I don’t want to increase anybody’s anxiety, but a recent study by researchers from University of Groningen and University of Oxford found that people with high levels of anxiety were rated less positively by conversation partners. To add insult to injury, conversation partners have a reduced desire for future interactions with people with social anxiety disorder. Before you slump into defeat, let’s get to the bottom of this, then look at some practical solutions.
“People with high levels of anxiety were rated less positively by conversation partners.”
According to previous research, people with social anxiety disorder focus their attention towards their self, as they attempt to assess how people perceive them, often assuming these judgements to be negative. The added burden, for some, of conjuring up responses to keep the conversation going, plus the stress of the interaction in general, leaves little cognitive resources to pay attention to a conversation partner. It’s not surprising that a conversation can be so daunting and difficult!
While I don’t have social anxiety, I do know how difficult conversations can be. Why? Because as a child and young adult I was terrified of being noticed and having to speak to people outside of my family and friends. I tried to blend in with the background and never opened my mouth to speak voluntarily. Sometimes, not speaking when I was being spoken to. When I had to speak, my words mashed together and came out all wrong. Sometimes, my tongue would get in the way and a lisp would come from nowhere.
What I found particularly stressful, was the torturous build-up of stress when a new high school teacher would go round the class, asking each of us to say our name. With my body and brain hijacked by the fear response, Sophie became Ssothie. The teacher looked at me confused, not recognising the name, asking me to repeat it. Then came my absolute horror at stuffing up something so simple as my name. My cheeks burning and red, I’d done exactly what I strived not to do–be noticed. And even worse than that, I made myself look like a complete imbecile. That’s what I thought anyway. The reality was, no-one gave a damn. Most probably they didn’t even notice. But it’s etched into my memory as clear as day.
Rating very low on the extraversion scale, I don’t particularly like small talk and let’s face it, I’ve missed out on years of valuable practise in conversations, as a child and young adult. While I’m no longer shy and socially anxious and not afraid to speak my mind even when it goes against popular opinion, I am still an introvert and if I’m honest, for the most part, I’d rather be gardening than socialising.
On the rare occasions that I do socialise, I enjoy it. Get me onto a topic I’m passionate about, like nonverbal communication, cats, gardening or food, and I will have to stop myself from chewing your ear off. Sometimes though, if I’m not in the mood, I just don’t know what to say. But that’s okay because there are things we can do to try to get through a conversation unscathed–if we feel we need to. I’ll get to that later, back to the study.
Disrupted Joint Action Accounts for Reduced Likability of Socially Anxious Individuals
Mia Maria Günak, David M. Clark, Miriam J.J. Lommen, 2019
In the study, high and low socially anxious individuals, separately, made small talk with a third person–a conversation partner. The conversations were videoed and after the conversation, the conversation partner rated the person they talked to, as well as their personal feelings during the conversation. Then, independent assessors and automated software analysed the video footage for nonverbal ‘joint action’.
“Joint action is a process where two individuals predict and complement each other’s behaviours to accomplish a common goal, promoting rapport”
— CLARK, 1996; PICKERING & GARROD, 2013; SEBANZ, BEKKERING, & KNOBLICH, 2006
They were measuring movement synchronisation between the two people talking, that is, whether their movements coordinated in terms of timing and rhythm. The results found that those with high levels of social anxiety were less physically synchronised with their conversation partner, concluding that reduced joint action may explain why socially anxious individuals tend to be perceived less positively by others.
“The results found that those with high levels of social anxiety were less physically synchronised with their conversation partner, concluding that reduced joint action may explain why socially anxious individuals tend to be perceived less positively by others.”
Their work added to earlier research on verbal/nonverbal joint action during conversation. Conclusions indicate socially anxious individuals engage less in the shared task of conversation, and this behaviour attracts less positive responses from conversation partners. More specifically, there are fewer collaborative contributions, like interjecting with predictions of narrative, repeating utterances, making facial expressions and exclamations–all in specific response to the narrative. As opposed to more general responses, which signal understanding or agreement, but don’t become part of the story (e.g. nods, mmm, yeah).
It’s the difference between simply perceiving speech and actively mentally co-producing the conversation. The problem occurs when cognitive capacity is consumed by focusing on oneself, worrying about what to say and how it will be perceived, as well as listening to one’s assumptions of negative judgement. There’s no capacity left to co-produce the conversation.
The Body Language of Anxiety
Without seeing the videos from the recent study, I can’t comment on the types of movements and behaviours expressed by individuals with high or low-level anxiety. However, I can explain the types of behaviours that people with high anxiety are more likely to display. Joint action aside, I’d like to offer another explanation as to why socially anxious individuals might be perceived less positively.
Unfortunately, anxiety comes with its own set of voluntary and involuntary behaviours. Behaviours that are related to stress and discomfort–stress behaviours and blocking behaviours. These are very common behaviours which most people do without being aware of them.
When we feel the slightest pressure or threat, we display these behaviours because they pacify us, bringing a degree of comfort. I often refer to these as negative behaviours, however, there’s nothing wrong with them per se, it’s natural to want to create feelings of comfort within ourselves. The problem is they can have a negative impact on other people’s emotion, as well as your own emotion. And emotion drives behaviour.
One reason they have a negative impact is mirror neurons. When we interact with people that express behaviours linked to stress and discomfort, our emotions can switch from positive to negative. At best we start to feel a bit antsy, at worst, we feel the stress and discomfort–this is certainly the case for highly empathic people.
Additionally, stress behaviours are associated with a lack of confidence, competence and even associated with deception. Because when people lack confidence or when they are being deceptive, stress behaviours tend to increase. Any of these reasons are enough to create a negative experience for conversation partners.
Let’s look at what we may see in anxiety.
Expression of Fear
The expression of fear would likely be present–although perhaps not to the degree of the lady in this image! The expression of fear alerts others that a threat is present, activating their fear response, just in case they need to fight or take flight. The fear expression wasn’t accounted for in the study, but the authors did acknowledge its presence could have be a contributing factor.
There are many stress behaviours, I’ll list the most common ones. Most people have one or two of these that they do often, without being aware of them. I once worked with a government executive, who, after learning about these behaviours audited himself (on video), only to find an odd mouth behaviour which looked like he was chewing on something. He did this between each sentence while under stress but had no idea he was doing it. Being aware of your personal stress behaviours is empowering because then, you can make changes.
What I’m suggesting is that you actively identify which behaviours you do, then make a concerted effort to quit them. Some behaviours start from stress but end up being a bad habit and present where there is no stress.
“Some behaviours start from stress but end up being a bad habit and present where there is no stress.”
I don’t want you to go into a stressful interaction and start to think about quitting them. Start now, in a safe environment and practise stopping them until you no longer do them. Believe me, I had my fair share in the past. Awareness of how you use your body is key.
Ventilating–men tend to loosen their collar, men and women run fingers through their hair or remove an item of clothing. It’s an attempt to cool down the body, which heats up during the fear response.
Sweating (involuntary)–this can’t be helped, so ignore it.
High Blink Rate (involuntary)–ignore this too, because focusing on it takes up cognitive capacity.
Movement (Pacing, Rocking, Fidgeting, Etcetera)
Self Soothing Behaviours
Rubbing or Touching Oneself
Suprasternal Notch (the triangular notch at the base of the neck)–common behaviour in women
Neck–women tend to touch the back and sides, whereas men tend to touch the front with a firmer grip
Face (Ears, Nose, Etcetera)–this is not a deception indicator but is associated with deception because it often increases during deception
Biting Tongue, Lips or Nails
Tongue Movements–lip licking, running tongue over inner cheeks or teeth
As soon as we feel the slightest discomfort, whether it’s from the cool air of the aircon, the thought of something we haven’t performed well at, or the fact that there’s a stranger in the room–we block with our body or objects. Typically, we display these behaviours around the torso, because that’s the area of the body which contains vital organs. It’s a survival mechanism–the body responding to a threat which could be real or perceived.
A physical barrier equates to a psychological barrier, so blocking behaviours are not warm, open and welcoming. Indulging in these behaviours make people appear cold and unapproachable and therefore, they are more likely to be negatively perceived.
Additionally, if you are blocking, your conversation partner is more likely to be blocking, mirroring your moves and feeling discomfort. Get used to quitting blocking behaviours in a safe space, so they are no longer part of your regular behaviours. Then keep them in check while conversing.
Creating Positive Perceptions from Others
If you want to be perceived more positively, it’s important to adapt your nonverbal behaviours so that you display more positive behaviours. But there are other things you can do too, to be able to get through anxiety and difficult interactions.
Practise being present
Practise being present in conversations from a safe place–talk to the TV (when nobody is watching you). Documentaries are great for this. As someone is talking, predict the narrative, interject and be expressive, as if you are there with them. Stand and practise open body language as you join in.
Tackle the physiological effects of the fear response
Practise slow breathing
“It’s okay to feel anxious. This is your body protecting you from danger.”
I want to finish off by saying it’s okay to feel anxious. This is your body protecting you from danger. Yes, maybe it overreacts at times, but from a positive perspective, it works as intended, working to keep you safe.
It’s also okay, not to want to converse–depending on the context of the situation, who you are with and what impression you want to give. Weight this up, depending on what’s important and what your priorities are. If you don’t feel like talking, make your excuses and exit the conversation, or if you’re in a group, retract.
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