The first time I went to a gay club there were lots of attractive guys dancing, blaring music, neon lights swirling around in all directions, and strange lurkers on the sidelines of the club waiting for their prince charming. I felt like the most awkward person in the room.
No wonder so many of us feel the need to guzzle down a few beers or shots of tequila just to make it through the evening. It eases the pressure to perform and allows our nerves to calm down.
Frequenting these venues never felt natural or comfortable for me. I felt like I couldn't be myself. It made me question the whole point of coming out of the closet.
I stopped going to gay clubs and my social anxiety lessened, but I still felt subtle feelings of awkwardness in other social settings. This made me realize that I had to do something about this discomfort.
Yes, I'm naturally a shy gay man. But I've come to discover there are simple strategies to navigate new social situations, especially when you're not feeling very confident.
I used to look at people and think they were awkward just like me. One time I tried to interject into a group conversation, but the other people kept talking over me.
Then I realized the power of listening.
The first strategy is to use listening to your advantage. When you use all of your senses to take in the information around you, it lessens the need to speak or contribute to the conversation. Other people want to be heard, so give them the stage and just listen with your whole heart, mind, and body.
To become a strong listener, use every ounce of energy to be in the present moment and allow other people to take the time they want to speak. This can be done in person, on the phone, or even when you're simply reading an article on the Internet.
Behavioral investigator, Vanessa Van Edwards, says "just like elite athletes, you need a conversational game plan." Another way to become a powerful listener is to use body language hacks to your advantage. You can tilt your head slightly to the side when you're listening to someone speak, or even put one hand under your chin while you lean slightly forward toward the other person to hear what they have to say. Try these hacks to see how listening transforms your awkwardness into social savvy.
Abraham Lincoln said "If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening my ax."
When I was in college, I had to do my first debate in my psychology of childhood development course. My classmates and I spent hours studying our position and supporting cases. When it came time for the debate, we nailed it.
Moral of the story?
Preparation is golden. Blogger and expert Lance Ekum says, "It's not always fun. In fact, sometimes the hours may seem long. And it might not feel like you're making any progress. Yet, success comes from preparation. The hours you spend preparing make for more positive, more uplifting, more successful hours in the time when it counts."
Having a back pocket full of stories and guiding questions are the best way to prepare for any social encounter, especially the social situations that have the likelihood to become awkward.
Stories are like junk food for the mind. Other people want to hear these stories and hear them told when enthusiasm and active engagement.
The stories I tend to keep in my back pocket include the time I got scammed at a massage parlor in Thailand, the first time I got caught smoking pot, and the time I graduated college and moved to a new city without having any money or a job lined up. I've told these stories hundreds of times and they always get a positive response from the people I tell the stories to.
Good stories always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They shouldn't be too long, anywhere between 3-7 minutes is the sweet spot.
Keep your new friends engaged by using hand gestures that help you tell the story and keep your audience on the edge of their seat, dying to know more.
Always be aware of how people respond to specific parts of the story so you glean what to keep and what to eliminate the next time you tell the story.
Remember that quick story I told you in strategy #1 about being interrupted by other people? No one in that social setting looked me in the eye and I felt like a worthless idiot, so I left the social event without any new friends. My self esteem the following few days didn't feel all that hot. I thought that those people were ignoring me and that nobody cared about me.
Then one of my mentors, Ramit Sethi (author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich), taught me that everything is a test. No matter what happens in any social situation, whether or not you make a new friend or fall flat on your face when telling a story, it's all a test at the end of the day. What exactly does that mean?
There's no such thing as failure. When you fail and end up in an awkward situation, allow yourself to celebrate and honor the failure because it allowed you to become aware of what didn't work. This way, the next time you approach an awkward social situation, you can thank yourself for knowing what to do and what not to do.
Navigating awkward social situations as a shy gay man doesn't have to be so difficult unless you want it to. At the end of the day, being awkward is a choice. And even though sometimes it's inevitable to feel awkward, we can do very tactical and pragmatic exercises to ease the nerves and become less anxious and stressed.
Listening, preparing, and remembering that all social encounters are a test allow you to become more self aware, confident, and proud of yourself no matter what social situation you end up walking into.
Have you had an awkward social encounter recently that felt weird? Share with us in the comments and let us know which strategy you're going to use the next time you end up in a similar situation.
P.S. - Max DuBowy is the author of the Ultimate Guide to Self-Care for gay men who want to break free from stress and anxiety. Are you ready to love yourself unconditionally, make friends, and be confident? INSTANTLY DOWNLOAD A COPY OF HIS FREE GUIDE HERE.