• Michael Freed

Why Understanding Social Anxiety and Shyness Can Increase Bar Sales

Anyone who has taken a look at our company summary might be wondering why a tech company focused on mental health that isn’t even based in Ybor City would be taking an interest in the Ybor Chamber of Commerce. The answer is we heard there might be a couple of bars here. What do bars have to do with mental health? That’s what I’m here to explain. This presentation involves all kinds of social businesses, bars, cafes, tea lounges, and similar venues. For simplicity, I’m going to refer to this broad category of social businesses as bars since they make up the largest portion of the category.

If you own a bar, you might think that your biggest competitors are other bars. While the Jersey Shore team trivia competition down the road might get your attention, it’s probably the least of your problems. Research shows the competitor you really have to worry about is not other bars. It’s the grocery store. Even before Covid, the bar industry nationwide was losing ground to people who decided they’d rather just stay home. The wide availability of craft beers, cocktail mixes, alcohol delivery services, affordable big-screen TVs, and sound systems have convinced many consumers that the cheaper and more convenient experience of staying home can be just as much fun as going to the bar. Covid-19 forcing people to make those adjustments will likely only worsen things long after a vaccine breaks the pandemic.

For bars to survive, they need to emphasize experiences that consumers cannot get at home. Live Music, the opportunity to meet new people, and low-cost therapy from annoyed bartenders are more important now than ever. Lights, music, and the big game are no longer a draw so much as they say to customers, “You don’t have to stay home to watch the Bucs lose. You can do that here too.”

Meeting new people is what ties all this together. Most people would love to expand their network. The young are eager to make new friends and especially to find someone to date. In the middle years, the emphasis becomes a little more geared toward professional networking and those in their golden years are interested in keeping up their social networks as they start losing friends to the ravages of time. The problem is that for most Americans, meeting new people is actually a pretty unpleasant experience.

Depending on your source, between 10 and 20 million Americans have what a professional psychiatrist would recognize as social anxiety. But the word, social anxiety has taken on a pop culture meaning separate from the clinical one and has become synonymous with being socially awkward or shy. This expanded definition covers over 50% of American adults and growing. That means that more than half of your potential customers are really uncomfortable with one of the biggest draws you provide. By understanding it, you can take steps to make the process easier for your customers, making them happier, bringing in more of them, and recapturing some of that market share lost to Publix.

It turns out the pop culture misuse of the word isn’t far off. Shyness and social anxiety are in fact the same thing. The difference is a matter of degree. Basically, when shyness becomes debilitating or causes panic attacks, it is considered social anxiety. You can also think of people who are shy as having some of the symptoms, where a person with clinical social anxiety has many more symptoms or has them to a higher degree. Shyness is so common that we may even think of it as normal and downplay its significance, but when you consider how severely it may affect a person’s ability to thrive, saying “Oh, he’s just shy” may be akin to saying “Oh, she’s just diabetic.”

So, what is it exactly? If you’re living with social anxiety, you may experience some or all of the following symptoms.

  • You feel extremely uncomfortable in social situations and you often avoid them.

  • You are frequently worried that other people are judging you negatively

  • You are hyper self-conscious and always watching what you say or do so you don’t say the “wrong thing.”

  • You find rejection or disapproval intolerable and do whatever you can to avoid it.

  • You often feel that others are watching you and you constantly avoid doing anything embarrassing.

  • You can feel worried or anxious for days or even weeks before a socially challenging situation.

  • You regularly criticize and judge yourself for feeling anxious.

  • Your anxiety, worry, and avoidance significantly interfere with your life.

  • You may feel hopeless about your situation, angry at yourself, or others.

It is important to understand that shyness is not related to being an introvert or extravert. These are measures of how much social interaction you need to feel mentally healthy. It is not an indication of how comfortable you are in new social experiences. You can be an extrovert who would spend every day with family and friends that you are already comfortable with if you could, but still, feel terror at meeting new people. I identify as one of these people and it contributed to the birth of Maka Social. Conversely, there are people who don’t have any discomfort at all with talking to friends, family, or even strangers but lack the motive and desire to do so. One of my mentors, Maria Lauricella, CEO of Humanity Wine Company is such a person. She prefers a good book at a wine bar over a night out with friends and travels the world alone because she prefers her own company, yet feels no discomfort in talking to the thousands of people she meets in her travels. The only correlation is that socializing is a skill that gets better with practice. Because an introvert has less internal motivation to practice, shy introverts a little more common. The opposite is true for extroverts, but the relationship is causal, not relational.

Social Anxiety has two main causes and people will often experience a combination of both in varying amounts. Both amount to a lack of confidence. The first cause is linked to a person’s self-esteem. It results in a fundamental belief that they are not worth talking to and any attempt they make to meet someone is going to result in rejection, or worse, public humiliation. Sometimes an otherwise confident person may experience a traumatic social interaction that makes them feel like everyone will react to them in the same awful manner in the future.

The second cause is a lack of practice resulting in a lack of confidence in their abilities. Face to face conversation is complex and takes practice to really be good at it. Instead of feeling like you are not worth talking to, this feeling is more, “I have no idea how to show that I am worth talking to.” The more we depend on technology for communication, the worse this problem gets. With text-based communication, we have the luxury of waiting until we achieve the right emotional state to respond or we write and rewrite our response until we feel like it is just right. In many ways, it feels safer and less stressful. This doesn’t prepare us well for the real-time give and take of a conversation and doesn’t help us to learn the body language and tonal queues that convey so much information in person.

Online communication has other significant dangers besides making us worse at face to face communication. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body. Attorney General Vivek Murthy summarized a body of research on the subject by saying that loneliness was worse for our wellbeing than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, and frequent elevations of a key stress hormone, cortisol. It is also linked to higher levels of inflammation in the body and the list goes on. The problem is that we may be able to convey information via the web, but our bodies don’t have the same chemical reaction to this contact that we get from in-person contact. The danger is we get a surge of dopamine that gives us that desire to just keep scrolling like we’re accomplishing something, but we don’t get the serotonin and oxytocin rewards that actually make us feel socially fulfilled and stave off those horrible effects of loneliness. Online communication can also become downright toxic and hurtful. Our ability to empathize by instinct is dependent on our ability to mirror the expression of the person we are interacting with. Without our empathy circuits engaged, we can become far more hostile, judgmental, tribal, and downright mean online than we would ever become in person.

That’s not to say that social anxiety is new. Throughout most of human history, it has actually been one of our most useful survival instincts. We are not living in the same world we were made for. For 99% of human history, we lived in small communities where constant exposure to the same people gave us a comfortable familiarity over time and our social needs were met without abrupt introductions. For most of this time, strangers were rare and often dangerous. Stranger avoidance gave you a much higher chance of survival in this environment. Today far more people live in big cities, and in far bigger and more crowded cities than ever before. A gradual familiarity is no longer an option in this environment and shyness has gone from a beneficial trait to a counterproductive one.

The good news is that shyness and even social anxiety can be effectively overcome. While people with severe cases may benefit from the aid of calming medications or herbs, the main treatment is the same for both causes. You have to practice talking to strangers. The more you practice, the more confident you will become in your skills. The more positive experiences you have, the harder it becomes to justify the idea that your next experience will be bad. Overcoming a phobia this powerful can be daunting, but experiments have shown that a large majority of participants who dread an upcoming social interaction actually feel really good about it afterward, and being an introvert or extravert did not affect this result. Psychiatrists recommend starting out easy. Walk down a busy street and smile at everyone you pass and watch how many people smile back in return. Tomorrow, try saying hello to 40 people on the street. As your confidence builds, work your way up to introducing yourself to a predetermined number of people. Next, try engaging in conversation. Take it one step at a time, and don’t rush into scenarios that make you uncomfortable prematurely. The anxiety generated by pushing yourself too fast will only serve to reinforce your negative feelings.

Where Maka Social comes in is making starting big, jumping straight into conversation with a stranger, feel like starting small. The specific fear invoked by the act of meeting someone new can be broken down into three parts, the fear of immediate rejection embodied by the thought, “I’m sure they don’t want to talk to me”; the fear of having nothing to say or saying the wrong thing embodied by thoughts similar to “I have no idea what they are even into. How can I get their attention?” (click) and the fear of attracting unwanted attention. “What if they’re a serial killer or worse, (click) Kanye West in a Scooby-Doo mask?”

Our app addresses all three of these specific fears making it easy for even the shyest customer to enjoy a social environment. Our principal customer is the location that pays a monthly subscription. Users can check in to your location indicating they are approachable. Their profile will be visible and show 10 of their favorite conversation topics and my favorite question, “What is the most interesting thing about you”. No rejection and you know exactly what to say. Check and check. A variety of safety features can help us prevent Kanye or anyone who abuses the system from using it again. We can release id information to law enforcement for serious incidents. Our system isn’t just for the shy crowd. It can make it easier for anyone who’d like to meet new people. We’ve even found a significant number of socially confident people who are interested in using it so they can help the shy crowd integrate more easily.

Anxiety is rarely rational, but with or without our app, there are a few facts that can really make meeting new people much easier if you can internalize and believe them.

If you see a person in a bar, even if they are on their phone, reading a book, or already talking to other people, odds are really good that they would love to meet someone. Remember, they could have been doing all of those things at home, but they chose to be in a social location. Your chances of being immediately rejected are not as high as you think they are.

  • The majority of people have some degree of social anxiety. That means they’re just as afraid of making the first contact as you are. You are doing them a favor by making the first move and they are more likely to be relieved than annoyed.

  • Everyone, but the most extreme of narcissists is insecure about something. That means there are few people out there who really believe they are too good for you. What you see may be perfection, but what they see in the mirror is often something else entirely.

  • We are all self-absorbed. We can’t help it. It’s part of being human. If you are stressing out about the conversational mistake you made, they are just as preoccupied with something they think they should or shouldn’t have said, so much so that they don’t even remember the mistake you made. The lesson here is twofold. They’re not going to remember near as many of your mistakes as you think they will and you should be a little forgiving if you do catch someone else’s slip up. They’re just as nervous and hoping to be liked as you are.

  • People generally love talking about themselves. Ask questions. What do you do for a living? What are you most passionate about? What is the most interesting thing about you? At least one of these is sure to hit and get them talking about themselves. They’ll often return the question. Somewhere in that exchange, you should be able to find a topic to expand on.

  • Don’t lie to sound more impressive. You are interesting enough the way you are. It’s almost impossible to tell a fake story that stands up to scrutiny because you won’t know the details. Getting caught in a lie is a fast track to social rejection.

Aside from subscribing to Maka Social, there are a few things that venues can do to make social interaction a little easier on the people out there doing their best too. The only thing more intimidating than talking to a stranger is getting way up in their personal space and shouting at them. If your bar is intended to be a social space, keeping the music at a level that encourages interaction can be less stressful for customers. If your bar is a live music venue or dance club where loud music is kind of the point, try to separate an area in the back or outside where the music isn’t as loud so people can have a conversation with the ones they meet on the dance floor. Floor plans can also make a big impact. A balance of seats for those he need to take a load off mixed with standing tables or standing zones at the bar where people can mingle helps a great deal. “I can’t just walk up and join them, there aren’t any more seats.” Is often a psychological barrier. People also feel uncomfortable standing around the middle of a room. Small High tops can offer anchors. When no one is seated, it is easier to make an approach. Barstools with no back or a swivel can also help the seating structure at the bar seem less rigid and allow social groups to ebb and flow.

I hope this presentation has been educational and has helped all of us to improve our social interactions.