The Nerves

New tools for overcoming shyness and decoding the “Small Talk Formula” with Shepherd Express news editor Lisa Kaiser.

It sounds stupid in my head, but I say it anyway: “These are like the chemistry class chairs from my high school.” Yep, that was dumb, I think, as I plop down on one of the hard little seats across from Lisa Kaiser, news editor of the Shepherd Express. Oddly, Kaiser acts like I’ve said exactly the right thing.

“What did this space used to be?” asks Kaiser, who’s tall and clearly much more at ease than I am.

“A friend said that years ago, there used to be parties here,” when ownership of the building passed through an artist’s hands.

As Kaiser later explained, my banal opener was actually a fine example of “Setting Talk,” a form of ice-breaking recommended by an Indiana psychologist, Bernardo Carducci, with whom Kaiser has co-authored three books on shyness and the related field of chitchat. The pair’s most recent, Shyness: The Ultimate Teen Guide, puts small talk on a pedestal it rarely enjoys: For both shy and non-shy people, it’s declared “the temporary bridge that we build to another person,” and also the “cornerstone of every relationship” as it signals one’s desire to communicate and grow closer.

The book’s “Small Talk Formula” begins, as our coffee meeting did, with surface-level Setting Talk, followed by introductions. Next come the more serious “Pretopical” and “Posttopical Explorations,” during which both sides cast about for common interests without monopolizing the conversation. To end the chat, the authors suggest referencing an earlier detail (“I’ll have to try that restaurant you mentioned”) to demonstrate that you were listening. Carducci’s focus on the layperson’s term “shy” and not “introversion” or “social anxiety disorder” is unusual in the field of psychology, and he hopes the common word can better capture all the fears and insecurities experienced by the 40 percent of people who identify as shy. Carducci believes that such people want dearly to connect with other people but feel trapped by their fear of being judged inadequate.

Kaiser once considered herself one of those people, someone “blanketed with low-level anxiety that made me dread new social situations,” she says. And after these situations, she would endure “harsh self-examination as I replayed a cringe-inducing loop of the dumb things I’d said,” she says. She wriggled free of this torture during early adulthood when she facilitated groups in New York where shy people came to talk freely and often at great length about the condition. Hearing that she wasn’t alone helped to unravel shyness’ hold on her own mind.

These days, Kaiser describes herself as simply an introvert, which is a personality trait, according to Anthony Hains, a professor of psychology at UW-Milwaukee (and another self-identified introvert). For many teens, it’s just how they are, he says. “A lot of the time, these kids are very comfortable with a small group of friends. To try to make them extroverts is really frustrating.”

‘The Nerves’ appears in the May 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.