There is only do or do not, as Yoda would say.
I remember a salty proverb that goes "Free your mind and your a-- will follow." However, I discovered that the opposite worked for me. It was when I got really fit and strong, learned to exercise, lift weights, box and eat a healthy diet that I learned to stand up for myself.
How we stand, sit, walk, smile, pray and move in general both expresses and controls our inner attitudes. As I wrote the other day, if we fake it, we make it.
I long considered myself a shy person. Don't fall about laughing, I'm serious. I didn't enjoy grade school, where I was told I was ugly and freaky about once a day. Hell is other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre, and I definitely would have agreed with him when I was twelve. Hell was other people; heaven was books.
But after many years, I managed to get over all that and learned to love people. People, after all, are the inspiration for, and the readers of, and the writers of books. They are also like books themselves. You can read them. They tell stories. And unlike books, they sometimes hug you. The trick, of course, is to stop being afraid of people.
In the West we have a whole code of conduct, called etiquette. Etiquette is not some snobby kind of oneupmanship. It's primary function is to make people feel at ease. The hallmark of a lady, which is to say, a woman who has dignity and education and also makes people of all walks of life feel comfortable in her presence, is that she should be able to put someone at their ease, even if they have surprised her, naked, in the bath. I have not as yet been subjected to this trial, so I will practise my emergency speech.
"Oh, my DEAR! How nice to SEE you! Hand me that TOWEL, will you? I've just been having a nice wee WALLOW!"
Anyway, if you are afraid of people, it is not a great stretch to imagine that people might be afraid of you. This is something to remember when you enter a room of strangers. And thus, it is helpful to remember good manners as well as projecting the idea that you are a happy, confident person.
Compliments are very useful. If sincere and not intrusive or cheesy, they give two people an instant lift, the giver and the receiver. A good rule of thumb is that if spontaneous praise of someone passes through your brain, you should say it. Superflirt says it should be the thing the person is most proud of, but how would you know what that is? Just say it. "What a gorgeous blouse!" "I so enjoyed your performance!" "This sideboard is splendid!" "Your parties are always so much fun." "Great lecture! I especially liked your insight into Pius XII."
If you get a nice compliment yourself, there is only one acceptable way to handle it. You must smile and say, "Thank you!" You are not allowed to say "No, no" or "This old thing?" or "I could do better." Such responses disappoint your interlocutor, and make him or her look stupid.
Backhanded compliments are harder to handle, and women have to deal with them all the time. If I am the victim of a hit-and-run backhanded compliment, like a guy walking past, snarling "Nice jugs", I generally choose to smile and say "Thank you!" That way I can trick my brain into thinking someone actually gave me a nice compliment and, hopefully, confuse Mr. Silvertongue. However, if a stranger plunked himself in front of me and said "Nice jugs", I would simply walk away. I would pretend he didn't exist. There are all sorts of lovely men. Why spend a second on that one?
Some people say they hate small talk. They want to get right into Bush Destroyed America or Obama is the Anti-Christ right away. But I enjoy small talk because it is a friendliness ritual. It isn't supposed to mean anything except "I'm a friendly person, and I find you interesting to talk to." That's a good message. And it's why, when an acquaintance asks, "How are you?", you are supposed to say, "I'm fine, thank you. How are you?"
Small talk with strangers should be like a business interview or writing for Pravda in the 1980s: everything is fine. Deflect anything negative with a joke or an optimistic observation. And don't you yourself pry.
For example, much of the English-speaking world is in a recession. We're not all making money hand over fist. Many of us are underemployed. I am underemployed. Theobromophile is underemployed, and she asked in yesterday's combox how to deal with questions about that.
First of all, remember that small talk with strangers is not really supposed to mean anything except "I'm a nice, friendly person, and I find you interesting to talk to."
You don't have to, and you shouldn't, tell them your problems, your sorrows, your social insurance number, your sex life or your salary. You don't have to apologize for anything either. You don't owe the world an apology for the recession and its effect on your life. Someone owes you an apology. But it's probably not a stranger at a cocktail party, unless they masterminded the American subprime mortgages scheme.
Here is a typical conversation that I have at almost every party.
"So what are you doing for work?"
"I am a writer."
"Oh, and who do you write for?
"I write for a paper back in Toronto. And I've got a book coming out in March."
(Notice that I don't tell them how often I write, how much I get paid, or what my advance was. If possible, I avoid mentioning the title of the paper, as it includes the word CATHOLIC, which can frighten Orangemen, village atheists, et alia. I keep it general and light.)
"Oh, brilliant. What's it about?"
"It's about the Single Life."
There's a short conversation about the Single Life, and then I say:
"And what do you do?"
The "what do you do" is crucial, especially for the underemployed. People love to talk about themselves when things are going well, so it shouldn't be any trouble at all to get past the topic of your career. In fact, I could switch the conversation over to the other person's life even sooner. Say, for example, I got fired from my paper, and the Holy See suppressed my book. (How exciting!)
"So what do you do?"
"I'm a writer."
"And who do you write for?"
"Mostly freelancing these days! What do you do?"
The thing to do is stress your avocation, not your paid employment. You are a writer, teacher, artist, full-time mum, computer programmer, enterpreneur. How much money you make or how employed you are is immaterial. It's your interests that make you interesting. And if someone is pressing you on money, etc., it might be because they are dying to tell you how successful they are. Let them. They might be handy as a business contact. Or they might just be boring braggarts. If the latter, smile and excuse yourself because there's someone across the room to whom you must say hello.
Sometimes I meet a former high school classmate, and when I ask "So what do you do now?", this strange look of shame crosses the woman's face. And then I know exactly what she's going to say.
"Well," she says. "Right now I'm just at home with the kids. Sort of.. Ah. Um.. Full-time mum."
And I say, "That's great. My mother was a full-time mum until we most of us were out of school. I really appreciated having her home. Your kids are lucky."
Then the woman always relaxes. If she admits that sometimes being a mum is boring ('cause sometimes it is), you can say "What did you do in college? You're into [art, music, science, politics], aren't you?" At which point the woman, if she went to college, will be thankful, so thankful, that at last she is having an Adult Conversation. Full-time Mums are often dying for Adult Conversation. Don't assume they want to talk only about their kids.
What's the most positive way of expressing what you do?