An Introvert's Guide To Navigating Social Situations

Disclaimer: The author does not encourage attending social gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ah, peril! To be the introvert forced to mingle with a group of strangers! Any of my kin know the feeling of dread that accompanies an introduction into a new social setting.

I’m sure you can picture the scene without much effort. You arrive at a social event. You walk into a room or slip in, perhaps. Hovering near the walls, you survey the scene. There are so many bodies that you can’t even tell arms from legs! They might be standing in clusters, or sitting around tables, or a mixture of both. There’s a hum of chatter. Maybe you hear a loud chortle ringing out from across the room.

You turn on your laser eyes and desperately scan the array of strangers, looking for just one familiar face. You feel like you might as well be playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?”

Painfully familiar, isn’t it? We’ve all been there, but let’s get real, navigating this sort of situation is much easier for some than it is for others. The introvert (aka myself) has a particularly difficult trial to overcome. In an ideal situation, none of these people know each other and they’re all just as anxious and lost as you are. But, more likely, most of them have already been acquainted and might already be friends.

So what do you do? There are really only two options here; either you wallflower your way through the social event and hope someone approaches you, or you find someone to talk to. Let’s say, hypothetically, you genuinely want to get involved and meet new people. Option A isn’t gonna cut it. And you don’t have any extrovert friends to piggyback on, which means you’ve got to take matters into your own hands.

I have a few personal strategies for navigating these sorts of situations, and if you’re like me, they just might help you, too! So, here goes...my (fairly) reliable introvert’s guide to navigating social events!

I have three techniques for trying to meet new people.

  1. 1. Sneak into a group

    You see those clusters of people around the room chatting it up? Well, who says they get to have all the fun? You deserve some good conversation too! Now, this might be the worst of my strategies, but sometimes, it does work.

    First thing’s first, just pick one. You can pick the clique closest to you, create a random lottery of everyone in the room (very plausible, in my opinion), or make your judgment based on their general vibes.

    Next, you just have to go for it. It’s like jumping into a cold swimming pool — it never gets easier or warmer, and taking your sweet time doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. You just have to dive right in.

    You’ve got a few options for how to go about this, so just do whatever feels most comfortable for you. I like to go for a “Is anyone sitting here?” or “Hey there, mind if I pull up a chair?” whenever possible. Unless someone is actually sitting there, social convention dictates they basically have to let you in and at the very least engage you in some light conversation.

    You can also go for a simple self-introduction; just sidle over and throw out a “Hi, sorry to interrupt, I’m ___, nice to meet you,” or  “What are all of your names?” If you sit down and then they ignore you, conserve your energy — they're not worth it.

    The worst thing about this technique is that you’re essentially interrupting someone’s conversation to save your own skin, but sometimes, sacrifices just have to be made. That may not quell your anxieties though, so if you’re like me and constantly worry that the people you’re talking to aren’t really interested or that they’re not exactly happy about the intrusion, the good news is that politely dipping out is easy enough.

    If you aren’t feeling very welcome, think you made the wrong choice, or the conversation is just lagging, my favorite line to use is “I think I’m gonna go mingle around, it was really nice to meet you guys!” Does it make me sound like a suburban soccer mom? Maybe. Does it do the trick? Absolutely.

  2. 2. Find someone who looks in charge

    Do you ever see someone and just know they’re in their home territory? That’s the kind of person you need — the friendly, hospitable one. This person is going to be the perfect fill-in for your absent extrovert best friend.

    When you find your target, here’s what you need to do: Go up to them and introduce yourself. Next, be honest with them. Tell them you’re new to the club/organization/school/whatever it may be and that you don’t really know anyone yet, strike up some friendly conversation, and then ask if they could introduce you to some people. Often, you won’t even have to ask. This strategy is super effective! Once you find someone who has an in, they’ll make you feel welcome and can even help you meet people you’ll really click with.

  3. 3. Find yourself

    two women speaking to each other

    And no, I don’t mean “yourself” literally. Let’s not get too existential here! What I mean is, if you think about it, there’s got to be someone out there who’s just like you. Someone who’s new, who isn’t really familiar with the crowd, who wants to meet people but is just feeling lost.

    If you look around, they probably won’t be too hard to find. The lone introvert blends in only because no one is looking for them, so keep your eyes peeled. Think like this: If I feel intimidated, where am I going to go to collect myself or disengage from the noise of the crowd? Look for people who are hanging around the perimeters of the room, sitting by themselves, or hovering around the snack table trying to look like they’re engrossed in their food.

    Then, and this is the clincher, go and say hi. Bet you didn’t see that coming! Approach them, introduce yourself, and ask if you can join them. From there, you can just let the conversation flow naturally. Once you’ve established that the two of you are basically in the same boat, it’ll be like a huge weight has been lifted off your chests. In finding an ally, you’re taking all those pressures of trying to fit in off your back.

So, now you’re meeting new people! Making friends! Networking! Maybe even getting people’s numbers! Congratulations! It looks like you just hacked extroversion. There’s just one more problem we introverts have to think about.

We’re expending a lot of energy putting ourselves out there and tricking people into thinking we’re not as reserved as we really are...which means our brains are pretty much at full capacity. Trying to memorize names and faces can get overwhelming, but somehow you’ve got to find it in you to process all of this new information.

Memory devices really come in handy in a situation like this. When I’m learning a lot of unfamiliar names and faces all at once, my personal strategy is to write down people’s names as I learn them. I usually do this in my notes app, along with a memorable detail about that person. This could be anything — what they were wearing, something interesting they shared about themselves, or a notable feature (maybe they were tall, had especially bright eyes, or wore colorful acrylics). The point is just to write any detail about them that stood out to you. As someone who will forget a person’s name as soon as they walk away, I can testify that doing this works wonders!

And there you have it: your consolidated guide of extrovert hacks!

All of these “hacks” are tricks that I’ve learned from personal experience, and they may not all work for you. Our experiences as introverts might not be exactly the same, and we might be at different levels of comfort in social situations that will change the ways we approach them.

As for me, my social life has been marked by severe social anxiety that took hold in middle school and has made making friends both difficult and terrifying. It took me years of slow progress to reach a point where I was comfortable enough to take the initiative in social situations, and lots of trial and error before I could form connections with people I’d never met before.

It still isn’t easy, and I still shut down sometimes, but once I figured out some general tactics to help me cope, it opened up a whole world of possibility! My hope is that in sharing these tactics, maybe I can help you too.