BG: I have a history of social anxiety, but it has gotten much better with age and practice. Ehell in particular has helped me learn a set of social "rules," and sticking to that structure helps me feel comfortable in social situations because a lot of my anxiety has been based on fear of being awkward or not knowing what to do or say. I am also an introvert who finds challenging social situations VERY draining, because keeping track of what role I am supposed to be playing (while trying to make interactions look effortless) takes a lot of, well, effort. My least favorite thing/top 3 anxiety trigger is small talk with acquaintances.
I have a coworker who reminds me a lot of myself in that the same situations that set off my anxiety cause her to visibly fluster. Her face will flush and she will start to stutter a bit, or struggle to finish her thoughts, when she is taken by surprise socially. We live in the same city and commute via the same train route and sometimes we bump into each other waiting for the train. Making small talk for the entire 25 minute train ride can be painful because her visible discomfort makes me feel nervous/uncomfortable and it can devolve into a vortex of mutual anxiety. So, if I spot her before she spots me, I will opt to wait on the other side of the platform and not approach her unless she spots me to spare us both. I should note, I like this woman as a person, it's just that her issues kind of mirror my own making our interactions uncomfortable.
Today as I reached the station platform she turned around right in front of me. We greeted each other, she struggled with taking out her ear buds, and she started kind of word vomiting about her recent experiences apartment hunting. As usual I could feel the nervousness emanating from her. The train came soon after and we were able to get seats next to each other. I thought about how I wanted to spend the next 25 minutes and decided to try a tactic I picked up from ehell, so I turned and said to her "Well, don't let me keep you from your podcast or music you were listening to! I actually have some reading I was planning to do."
She looked surprised, and then relieved, and said "Ok!" She pulled out a laptop and did some work while I read my RSS feed on my phone. When the train arrived we parted ways (she opted to walk to campus, I opted for taking the bus) and all was well.
I have to admit, it felt very strange to disengage like that. With most people I choose to endure the obligation to engage in small talk. With some classmates or people I know better it can even be an opportunity for a more genuine conversation beyond just the weather and recent sports events- sometimes I've been pleasantly surprised.
So, ehell, how did I do? I hope phrasing it as a suggestion made it seem less brusque - if she had said "Oh no, it's ok!" I would have happily talked with her instead. Have you ever offered someone an "out" like this? Any tips for managing to do so gracefully/without it seeming like a "brush off?"