Dear Maddi: Talking to new people

Guest author Becky Ponting shares advice for meeting new people and managing anxiety.

Becky Ponting - 18 March 2021

Dear Maddi,

I am having trouble talking to strangers and I have a hard time making eye contact. How can I overcome this? I need to find a job before graduation but I have a hard time speaking to strangers.



Dear Scared,

I totally understand where you are coming from, because guess what? Talking to new people can definitely be scary! A certain amount of apprehension is normal, and inevitable for most of us. It’s normal to feel the urge to avoid others when we are uncertain, and many people will avoid eye contact with others when feeling shy.

That being said, individuals who have a particularly hard time initiating contact with new people may be holding a couple of beliefs which can get in the way. People with social anxiety tend to overestimate the odds that something bad will happen in a social situation, and they also tend to overestimate the consequences of it..

I want to teach you a technique to help identify realistic worries about an upcoming social situation, and to help you consider how you could cope with problems that might crop up.

Imagine a scenario in which you will be meeting and interacting with someone new. Since you mentioned you are looking for work, you might imagine a job fair, an interview, or a networking event of some kind. 

 Here’s an example:

Event: Meeting a Potential Employer at a Job Fair

Once you have chosen your example scenario, imagine the worst case scenario. Don’t hold back! Think of something really embarrassing or awkward and don’t hesitate to use your imagination.

Worst Case Scenario: I am so nervous that I can’t talk. I can’t say even one word, except that I call them the wrong name, and then I accidentally bump into them and spill a cup of coffee all over them. Maybe even the scalding hot coffee burns and injures them.

Okay, that’s pretty bad! Now I want you to imagine the most permanent and catastrophic consequences if that happened. .

Worst Possible Consequences: The potential employer obviously does not give me an interview. They are permanently scarred from the coffee burn. They tell me to my face that I am a disaster and they tell other employers to avoid me. Word gets out in my field and I am not able to find a job. I try moving to a new city, but word of my incompetence has spread there as well. Eventually, I am unable to work even in other fields and I’m unemployed for the rest of my life.

Okay, now let’s move to the next part of the exercise. All of the events above are technically possible. A lot of bad things in life are possible. But is this event probable?

If it’s not probable, see if you can adjust the worry to make it a bit more realistic. Then ask yourself, “If this more realistic event actually happened, how would I cope with it?”

Let’s go back to the example.

  1. Is it probable that I will be so nervous that I can’t get a single word out of my mouth? Looking at the evidence, I have never really had that happen before. I think I would be able to at least say a few words.

  2. So adjusting the worry to make it more realistic or probable… In a high pressure situation, I might not be as well-spoken as I normally am, and I might fumble for words a bit.

  3. If this happened, how could I cope with it? Okay, I guess I could try and end the conversation early, if it wasn’t going that well. Or maybe I could ask the potential employer if I could send them my resume over email, so that I wouldn’t have to explain everything in person.

This process shifts us from worrying about an unlikely disaster scenario, to more realistic planning or trouble-shooting. Now let’s try this same technique for the second part of the example, where the imagined blunder has such bad consequences.

  1.  Is it likely that I could do something so bad to a potential employer that I become permanently unemployable? This seems unlikely.

  2. So to adjust the worry to make it more realistic… Okay, so maybe I won’t impress the employer and they delete any future emails I send them because they were so unimpressed by their brief interaction with me.

  3. If this happened, how could I cope with it? I could consider that there are other opportunities. It might take me longer to find a position. I could potentially find a temporary position in the interim as I search for my dream job.

By participating in this exercise, you have had the opportunity to explore worst case scenarios, and also to brainstorm and consider some possible problems that may be a bit more likely to actually happen. You have also had the chance to think about how you might cope with realistic problems when they do arise. 

Here is a summary of the technique we learned today: 

Choose an upcoming social situation that worries you, and imagine a worst case scenario with the worst possible consequences:

Is this scenario probable? Why or why not?

What is a more realistic worry in this situation?

How would I cope if this more realistic worry were to occur?

Scared, I hope you are able to approach these difficult situations with some courage, knowing that you will be able to cope with whatever happens, even if things don’t go exactly as planned! 

Here is one final quote to consider:

"A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."

– John A. Shedd

I wish you all the best as you take the exciting step of looking for a job. You got this!!


Becky Ponting (guest author for “Dear Maddi”)