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  • A party at the house of a friend, eleven o'clock,

  • on a still-warm evening. A metre away from you, a group of people are chatting animatedly.

  • Someone is telling an anecdote, it might be something about a train ride they took or

  • the mishaps on someone's bicycle, and their companions break in occasionally with rich

  • laughter and stories of their own. The group as a whole seem confident and attractive and

  • the main narrator especially so. But there may as well be a high solid brick wall or

  • a lamprey-filled moat between you and they. There is resolutely no way you could ever

  • move in to say hello. You smile your characteristic weak, loser's smile, pretend to study the

  • bookshelfand leave the gathering ten minutes later. Much of the advice is about

  • what one might say in the circumstances. It could be better to start somewhere else: with

  • what one should think. Chronic shyness is a guess about what other people are like.

  • Though it doesn't feel like it when it has flooded us, it reflects a rationally-founded

  • assessment as to the nature and intentions of other members of our species. It is not

  • a chemical imbalance or an impulse: it's a philosophyalbeit a deeply unhelpful

  • one.

  • It's essential assumption is that other people are self-sufficient, that they do not lack

  • for company, that they are not alone with anything, that they understand all they need

  • to knowand that they do not share in any of our frailties, hesitations, secret

  • longings or confusions. This echoes, in an adult form, the assumptions a child might

  • make of their teacher, a competent stern grown-up who appears never to have been young, silly,

  • tender or interested in a pillow fight. This lack of faith in the humanity of others is

  • a natural tendency of our minds. We go by the external cuesand few people feel

  • safe enough to display their vulnerabilities. We therefore come to assume that we are living

  • among superior, metal-plated cyborgs rather than fragile, water-filled uncertain entities.

  • We cannot believe that most of what we know of our own minds, especially the self-doubt,

  • the anxiety and the sadness, must exist in those of strangers too. We forget that we

  • also give off few signals as to what we're really like. We too are filled with emotions

  • and interests that we inadvertently end up hiding, that others might not normally expect

  • of usand that could easily lead a stranger to misjudge us and feel intimidated. But we're

  • slow to convert this crucial insight into a social strategy, into a confidence-inducing

  • knowledge that others must also, as we do, harbour requisite doses of warmth, longing,

  • curiosity and sorrowthe ingredients from which new friendships are built. A seemingly

  • happily-married person might have a lot of agony around the course of their relationship;

  • a pugnacious sportsman might suffer from chronic anxiety and shame; a CEO might have vivid

  • memories of their struggles and a lot of space in their imagination for people whose careers

  • have yet to take off. A very intellectual person mightinternallybe longing

  • for a new friend who could patiently encourage them to dance (or forgive their inept girations).

  • Our error is to suppose that the way a person seems is the whole of who they are: our anxiety

  • closes off the core fact that we are all much more approachable than we seem. The key to

  • self-beliefand to the mindset of being able to talk to strangers successfullydoesn't

  • lie in strenuously insisting on our own merits; its source is a more accurate and less forbidding

  • mode of imagining the inner lives, and especially the inner troubles, of strangers.

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A party at the house of a friend, eleven o'clock,

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