Overcoming social anxiety to attend user groups
For some people it might sound silly, but a frequent reason why people don’t sign up or don’t make it to their local user group is to do with social anxiety. I totally understand this – a room full of people you don’t know can be a daunting experience. I still get nervous when attending a new user group for the first time and I run three user groups, and speak at user groups and conferences all round the country!
This post takes you through the worries, and explains how I’ve approached some of the issues. Hopefully, this’ll help you get more people in to your local user group and learning, whether it’s because you have the tools to help yourself, or understand and can help others.
I won’t know anyone
The fear of walking into a room full of people you don’t know, many of whom know each other already, can be debilitating. This was a pretty big fear for me, before I realised I already do things by myself in places full of people I don’t know and who often know each other.
Every time I go to a coffee shop I’m surrounded by groups of people I don’t know but who know each other. I still go for coffee and I think nothing of it – I get what I went in for, which is coffee and some book reading time. This applies to events too – if you didn’t talk to a single person all night but got the knowledge you went in for then you’ve gained!
Once I realised that if I only had the goal of learning something, the meeting people and networking aspect became a happy accident, if it happened. Knowing my goal can be achieved by sitting quietly in a corner, not talking to anyone if it came to it, gives me the courage to go in.
But what if they don’t want me?
In the same way coffee shops don’t have bouncers on the door checking how many people you know before you go in, an event that’s open for new signups is saying that they want new people to attend. If it was a secret/closed group then you wouldn’t even find out about it. An open event organiser’s purpose is to get bums on seats and get some knowledge transfer going – so they want you!
Of course, it’s not that simple since what this often means is “what if I’m not good enough?”
What if I’m not good enough?
This is imposter syndrome where you think things like “but I’m not a real developer like all the people there.” It’s where you worry that you’re not good enough to even be in the same room, learning the same things as them, that they’ll talk to you and think “OMG! This person knows nothing about annealing flanges”.
This isn’t something that can be easily resolved with a reassuring statement, but a few things do help:
- Knowing you wouldn’t pick a topic you couldn’t grasp. You’re only going to want to attend something that’s relevant and where the abstract made sense to you. You’re not there because you read a load of jargon-laden gibberish and thought it was a good idea to go listen to an hour of it.
- Every expert was a beginner – no one at the event popped out of a Nerd-egg knowing everything there is to know. They took years or even decades getting to their level of knowledge by doing the job, by reading, by studying, by attending events like you are.
- Everyone has a different skill set due to education, work history and hobbies so everyone has something to learn.
How do I talk to people?
It can be scary to strike up conversations, particularly if you don’t know what your opening line would be. When I think about just walking up to someone and saying “Hi, I’m Steph, and you are?” it seems impossible. So I don’t do that.
I read up about how to talk to people, and found some useful advice:
- Look approachable (this is a passive strategy) i.e. no defensive body language, no playing on your phone and so on.
- Wander the room a bit before approaching anyone so that you can identify who looks approachable, who is an organiser, where you shouldn’t go as you’ll block foot traffic etc…
- Approach pairs as you can join in their conversation more easily than trying to start one from scratch.
- Be willing to talk about yourself, as much as it’s fantastic to be a good listener a lot of people will feel uncomfortable if you try to listen too much.
- Try not trash talk yourself as it’ll make people uncomfortable and put them in the awkward position of trying to work out whether they should be reassuring you.
- Introduce yourself after a bit of conversation as it helps people anchor your name to a memory they’ve already formed.
- Try to say primarily positive things, don’t flame people and even when you disagree be very polite about it. This is the first time you’re talking to someone and you don’t want them to think you’re aggressive and/or a crackpot.
There can be a lot of worry involved in going to a meetup for the first time. The main trick is to remember that these are like-minded people who go to learn and hopefully to socialise. They have similar hangups and worries to you!
Don’t try to be brave, try to be smart. Use that lovely brain of yours to analyse the problem, think about it rationally and put strategies in place to mitigate issues.
I’d love to hear what else makes you anxious about attending a user group. If you have tips for overcoming these issues, let’s hear them, and if you’re looking for a bit of guidance to get you over a big worry you’re facing, please post and let us help.
Also, if you attend your local user group, you probably know at least one person who isn’t going because the situation daunts them. Be a good sensitive Samaritan, and identify this person and coax them into coming along to a session that’s useful to them. Help them through the evening, introducing them to people and showing them the ropes.