This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Ask VICE is a series where readers ask VICE to solve their problems, from dealing with unrequited love to handling annoying flatmates. Today we’re exploring why some of us freeze up in social situations.
I’ve recently found myself in a new friendship circle, and I’ve noticed that I’ve got a tendency to stay quiet around them. I disappear in conversations when there are too many people involved, which is weird, because I love socialising and meeting new people.
I’ve always been better when I’m with just a few people at a time – that’s the social situation I’m at my best. When there are too many new faces around, I freeze up and I overthink what I could say and how it might be received so much that I end up saying practically nothing at all.
I’m not sure if what I experience in this situations is shyness or if it’s something else – I just know that I’d like to feel less pressure to talk. When I get home after an evening of being quiet, I worry that perhaps I really am boring. How can I loosen up?
Embedding yourself in a new group of mates is a bit like exploring an unknown world – there are dynamics, social conventions and vibes that just take a while to understand. Any group has shared roles, relationships and values – you can’t be expected to attune yourself to all of them immediately. (Social psychologists call this an in-group.)
You’re right to point out that we tend to feel more in control in one-on-one social situations with someone we’re familiar with. You know you’ll get a turn to talk, and things tend to feel a bit more balanced than they do in bigger groups.
Things change when you find yourself in a group, especially if you have a somewhat introverted personality. There’s a lot to juggle, whether that’s the melodramatic members of the group who will loudly have their say on every topic under discussion, the worry that you’ll make a joke that bombs, or the fear that you’ll say the wrong thing and lose points with your new pals.
“When you’re with just a couple of friends, the fear of social judgment can disappear completely,” says Milan-based psychologist Gianluca Franciosi, who specialises in relationships. “There’s no need to prove anything to these people.”
Franciosi goes on to explain that the pressures you’ve outlined are understandable reactions to a social context where there are more variables to consider and less certainties. "It can happen that the new person may be perceived as ‘a threat’ by the in-group, and therefore the former will try to make as good an impression as possible.”
The problem is that you can become preoccupied by the impression you’re trying to make. The more you mull it over, the more estranged from the group you can become.
“That feeling of pressure is dependent on how much awareness we have of ourselves, how balanced we feel as individuals, and how much importance we place on the judgement of others,” Franciosi says.
So D., what you’re going through is understandable. You are perhaps unconsciously observing and taking stock of things at your own pace. To observers, this might come across as shyness. We often think of being shy as a negative thing, but Franciosi points out that it has an adaptive function, too: "Being quiet and taking things in is fundamental with regards to understanding the group and how to act within it.”
It’s important to remember that we all handle these situations differently. Some people are able to enter a new group and immediately look self-confident and outgoing. Some of us may envy them for that, but they might just be trying to mask the same feelings that you’ve expressed in your letter, D.
For Franciosi, it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that acting differently with different people isn’t a sign of some kind of internal inconsistency. “Although our behaviours are different or even in opposition, we are still talking about adaptation,” Franciosi says. "Understanding one's role within a particular group, and how this can change depending on the group we find ourselves in is a form of social intelligence."
Next time you find yourself feeling – or being – a little quiet in a group, try and get out of your own head. Focus less on your own performance, if you can. Ask yourself: What if you’re being quiet because no one else is actually being that interesting?