I have been a person who has overthought my interactions with people my entire life, especially during those dreaded first meetings. I always have a sinking feeling that people are going to think I’m rude or awkward if I don’t smile or talk enough. I am embarrassed easily and the blush that burns my face and neck only makes me feel more self-conscious and ill-equipped to socialize.
The dance classes I took as a child, my job at a local supermarket and my work with people with mental illnesses have all helped me to open up to others and improve on my self-confidence. But for me, finding friends who appreciate all my quirks — my love of boy bands, pointless trivia and books — and tolerate my sometimes aloof personality and bad jokes has been one awkward story after another.
Is there anything worse than having to find a partner for a project or other assignment? I have met some of my best friends this way and I am thankful every day that they have agreed to put up with me for many years now.
I met one of my best friends in high school when our gym teacher called for us to practice sit-ups. When my eyes fell upon a kind looking fellow freshman whose eyes were also scanning for someone to pair up with, I took a chance and asked her if she would like to be partners. That rare display of bravery (and if you are shy you know how difficult it is to ask a stranger to save you from being alone or worse forcing the instructor to pick a random partner for you) forged a new friendship for me, but when I left for college I was faced again with the prospect of finding new people who would understand my insecurities and appreciate my interests.
Things did not start off well. I was placed in a over-crowded dorm room that was meant for two, but now slept three girls. My entire suite went out for dinner on our first night on campus and then went on to a house party thrown by a group of sociable seniors. I walked home alone and spent my first night in college knowing my roommates were not the sort of crowd I could feel comfortable with.
I spent many meals eating quickly and pretend-texting on my Razr. That is, until someone I recognized from my literature class sat next to me at dinner one Friday night and I then proceeded to cling helplessly to that person for the rest of the semester. I would often drop by unannounced to discuss an assignment, then stay to unload my opinions on movies and television programs that my poor friend had very little interest in. Luckily for me, this friend seemed to enjoy my company, and from then on I was often invited to share lunch with their group of friends.
Which brings me to another awkward “meeting.” In my second semester, I took a class on theater history and as I glanced at the syllabus, I noticed with poorly-concealed horror that this class would require a group project on the short play Everyman. As I complained about the upcoming project, one of the girls sitting at the lunch table showed just as much disinterest in the project as I did.
When I asked what days of the week she took that class, she replied flatly, “I’m in your class, Kerrin.” Strange, but true, we decided to complete our project together (a Gilmore Girls-themed Everyman which I recently found in an email) and thus I found someone who loved the Beatles and books as much as I did.
The two friends mentioned above and I began living together our sophomore year of college, across the hall from the next group of friends I would meet. If finding a partner for a project is cause for panic, finding a seat next to someone in a class full of strangers is hardly much better.
I like to sit in the front of the class as I am usually heads shorter than everyone else and it helps me to pay attention and makes me less prone to daydreaming. I chose to sit by a person I recognized as living in the new dorm we now occupied and after she agreed, we spent the rest of the year drooling over actors and whining about our philosophy homework.
My new friends also spent much time ribbing me about the fact that I had lived down the hall from them the previous year and I refused to even say “hi.”
It seems dramatic, but I mean this in the most self-deprecating way: sometimes I wonder how it is I have friends at all. But, for one reason or another the people I call my best friends still seem to want to text me, go out to dinner and movies with me and vacation with me, despite my obvious social shortcomings. Now that you have heard my cringe-worthy stories of the beginnings of my longest-lasting friendships, I’m here to give you a few things I’ve learned to help you be more confident in your first meetings.
This tip is a true confidence-builder that truly gets easier every time you practice it. Being the first to shake someone’s hand, smiling and saying “hello” sends out the impression that you are confident even if you do not feel that way in that very moment. The old cliché “fake it ’till you make it” certainly applies here.
It may sound creepy but the best way to appear friendly and open is also to appear interested in others. A simple “I like your scarf,” “I love your shoes” is enough and could very well be a conversation starter.
Embrace your own identity
Instead of giving into those evil thoughts of doubt — why would they want to spend time with me? Why would someone want to be friends with me? I’m not cool enough, I’m not funny enough, I’m too moody — allow people to enjoy the things that make you, you. Tell people of your interests, what makes them feel uncomfortable and trust that they will appreciate all the things that make up your personality. You never know who will share the same interests.
Move out of your comfort zone!
Go to that office party! Go dancing! Go sing Karaoke! As long as you have at least one trusty friend by your side, the worst that could happen is you have a less-than-stellar time and go home to some wine and Netflix. Just think: you might even let loose! You might even meet new people!
Cut yourself some slack
There are going to be days when you forget to ask those simple follow up questions (“I’m good, how are you?”) or when you opt to watch Netflix instead of attending a party. This is okay! Everyone needs time to be by themselves. Do you know what the best part is? You now have friends who will not only understand those feelings of being overwhelmed and insecure but you can bet they’ve experienced moments like that, too.
Here’s to the friends that stand by us, no matter what — the old friendships and the ones just around the corner. As Aristotle says “…without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.”