social anxiety

How to Dance Away Your Fear of Public Speaking

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” ― Jerry Seinfeld

Public speaking is a major problem for people, but so is, more generally, shyness. It’s natural to be nervous in certain situations, like interviewing for a job or giving a speech, but dreading all social interaction can make life miserable. Research shows that social anxiety can have a huge impact on your overall health, so it’s important to find a way to fit in and be more social.

How do people overcome shyness and reduce social anxiety?

In a classic study, researchers tried to determine how friendships form. This project, which came to be known as the Westgate studies, investigated friendship patterns among students at MIT. The researchers asked students to name their three closest friends who lived on campus and made observations about their behavior.

The study found that more than 10 times as many friendships developed between people who lived in the same dormitory. Moreover, the strongest friendships formed between students who lived right next door to each other and students who lived on different floors, if one of the students lived near a stairwell.

The researchers called this finding the law of propinquity. This law argues that geographic proximity increases the opportunity for interaction, which in turn increases the comfort level between people. The implication is that the more we see someone, the more we like him or her.

Before you raise an eyebrow, the results of this study have been repeated many times since 1950, when propinquity was first described. Similar effects have been shown in public housing projects, job training programs, and schools. All of these studies showed that simply being seen and interacting with other people resulted in more friends.            

So, how can people who suffer from shyness use this research?

First, most people who are shy are given advice that’s hard to implement: "Go make friends!” is a familiar refrain. "Learn to network" and become a “social butterfly” are also common pieces of advice. Unfortunately, these ideas are tough to implement — it’s hard to stop being who you are and suddenly become a different person.

The Westgate studies showed that there’s an alternative: making friends can be as easy as talking to a person you see day after day. It’s as simple as putting yourself in spots where you will continue to interact with people on a regular basis. Therefore, try hanging around a crowded place — think coffee shops, local markets, cultural venues — instead of looking for friends who fit certain criteria. This might sound hard to do at first, but it’s a simple strategy to build confidence in social situations. I call this the “Tango Approach” to curbing social anxiety because, before online meetup groups, a lot of people would go to dance classes to learn to tango or ballroom dance in order to meet new people. Dancers quickly bond over a shared interest in music and dancing, sometimes without saying a word to each other.

Today, social media, chat rooms, and comment boards allow people to easily connect and develop friendships. In this way, the Internet has replaced “geographic proximity” with “psychological proximity.” (This idea has a lot of implications for online dating, which I’ll address in an upcoming post.) For many people, online communication is easier, so it can be useful to think of the Internet as a sort of sandbox for eventual in-person meetings.

Overall, if you want to overcome shyness and find a friend, mate, or business partner, it pays to be visible. Sometimes all it takes to make a friend is to make sure you cross their path.