I could tell that my hovering without speaking was making her nervous, and yet I couldn’t seem to move away. Good manners compelled me to thank this woman, an Internet acquaintance and hopefully future colleague, for inviting me to her event.
And not just inviting me, either, but comping me a ticket, which is how I justified prying myself out of my home office and driving 15 miles on a weeknight.
When we finally spoke and made it past the introductions, things got even more awkward. I couldn’t seem to form a coherent sentence, and mumbled something about traffic being good.
Fortunately, she was gracious about my incoherence, but it wasn’t until I sat at a table in a dark corner of the club, waiting for the proceedings to begin, that it hit me — full-time freelance writing is turning me feral. If I was going to keep from losing my social skills entirely, I would need to figure out how to overcome social anxiety.
An introvert at heart
I’ve always had some social anxiety, and as a child, my natural introversion was reinforced by interactions with bullies. But I worked hard at getting over it, first in the theater and then in journalism.
Journalism helped the most, since nothing gets you over your shyness faster than having to ask a government official if he’s embezzling money. And newsrooms may no longer be the chaotic caverns portrayed in old movies, but they’re not quiet places where anyone can hide. Even so, for years working from home was my dream.
But since I left the newsroom and fulfilled that dream, things have been quiet, so quiet that I often turn on the news for background noise, or play music. This surprised me, since I’ve always needed to get away from noisy situations, if only for a few minutes, to regroup.
The downsides of working from home
But all this solitude, while productive writing-wise, is definitely eroding my social skills. Unless I take some action, will there be a time when I’m reduced to grunting, unable to make conversation unless it’s in writing?
It doesn’t help that, several days a week, the only person I’ll talk to is my husband. He has an exhausting job outside the home, so we don’t even talk that much. When I do get out, I mostly interact with retail workers, who have no interest in chatting, and frankly, I return the sentiment.
It also doesn’t help that, while I’m lucky to have dear friends, many are in different time zones, while the ones nearby are swamped with work and childcare. We mostly connect via social media, hours or days apart.
So it’s not surprising I was making my poor hostess uncomfortable. I’m just not used to small talk — that social lubricant that helps turn strangers into at least friendly acquaintances — anymore.
And as someone who is working hard on building a brand as a freelance writer, I know there is only so much I can do online. Eventually I’m going to have to meet people face to face.
Reclaiming my social self
And so, here is my plan for turning myself back into a social person. If you’re feeling similarly feral from your own freelancing solitude, I urge you to consider it as well.
It won’t be easy, because, as anyone who’s ever freelanced knows, it’s tough to stop working, whether it’s on the weekend or at night. Keep reminding yourself that efforts to reverse your ferality won’t hurt as long as you make sure to meet your deadlines.
After all, wasn’t setting your own schedule one of the biggest reasons you started freelancing?
1. Try to attend one social event with mostly strangers each month
This may not sound like a big step, but it’s terrifying enough to inspire excuses. Take baby steps to reverse your ferality by connecting with people in real life, rather than through a screen.
No, an event being on a weeknight is not an reason to shirk it. And not being able to bring a date isn’t either, nor is feeling icky and/or unkempt, though a raging flu is a forgivable excuse.
Speaking of forgiving yourself, it’s okay to be a bit awkward at your first few events. Just try not to spill anything on the host. You’ll be amazed at how many people can relate to social anxiety, especially if they’re also writers.
2. Become the friend who plans social gatherings
Yes, it’s exhausting, but it’s usually worth it. Have difficult schedules? Try to plan a few weeks ahead, and offer different alternatives.
Whoever has the least rigid schedule should be the most accommodating, but just because you freelance doesn’t mean your time isn’t important. Work to find a time that fits into everyone’s schedules, whether you’re planning a drink with one friend or a dinner party with eight.
Not every meetup needs to be large or elaborate; even a brief coffee date will get you out of the house and socializing. Remember, only you can prevent your friends from feralizing.
3. Pick up the phone
Even if it’s just a rambling voicemail, I always enjoy hearing a friendly voice, and I’ll bet your distant friends do too. If they do answer, it’s a great chance to catch up.
If someone is always hard to reach, try to make a phone date, or get an idea of his availability over social media first. Spontaneity is overrated.
4. Find other freelancers and form your own newsroom
I’ve started doing this with a local writer I met through social media. Her social skills are far less rusty than mine, but she, too, is concerned. We meet up at venues away from our own homes, and get a surprising amount of work done, and feel less isolated than if we were in a cafe by ourselves.
Some freelancers rent office spaces together, some choose coworking spaces, and others try services like ShareDesk that allow you to rent desks in different venues. Beware, though, that those options cost more money than just writing in a cafe, and that the culture may not suit you. (Also, working in pajamas is probably not an option.)
5. Think like a journalist at social events
It can be hard to strike up a conversation at social events, but I find going back to my journalism roots helps me out. I’ve had my share of reluctant sources in the past, and my job was to get as much information as possible before they shut me down.
While there’s no need to be so aggressive in a social situation, I find it helps to have a plan for what you want to learn about your conversation partner. What’s her name? What does she do? Where is she from? What brings her here?
If the conversation goes no further, move on. It’s all practice — and you’ll be working your way back from the precipice of ferality.
Have you struggled with isolation or started developing feral tendencies as a result of freelancing? What do you do?