If you try to passively listen to a conversation, then the participants will slowly force you out

181bqt8ds95cnjpgOn the FB comments for my post on including people in your conversations, someone said that talking to strangers hovering at the edge of your conversations might unnerve people with social anxiety and give them panic attacks. Which is fair. I know a lot of people who don’t like to talk. They just want to sit at the edge of conversations and listen in and be at the gathering in a relatively passive way.

However, that’s an unstable situation. Because if you’re not saying something, then the conversation is going to act to shove you out. People will stand in front of you. The circle will close. And you’ll be on the outside. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s just a case of unconscious orientation. Unless someone’s bringing themselves to your attention, then you’re going to assume they’re not part of your conversation. There also might be an element of defensiveness. When someone is listening but not saying something, then it reads as boredom or condescension, and the natural urge is to remove that person from your immediate presence.

In any case, I don’t know if I have good advice on how to passively listen. I honestly don’t think that merely listening in is ever going to be a good way to socialize, since that’s not really what people want. It’s true that sometimes people mostly want an audience, but they want an appreciative and engaged audience. Whereas a silent audience is unnerving. It’s a bit too much like being ignored. But, even more than that, I think that most people really don’t want an audience. They want more than that. They want to make a connection with another person. And you can’t do that if the other person isn’t willing to contribute any part of themselves.

But if I was to give passive listening suggestions, I’d say the absolute baseline requirement is that you need to introduce yourself. You can’t just stay a stranger. You need to say, “Hello, my name is ____.” Secondly, you should chime in periodically with some kind of on-point reaction: laugh or nod or so “Oh my god, I can’t believe it.” Just something to show that you’re there. Those two things will at least register you as a presence. Although they might seem scary at first, they’ll actually make the rest of the interaction much less awkward and anxiety-inducing.

That’s the paradoxical thing about social anxiety. When you have it, you act in ways that actually make your life more anxious. It leads you to minimize your interaction with other people and act in strange, furtive ways that attract attention. For instance, whenever I am alone at a party, I feel incredibly anxious. I hate standing by myself. And I hate the feeling that each moment that I stand by myself is making me look more like a loner and making it more difficult to talk to someone. And I know that if I stand by myself for an hour, then I’ll be going out of my mind with anxiety. So…I stop standing by myself. I find someone to talk to. And that reduces the pressure.

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