There’s simply something about having everyone’s eyes on you that may cause introverts to panic.
Imagine this scenario: You’re at a work or school event, or perhaps a party you thought would be a good idea to attend. Everything is going well. The people are great. The food is even better. Despite your initial hesitancy, you start thinking that you might even say yes to the next event.
Then, just as you’ve started to relax, the well-meaning host announces: “Let’s get to know each other. Please stand up one at a time and tell us a little about yourself.”
Just like that, you regret ever leaving the house. You wish, beyond all wishes, that you could go back in time and say no.
Yet, these things happen, no matter how much we introverts may try to avoid them. It has happened to me, many times, although my most recent one was worse: “Stand up and do a dance that best represents you.” I’m not kidding. May the ground open up and swallow me whole. Have you ever seen the dance of the introvert? Of course not.
Why This Introvert Hates ‘Tell Us About Yourself’
For some people, this icebreaker is no problem. They’d simply stand up, tell the group about themselves, and then sit down. They might even throw in the odd joke. You know, no big deal.
For others — introverts like me — it can feel as if the world is about to end. Every insecurity suddenly swims to the surface, and I become consumed by the hope that I won’t make a fool of myself. My brain shuts down and everything that was once so easy for me to talk about is forgotten.
“Hi, I’m Christine, and I’m…” What? I’m nervous? Angry? Insecure? About to cry? “…a writer,” I blurt and hurry to take my seat. They don’t need to know more. As an introvert, I don’t feel comfortable sharing a lot of personal details about myself with people I hardly know.
Public speaking to me is like eat your broccoli to a child. I would love to stand up in front of a crowd and talk freely, but my body betrays me the moment I’m the center of attention. My legs shake, my hands tremble, my face turns red. Even my lips start acting as if they’re now a part of some uncontrollable dance routine. I would love to be one of those people who feels nervous on the inside but doesn’t look it on the outside. Instead, I’m up there shaking like a Polaroid picture.
And, unfortunately, due to my overactive introvert mind, I spend half the time worrying about what I’m going to say and the other half hoping I don’t make a fool of myself. I don’t even hear a single thing anyone else says.
‘Forced Performances’ Minimize Introverts
Why is the “stand up and tell us about yourself” scenario such a big deal? Why do I worry about it so much? Why can’t I do this simple task that extroverts seem to do with ease?
The reason is all that attention on me is wildly overstimulating. There’s simply something about having everyone’s eyes on me that causes me, an introvert, to panic.
Now, to be clear, introversion and anxiety aren’t the same thing, and not all introverts will react the way I do to this type of situation. Some (lucky few) introverts can stand before a crowd and speak with ease (I suspect this kind of confidence comes with lots of practice.) Nevertheless, a deep sense of dread at spontaneous public speaking is a pretty common experience for us “quiet ones.” So, if you’ve experienced it, you’re not alone!
In her book Quiet, Susan Cain writes that situations that involve “forced performance” — which revolve around unspoken competition for the best, fastest, or most profound answer — minimize introverts. Introverts do best when they have time to think about their responses and answer in a meaningful way. When time constraints are imposed, and a public speech is suddenly required, introverts sacrifice quality. At the very least, this embarrasses us, and at the worst, we miss out on key opportunities that a more “eloquent” speaker could obtain.
This isn’t ideal for introverts, and the situation is also an unnecessary one. We do it to ourselves, don’t we? Well, try telling that to my mind, my shaking hands, and my desire to be left alone.
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How to Make Icebreakers Easier for Introverts
While we can’t always avoid awkward icebreakers, it would be great to see more leaders and event organizers take introverts’ needs into consideration. Although the “stand up and tell us about yourself” model works fine for some people, it’s pure torture for us introverts. Plus, most of the time, introductions like this aren’t beneficial. For me, anyway, most of what is said is forgotten within minutes.
There are other ways of getting to know one another that don’t include singling people out. For example, you could allow people to introduce themselves in small groups or one-on-one rather than standing up in front of the entire room.
It also helps to give introverts a specific topic to talk about. That “tell us about yourself” question is so large that it makes my mind go blank. Plus, for many introverts, it’s easier to talk about things that aren’t so personal. So, provide some other options. For example, you could have people name five “favorites” (a favorite restaurant, favorite movie, favorite vacation destination, etc.) or briefly share something new they recently learned.
Regardless of their introversion or extroversion, most people enjoy a casual way of getting to know each other. And the more relaxed people are, the more likely they will be to return to your event in the future.
Introverts: What to Do When It’s Unavoidable
So, introverts, what do you do when public speaking is thrust upon you without prior warning? Do you run away? Do you hide under the table and consume an entire bottle of wine? No, of course not (even though that’s probably exactly what you feel like doing in the moment).
You might not be able to control the situation but you can control — to a degree — the way you deal with it. I’ve found that there’s only one way to deal with a situation like this, and that is to keep it simple.
“Keep it simple, stupid!” KISS is an acronym devised by the U.S Navy in 1960. Other variants include, “Keep it simple, silly,” “Keep it short and simple,” and “Keep it simple and straightforward.”
Either way, the premise is the same. If you’re ever in a situation where you need to speak in front of a crowd, just remember the KISS phrase. Don’t complicate things by trying to come up with something interesting, unique, or funny. For me, anyway, trying to achieve the “ultimate performance” only gives me even more to stress about.
Instead, take a deep breath, be concise, and remember that most people are more worried about what they’re going to say than about what you are saying. If there’s one thing the internet has taught me, it’s that there are more anxious people in the world than I had realized.
Keep it simple and remember that you’re not alone — then maybe later reach for that bottle of wine.
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