There are two types of people in social settings who are difficult to interact with.
The first one hardly says a word. They don’t initiate conversation or participate in small talk. They smile infrequently, have trouble making eye contact, and tend to stand apart from the group.
Everything about their body language screams, “I am so uncomfortable here.” Their discomfort and awkwardness makes others in the room feel uncomfortable.
The other type is the one who enters the room like a bull in a china shop. They demand attention by dominating conversations, laughing too loudly, interrupting people, and showing little interest in what others have to say.
They can’t read the mood of the room or understand the dynamic of the social setting. They plow through with their own agenda, not understanding why people start gravitating away from them.
You’ve probably met both of these people at social events in the past. Maybe you can relate to one or the other yourself.
We aren’t born with social skills — we have to learn them along the way from parents, peers, and life experience.
Some people have personality types that make socializing more of a challenge. Others may have missed out on having good role models or opportunities to learn these skills.
If you lack socializing skills, it becomes painfully self-evident as you enter your teens and grow into an adult. The unfortunate consequences of poor social skills can hinder your career, impact your romantic life, and leave you feeling isolated and lonely.
Whether you are shy and standoffish or tend to be too gregarious and unrestrained, you can improve your social prowess with awareness and practice.
Here are 12 socializing skills to increase your confidence and attractiveness to others:
1. Prepare in advance.
Before you attend a social occasion, spend some time thinking about the event and what to expect. Is it a small gathering or a large one? Is it a celebration for someone or just a get-together? Is it a professional, formal event or casual and social?
Think about who will be attending, what their interests and personalities might be, and how you might be expected to interact. If you don’t know any or many of the people attending, try to learn more about them before the event so you can mentally prepare some conversation topics.
If you know you tend to be timid or uncomfortable at these events, you might want to prepare a list of conversation starters to help you initiate discourse.
If you have dealt with social discomfort by being too dominant in the past, remind yourself to listen more, show interest in others, and pay more careful attention to conversation dynamics.
2. Dress the part.
If you already feel ill-at-ease in social settings, then wearing something that makes you stand out will only make you more uncomfortable add to your discomfort.
Whatever the occasion, wear something that reflects your style but doesn’t make you feel you showed up at the wrong event.
You may need to contact the host to see if shorts and a t-shirt are fine, or if you need to wear your little black dress or suit and tie.
3. Bring a small gift.
It’s nice to bring a small gift to the host or hostess of a social gathering as a way of thanking them for including you.
It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture. Some flowers, a bottle of wine, or something you know they will enjoy (like a book or or scented candle) is a great way to break the ice as you walk in the door.
This gives you a reason to find the host or hostess, thank them for inviting you, and present the gift to them — which often incites a conversation around whatever you happened to bring.
4. Smile and make eye contact.
These two actions alone are the most important in any social setting. A smile is an immediate invitation to others letting them know you are approachable and friendly.
When you encounter a new person at a social event, look them in the eye, offer a natural smile, and introduce yourself with an easy follow-up question like, “How do you know Bob and Mary?”
Smiling and appropriate eye contact (not a creepy stare) can make up for any other awkwardness you might feel.
5. Listen and show interest.
Nothing is more flattering than being heard. When someone is speaking, listen to what they are saying and show that you are listening by nodding your head, smiling appropriately, and making follow-up comments or asking great questions.
Try not to redirect the conversation to you or what you want to say until you’ve given the other person the time and interest the conversation merits.
When the other person is speaking, look at them — not at your phone, the person across the room, or at your feet.
Being curious about other people is an extremely attractive attribute. People are fascinating and have amazing stories to tell, so give them the invitation to open themselves up to you.
6. Understand the art of conversation.
A good conversation with one or more people is a dance that involves give and take. Everyone should feel included and free to jump into the dialog.
Unless the event is a lecture or someone is telling a story, each member of the group should have a chance to speak and share their thoughts without fear of ridicule or interruption.
One of the most off-putting things you can do is rant about a topic or act like a know-it-all. Respect the opinions and ideas of others, even if you disagree with them.
Avoid getting into heated debates or prickly exchanges that can make everyone else feel awkward.
7. Be positive and optimistic.
There’s plenty going on in the world that is negative and unpleasant. And there may be situations in your own life that are difficult and painful.
These topics might come up in the course of conversation, but they aren’t topics to dwell on in a group social setting that’s meant to be pleasant, educational, or celebratory.
People generally attend social events for fun and entertainment, and they don’t want the buzz kill of focusing too much on politics, tragedy, or negativity.
A professional event is not the place to give the details of your upcoming gall bladder surgery or gossip about a co-workers nasty divorce.
Try to keep the conversation positive and lighthearted so others don’t feel burdened or distressed. Politics, religion, and other potentially controversial topics are generally best avoided.
8. Expand your circles and branch out.
Most of us tend to gravitate toward people we know or those who seem like us when we’re at a social event.
Rather than locking yourself into your regular group, challenge yourself to expand the circle of people you meet and talk to at an event.
If you notice a group of people chatting, introduce yourself and ask if you can join them. You can say something like, “I haven’t met you before, and I wanted to make sure I had a chance to talk with you.”
Often there will be one or two people at a gathering who look out of place or uncomfortable. Make a point to reach out to them and include them in the conversation. Make it your mission to bring people and conversations together. You never know how this might expand your social life or afford professional opportunities.
9. Learn to read body language.
Have you ever been around the person who doesn’t notice when people are yawning, looking at their watches, or trying to move toward the door?
Some people seem to be oblivious to the subtle and not-so-subtle cues they are getting from the people around them. They don’t know when to stop talking or take a pause to allow someone else to speak.
If you’re not adept at reading body language, start paying more attention to it. Negative body language from others might include crossed arms, frequently looking away, moving or turning away from you, coughing or yawning frequently, or a forced smile.
These are signals that the person is bored, needs to leave, or is otherwise distracted. It may be rude on their part, but you don’t want to continue talking with someone who has lost interest in talking with you.
10. Try to be yourself.
It’s hard to be natural when you feel uncomfortable or awkward in a social setting. But being yourself is much more attractive than trying to act a certain way to impress or fit in.
Even being real with your discomfort is better than clamming up or over-doing it. Say Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, “Admit when you’re uncomfortable, and laugh about it. I’ve found this to be disarming — I say, ‘I’m not good at meeting new people, so feel free to laugh at me if I mess up.'”
The real you is a unique and interesting person, so allow others to get to know that person. It may take some practice to feel more confident with being natural while socializing, but it takes a lot less energy to be authentic than it does to maintain a false persona.
11. Maintain perspective.
It may take some practice before you hit your stride with socializing comfortably. You may have occasions when you feel you’ve blown it or that people didn’t like you.
But try to remember than most people pay more attention to their own feelings and needs than they do to yours. They are not nearly as focused on your perceived flaws as you fear they might be.
Even if you do something awkward or embarrassing, people have very short memories. And most people are compassionate, understanding, and forgiving. We’ve all had bad days and difficult social moments.
12. Return the favor.
A great way to practice socializing is to host a social event. This way you can gain confidence on your own turf while including people you know and feel good around.
But be sure to include some new people or those who have previously included you in an event who might not be your best friends. Stretch yourself so that you don’t just socialize with the same crowd over and over.
You might ask your close friends to each bring a new friend so that you expand your circles and strengthen your socializing muscle.
Even if you feel confident with your socializing skills, it never hurts to pay a little more attention to your efforts in social settings. We all get complacent and comfortable with our standard lines, our old jokes, and the same groups we tend to spend time with.
The more you stretch and expand your social skills, the more opportunities you’ll have for professional success, fulfilling relationships, and a joyful life.