Meeting new people is always intimidating, but the memory that sticks out the most for me was my time on campus during my freshman year of college.
I moved into a dorm in Boston, living on my own for the first time, and didn’t know a single soul. Even though I was excited to make new friends, in the moment all I wanted to do was lock my door and hide.
It’s a good thing I got over that because meeting new people is something that happens throughout life—at school, at work, making new friends, going on dates, interviewing for jobs, networking… there’s really no way to avoid it.
Anxiety about meeting new people is universal. Back in my college dorm room, there were approximately 3,000 other freshmen feeling the exact same way.
And there’s another hard truth: Knowing how to act confident in front of new people gets you ahead in life, too (whether or not that’s fair).
While I still may get butterflies in my stomach when I walk into a room full of people I haven’t yet met, I’ve gotten much better at managing such situations without losing my cool.
I’ve boiled down my 5 best tips for how to act confident and manage nerves when meeting new people:
1. First Listen, then Quiet Your Inner Critic
“I’m going to embarrass myself.”
“I’m boring; I have nothing interesting to say.”
“They must think I’m weird.”
“This outfit is all wrong.”
“That group doesn’t want me to join their conversation.”
“Why is everyone staring at me?”
“They’re just being nice; they don’t really like me.”
Do you recognize any of these phrases? I sure do—I’ve heard them in my own head countless times.
I’ll be honest, sometimes I still have these thoughts when I’m preparing to meet new people. But thanks to lots of hard work, I’ve managed to keep the voice quiet enough so that it doesn’t stop me from putting my best foot forward.
There’s a process I use to do this (and trust me, it’s easier said than done):
Give the voice space to speak. You need to understand what your inner critic is trying to say, so the first step is to pay attention. Allow it to speak, rather than turning away from it. What is the root anxiety it’s talking about? Is it that you’ll stumble over your words? That you won’t know who to talk to? That your “look” is off? Nail this down, so you can take it to the next step.
Counteract the voice. Once you’ve gotten a better understanding of what’s going on with your anxiety, it’s time to find ways to counteract it. Sometimes, this is as easy as speaking out loud: “I think this outfit looks great and matches the vibe I want to give off.” Other times, you might do something to boost your confidence: For example, when pursuing a new job opportunity, this could mean practicing your answers to common interview questions beforehand.
When all else fails, save it for later. It would be nice to always have time to sit and prepare before meeting new people. But sometimes, you’re thrown into a sea of new faces and have to act fast. In those cases, the best you can do is try to ignore your inner critic for now. For me, it helps to visualize putting my anxiety in a box on a shelf, where I can keep it safe until I’m ready to deal with it later. (Just don’t let it stay on the shelf too long!) This helps remove the anxiety from the moment, at least a bit, so I can push forward with an unexpected meetup.
2. How to Get Better at First Impressions
One of the hardest things about meeting new people is the pressure to make a good first impression. It’s inevitable that you’ll make bad impressions on some people in life, and recovering from them isn’t impossible—but it is uncomfortable.
That’s why a big part of learning how to act confident when meeting new people is building up your “first impression muscles.” Try these tips:
Body language sets the tone
In most situations, the first thing people register about you is your appearance—that’s just how humans work, given that sight is our most prominent sense.
People will read into your body language, whether or not it indicates how you truly feel. Let’s cover some body language basics:
Standing straight with your shoulders back gives off a posture of pure confidence.
Keeping your arms at your sides, rather than in your pockets or behind your back, makes you appear approachable.
Steady eye contact shows people you are listening and allows others to feel included when you’re talking.
Smile! This is the obvious one. A smile is the universal sign that says, “I’m open to meeting people.”
Of course, when you’re feeling anxious, it’s natural to want to close yourself off with folded arms, or slouch so you appear small and unapproachable.
If that’s a problem for you, try practicing in front of a mirror. Set a timer, and see how it feels to hold your body in that position for a few minutes at a time. As you get to know the feeling, it will become easier to tap into when meeting new people.
If you tend to put your hands in your pockets (this was my problem), try putting something in your pocket as a reminder, like a little trinket or oddly shaped coin. Every time you feel it, it will be a reminder to adjust your posture.
Gaining confidence in your appearance
Like it or not, what you’re wearing when you meet new people will be part of your first impression. On top of that, if you aren’t feeling comfortable with your outfit at a social or professional event, it will be very hard to muster up confidence.
You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a new wardrobe or an hour putting on makeup before you go out to meet new people. But putting some thought into your appearance does help cultivate a bit of personal style, so you have go-to outfits you can rely on to feel your best and leave a good impression.
It’s easy to be anxious about what you’re going to say in a group with new people, but that can become a trap. You can become so focused on what’s coming out of your own mouth that you fail to listen to others—and listening is the real key to being a memorable and lovable conversationalist.
Above, I talked about the importance of your own body language. But reading other people’s body language is equally essential. People will show you how they are responding to what you are saying and doing by how they act—if they maintain eye contact, smile at you, and turn toward you, those are all good signs that you’re making a good impression. The absence of those signs might be an indication that it’s time to change subjects or let someone else speak.
You definitely want to spend some time talking about yourself when you’re meeting new people—but you need to balance this by spending roughly the same amount of time listening to others. When you do talk about yourself, focus on being honest and true, rather than puffing yourself up or playing down your strengths and skills. Show people who you really are, because let’s face it—you can’t be anyone else!
4. Handling awkward moments: The graceful exit
It would be nice if life was like a sitcom, where everyone had witty one-liners and there was a laugh track to fill the awkward silences.
But in real life, things aren’t so smooth. You’ll put your foot in your mouth, or misunderstand someone, and there will be lots of awkward silences.
Though inevitable, there are certain things you can do to minimize and move on from these uncomfortable moments.
Choose engaging conversation topics
When choosing a topic of conversation, make sure it’s inclusive to everyone in the group you’re talking to.
For example, imagine you’re at a party with a group of five or six people. You realize that for the last few minutes, you and one other person have been talking non-stop about your shared love of football, while everyone else has remained silent, walked off, or started talking amongst themselves.
If you see your conversation partner(s) starting to lose interest, steer it in another direction.
One important note: When it comes to conversation, “controversial” is not the same thing as “engaging.” Avoid politics and religion as a matter of course, and if you have even an inkling that something you’re about to say might offend someone, just refrain from saying it altogether.
Awkward silence happens
There’s nothing quite like the tension of an awkward silence. It hangs in the air, and suddenly you’re hyper-aware of every little sound. You might be tempted to jump in and fill the silence—and if you have something you’ve been wanting to contribute to the conversation, this could be your moment.
If not, it’s better to let the silence hang for a moment, as uncomfortable as that may be, rather than say something just to fill the gap. Try taking a deep, quiet breath in and out—chances are, by the time you do this, either someone else will have picked up the conversation, or you’ll have thought of something to say.
How to pivot or exit
If you find yourself in a conversation that’s turned sour, it’s important to know how to pivot. One technique is to return to a previously successful conversation topic with a new angle or question, or a new topic altogether.
If that fails, knowing how to exit gracefully can save both face and future opportunities. A simple “It was great meeting you, but I have to run,” works wonders.
5. Following up: The art of staying connected
You met, you talked, you survived the awkward silences. But meeting new people is just the first step. You have to keep that connection alive, and that’s where a lot of us drop the ball.
There’s no universal rule about when and how you should follow up, but generally, you don’t want to wait too long. You’re freshest in others’ minds right after you’ve met, so strike while the iron’s hot.
In some cases, you can send a reply within an hour or two of the meeting—such as a quick text to say “Nice meeting you!” or a short thank-you note to a job interviewer.
Other times, it’s safe to wait a day or two, so you don’t come off as too pushy or eager. It’s a balancing act, but with enough practice, you’ll learn to get the timing right.
It’s natural to feel nervous when meeting new people, and there’s probably nothing you can do to completely eliminate your nerves.
Practicing the tactics I’ve laid out in this article will help you improve so that each time it gets easier and easier. Soon enough, you’ll know how to act confident no matter what situation you’re in, paving the way for new relationships and opportunities.