It’s safe to say we’ve all been there at some point in our lives. Whether it’s starting school, moving away to university or spending the summer at Camp America. With these new chapters full of excitement, new beginnings and adventure come questions of self-doubt, nervousness and negative self-talk. Who will I spend lunch with? Will I make any friends during Freshers’ Week? Who will I sit next to on that eight hour flight? You start to question whether you’ll fit in, whether you’re ‘cool’, ‘interesting’ or ‘fun’ to be around. That’s what new experiences do. They throw you into the unknown and it’s up to you to make a life raft out of your USPs or be engulfed by a riptide of anxious thoughts and behaviours. Easier said than done. Trust me, I know.
I’ve managed to do most of the aforementioned things. I made friends in school, studied at The University of Reading and Cardiff University and volunteered in the US when I was 17 years old. But boy did I struggle. I didn’t know what to say, how to ingratiate myself with the right people or take advantage of the right opportunities which would have helped me make a few more chums.
I’ve recently entered into a new chapter and have landed my first journalism job in London. As a result, I have found myself faced with the ‘who wants to be my friend?’ conundrum once again. And the rules have changed. Unlike starting school, university, or summer camp, with a job, you don’t start on a level playing field. The game is already rigged against you and you have to run a marathon before you even get to the starting line. I’m in a new city, I know few people and have even fewer innate talents to fall back on. Therefore, the natural starting point is the office.
I am extremely lucky that my office is a minefield of cool, funky, young, exciting people. But that in itself can be daunting and intimidating. Wanting to be friends with these people and becoming friends with them are different things. I sometimes feel like they’re exotic birds who’ve arrived back from far-flung adventures and I’m a homing pigeon that got tremendously lost. That’s anxiety speaking. We’re all insecure to some degree and people in general are friendly, thoughtful and encouraging and don’t see the flaws that you do. I’m still not there yet, but I’ve managed to amass a few colourful feathers along the way. Here are my tips for joining the right flock if you suffer with anxiety.
1. Bring food. It can be very tricky to start a conversation when you suffer with anxiety. You have all these great conversation-starters and witty things to say in your head but your nerves hit the mute button. Bringing snacks to the office will start the chat for you. If you’ve been home for the weekend, bring a local treat, if you’ve come back from a holiday, offer something exotic. But if a First Great Western or BA ticket is out of your budget, I guarantee a packet of Minstrels from the local Co-op will do the trick.
2. Ask questions. Once the ice is broken, it should become easier to get chatting. If like me, you prefer to chat to someone one-on-one, ask the person next to you about their weekend or what they’re working on. People love it when you take an interest in them. This proactive move should provide future conversation topics and make things easier going forward.
3. Utilise modern technology. I personally struggle to approach big groups of people, even if they’re people I know. So lunchtimes can sometimes be a struggle if I’m not feeling confident or I’m having a particularly bad anxiety flair up. When I first started in the office I’d be too anxious to ask people what they were doing for lunch and would subsequently be left eating a soggy sandwich alone at my desk or aimlessly wondering around the streets of Clapham like Billy-No-Mates. The thing you need to remember is, no one is deliberately leaving you out, people have their own routines and lunch buddies and if you don’t take action things will stay the same. I used to feel like a failure because I couldn’t do the social thing and walk up to someone’s desk and ask them to lunch. So I decided to hedge my bets and use Google Chat instead. It’s more of a private space and doesn’t fill me with the same level of dread. Sure, I’d love to be able to be more out-going in future, but it’s a start and beats solo soggy sandwiches.
4. Take advantage of toilet talk. It’s pretty simple science and is the sober equivalent to speaking to a bunch of girls in a nightclub toilet. In my office there are only two female cubicles, so it’s a perfect opportunity to get chatting about outfits and make-up in a female-friendly space.
5. Sharing is caring. Being open and encouraging with your colleagues is a no-brainer. If you know of a way to do something faster or more efficiently, help them out. If you’ve been given an invite to an event and are allowed a Plus 1, ask them along. If you’re making a cup of coffee, ask around if anyone else would like one too. It’s sometimes the simple gestures people remember most.
6. Make a work bestie. It can be hard to make yourself noticed to an entire group, but if you take the time to get to know one person well, you won’t need to. It might be the person you sit next to, someone in the office who started the same time as you, or someone you clicked with in the ladies room. Whoever it is, having them by your side will come in handy when it comes to making you an iced latte in the morning or keeping your boss distracted if your train is running late.
7. Always go to the pub. Whether you drink or not, taking advantage of these social opportunities provide a more relaxed atmosphere in which to make an impact. Outside of the office there can be more chance to chat than during deadline day. With a few G&Ts in the system, it’ll be easier to get to know your colleagues’ personality. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn about people, how many social opportunities will crop up and how easily you’ll blend into the team just by showing up.
8. Tell them about your anxiety. This can sometimes feel difficult, but for me I felt better giving people an indication of what was going on rather than them thinking I was being rude or standoffish. You don’t need to tell your boss or your colleagues about your deepest darkest secrets, but giving them a heads up should make you feel better and allow them to help you and be more mindful about your feelings if you’re having a particularly tough day. My boss has been incredible when it comes to looking after my wellbeing and likes to check in on how I’m feeling, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
9. Be patient. If you’re really struggling with making friends or with self-esteem, always remind yourself how far you’ve come and how new you are. The fact you’ve got the job in the first place proves you’re doing something right and that someone has faith in you and your abilities. It’s key to remember that if you are new it’s going to take time to fit in with a group of people who have known each other for a lot longer. You’ve done the hard bit in getting the job, the social stuff will come in time. Your personality is more attractive than you think.
10. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Now this is a biggie. You’re doing fab and you will fit in eventually. It might seem like everyone around you is the best of friends but they started out as new colleagues once. The girls with the most colourful feathers have hang-ups too. Deep down we’re all insecure, fear rejection and want to be liked, and remembering that helps level the playing field a little more. Bring in your gran’s brownies to the office, ask about that hen-do your colleague went to on Saturday, accept your boss’ offer of a Peroni, and before you know it you’ll become part of the furniture and forget what you were even worrying about in the first place. Well, almost.