How to Battle Social Anxiety: Bring Back Etiquette!

Minding your manners can soothe your nerves.

Posted Jan 14, 2019

If you suffer from social anxiety disorder, don’t let anyone shame you into thinking it’s just shyness.  It’s not.  It’s a recognized mental health diagnosis characterized by intense fear and discomfort in social situations, that affects over 15 million adults and interferes with daily functioning.  You may dread being scrutinized or judged by others, or making mistakes, or being embarrassed.  You may suffer physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, rapid heartbeat, and nausea; these often lead to avoidance of essential everyday interactions.  The cause is not yet determined: evidence of a genetic component exists, although environment plays a strong role.

I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t struggle with social anxiety.  When I was in second grade, my teacher invited me to her home for lunch and I was simply terrified.  What if I couldn’t eat the food she served?  I had to have things fixed a certain way or I’d panic.  I didn’t want to be rude, but it was entirely possible that she was the sort of person who might put pickles in her tuna fish sandwiches.  How was I supposed to cope with that?

Social occasions were a mystery to me: people apparently engaged in them voluntarily.  Why?  Why would they put themselves through that?  One never knew what to expect from any event—human beings are so unpredictable.  I would come home from a party or a dance or a picnic utterly exhausted by the effort of faking pleasure while zealously maintaining my guard.  Everybody else seemed to know the rules; I must have missed that seminal class, I thought, and it was far too embarrassing to ask for a refresher course now.

So very early on, in an attempt to demystify the social norms everyone seemed to take for granted, I began to collect books on etiquette: old-fashioned, yellowing editions about how to properly nibble a canapé, or how to hide your handkerchief up your sleeve.  I learned that if you bit on a piece of gristle or a fish bone, you were supposed to “delicately”—all the books said “delicately”—remove the offending particle from your mouth and place it on the side of your plate.  Such information comforted me no end, and I used to peruse those books for hours, happy in the knowledge that in this tumultuous, chaotic world I at least had mastery over a moment of gristle.

But as I grew older society changed, and not to my liking.  In the 70s you were supposed to let it all hang out, throw convention to the wind, and just go with the flow.  Emily Post never once went with the flow.  I felt lost and square and out-of-date, and my anxiety about socializing grew exponentially worse.  How was I supposed to appear “with it” and loose, when I was so uptight?  It didn’t take me long to discover the answer: Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine.

Maybe because my anxiety ran so deep, I always managed to put away twice as much liquor as my girlfriends.  There was no bottom to my bottomless thirst.  In some ways, it’s a good thing I got so drunk, because I have a spotty memory of what I said or did.  I do know that, to my intense regret, alcohol didn’t turn me into Noel Coward.  Far from it.  I was the kind of sloppy, sentimental drunk who hangs on everyone, slurring “I love you soooo much.”  I shudder to think I was ever so conspicuously out of control.  The girl who couldn’t abide a pickle in her tuna fish paid little mind to the sort of men she took to her bed.

Now that I’m over 18 years sober, the mess of that life has been somewhat cleaned up.  I keep my pillow to myself, and I’m more fastidious with my raptures of love.  Cognitive behavioral therapy has also worked wonders—it’s shown me the absurdity of my thoughts.  Far from lasering in on my shortcomings, people probably aren’t even thinking about me, but about something else altogether (usually themselves).  That wisdom has eased my soul, but I must confess it doesn’t always soothe me enough when I’m obsessing about an upcoming dinner.  For that, I need to pull out my books, and double check who gets introduced first to whom, and where I’m supposed to place my water glass, and how to discreetly signal the waiter.

But manners are about much more than knowing how many times there are in a salad fork.  Good manners help us converse with other people.  They suggest how to physically interact.  They smooth the rough edges of close contact.  In short, they diminish the uncertainty of social engagement by establishing a polite and expected way of doing things.  Maybe this sounds too stilted and formal to you.  You might complain that it takes the fluidity out of social interaction.  But in my opinion, that’s a good thing.  So what if we risk compromising spontaneity?  As far as I’m concerned, spontaneity is just another word for uncertainty.  And anything that reduces uncertainty is bound to have a calming effect on my nerves. 

At its core, etiquette is based on consideration for the other person’s feelings.  The only rule you need to master is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Or, as my 1938 copy of Manners for Moderns says, “Politeness is to do and say/The kindest thing in the kindest way.”  If I were to step out tomorrow into a society where everyone had pledged to honor that maxim, I’d be eager—no, hell, I’d be thrilled—to make its acquaintance.

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