without thinking about it. While I do have friends that I can talk to quite naturally, conversations in general are more like a manual transmission. I used to not know how to drive the conversation at all, but once I learned the basics I could shift gears and make it around the block.
Edited by SeriousSillyPutty
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Well, everyone covered everything else, so I'll share some ways to hide pit stains (well, I'll send you links):




(I've never tried any of these methods because I do not have this problem, so I cannot personally endorse any of them.)

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If you take the benzo, you might have a clear enough head to feel comfortable declining wine should the supervisor order it for him/herself. You could always get something to match that is non-alcoholic, like a sparkling mineral water or a fancy soda. Surely, they let you into the program for a reason, and they are at least as interested in what you have to offer academically as your nervousness at a first meeting.

I find it really helps me to wear clothes that I am really comfortable in, that I think I look good in. Hope things go great!

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  • 1 month later...

Hey guys(gals)

I've been absent for awhile but wanted to say thanks for all your helpful responses. SeriousSillyPutty, your post is amazing. I realize that not everyone is an expert at small talk and new social situations and that it can be fun once you get used to it.

Update: met with the supervisor and it was totally fine. I showed up early, had a drink and thought of questions I could ask beforehand if things got quiet (like some of you suggested), and asked them when the conversation died down. It was great and totally not awkward. Honestly, this was the first time I was really chill during a situation like this. I think preparing beforehand and just giving in that I was going to be nervous anyway made a big difference. I can't believe I'm saying this but I think next time it won't even be a big deal.


Thanks again and hopefully this thread will find its way to other people with social phobias.

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