I’m shy. I was extremely shy as a little kid. Then, in third grade, with the help of Mrs. Farley, I began to turn things around. By the time I hit high school and college I was an extroverted introvert. So much so that as a college upperclassman, freshmen sometimes thought the gregarious, outgoing me was inebriated. My friends would tell the newcomers “Nope. That’s just Lee.” Later, life threw me a couple of curve balls and I found myself right back in Shyville. It was safe there. Quiet and invisible has its rewards; safety chief among them.
Happily, my life has been very good for many years now. Most of the time, folks I meet have no idea I’m shy. But sometimes I struggle mightily. One of the places where I still reflexively retreat is in large social situations with all new people. That dreadful, awkward, painful small talk one has to make with complete strangers, can leave me quaking in advance. Every social faux pas I have ever made threatens to play in a continuous loop before I arrive at the gathering. Once there, I have to muster my courage and latent acting skills to banish the deer-in-the-headlights-look or the equally likely I’ll-just-stand-here-and-look-at-the-framed-certificate-of-occupancy-over-here-in-the-corner.
Well, I just found a cheat sheet to help me in those ever so strange stranger moments. Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project has “Seven Tips For Making Good Conversation With A Stranger”. The suggestion which resonated most profoundly with me was the following question:
”What’s keeping you busy these days?”
It’s brilliant isn’t it? Instead of “What do you do?” you can ask: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” which allows the person to answer from any area of their life they’re comfortable with. If they want to tell you they work for a collection agency and your name sounds familiar - fine - awkward but fine! But they might volunteer that all their free time is spent Geo-Caching and wouldn’t that be interesting.
Having been on the receiving end of some blunt and insensitive questions over the years, I want to spread the word that “What’s keeping you busy these days?” is a gracious and welcome way to begin a conversation with a stranger; especially a naturally shy one like me.