“When I get nervous,” says a young woman named Rebecca, “I shut down. I go blank.” She sits in a circle of 20 in a dance studio on the west side of Manhattan. Everyone takes turns introducing himself, explaining what brought him out on a Saturday evening to a dating coach’s class for the socially anxious. Rebecca is a college student who is “obsessed” with the video game Zelda. She has long wavy hair and a sweet face (although she tells me later that when she gets nervous, her eyebrows pull together of their own accord and make her look angry). Despite being one of the youngest and one of the few women in the group, Rebecca quickly establishes herself among the most candid. By contrast, several other students fidget, stare at the floor, and admit nothing.
“Girls feel really comfortable around me,” one man tells me later.
Another tells me, “I used to be shy.”
Not all of tonight’s participants have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD), but whether they’ll admit it aloud or not, they all know that they have something like it. Most of them learned about the workshop through the New York Shyness and Social Anxiety Meetup; with more than 2,500 members, it’s the largest social anxiety meet up in the world, according to the group’s leader, Erik Silverman. SAD first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994, and the label remains controversial: Why pathologize a trait as lovely as shyness? Still, the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug company GlaxoSmithKline to market Paxil as the antidote (“Imagine being allergic to people,” the ad says), and soon, both Paxil prescriptions and SAD diagnoses were on the rise. Today, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that SAD afflicts approximately 15 million American adults.
So what does render shyness a pathology? If someone’s shyness “has caused impairment in his life,” then it’s a disorder, says Barrie Rosen, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan.* Picture the person who can’t ask for directions without succumbing to a panic attack, who sweats profusely upon entering a grocery store, never mind a party. Picture, in extreme cases, years of isolation leading to depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Picture someone so afraid of social interaction he can’t hold a job or make friends. Picture a person with no love life. That’s where 32-year-old dating coach Chris Luna comes in.
“I don’t think anyone should take drugs,” Luna tells me. “There’s another way to deal with this.”
Luna looks less like a dating coach than like a movie star playing the role of a dating coach. Tonight he wears a newsboy cap and a fitted black V-neck T-shirt that shows off his jacked arms. If I were a Harlequin romance novelist, I would describe his dark features as brooding. Through his dating instruction company, Craft of Charisma, he’s been coaching within the “social anxiety community” for several years. Now he holds seminars every Saturday night that teach his clients topics including how to approach strangers, how to seduce women, and how to get out of their own way. He never intended to get so involved with the socially anxious, but when he started coaching in New York City (he had moved from California to attend Columbia University, realized his scholarship wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and needed extra cash), those were the clients who found him. “They were the ones no one else wanted to work with,” he says.
Tonight’s class is billed as a general social skills workshop, but when Luna asks the group, “How many of you want to use these skills to improve your dating life?” nearly everyone raises a hand. Luna splits the group into pairs and teaches them a mirroring exercise: Partner 2 should imitate the body language of Partner 1. Ultimately, he explains, mirroring builds rapport. Although some ones infer that they should gesture naturally as they talk and let the twos follow, others are less suave: One pair stands staring at each other, each touching his own ears. A woman holds her own stomach, and the man she’s partnered with copies. I imagine that man at a party, talking to a stranger, blowing his nose if the stranger blows his nose, scratching his crotch to build rapport with a crotch-scratcher.
“Isn’t this kind of awkward?” I ask Luna.
“I just want to get them out of their own heads—focused on the other person,” he says. “That’s their problem. They’re stuck in their heads.”