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August 15th, 2011  |  Filed under Participate!, Playa Tips

Tips for Shy People at Burning Man

Photo: Jon O.

Hi. Are you shy? Do you have a hard time walking into a camp full of complete strangers and striking up a conversation? Does the idea of walking out of your tent in a crazy outfit strike terror into your heart? Fabulous! My people! Read on.

The dumbest mistake I made my virgin year was expecting the playa to entertain me. Waiting for other people to reach out to me and draw me in, figuring all I’d need to do was show up and I’d somehow be assimilated into the vibe. I was intensely shy, and didn’t have much experience figuring out how to insert myself into an unfamiliar culture. I had all the stuff I needed to survive, except social skills.

Burning Man is full of 50,000 people who are more-likely-than-in-normal-life to want to talk to you due to our participatory culture, but they’re still just people doing their own thing. If you are desperately shy and walking around hoping someone will talk to you- it might happen, it might not. But if you make an effort to talk to other people, the results will likely be good. If you don’t make an effort, you might be disappointed. And lonely. And nobody wants that.

Here are some suggestions that have worked well for me, perhaps some might work for you too. I’ve managed over seven years at Burning Man to transform myself from a desperately shy person into someone who is less-shy and can easily talk to others. Most of the time. I still have my moments of wide-eyed terror and wishing I had a book to hide behind.

Smile. Seriously. Shy people are sometimes seen as angry, aloof, haughty, unfriendly, you name it. Pretend you’re outgoing. Yeah, it’s terrifying. Do it anyway. Burning Man is a good place to practice looking friendly. Smile at everyone until your face hurts. Then take some ibuprofen and smile some more.

Have some conversational starters. Not “lines”, per se, but there’s a few things I’ve found that most everyone wants to talk about. I have great success with sidling up to strangers and asking “what’s the coolest thing you’ve seen today?” or “what’s the best piece of art that you’ve run across?” or the like. Everyone has wildly different experiences! Explore them.

Wear It Anyway! If you bring costumes to Burning Man but then feel uncomfortable going out in them, wear them anyway. You might feel terrifyingly like the center of attention when you step out of your tent in something that pushes your comfort zone, but you look pretty normal to everyone else. Nothing is normal in Black Rock City, so the weird becomes the norm. People enjoy complimenting each other on costumes (if they notice you at all). It’s a good conversation starter, too. Ask that person wearing the fabulous costume if they created it themselves.

Float More, Steer Less. Try an experiment where you let the whims of others dictate your day. Walk up to strangers and ask them for a destination suggestion or an activity. When they say something like “go climb the Man base and check it out” or “go visit XYZ camp and do (activity)”, do it. Once you’ve accomplished that task, ask someone else. Repeat. Have adventures. Or get distracted on the way. Whatever.

Go to an activity you find in the What Where When guide. You’ll meet people there because you’ll all be doing the same thing. It provides context, and context is a great way to meet people.

Meet your neighbors in the next camp over. Bring a snack or a drink or just a smile. Ask where they’re from, how their journey to Burning Man went. Let them know that you’re there to help if they need anything. They will usually offer their help too, and often a seat in their shade and a beer and an invite to sit a spell and chat.

Go to the Volunteer table near Playa Info in Center Camp, and ask if they need volunteers anywhere. Many projects and departments need volunteers. Having a Job makes it easy not to be shy.

The Nuclear Option. If all else fails and you feel desperate yet brave, make a sign (hand-held or on a t-shirt) that says “I Am Shy” and go hang out somewhere. People will come talk to you because, well, shit, we’re all shy sometimes.