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.