The Confidence Cocktail: Applying the 80/20 Rule to Ending Your Social Anxiety

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Informationon just about any topicis abundant.

However, weeding out the information that is going to be of the most value to us can be a near-impossible task. It’s perhaps the greatest double-edged swordor first-word problemof our time. Endless information to help us learn any skill or knowledge set we’d ever want, but very rarely a signpost on where to begin.

This holds extremely true for researching online about how to end one’s own social anxiety.* A quick search reveals plenty of well-intendedyet emptyadvice (“Just be confident!”) as well “simple” 26-step methods (seriously) on how to overcome social phobia. To someone starting from square one and just wanting to make a positive change in their life, it can all be overwhelming.

This is something I have Googled countless times over the years, watched videos on, talked to people I considered to be ‘social role models’ about, and generally obsessed over. I have seen (and tried out) the good advice, the bad, and the trite. Most of it is the latter two.

In an effort to help others navigate this sea of information, I decided to apply the 80/20 Rule to all I have read, heard, and learned.

Also called the Pareto Principle, 80/20 is an idea that originated in economics and now most-associated with business, suggesting that 80% of profits typically come from 20% of your clients. The idea has since been applied to everything from diet to software to productivity.

I wanted to extend this concept to building social skills and figure out which 20% of all the advice I have ever received or read has given me the greatest return on my investment. In other words, what handful of tips, hacks, and guidance helped me progress the most socially.

Below is a list of 25 pieces of guidance related to becoming a more socially-successful person. These range from suggestions by social mentors to books to mothers’ favorite adages.

I have divvied these up into three categories, and I think the ideal social confidence cocktail (the 20%) combines elements from all three:

Non-verbal:

Look people in the eye
Have strong body language
Touch more while you talk (shoulders, elbows)
Enter the room strongly
Smile
Mirror the other person’s body language
Gain momentum/Warming up (on the phone, with cashiers)
Start small (one-on-one conversations vs. big groups first)

Conceptual Ideas/Paradigms/M.O.s:

Threading
Make it a game/challenge/experiment
Practice
“Don’t worry about what other people think”
Meditate
Incantations before socializing
“Just relax and be yourself/It doesn’t matter what you say, just talk to people”
Read How to Win Friends and Influence People

Verbal “strategies”:

Ask the basic questions (“Where are you from?”, “What do you do?”)
Initiate interactions
Speak in terms of the other person’s interests
Ask opinions
Have equal or higher energy than the person you are talking to
Make observations
Talk to the first person you see everyday
Compliment and show sincere appreciation
Wait tables

Immediately, I eliminated anything that could be considered “empty advice” or just too conceptual for the socially “green”:

 “Just relax and be yourself/It doesn’t matter what you say, just talk to people”
Practice
“Don’t worry about what other people think”
Gain momentum/warm up

Things like “just relax and be yourself” and “just go talk to people” certainly have the best intention from the advice-giver. However, telling this to a socially-challenged person is akin to telling an athlete that wants to improve their vertical to just “jump higher”.

If someone has never felt relaxed or like themselves in unfamiliar social settings, this advice is meaningless as they have no reference point. And caring what others think is likely a source of the social anxiety in the first place; it’s not a switch that can just be turned “off”.

While I’m all for immersion therapy, if someone already has anxiety about being in social situations where they don’t know anyone, repeatedly throwing themselves into those scenarios probably won’t improve anything in a timely manner without a little bit of ‘how’ or direction first. “Just practice”, while valuable and the key to getting good at anything, can be inefficiently fruitless if you don’t have guidance on what to actually practice.

Next, I decided to eliminate anything that is too “narrow”of advice that might shift focus to one detail and distract them from the big picture of the interaction:

Enter the room strongly
Threading

Have equal or higher energy than the person you are talking to
Make observations
Compliment and show sincere appreciation
Ask opinions
Ask the basic questions (“Where are you from?”, “What do you do?”)
Start small (one-on-one conversations vs. big groups first)
Gain momentum/Warming up (phone, cashiers)

Talk to first person you see everyday

Many of these I believe are extremely valuable pieces of advice when implemented, however they either are more of a distraction if focused on in the beginning, or they are somehow encompassed in the 20%.

Observations, compliments, and asking the basic questions are invaluable things to develop–however they become much more powerful when they are developed on top of more foundational skills; only being able to give compliments or ask the basic “interview” questions is going to get old for the other person fast.

Momentum, starting small, and talking to the first person you see are all great, too–but only once starting conversations has become a little easier through the development of other skills.

Others on the list are much more valuable as supplemental tools and not fundamental ones. While I am a big proponent, I think meditation is much more valuable (to this specific purpose) once a reasonably-sound foundation of social skills has already been laid. (“I don’t get it, I meditate everyday but I’m still feeling anti-social, it’s not working!”):

Meditate
Incantations before socializing

And while the importance of body language is not to be understated, it’s not everything, which lets us eliminate:

Touch while you talk (shoulders, elbows)
Smile
Mirror the other person’s body language

Smiling is of course great general life advice no matter what you are doing, but if that’s all you’re doing you will likely come off as more creepy than caring. Touching is also a great way to establish rapport with someone, however, worrying about commanding your own personal space should come first.

A few years ago I first read about mirroring. When trying it out, I would end up getting so distracted by what the other person’s body was doing that my mind would completely lose track of the most important thing, the conversation at hand.

Read How to Win Friends and Influence People

I still attest that this should be required reading for everyone ever, but again, the purpose of this exercise is to bog down with information less and initiate action more. If I narrowed it down to a next five, this would probably top the list, however. #3 below is actually one of the book’s main principles.

Finally, one piece of advice I often hear (presumably aimed at younger people) is impractical for most (although I can vouch that it does work):

Wait tables

Short of someone holding you at gunpoint and telling you to go talk to people, waiting tables is about as ‘forced into’ one can get with becoming more social. Plus, there is a sort of immediate feedback that goes along with itthe more charismatic and social you are with your patrons, generally the better tips you will receive. In a way, it’s getting paid to start good conversation with strangers. Again though, probably not a realistic option for those with large financial obligations.

This leaves five itemstwo non-verbal, two verbal, and one conceptualthat I believe evolved me from being too shy to look my own relatives in the eye to being able to speak comfortably at large groups of strangers the quickest.

Of course everybody is different and what works best for one person might not be right for another. However, I am confident that implementing at least a few of the following few will bring a very large ROI:

1. Look people in the eye

Before communicating effectively and confidently with other people, strong eye contact almost always needs to be established first. Without connecting optically, establishing any other kind of connection is going to be difficult.

I consider learning this the absolute foundation for everything else I have ever learned about becoming an effective communicator; without it, any of the below (or the above) would have little value.

As I have written before, this was what initially withered the idea I had that everyone in the world was more confident and social than me. Once I saw that a large percentage of people felt uncomfortable holding eye contact with another person, my walls of anxiety started to crack and crumble.

2. Body language

It’s often said that 93% of communication is non-verbal. While that exact number, and what constitutes verbal and non-verbal, is up-to-debate, your body language has a drastic impact on others’ perception of you as well as your perception of yourself.

If someone is not comfortable in their own skin, they are likely going to be uncomfortable with “letting go”, getting out of their analytical and high self-monitoring mind, and being present to the situation around them. Practicing strong, confident body language does more than just give the appearance to other people that you are self-assured; it convinces your own mind of that by changing your brain chemistry.

It’s amazing how two people can essentially do the exact same act of sitting quietly, but can give off two completely different vibes if one is sitting confidently erect with a strong gaze versus someone slouched with darting eyes and restless hands.

Walk, stand, and sit like a socially-confident person and you shall become one.

3. Speak in terms of other people’s interests

This might feel “fake” in the beginning, however it all becomes genuine quickly after realizing just how much you can learn from other people and how refreshing it is for them to have an active listener hear them out. Having a personespecially one you’ve only known short period of timebring down their walls so you can really get to know them is about as mutually enjoyable an experience as they come.

While the best conversations aren’t one-sided and are more tennis-esque, playing interviewer and catering conversation topics to the other person accomplishes two things: 1) It lets you take the driver seat of the conversation, making you both feel and be perceived as more confident, and 2) Gives the conversation a clear direction or objective as opposed to the “What do I talk about?!” anxiety many get in an open-ended social situation.

I believe much of social anxiety stems simply from the fear of saying the “wrong” thing. Figuring out what is interesting and unique about everyone creates an honest motive, leaving no time for the “What do I talk abouts” to start.

It’s silly, but I have walked away from conversations feeling like I just hammered the other person with questions and said extremely little myself, only for them to tell me later how social and what a good conversationalist they think I am.

4. Initiate Interactions

When you have a social phobia, it can seem like everyone else is a social god and that you are on the outside looking in; like everyone else was let in on some social secret that you weren’t.

I’m here to tell you most people don’t *like* being in situations where they don’t know people. Sure, a small percentage will just strike up conversations out of nowhere to alleviate the uncertainty, however, the majority of other people won’t; they will check their phone, go back to their car for “something”, or decide they will use the bathroom just to avoid an awkward situation.

I’m also here to tell you that people, as a whole, are overwhelmingly receptive and friendly to random conversation. But everyone is simply waiting for the other person to go first. And starting conversations shows initiative, and initiative breeds confidence.

Think of what your parents told you (or at least me) as a child in regards to small animals and flying insects: “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” The same applies to  talking to strangers.

5. Make it a game/Practice

Humans love games. Something strange happens in our brains when we write something down and make ourselves (publicly or otherwise) accountable for our actions.

A gamewhether it is a personal head game, a public social experiment, or a competition with a friendgives us a purpose outside of the pressure of just doing something because it is supposedly “good for us”. Recorded data is something that feels permanent, and while yes, the delete key is a stroke away, the horror of someone finding and seeing our lax effort can be threatening enough an idea to our ego to trick us into action.

Bettering oneself is obviously extremely hard work; instilling permanent and actual change can be some of the most difficult tasks a person will ever undertake in their lifetime. But just because something is demanding doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be fun.

Interestingly, only one of these elements came from the actual “Verbal” category. Non-verbal communication’s role in discourse is so important that it can’t be stressed enough; same goes for having the appropriate mindset and getting over our own mental blocks.

Once I started to learn and apply much of the above, I was extremely surprised to discover that a large percentageI’ll go as far to say the overwhelming majorityof the population isn’t socially confident. Most people feel at least a little bit of anxiety with being around a group of people they don’t know.

And despite my penchant for social experiments involving talking to strangers, networking, having to public speak for my job, and just generally enjoying meeting new people, awkward still happens. To everyone. There are no perfect interactions. Sometimes people just don’t connect or vibe, it’s simply not the right place and time, or any other countless number of factors that can make a social interaction seem ‘off’. Everyone has their fair share of ‘un-smooth’ interactions in a day.

However, the level of awkwardness in a situation mostly depends on how it is dealt with. In many situations, showing that you can laugh at yourself is enough to diffuse just about any situation. There are no shortcuts, but if there was one in regards to all of this, that just might be it.

All this said, I firmly believe an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. Applying anything from the list of 25 is likely to be beneficial as opposed to harmful.

Take action, experiment, learn about yourself, and create your own confidence cocktail.

What advice has personally given you a large return on your efforts?

*in this post, social anxiety refers to the nerves, anxiousness, fear of judgement, and general uncomfortable feeling that comes with being in social situations, not necessarily the diagnosed disorder. That said, while I am no psychologist/doctor/anything relevant, and while there are obviously instances where it is a legitimate and debilitating ailment, I believe many (and formerly myself included) use it as an excuse to not challenge themselves, E.g., “I can’t, I have social anxiety.”

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