People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) are sometimes put on the spot in one-on-one or group conversations. Usually this comes in the form of a comment or question that somehow embarrasses, singles out, or worsens the anxiety of the person being addressed.
Below are what I consider the 10 worst things that you can say to someone with social anxiety. The next time that one of these zingers is on the tip of your tongue, think twice about what you are about to say if you know (or suspect) that the person you're speaking with has social anxiety concerns.
1. "Why are you so quiet?"
Although the question might seem innocent enough to the asker, it is one of the most unhelpful things that can be said to a person with SAD. Not only are you singling out someone who doesn't want to be the center of attention, but you are bringing attention to that person's anxiety; there really is no good way to respond to this question.
If you really want to start a conversation, try asking open-ended questions about topics that the person is passionate about.
2. "You just need to think positive."
Most people would never dream of telling someone with a physical illness that they need to think positive to get better. Yet, for some reason, the myth continues that mental disorders can be cured with a bit of positive thinking.
A person with SAD has problematic thought patterns, and these patterns are not easily changed without outside intervention. Although you may think that your advice is helpful, it trivializes the problem and places the blame on the person for not being able to "out-think" the disorder.
3. "You just need to face your fears."
This comment goes hand-in-hand with thinking positive. Although a person with SAD does need to face his fears, it needs to be done in a gradual way through exposure training, in which progressively more difficult situations are encountered. Otherwise, anxiety can become so intense that the fear is increased rather than lessened.
4. "I know how you feel -- I'm shy too."
There is nothing worse than hearing that someone knows how you feel when they clearly don't. If you feel a little nervous before giving speeches, don't tell a person with SAD that you know how he feels. Also, don't tell him that you used to be shy but you got over it and he can too. Unless you have been diagnosed with SAD, you can't understand how a person with SAD feels.
5. "I need you to make a presentation in our meeting tomorrow."
If you have an employee with SAD, be sure to give that person plenty of notice about social or performance job-related expectations such as presentations, employee luncheons, or even casual discussions in meetings. A person with SAD does not react well to being put on the spot. If you truly value your employee, respect his need for advance notice and give it.
6. "Why don't you have a drink to loosen up?"
Although most mean well when they advise that a person with SAD have a drink to relieve anxiety, it is a dangerous suggestion. People with SAD are at an increased risk for substance abuse disorders. Drinking as a way of coping with social anxiety can lead to the development of alcoholism.
7. "Wow, your face just turned really red."
Chances are, the person whose face just turned red knows that it happened. And, you pointing it out probably made it turn three shades brighter. People who blush easily, whether they have SAD or not, generally don't like being made the center of attention when it happens.
8. "Let me order for you."
Although it can be tempting to talk for a person with SAD, doing so both undermines that person's confidence and takes away an opportunity for him to practice social skills. If you know someone with the disorder, be patient and supportive, but do not speak on his behalf.
9. "Your hands were shaking during your speech."
Again, chances are the person giving the speech knows that her hands shook the whole time. Finding out that other people noticed as well is only going to make things worse.
Instead, find something positive to say about the speech and congratulate her on a job well done.
10. "SAD isn't a real disorder. You're just shy."
The attitude that people with the disorder are simply shy is part of the reason why most sufferers never seek help or receive treatment. SAD is more than shyness. It is a disorder that affects every aspect of daily life. It is irresponsible to debate the legitimacy of something if you know little about it and have not experienced it firsthand.
Still not sure how to talk to a person with SAD or someone who is just shy? Just like anyone else, that person wants to feel like you are listening and interested in what he has to say. Above all else, don't be critical, overbearing or try to get too personal. Find common interests and take it slow; you may just end up making a new friend.