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Shying clear of long awkward silences

Shyness is not a trait you would attribute to somebody who wears a straitjacket as casual day wear and compares herself to Andy Warhol, but shy is exactly what performer Lady Gaga considers herself to be.

"I don't really meet that many other artists because I'm actually kinda shy," she admitted recently. "I might not be shy with people that I know but with people that I don't know I am very shy."

I'd be inclined to believe her, and not just because her theatrical flourishes reek of insecurity, but because social anxiety is much more common than people realise.

It is known as the common cold of psychiatric disorders because it is so prevalent and studies reveal that one in eight will suffer from it at some point.

For most, social anxiety strikes in forced social situations. One might be the life and soul of the party when in the company of friends, but put them in a room with people they don't have, or want, a connection with, and disaster ensues.

An elevator provides the perfect example. Necks heat up and time slows down. The socially anxious will stare at their feet with an intensity that would suggest it's the first time they've ever seen a pair of shoes.

Some will feign acute interest in the buttons as they flash upwardly. Others just pray that the doors will soon spring open and release them from this pressure cooker of social anxiety.

The office cigarette break is another minefield for the social backward. Why do we feel that we have to offer up some sort of valediction as we step back into the building? "Back to the grindstone," tends to be the preferred parting remark.

Functions are the bete noire of the socially anxious. As a journalist, I'm asked to various events. I tend to decline these invitations because the best line of conversation I can muster up is "great venue".

Once the canapes, the weather and the state of the Irish economy have been discussed, I will invariably slip to the bathroom so as to escape the gulf of silence that will no doubt have grown.

Thankfully, I'm not at the point where I need to splash water on my face and mouth positive affirmations in the mirror. Although, once back in the room, I have been known to rummage in my handbag for nothing in particular and read imaginary texts on my phone.

I consider these tactics coping skills, of which there are many. Alcohol lubricates social cohesion ("greeeeeeeeeat venue"), a big, disarming smile works wonders and I can generally get 10 minutes of redundant conversation out of my various iPhone apps.

I still feel fake, though. Perhaps the socially awkward are simply more genuine. They talk because they are interested and not to bridge awkward silences. They don't waste time on chit-chat, preferring organic connections instead. They have a natural aversion to the word "mingling".

Kudos to those who flutter around social functions like butterflies and "work the room", as they like to put it, but I can't help but feel that their loquacity is the best coping skill of all.


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