A Giant List Of Common Social Fears
As the title says, this article is going to list a ton of social situations that people may get nervous about. If someone is uncomfortable in a situation, it may be to an extremely mild degree, where it doesn't really affect them aside from the odd bit of hesitation. Or their fear could be totally debilitating and cause them to miss out on important things in life.
I'm going to go over some well-known fears, but also a few more subtle ones that people may not even realize they have. More than anything, I wrote this piece so people could realize that they're not strange or alone in worrying about the things they do. Like I said, all of these are fairly common and well known.
I'm going to list scenarios that people feel uncomfortable in. The situations themselves vary, but they involve one or more of the same few core worries:
- That they could be rejected.
- That other people may judge them negatively (for being shy, awkward, weird, inappropriate, etc.).
- That the situation has the potential for them to be singled out and embarrassed.
- That they'll annoy or inconvenience other people somehow.
- That if they make a mistake they'll feel socially incompetent and bad about themselves because of it. Their error will offer 'proof' that they're flawed.
In many social situations there is some element of risk, but when you have a fear you've blown the stakes out of proportion. For example, you could be nervous about sharing your vulnerabilities with others. You do need to use some discretion when doing this. You wouldn't want to spill your darkest secrets to an acquaintance you run into on the street, or tell something embarrassing to a mean-spirited gossip. However, most of the time nothing too bad will happen if you let others know some of your quirks or insecurities. Even if something negative does happen, it's often not nearly as bad as you worried it would be.
As I explain in another article, the best way to get over a fear is to face it in real life. Like I just mentioned, fears involve unrealistic thoughts that distort the potential for danger in a situation, and learning to recognize and handle that kind of thinking helps as well. Someone may also fear a situation because they're lacking the knowledge or skills to do well in it (e.g., someone will be more uncomfortable giving a speech if they have no public speaking training or experience). However, in the end you've still got to deal with your fears head on to fully get over them.
Here are the common fears. The list is long, so you 'll probably just want to skim the headings, and only read more about the sections that stand out to you. I've tried to divide them into categories for the sake of organization, but some of them could easily fall under several headings. The fears can also combine, like if someone has a fear of talking on the phone, and with speaking with authority figures, they'll be extra nervous to call their boss to ask them something.
The conversation is one of the basic units of socializing, and many people's fears revolve around it. They worry that they'll come off badly by running out of things to discuss, by saying something stupid, or generally being a boring, awkward conversation partner. They may generally see talking to someone as a high-pressure, audition-like situation. This article on worries shy or insecure people often have can give you a pretty good idea of some of the other things they may be concerned about when they have to interact with someone.
Certain types of conversation
There are certain varieties of conversation that people tend to feel more nervous about:
- Having to talk to somebody one-on-one. The issue is that they feel under pressure to keep the conversation going all on their own.
- Talking to people in a group. Here someone may worry that they won't have to the confidence or the ability to chip in and contribute things to the discussion, and that they'll be negatively judged as shy, quiet, or boring as a result. If the group is fairly big there could also be fears about not wanting to be the center of attention.
- Running into someone and being trapped in a situation where they have to make conversation with them, e.g., meeting an acquaintance on the street and struggling to make small talk, ending up in the same elevator as their boss.
- Having to talk to people they find intimidating (see below).
- Having to say goodbye to people (e.g., at the end of a party, seeing someone off at the airport).
- Awkward or heavy conversations. Some examples would be: confronting a friend about a hurtful, destructive habit of theirs, talking to their teenage daughter about birth control, being around someone who's upset about a recent loss and not being sure how to act.
- Talking on the phone (I go into more detail about this farther down).
Approaching people to start a conversation
It can be scary to try to initiate a conversation with someone. The biggest fear is that the person won't be interested in talking with you, or that they'll reject you outright. Someone may also not be sure how to start a conversation, or enter one that's already taking place. Then, once the conversation begins, they often feel on the spot, and like the onus is on them to keep it going at first.
Having to end a conversation
Out of a desire to not possibly offend the other person, someone may feel slightly nervous about having to exit a conversation. If that fear is bad enough, they may have a related worry around having to speak to the type of talkative person who may 'trap' them.
This basically involves having to circulate around a room and start conversations with lots of people, some of whom you may not know. It's often associated with having to make short bursts of painful small talk, rather than sticking around with one person to have a more interesting, in-depth discussion. At certain events you may also be expected to network and sell yourself, which many people also dislike.
Meeting new people
Of course, the fear here is that they may not like you. Also, when we're meeting people we're sometimes hoping to make new friends, and so have worries that we may not succeed in doing that. Some situations where this may come up for someone:
- Meeting a friend's friends.
- Going to a party that's being attended by a bunch of people they don't know.
- Starting at a new school.
- Showing up at a new class or club, which they joined mainly to try to expand their social circle.
- Meeting their partner's family.
- Their first days at a new job.
- Attending a Meetup.com event.
Specific social situations
Hanging out with people who all know each other
A worry here is that they'll ignore you and spend all their time chatting to each other, leaving you to awkwardly watch from the side. People can believe that they've "failed" if they don't win everyone over right away.
Hanging out with new people
Say you've met some potential friends and invited them to have coffee with you. You may be nervous when you're first getting to know them because you're not sure if the relationship is going to take off or not. It can feel a little bit like a first date.
This is usually about feeling ill-at-ease with the idea of mingling and meeting new people. Someone may have discouraging thoughts of everyone noticing what a lame lonely, wallflower they are after they fail to strike up any conversations. Some people may also not be comfortable with the rowdy atmosphere at some parties, and be unsure of how to behave.
Fancy, formal events
Someone may worry that they'll commit a faux pas from not knowing all the social and etiquette rules for these situations. The cliched example is someone being singled out for using the wrong type of spoon for the soup course.
Bars and clubs
Someone may be anxious about going to a bar or club because they don't have a lot of experience with them and have an exaggerated idea of how dangerous and sketchy they can be. They may think they'll get whacked across the face with a pool cue if they so much as look at someone the wrong way. When people go to dressy, high-end clubs they may worry they'll be judged and picked apart by all the supposedly hip, rich, intimidating patrons.
People can be anxious about doing certain activities because they think they'll look foolish while doing them. It may lead them to avoiding the social situations where those activities are likely to come up. Some examples are:
- Playing a sport or game that they're not good at (e.g., not wanting to play catch because they don't know how to throw a football very well)
- Letting loose and being a bit loud and goofy. Some people feel like everyone will think they're lame if they act like this. They'll hold back from cheering loudly at a concert or going too crazy at a party.
- Activities they may look goofy taking part in, like playing a Wii or Kinect game that requires them to flail around.
- Having to speak an unfamiliar language (e.g., being in Japan and worrying they'll look stupid for asking a local for help about what train they need to take).
Asking something of people
The worst-case-scenario here is that the other person will say no, and leave you feeling rejected and unworthy. People may also feel that the act of asking for something is awkward and uncomfortable, and that they're bothering and imposing on the other person.
- Inviting someone to do something with them.
- Asking someone for their phone number, or if they're on Facebook.
- Asking for a favor. It could be something small, like asking someone to grab them a coffee while they go get one themselves, or bigger, like seeing if they can help with a move.
- Asking for something from an authority figure (e.g., asking their boss for a day off, asking a professor for an extension on an assignment).
Revealing personal information about yourself
People often worry about sharing certain aspects of themselves with others. Someone may fully realize they have this fear, and that they may be too guarded and secretive. At other times it may be much more subtle, and someone may instead say something like, "Well, I'm just not a very expressive guy", when a discomfort with opening up is really at the heart of it.
Aside from the obvious worry that they may be judged negatively for the things they reveal, they may also fear that their disclosure will create an awkward situation, or that people will use the information against them somehow. A related belief is thinking that you're lame and boring and have nothing interesting to say about yourself. Also, some people just aren't used to sharing certain things about themselves, maybe because of how they were raised. They may hesitate to do it because it feels weird and new more than anything. Some ways you can reveal personal information are:
- Sharing your flaws, fears, weaknesses, mistakes, and insecurities.
- Letting people know day-to-day information about your life, or things that have happened to you in the past, e.g., someone may hesitate to tell others about how their shift at work went.
- Giving your opinion on something, especially if you think it may not go over well with the current crowd.
- Sharing your dreams, hopes, aspirations, philosophies on life, and so on.
- Telling people your interests, especially if you feel some of the things you're into are a bit odd or unpopular.
- Revealing your sense of humor. Someone may hold back on a joke they want to make for fear of coming across as corny, offensive, or strange. A group of friends may be joking around and taking turns asking each other ridiculous 'Would You Rather?' questions. When it's that person's turn to say something, they may go, "Ah... I suck at coming up with this stuff. I'll pass."
Asserting yourself / stating your needs
It can be hard to ask for what you want, or what you think you deserve. Many people don't like anything that even remotely feels like a confrontation, or like they're being self-centered and imposing their will on others, and will settle for less in order to avoid it. Someone could also believe that their needs and opinions don't matter.
Saying what you'd like to do
It's a bit of a joke that some people, when they're asked what they'd like to do, will always reply, "I dunno. Whatever you want is fine." Sure, sometimes they may really not care either way, but often they have a subtle fear of putting their preferences out there, and find it easier to just defer to other people. They feel like they couldn't handle it if one of their suggestions got shot down.
Saying no to things you'd rather not do
Later in this article I talk about how some people can feel bad about having to reject others. This point is more about being able to turn down unreasonable requests. Such a request doesn't necessarily have to come from a selfish jerk who's trying to take advantage of you. A well-intentioned friend could ask you to help out with a charity project which you don't have the time for.
Having to disagree with someone
This can feel too tense and confrontational. The disagreer may also worry that they'll be cast aside if they go against the grain of the group.
Standing up for yourself
Occasionally someone will be treated badly enough that they'll need to tell the other person that their behavior isn't acceptable. They're afraid the other person will react badly, or that they'll look foolish by appearing weak, overly upset, or flustered and inarticulate as they state their case.
Interacting with certain type of people
I write about this more in this article about how we may feel overly intimidated by certain types of people. Some common ones are:
- People in a position of authority like professors, supervisors, doctors, priests, and police officers. Some people also feel this way about their friends' or partner's parents.
- People you see as being high-status, and whose approval you want.
- People you see as likely to judge and make fun of you.
- People who are really knowledgeable about a certain area, and which make you feel clueless and like you have nothing to contribute to a conversation about that topic.
- People who are very socially confident and outgoing.
- People who come across as tough and sketchy.
- People who you've become scared of because you've taken some negative stereotypes to heart (e.g., rowdy teenagers).
Being the center of attention
I tried to put together some sub-categories for these, but they really all overlap each other. For someone who's shy, just being the focus of everyone's attention, period, is often a scary thought to them. They don't want to be scrutinized, evaluated, or judged in any way. They'd rather blend into the scenery.
Situations where you're on the spot in front of everyone
- When it's your turn to say something about yourself when the introductions are going around at a new class or workshop.
- The same situation as above, but instead of just talking about yourself, you're expected to come up with something witty or interesting to say as part of some ice breaking activity. Like you may have been asked to tell everyone what celebrity you wish you could be for a day and why.
- Getting called on to answer a question in class. Even better when you don't know the answer, or the instructor is doing it to single you out for not paying attention.
- Speaking up in a group to state an opinion or tell a joke or story.
- Having it be your turn to order at a restaurant.
Situations where what you're doing is being watched by others
Often people aren't really watching or evaluating you at all, but you still feel like they are.
- Writing in front of other people.
- Eating in front of others (where your main worry is that you'll be judged for spilling something, displaying bad manners, not using the right fork, etc.).
- Working out in front of people at the gym.
- Being one of the first people on the dance floor.
- Talking on the phone with other people around (see below).
- Urinating when other people are nearby (if this gets bad enough it's called Paruresis).
Situations where many people's eyes are on you temporarily
There are a lot of quick little scenarios where this one comes up:
- Entering a classroom and finding your seat, when everyone else is already sitting down.
- Getting up and leaving the room in the middle of a lecture.
- Entering a party and having everyone pause temporarily to see who's arrived.
- Making a somewhat unusual request of a cashier, while several people are waiting behind you in line and listening in.
- Briefly going up on stage to accept something (e.g., at a graduation ceremony).
- Sneezing or coughing in a quiet, crowded room. Even worse if everyone turns to you and says 'Bless you' after.
- Yelling out to get someone's attention when other people are around.
Public speaking and performing
These two similar fears are incredibly common. In fact, it's odder not to have them. Pretty much everyone gets nervous if they have to give a speech or play the guitar on stage or whatnot, especially the first few times they have to do it. A less intense, though still limiting, fear of public speaking or performing may come up in front of smaller, more familiar audiences as well. Someone may not want to:
- Give a toast at a dinner party of close friends.
- Sing karaoke with their buddies at a dive bar with only four other people present.
- Stand up at a staff meeting to give a brief report on how their department is progressing on a project.
- Dance in the middle of a circle that's formed on a dance floor.
- The example of speaking up in a group could apply here too, especially if the number or type of people is intimidating enough. Like if someone tells a longish joke, and ten people at the table are all listening intently, that definitely feels like giving a mini-performance.
Giving and receiving feedback
Getting a compliment
Many people feel awkward and flustered when they get a compliment. This may partially be because they feel put on the spot, and don't like the attention. They may feel awkward because they aren't sure if they should just say thank you, or if they need to be modest and try to brush it off. Hearing something good about ourselves can also stir up our emotions and make us feel off-balance, and then we can worry about how we look when we're in that state.
Giving someone a compliment
You'd think it would be simple to say something positive about another person, but doing so can make some of us hesitate. How do you phrase the compliment? How will the other person react when they hear it? Will they think it was a weird thing for you to have said? It's one of those situations that feels just awkward enough that it can be easier to keep quiet instead.
Receiving negative feedback
Whether it's a harsh put down or the most sensitively worded piece of constructive criticism, no one really loves hearing about their weaknesses. Most people feel anxious in situations where they might be told something bad about themselves. An example would be going into an annual performance evaluation meeting at work. Someone may avoid developing their talent because doing so will lead to them getting critiqued down the road.
Having to reject or turn someone down
No one likes to be the bad guy and shoot another person's hopes down. Even in simple situations, like having to turn down an invitation when they already have plans, someone may feel guilty or awkward about doing it. Sometimes this leads to people making vague excuses or giving someone the run around, because they feel uncomfortable turning them down more directly. Things get scarier if the rejection will be way more serious, like having to tell a friend you don't want a relationship with them any longer.
Having to give someone else negative feedback
This is another thing that's really easy to put off or avoid altogether. It just feels bad to deliver this kind of information to someone. You don't want to see their feelings get hurt. It can also make us nervous beforehand because we don't know how the other person will react either. What if they get angry and try to cut you down in return? A formal example may be a supervisor who has to tell an employee about how their work isn't up to snuff. Informally, someone may not want to tell a friend or roommate about a mildly annoying trait of theirs.
A general fear of something embarrassing happening
This one could apply to any number of things in any number of situations. Maybe someone will worry about doing something out of a movie like spilling all their papers in the middle of class, or dropping a plate full of dishes while working as a waiter.
Fear of having certain bodily responses in social situations
Some people develop a second-order fear of sorts, where an unpleasant bodily response often occurs in social situations that make them anxious. On top of what they're already worried about, they also start to fear that the physical response will happen as well, and that it will lead to humiliation and embarrassment for them. This often happens to people with Social Anxiety Disorder. This obviously makes things more difficult for them, because now they have to deal with two fears at once, and one gets in the way of making progress on the other.
Fear of appearing visibly anxious
Some people get so nervous in some social situations that they develop a fear of becoming noticeably anxious. They worry that people will notice them trembling, sweating, struggling to get out their words, or looking wide-eyed and stricken.
Fear of blushing
Some people turn red when they're feeling evaluated or embarrassed. It can develop to the point where their blushing response seems to run away from them, and they get flushed at the drop of a hat. Worrying about it, and seeing blushing as something shameful that must be avoided at all costs, just seems to make it worse.
Fear of your voice not behaving
A person may worry that their voice is going to crack, be too weak and quiet, or sound obviously nervous and shaky. People who stutter may develop a lot of anxiety around it as well.
Fear of getting so nervous you'll throw up, need to use the bathroom, or panic
If someone gets really anxious they may feel pukey, like their guts are churning and they need to find a toilet, or like they're going to freak out and have a panic attack. The physical sensations associated with any of those things aren't the slightest bit pleasant, so someone may start to avoid the social situations they're associated with. They may also understandably believe they'd be embarrassed if they threw up, lost control of their bowels, or panicked in front of other people. That, or they feel it would draw unwanted negative attention if they even did something like excuse themselves to use a bathroom or go outside to get some air.
This fear often takes on a life of its own and becomes linked to situations where it would be difficult or embarrassing to escape if the unpleasant symptoms did occur. There's still a social component to the fear, but it also starts to become about worrying about feeling sick for its own sake. Of course, being in those hard-to-escape situations is often anxiety provoking enough that the physical sensations are likely to make an appearance. It's a wonderful Catch-22. Some common situations are:
- Watching a movie in a crowded theater, especially if you're away from the aisle seats. If you feel sick you'd have to excuse yourself and ask several people to move.
- Traveling by any mode of transportation where a bathroom isn't close at hand, or using one would call attention to you. Planes and trains aren't too bad. City buses and subways are more feared. Buses that travel between cities are up there too, since their bathrooms are usually only good for a quick pee. Some people worry about being a passenger in a car as well.
- Getting a haircut.
- Any group situation where you feel you're 'locked in' and can't really get up and leave. For example, a lot of people feel this way about sitting down to eat a meal.
- Attending a school lecture.
- Being anywhere really crowded, e.g., being in the middle of a sea of people at an outdoor concert.
- Being anywhere unfamiliar where they don't know where a bathroom is.
Another thing that can happen is some people will develop anxiety around eating around others. They're not worried about being judged for getting sauce on their face, like the earlier point about having a fear of being watched mentions. Instead they feel pukey and anxious and have no appetite in situations where they're expected to eat. Their mouth may become dry too, making the act of eating physically harder. They feel they have to choke down their food, even though they don't feel like it. They worry that people will notice they aren't eating much and ask them about it.
Making eye contact
Someone may feel uncomfortable with having to make eye contact with others. It may feel awkward or too intense while they do it, and like it'd be so much simpler to look away. They may not know the rules of how or when to do it either.
Talking on the telephone
This one is fairly common. There are a lot of people who instinctively cringe whenever their phone rings. There are a couple of different types of fear that come from it. The first is when people fear having to make conversation on the phone. It's just them and the other person's voice, and they feel very on the spot and worry about an awkward silence developing. They may also not be sure of the unwritten rules for phone conversations, and want to avoid a situation such as needing to hang up and get back to work, but the other person is still talking away.
A second common phone-related fear is of having to leave a message for someone. People worry they're going to stammer and ramble their way through it and sound like an idiot. (Fortunately, a lot of modern voice mail systems now let you preview or re-record your voice message, so you aren't under so much pressure to get it perfect the first time. I think it depends on the type of system, but when recording your message you can press something like * to be taken to a menu where you have these options. Of course, you can't count on being able to access this feature every time.)
Lastly, some people are fine talking on the phone when no one else is around, but don't like doing it when their friends or co-workers can overhear them. They fear that everyone is listening in on their conversation and judging them on it. They'll go to a different room to talk, or only return work-related calls when the people they share an office with aren't around.
These days people often use text messages or email to have conversations they used to have by telephone. In a way this is a blessing for a phone-shy person, since they can avoid having to make a lot of calls. However, avoiding things doesn't help get over a fear of them, and on the relatively few occasions they do have to use the phone they may even be more nervous about it.
Having your picture taken
If someone has this fear it usually has to do with feeling self-conscious about their appearance, or how they'll look in a picture. They may worry that they'll get caught in an unflattering pose or captured from a bad angle. Of course, when people look through the photos from last weekend's night out, 99% of the time they just want to see if they look good, and totally glance over the images of everyone else.
Being recorded on video
This is similar to the point above in that people will worry that they'll look bad on video. Many people also find it hard to relax and act like themselves when someone is sticking a camera in their face.
This is similar to feeling nervous about talking on the phone. It feels like a high-pressure one-on-one conversation, but it's extra bad because now you have to worry about how your face comes across as well. At least on the phone if you're feeling nervous no one can see how you look.
I've already mentioned some of these. Several anxiety-inducing social situations only really come up on the job.
Interacting with customers
A cashier or bartender may feel awkward having to make small talk with customers. Someone working retail may hesitate to approach people on the sales floor and ask them if they need a hand with anything. Some jobs also require people to handle angry, complaining, or abusive customers. An employee may be expected to adopt a cheery, outgoing persona that doesn't fit them.
This could involve a dedicated sales or fundraising role, or just being expected to upsell customers while working in retail or at a restaurant. Especially when making cold calls or canvassing, people grapple with a fear of rejection, and a sense that they're bothering everyone. Someone may feel guilty or skeevy about trying to sway people into buying something too.
Work-related public speaking
A manager may have to make the odd presentation. Someone at a grocery store may hate it whenever they have to make an announcement over the loud speaker. Some jobs are mostly public speaking, like being a tour guide.
E.g., performance evaluations, having to critique someone who works under you, etc.
Having to ask your boss for something
...Such as for a pay increase, or if you can work from home part-time.
Things you need to do to get ahead
To rise in the ranks someone may have to learn the art of subtly promoting themselves and drawing attention to their achievements, which they may not be comfortable with. A lot of us were raised to be modest and not brag, and self-promotion clashes with those lessons.
Before you can even get a job, there are some nerve-racking things you may need to do:
- Job interviews
- Having to work the room at networking events
- Approaching companies to inquire about positions, on the phone or in person
- Asking friends and former employees or internship supervisors about job prospects
- The idea of generally having to sell and promote yourself
Interacting with businesses
These points involve fears of tasks like dealing with certain types of people, having to be confrontational and stand up for what you think you deserve, and having to give negative feedback. Some examples:
- Having to return something to a store
- Having to complain to a manager
- Having to deal with a pushy or slippery salesman, e.g., someone may dread the negotiating part of buying a new car
- Browsing a small store with an overeager clerk hovering around
- Asking a clerk for help
Many people's most crippling social fears are in this area. Rejection seems way more scary when it's coming from someone you're romantically or sexually attracted to.
- Approaching an attractive stranger to talk to them
- Asking someone out
- Making a move, such as going for a kiss
- Telling someone you're interested in them
- Asking your partner if they want to take the relationship to the next level, e.g., start dating exclusively, make a serious commitment, move in together
- Breaking up with someone