science of us

Advice for Shy People Forced to Attend Holiday Parties

Photo: Nick Cunard/Getty Images

By design, holiday office parties are supposed to be fun. You chat with your co-workers, get to know the boss, and maybe even have a drink or two. For the shy among us, however, holiday work parties are nothing more than a winter-themed bummer, as the last thing we want to do is make small talk and compete for face time. So instead, we hug the wall (or hover around the snack table) and leave as quickly as possible.

“When people are shy, being put in public situations can intensify their level of anxiety and the appearance of uneasiness,” says Mercedes L. Miller, a professional speaker and executive consultant. “One of the ways to overcome this at holiday work parties is to intentionally use areas of familiarity and interest.”

In other words, the key to getting comfortable in an uncomfortable setting is to get familiar with it, which is why, one might argue, it’s so easy to hover around the snack table. We know snacks; people are much harder to figure out. That said, there are a few tricks shy people can keep in their back pocket during the festivities.

Visit the venue

One year, my office holiday party was held at a swanky bar in West Hollywood. Not being much of a swanky-bar kind of gal, I felt woefully out of place in this venue I had never been before. It might have been smart to scope out the place before the party, suggests Evan Thompson, a communications expert and business coach. “Find out where the event is going to be held. If it’s to held be in an unfamiliar space, whether in your office building or off site, check out the space in advance.”

When you know the venue, there’s less sensory overload and thus you’re less likely to feel out of place. You’ve been there before, after all. Getting familiar with your surroundings in advance of the event can help put you at ease, Thompson says. Pro tip: Volunteer to help put up holiday decorations. This way, you get to know the venue and you’re the super-helpful employee.

Once you’re at the venue, it’s natural for shy or introverted people to avoid the center of the room and hang out in the perimeter observing, but Thompson says that could actually make your anxiety worse. “Stand in the middle of the room,” he suggests. “There is more safety there because that’s where most of the conversation takes place. Hugging the wall will only make you feel more self-conscious.” In the periphery, you’re singling yourself out and away from everyone, which might actually make you feel like there’s a spotlight on you, as opposed to being lost in the crowd. (Of course, if large crowds make you anxious, your mileage may vary on this one.)

Rehearse your conversations

It seems ridiculous to rehearse something as trivial as small talk, but many shy people get anxious over what to say, and practicing your conversation can help you mentally prepare, says David Bennett, a certified counselor and relationship expert. This way, you’re less distracted by the thought of effectively breaking the ice. And since you’ve rehearsed your conversations, you’re less likely to ruminate over them later. “Practicing conversations and coming up with good responses can help you be ready for a whole host of scenarios,” he adds. “Also, this will help shy people think through how to handle possible social scenarios, like what you’ll do if your boss walks up and starts talking to you.”

Miller agrees, adding that it helps to prepare with a few neutral but universal topics you feel comfortable talking about as well as three specific questions you can use to strike up conversations. “The more you speak about something you like and enjoy, the more genuine and comfortable you appear and feel. Practice and repeat.” Keep in mind, people love talking about themselves, so whether it’s a compliment or a question, it’s easy enough to redirect the conversation when you’ve run out of things to talk about.

And if you do want to get face time with the boss, no need to feel pressured to have a long, drawn-out conversation. “Make it quick and simple,” says Laura MacLeod, a licensed master social worker and human resources expert. You can check in with something simple like, This is a great party. Thanks so much. Hope you have a terrific holiday. “The idea here is to connect — show appreciation and good wishes, all about the other person, and move on,” MacLeod says.

Dress the part

As a shy person, I tend to avoid being the center of attention, so naturally, I don’t put much thought into what I wear. Here’s the thing, though: Holiday parties typically require some style effort, and because clothing is an afterthought, I usually end up feeling out of place, which still makes me worry the attention is on me. So when I’m chatting with a colleague, all I can think is, Geez, why did I wear this pit-stained button-up?

When you feel underdressed for a party, there’s a good chance your mind will be focused on one thing throughout that party: how underdressed you are. This is an easy enough distraction to eliminate, though. This is why MacLeod says it’s important to, well, look good. “Start by looking your best. Dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable and is appropriate for the occasion. Wear shoes you can easily walk around in. When you set yourself up physically this way, you will be at your best and you will be confident.”

When you feel like you look your best, you’re not thinking about how you look at all. This gives you the mental bandwidth to focus on other things, like having good conversations with co-workers in which you actually pay attention to what they’re saying instead of focusing on your stained shirt.

Pretend to be a journalist

It can also help to navigate the party with an observant eye, sort of like a journalist. “Become someone who is genuinely curious about subtle relational dynamics. Wonder to yourself why [that person] keeps looking around the room, for example,” said Karen Osterle, a licensed psychotherapist and marriage counselor in Washington, D.C. “As a student at this event, you have at least one thing to learn from almost anyone you observe or interact with.”

Shy people tend to be natural observers, anyway, so just go with it. It doesn’t hurt to be friendly, but go ahead and claim your shyness and soft-spoken demeanor, Osterle suggests. “If you can fully accept and embrace this, you can allow yourself to be more comfortable and less apologetic.”  Once you’re more comfortable, you send subtle cues to others that they can relax around you, too.

Finally, remember: Everyone is uncomfortable. As someone who all too often has her camera focused inward, one of the best pieces of social awkwardness advice I’ve ever received is: No one cares. “Once you get past the idea that people are not going to judge you, your shyness will fade,” Thompson says. “People are more interested in how they come across at the event than assessing your performance. There’s no need to act.”

Advice for Shy People at Holiday Parties