A while back, Ferrett Steinmetz wrote a great blog post called Surviving Cons: A Guide for Socially Anxious Writers. I recommend that post for the many excellent tips it contains. There's another reason, though. In the post, Ferrett recommends me as an outgoing person who likes to introduce friends to each other at conventions. He's correct: that's what I do! But after six years of going to conventions, it's still funny to me that I am that person, because whenever I go to a convention my first step is to get psyched up for some alone time. My approach to being social ends up being different from Ferrett's, but I think that between the two of us there's an idea for just about anyone who wants to have a better time at these things and meet more people.
Part of the problem with social anxiety, I think, is the expectations that go with it: feeling like at any given event you need to act a certain way, impress people, and make a ton of friends immediately, or you will look like a loser. That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself in a situation, and pressure is a known reducer of fun. I'm a proponent of easing up on yourself and taking a slow, easy approach to making friends. Yes, conventions are for meeting people, but no, you don't have to meet all of them all at once. It takes practice to shift your attitudes and expectations, but in my experience, it's been worthwhile.
As I was saying the other day, I learned to have good relationships with people by learning to treat myself well and enjoy solitude. Because of that, when I go to a convention I get prepared to happily hang out by myself all weekend. I know that I can go to panels alone, browse for books and jewelry in the dealers' room alone, lounge alone in my room in the morning without having to rush off anywhere, sit in a restaurant and eat alone, and it will be nice. It will be a relaxing break from my normal life, and I will have a good time.
Because I feel this way, I can walk into a convention feeling comfortable even if I don't know anyone, and I end up meeting people easily because there's nothing terrible at stake. I don't need them to like me or spend time with me. I'm there to take in the event by myself, but I try to spend my time in public areas to give myself the chance to meet people if I want to. If someone says something interesting on a panel, at the end I'll go up to introduce myself and chat for a minute. I'll compliment the cool outfit someone's wearing. If one of the book dealers is feeling talkative, I'll hang out and have a conversation with them and anyone else who comes along when I'm standing there. No pressure, and we can all wander away in a minute. I'm happy to meet people—ask anybody, I love 'em!--but I don't feel like I have to be with people all the time.
But the magic sometimes happens when I see one of those people around again, and we end up having a drink in the bar. Or maybe we'll bump into each other at a party. A couple of joking remarks later, we're in a real conversation, and they introduce me to their friend who comes over. That leads to another friend, and another. Or not. I might move on and introduce myself to someone else, or decide that I'd rather go and read a book. Feeling relaxed, and intending to fulfill my own emotional needs, tends to put me into the right state of mind for enjoying the moment I'm in, rather than thinking about what I may be missing or what will come next. That helps me to pay attention, remember people's names, and think of questions to ask them so that the conversation flows freely.
Why does this work? It's a matter of managing expectations. By lowering my expectation of what others should provide for me, and raising my expectation of what I can provide for myself, I go to the event with the plan to make my own fun. Instead of looking for the solution of getting attention from other people, I'm free to be spontaneous and have attention to offer out. I don't have to worry about getting something wrong; I can just be, and see what happens.
When a conversation develops, it helps to watch the other person's cues: to listen for hints about what they'd like to talk about, or detect visible signs of whether they want to keep talking or move on. Being responsive to what the other person wants is the nicest thing you can do. In my experience, people act like they appreciate that at some level, even if they never articulate it. I'm not saying to ignore your own preferences, but it's helpful to be willing to make the conversation more fun for the person who's in it with you. It's easier to have that attitude if you're not feeling needy.
After six years of attending science fiction and fantasy conventions, along with keeping in touch with people I meet online, I don't know if I could find a convention where I wouldn't know someone anymore, not that I'm looking for such a thing! Part of the fun of going is being able to see friends and acquaintances, and part of it is being able to introduce them to each other. But I still like to know I won't be disappointed if I'm on my own.