Dealing with a room full of strangers

This section may help anyone attending Icebreakers, or any other group, for the first time.

Do you ever describe yourself in any of the following ways?

  • “I find it difficult to make small talk”
  • “I don’t think I have any real close friends”
  • “I feel there is a barrier between me and other people”
  • “Sometimes I get the feeling of not belonging, of being an outsider”
  • “I worry what people will think about me, so I keep them at a distance”
  • “I find it difficult to initiate conversations”
  • “Other people refer to me as quiet or shy”
  • “I hate the thought of rejection; it makes me feel worthless”
  • “I couldn’t walk into a room full of strangers on my own”
  • “I think people find me boring”

Nearly everyone feels these things at some time in their lives, but for gay people these feelings can be prolonged and intensified.

Some gay men have deeply held doubts about their self-worth which cause them to make up a story about what kind of person they are. They apply destructive labels to themselves which become self-fulfilling: “I’m shy” or “I’m boring” or “I’m hopeless at making friends”. If you have convinced yourself that you are any of these things (or a thousand other variations on the same theme), then it’s time to recognise what you have done, and discard the myths. If you feel you are missing out on life because you are shy or lacking in self-confidence, then there are a few simple techniques that can make socialising a little easier:

Body language is important in conversations and can help you in making your first breakthrough into friendship. Try to appear open and receptive. A smile on making the first approach reassures people that you’re friendly. An open posture tells them that you’re approachable. If you sit with your legs crossed and arms folded, you are indicating that you want to be left alone. If having talked to someone for a while, you want to let them know that you are interested in them, you can mirror their movements. Be subtle – if you copy everything they do as soon as they do it, they will think you are mad! You can assess whether someone is interested in you by noticing whether they are mirroring your gestures.

If you want to make a good impression on someone you’ve just met informally, don’t hog the conversation. Let them talk for half the time and you talk the rest. Generally, people do not like you to reveal too much about yourself too soon, and you shouldn’t expect them to lay their heart on the line at the first encounter either. Most of us have met people who have, on the initial meeting, told us about their failed love affair or about their financial difficulties, but few would subsequently choose that person as a friend. In general, reveal a little about yourself and allow the conversation partner to reveal only as much as he is comfortable with. Tell each other more or less the same amount of personal information.

If you would like to strike up a conversation with someone but are at a loss for something to say then try this tip for inspiration. Remember the word FORE. Most people have:

F – a Family: Do they have brothers and sisters? Where did their family come from? Where did they grow up?

0 – an Occupation: Are they working? Do they enjoy their job? Have they moved to get a better job? Are they studying instead?

R – some Recreation. Most people like to do something in their spare time. Do they play sport? Go to the cinema? Enjoy listening to music? Do yoga? Been on holiday recently?

E – an Education. We’ve all been to school, and some have studied further at college or University. Have you studied the same subjects, or maybe in the same town? When did they quit education? Are they learning something at the moment, like maybe a language at evening class?

It’s OK to talk about non-sensitive subjects like what kind of work you do, what type of food you like, or where you like to go for an evening out. Once you are comfortable with each other, you can proceed into other areas that are a little more personal. However, take it slowly and don’t probe too deeply at first.

If there is a topic that a person does not want to talk about they will let you know, either directly or in a more subtle way. Look for signs of discomfort and change the topic.

If you find you are getting on to conversation topics or subjects you don’t agree about, you have to make the decision either to:

  • terminate the conversation (“Excuse me, I must go to the toilet / get another drink / start making tracks”);
  • change the subject (“What do you think of this decor?”), or
  • state quite calmly that you don’t approve of what’s being said (“I don’t like this kind of racist talk”) without being rude

Because at Icebreakers you are in a gay environment, it’s safe to talk about gay things: a gay programme or film you watched, a book with a gay theme you have read, or which gay pubs or clubs you go to.

If your conversation partner indicates that they’re interested in something you know nothing about, here’s your opportunity to learn. If it’s a topic that bores you rigid, then perhaps it would be better to make your excuses and try elsewhere. However, if you genuinely want to know more, ask questions about what it is that interests you about the subject. Be careful not to turn the conversation into an inquisition by asking one question after another in rapid succession. This can be irritating, may appear threatening and isn’t conversation at all!

By gentle probing you can find out what your prospective friend likes. If you both like the same things, you’re probably onto a winner.

If you are going to strike up a conversation with somebody and you don’t know how they’ll respond, then mentally prepare yourself for all eventualities before you step in. If he is friendly, have some idea how you are going to carry on the conversation. If he appears uninterested, be prepared for that, too. Preparing yourself beforehand for the possibility of rejection can make it much easier to bear if it comes. If the rejection is insensitive and insulting then don’t take it to heart – such an ill-mannered response to your overtures of friendship reflect worse on the person who uttered it than on you.

These points are all taken from the book “Assertively Gay” by Terry Sanderson.

If you feel you need further help with communication skills, body language and overcoming shyness, there are a number of good books on the market. Also keep your eyes peeled for assertiveness courses. Some are run by gay organisations specifically for gay men.

Eventually, almost imperceptibly, you will begin to make progress. If you stick at it, you will gradually accumulate a circle of friends who will support you when the going gets tough.