This Surprising Tactic Helps Me Cope With Stressful Social Situations

It’s funny, but science suggests it could be functioning in several important ways.

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Sometimes, I’ll slip into a British (or a quasi German/ quasi French) accent for a few minutes. It’ll happen unexpectedly, usually only for a few seconds. Sometime it elicits a laugh from whomever I’m talking to, sometimes it goes unnoticed. I could write the habit off as a byproduct of the playacting my brother and I used to engage in constantly as kids, the last remnant of tens of hours spent in character romping around in grandma’s scarves. But I’ve noticed that this habit pops up under particular circumstances: when I feel an awkward tension bubble up… when my own voice doesn’t seem to have anything to say. And I’ve seen it in others, too.

In the moment, I’m acting. Adopting my faux British accent gives me an opportunity to step into a fresh pair of shoes, to be a character different from my work-a-day self. And I’ve often heard that if you have difficulty with public speaking or low self-confidence — which in part means difficulty performing your identity fully in front of people you aren’t comfortable around — you should take a theater class. Acting, the theory goes, helps you to feel comfortable in your own skin and vocalize the words in your head. Studies examining the impact of drama programs in schools have supported this idea. By learning to act, we learn to regulate our physical and vocal presentation, something that carries over into non-acting situations.

But there’s a distinct difference between gaining confidence through acting classes and putting on an accent because you feel awkward, and like you don’t really want to be yourself. An unexpected consequence of the latter is that it winds up being a little silly — it serves as a joke interrupting an uncomfortable moment. And studies have shown that humor has an even stronger anxiety-lowering effect than exercise.

To get a deeper understanding of why I use this tactic in the first place–and gauge its effectiveness — I reached out to an expert, Susan Scheftel, Ph.D., a psychologist practicing in New York City at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

She said it sounded like a version of “markedness,” a psychological and linguistic concept describing moments of speech in which you put “ironic, playful quotation marks around something” — marking a part of your language as different than your regular (or, “unmarked”) speech. Markedness can have several functions, but the research Scheftel pointed me towards has noted that one of them is to differentiate “as-if,” or imaginative play language, from normal conversation. This works with caregivers of young children. It’s a shift even a child can implicitly understand, and it can serve to help children understand their own shifting, differing states of emotion.

So why not use it with adults, as well, to infuse a discussion with imagination and play and to remind your listener that we can move from one mood in a conversation to another? I’ve found that when I feel uncomfortable, and my social anxiety feels like it’s on the verge of being consuming, putting on this pretend British persona gives me a humorous break — even a confidence boost.

If this social anxiety-diffusing tactic isn’t for you, there are other microsteps you can take to feel calmer and find your voice again, as well — here are a few of them:

Take a few measured breaths

Deep breathing is a calming method that yogis, scientists, and our editorial team all believe in. And it’s a trick you can call on even in the middle of a stressful or awkward social moment — you don’t need to close your eyes (although if you can, go for it!), and you don’t need to take deep, obvious gasps. Just turn your focus inward for a moment and breathe in, out, in, out. Two breaths is all it takes. You’ll find yourself feeling both physically and mentally calmer, and more able to take on the situation at hand.

Walk away

You can always walk away! And I don’t mean leave a situation for good, although it’s important to remember that you always have that option, as well. But if you just need a moment to regain your composure or do your deep breathing in private, excuse yourself to use the bathroom, take a quick call, or grab a glass of water.

Actually go get some water

Having a drink of water with you in a stressful social situation is a great way to take the pressure off immediate, quick-fire responses. Pick up your glass, take a sip, put it down… and just buy yourself the time you need to feel balanced. Plus, you’re simultaneously hydrating, always a good thing!

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