Hand me a computer keyboard and my fingers will duck, weave and pirouette over the keys as exuberantly as a pale and fleshy streaker on an alcohol-fueled Buck's night. Pass me a notepad and pen and I morph seamlessly into one of my alter-egos, the surly and secretive Batgirl or the charming and enigmatic Gatsby. I don't need a key to the Batcave or a cigar in my hand. I just need a pen. What, no pen? A pointy stick dipped in mud will suffice. When I write I can be me, or even better, I can be the slimmer, lighter, upgraded model: Me version 3.3.
But stick me in a social setting where have to actually talk to other people? The would-be slippery streaker in me is crash-tackled to the ground, hog-tied by crippling shyness and frog-marched shamefully away with a police helmet covering her privates. I become a smiling, nodding, silent imbecile. I am paralysed with fear that I will accidentally burp up a verbal offering so noxious and stupid-sounding that the preceding conversation will screech to a grinding halt, leaving only the sound of a single cricket mournfully chirping my demise. I'm terrified that I will become the conversational equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction, expecting people to whip out their iPhones and upload my humiliation for posterity.
Weddings, parties and miscellaneous other tête-à-têtes are the kryptonite to my Superman, the garlic to my Dracula and the Lewinsky to my Clinton. They are that bad dream come true... The one where I'm standing in front of my boss and my work colleagues delivering the monthly report and I look down and realise that I got the dates mixed up and it's not Naked Friday after all.
I find the effort involved in opening my mouth and activating my vocal chords whilst at the same time shuffling nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs into the right place completely exhausting. If that wasn't enough, I confess I've never been fluent in body language either. What is the right amount of eye contact? Too much and I look like I'm trying to subject the recipient to an impromptu macula scan. Not enough and I'm aloof and mysterious, or worse, a cold and callous bitch. I agonise over the angle of my smile or the tilt of my head. On paper it's all so simple, clear-cut and liberating. I can say what I want without the angst. Bring in a live audience and it's as taxing as trying to catch a Teflon-coated octopus with a teaspoon.
There must be thousands of other people out there who also live with the secret shame that is shyness, the most prevalent of all socially transmitted diseases. I hold out hope that one day there will be a cure as opposed to the band-aid solution that is a wide-mouthed funnel and a litre of gin.
To that end, I've been road-testing some strategies; 'conversational prophylactics' that might just save you from catching what I've got. Here are three all-time favourites designed to avoid your verbal offerings being received as enthusiastically as the stinky brown residue left by a toddler on a nudie run:
- Avoidance. An all-time favourite. Just say 'no'. Turn down that invitation. Have somewhere else to be. Sit in the semi-darkness of your living room and Facebook, post and tweet your life away. You're completely safe there. No-one ever makes a fool of themselves on social media.
- If avoidance is impossible and you must go, then choose to hang out with a bunch of people whose egos are so over-inflated and whose opinions are voiced so forcibly, so loudly, that you can't get a word in edgewise.You'll be cast as the silent sidekick to their wisecracking hero, or even better, the goofy pet that lifts its leg on the furniture. We all know how enriching it is to move in circles where you're a human paperweight whose opinion is neither solicited or valued.
- Finally, master the three D's: Divert, Distract and Deter. Ward off unwanted conversation before it even approaches. Trip over and face-plant into the wedding cake. Get drunk, assault a stranger and vomit into a pot plant. Wear an offensive tee shirt. We all know that there is no greater sin, no more serious transgression than that opening your mouth and being yourself, warts and all.
This has been a Community Service Announcement. I trust that you will find these tips and techniques every bit as useful as I have in overcoming social anxiety. Put them into practice and share them with your friends. Heaven knows I would, if I had any...