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From Wallflower to "Social Butterfly"

7 tips for reducing your social anxiety and improving your first impression at parties and networking events

By Patti Wood MA, and body language expert

Some of you may think of parties and mingling opportunities and jump for joy and some of you may think of punch and cookies and meeting strangers and feel your palms begin to sweat and your throat start to close. Here are fun and helpful tips for feeling more comfortable at your next party so you can change from a wallflower to a “social butterfly.”

  1. Go early rather than late. If you get there before other guests, it is easier to get acclimated. You can stand with the host if you need courage or introductions. You can even ask for an anxiety-distracting task like taking everybody’s coats or asking if they would like a drink. Nervousness comes out of your body in many ways. One way is through your hands. When your hands are confidently occupied with useful tasks, that confidence message goes to your brain and affects your entire body. It also gives you an easily repeatable script, “Would you like me to take your coat.” as a conversation opener.
  2. Stand near the best smelling food. That is where the people are. If the food is good, they will think good things about you. Research says that pleasant smells give rise to pleasant mood states and persuasion research shows that when we feel good we associate those pleasant feelings with the people we were with when we felt them. Want to get a call from someone you met at a party? Our sense of smell is our strongest link to memory so someone you meet near the good smelling food will be more likely to remember you if they associate you with a good smell.  Food also gives you an easy conversation opener. “Have you tried the crab dip?” “It’s great.” In addition, holding and eating food, like taking coats, gives you something to do with your hands. If you are a single girl, stand near the cheese and salami to meet men and near cinnamon buns if you want him to kiss you. Research on olfaction says the smell of cinnamon buns is arousing for men. (I am thinking of creating my own cologne!) If you are a single person stand near the chocolate. If there’s a well-built cutie standing near the carrot sticks, call me. I want him!
  3. Look for an Open Person. You have learned in an earlier chapter how to make yourself approachable by having open body language.  You can use that information to look for people who you can easily approach. Search for people who are intently speaking to someone already. Spy the people who have their feet slightly apart a few inches rather than crossed, pressed together, or cowboy show of defensive stance 14 inches apart. It is easier to approach someone who is showing his or her palms as they gesture and is smiling. If you are super shy, you can just go up and stand next to someone who looks open and slowly mirror his posture.  Research says he is likely to start a conversation with you.
  4. Go first….you can also introduce yourself. I know I know, you’re thinking, "Patti you are insane.” I hate to talk to people and you want me to initiate a conversation!” “I’d rather stick a fork in my eye.” Put down the fork. Research shows that when you initiate you appear more confident to other people and they immediately feel more at ease. In addition, when they feel at ease, the comfort transfers to you. Remember, two awkward people equal three times the anxiety. In the classic movie, “Come Saturday Morning” Liza Minnelli introduces herself with charming tenderness to a shy boy on a bus.   
  5. Introduce people to each other. Again, you have something to do, and goodness it takes the pressure off you. You now say the younger person’s name first to introduce them to the older person, say the lower status person’s name first to introduce them to the higher status person. Think bigwig’s name is said last.
  6. Ask a question and then relax and listen.  When I was in grad school and teaching at Florida State I tried out for and got a part in a community program.  I almost lost my voice and I learned a lot about listening.  So much anxiety comes from not knowing what to do or how to do it well. I can tell you that the smartest thing you can do at a party is ask a gentle question. It completely takes the talking pressure off you. You don’t have to be witty and urbane to be good listeners. And if “The Seven Habits of highly successful people” is right, everybody loves a good listener. If asking questions seems to be as difficult for you as defusing and atomic bomb, click to my book “Going UP!” The book gives pages of questions you can use to start a conversation.
  7. Nod your head. I give simple listening body language cues in my linked article. Here is one of my favorites to teach men. Nod your head. Women love it. Men typically only nod their heads when they agree, woman nod to show they are listening. Guys, if you nod your head a lot she will love you. Beware of nodding your head at your female boss at the office.  Power people love it when you nod your head too, but your boss might think you love them so much you are willing for them to nominate you for the office, “recycling waste committee for 2009.”

So now you have seven tips to help you change from a wall flower to a social butterfly. If any of these tips unleash the party animal in you, blog me at Please send photos! 

So, before heading out this New Year's Eve, look at what your body language is saying to others. Then survey the party scene for positive body language cues and target people who seem approachable — or need to be rescued.

Here are some body language do's and don'ts to be familiar with:

How to appear unapproachable

People who are anxious may adopt a rigid, tense facial expression. It's possible to misinterpret this as sadness, anger or even disapproval. This means that if you meet somebody new and their expression is less than welcoming, it may not be because they don't want to talk to you, they may just be nervous. It also means that if you're feeling anxious then your facial expression may lead you to appear aloof, disapproving or disinterested.

Making very little eye contact can either convey shyness and submissiveness, or superiority and a lack of interest. If you keep your eyes averted (as is common if you are nervous) then you will look less like you want to be where you are, and appear less approachable. To fight this, actively force yourself to look up and direct your gaze around you from time to time.

Wringing your hands together or touching your sleeves — these gestures can make you appear tense, nervous, and sometimes dishonest.

  • Fidgeting shows boredom and restlessness.
  • Tapping your foot is distracting and a sure sign of boredom.  

People form a barrier by crossing their arms or legs or by holding an object in front of themselves — their body is closed. It is better to seek persons who have arms apart, legs uncrossed, and are facing in your direction — their body is open.

Looking away or hesitating before or while speaking indicates that you're unsure of what you're saying.

A fixed, unfocused stare or if your head or whole body is turned fully away to one side, away from people, shows your attention is elsewhere (Note: Both gaze aversion and torso rotation naturally increases dramatically in conditions of crowding).

People who chew gum, ice or their fingernails send the message that they are anxious or frustrated, neither of which are very attractive emotions.

How to appear approachable

When you walk into a room, you should stand up straight, smile and look around, as it will give out the impression that you care about where you are, and people will be more likely to approach you.

  • Keep your arms and legs open, not crossed.
  • When men are comfortable with their surroundings, they will unbutton their jackets.

Although a direct stare sends the message of romantic interest, it can also imply intensity, aggression or fear, so stick with the “gaze.” The gaze makes you appear confident, interested, secure, and at ease. It's a particularly good technique to have up your sleeve for when you want to connect with someone who is important, where you want to appear interested, confident and calm.

When you actively shift your gaze between the people you are talking to, you send the message that you have respect for everybody in the group.

It is believed that your eyes are the windows to your soul. Therefore, for you to be able to achieve a heartfelt and productive conversation this New Year's Eve, you have to show the other party your undivided attention.

  • Looking at someone's lips is considered sexual.
  • Looking at someone's forehead is considered talking down to them.

You should keep you eye contact within the upside down triangle area, from your right eyebrow to your nose to your left eyebrow.

You must not, under any circumstances, look around while the other person is talking. You have to always make sure that the person you're talking to sees that you are truly participating in your conversation by listening intently, while maintaining eye-to-eye contact.

A smile is the most positive signal you can give. It reaffirms your enthusiasm and good nature, but be careful of over-grinning. Your smile is one of the strongest tools you have in meeting new people. It will help you to appear warm, open, friendly and confident, even if you are feeling on edge.

To appear more approachable by men, women should not take up a lot of space (taking up space is a sign of power and superiority). Women should also keep their feet no farther than 6 inches apart. After all, on New Year's Eve you want to send the message that you have room for a conversation.

For men, appearing more dominant effectively draws the attraction of women. To attract women, stand with your feet 6-10 inches apart, and toes pointing outward. Feel free to take up some space.

Maintain symmetry. If one side of the body does not match the other, that suggests that you only have half interest in the other person, that you are distracted with something else and not saying why.

Persons instinctively raise their eyebrows when they meet interesting persons. Use this to attempt to measure the interest that other persons have with you. Interested or excited persons will also have shiny eyes. The eyes have a tiny gland on the bottom of the eyelid secreting liquids such as tears and lubrication. When a person is interested or excited, the glands tend to secrete liquid, thus giving the eyes the shiny appearance.

To appear sincere and genuine, if someone catches your eye from across the room, briefly raise and lower your eyebrows and give a slight backwards head tilt.

Worst place to be seen

Hanging out near the wall or sitting at a table, or constantly at the bar.

Best places to be seen

If you want to be the center of attention, don't become a bar groupie. Instead, stand and move around a little bit in the center of the room. Where you are in a room (and what you're doing) has a lot to do with your ability to attract the opposite sex. A good alternative is to stand by a window or some indoor plants, as sociable people tend to gravitate to these areas.

How to spot a person in need of rescuing

When you observe a group of people and you notice that one of the men in the group isn't talking or you see a woman who is being bombarded by a non-stop talker, you could save a person in need of rescuing! Watch the person's body language and see if you can sense what he or she is feeling. Does the person seem satisfied just listening? If he or she appears uncomfortable or intimidated, be creative and engage the person's attention, and then break into a one-on-one chat. Keep the conversation light. Humor is a wonderful tool for any situation, especially if you're trying to draw someone out.

Here are some final tips:

The wrong time to offer to buy someone a cocktail or to ask them to dance: when the person you want to approach is talking face-to-face with his or her hips parallel to someone they are talking to — do not interrupt! Wait until they both open up the angle of their conversation by at least 30%, then make your move. Watch those hips!

When you are ready to make your move, don't over think it, just smile and introduce yourself. A great opening line is: “Before 2007 gets here, I need a woman/man's opinion on something..”

Don't rush through conversations. Remember names and use them frequently during conversations.

Show an interest in every person you meet. By showing an interest, you create a favorable impression of yourself.