Synopsis: When you’re the new person at the office, in the neighborhood or at a party it can be an awkward situation, especially if you’re not the most gregarious person. Our guest discusses the issue and offers advice on how to navigate various situations when you’re the newbie in the room.

Host: Marty Peterson.  Guest: Keith Rollag, Associate Professor of Management, and Chairman of the Management Division at Babson College, Wellesley, MA, and of author of What to Do When You’re New: How to be comfortable, confident and successful in new situations.

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What to Do When You’re New: Navigating New Situations

Marty Peterson: Have you ever gone into the first day at a new job, a new school or been invited to a party where everyone knows everyone – but you? It can be an anxiety-provoking situation even for a gregarious people person. Keith Rollag says you’re not alone. Rollag is an associate professor of management and chair of the Management Division at Babson College in Massachusetts…

Keith Rollag: I’ve learned over 20 years of researching the newcomer experience that almost all of us to some degree have some level of anxiety or reluctance when we find ourselves in new situations, and that includes even extroverts. Certainly introverts, but pretty much all of us have some basic nervousness when we enter into new situations.

Peterson: Rollag discusses the issue in his book, What To Do When You’re New: How to be comfortable, confident and successful in new situations. He says that temperament has something to do with it, but nervousness in new situations is also part of our human DNA…

Rollag: A lot of it comes from how we’re hardwired. For much of human history, people lived in small groups out in the wilderness and were new only a few times in their life, and rarely met strangers because it took about a square mile of land to feed one person and so by definition people had to be spread quite a ways apart. And when you did meet a stranger which only happened a few hundred times in your entire life, that usually meant that they were encroaching on your territory or you were encroaching on theirs, and there was a real survival advantage to be cautious in those situations. The challenge is we’ve inherited that caution in a world where we meet more strangers commuting to and from work than our ancestors did their entire life. And sometimes that natural anxiety can be counterproductive in our modern world.

Peterson: Rollag has five critical newcomer skills that you need to master to be a confident newbie. When you’re new – no matter what the situation – the first step is to be introduced. Even 20 years ago, this wasn’t such a tough thing to do. These days, though, with people absorbed by their cell phones, mp-3 players and notebooks, how do we even know if someone wants to be interrupted for an introduction?

Rollag: It’s a great question and it’s certainly the invention of the smartphone and how much we are attached and so focused on that makes it a little more complicated. When I’ve interviewed people and asked them why they’re reluctant to introduce themselves or approach a stranger, that’s often one of the first things they’ll say is that they feel like they’re going to intrude or interrupt that other person. Now, with the smartphone it’s sort of something that somebody has that they’re doing that probably didn’t have when they used to be standing next to you at your kid’s soccer game, where it would seem a lot easier to make that approach, because you weren’t competing for attention time, you might say, with a technical device, let’s say 10 years ago.

Peterson: So what do you do? Rollag says that if you really want to meet that person, chances are they want to meet you too…

Rollag: I often will ask people why are they reluctant, and of course they don’t want to bother other people, they worry about making good first impressions, they worry about keeping the conversation going, they worry about rejection. But the interesting thing is when I ask people, all right, if the tables were turned and you were being approached, how would you feel? And almost always people say, “oh, that’s completely different. I’d be quite happy for someone to come up to me. I enjoy meeting new people.” So I often will tell folks that are reluctant that they find themselves in that situation to momentarily put themselves in the other person’s shoes, ask themselves, “if I was that person, would I be okay being approached?” And if I would be, and I consider myself normal, well, why don’t I consider the other person as normal too and just go for it.

Peterson: Another step is to remember names. This isn’t easy, even for the most seasoned veteran. Rollag says that this is another skill that our brains don’t take to very easily…

Rollag: It turns out that our brains actually process proper names like John and Mary differently than we process almost all the other kinds of information we learn about people. And, as a result, we can meet somebody and we can learn about their occupation and interests and their face and all of that, and then meet them the next day and as a result recollect everything else we remember about them – except for their name. And it’s because we process that differently than everything else we learn about them.

Peterson: He says that there are some tricks of the trade that can help you remember names, but it’s going to take a little work and concentration…

Rollag: Make a real habit that as you see yourself entering into an introduction and you know that person is going to say their name, is to make a real mental commitment in your head, “I’m going to listen to their name.” Because oftentimes that one second moment when they say their name we are so preoccupied with so many other things about that introduction – how firm our handshake is, what are we going to say next, establishing eye contact – that we don’t actually pay attention. So if we first of all, commit to pay attention, and one good way to do that is to make another habit of repeating their name as soon as you’ve heard it because that not only forces you to pay attention but also the act of repeating their name will get that more firmly into memory.

Peterson: After you’ve met them, Rollag says you can mentally test yourself through the conversation and say to yourself, “Do I remember their name?” Three weeks later, if you meet again and can’t recall the person’s name, Rollag says to just reintroduce yourself and ask for the person’s name again. Since most of us aren’t good at names, it shouldn’t be a problem. What if you’re passed over when people are being introduced? It can make you feel ignored, but it needn’t. He says just step forward and introduce yourself. Chances are the person doing the intros just forgot your name and might have been embarrassed about it. Rollag says that even before the introductions begin, a newcomer should stand and observe the group before rushing in, and not be afraid to ask questions. There is a pecking order in organizations – and even parties – that needs to be respected or you could find yourself on the outside.

Rollag: To the extent that you can listen and watch and sort of see how people interact, be that sociologist, I think over time you can as a new person get a feel for sort of how things work. And then as you build a stronger relationship, and I’d suggest that everybody should at least find one person they kind of consider their buddy that they can ask sort of anything and feel good about it, to be able to ask those persons to explain some of that office politics, can help you navigate that or at least be aware of it and not make any obvious blunders simply out of ignorance. Now again, as a new person, the good news is most people will forgive you for some of that because they know you’re new. But, to the extent that you can build some relationships, ask some questions around that and feel your way, you’re going to be a lot better off for it.

Peterson: Building relationships is the next step and it’s crucial in an organization, whether it’s an office or a church group. Sometimes, though, it can be tricky. Rollag says that male-female friendships can be especially difficult because often neither side understands how the other operates…

Rollag: To the extent that one realizes, and even though this is sort of a gross oversimplification, that a lot of male relationships are built around activities while a lot of female relationships are built around sharing and conversation, to the extent that you understand that, that can sometimes help you bridge that divide. Men need to understand that they need to be more sharing and more conversational in building those relationships. And perhaps women need to understand that it’s often built around things that men like to do. But I think the most important thing is just to do it. I think many times we talk ourselves out of interactions, or talk ourselves out of introductions because we make a lot of assumptions about what that other person may think or not think. And in reality oftentimes all of that will go away once we’ve actually started the conversation and started to get to know each other, find common interests and then see where things go.

Peterson: One of the biggest blunders a new person can commit is to walk into an office or other gathering like they own the place. Rollag says that a little humility in these situations goes a long way toward building strong relationships…

Rollag: In talking with managers one of the things that they’ve often said that sometimes, especially young people after graduating college and achieving all kinds of things that come through those experiences, they come in with perhaps an overinflated sense of where they stand in the organization, and by acting that way certainly send a lot of signals that there’s sort of an ego or an arrogance. Often it’s unintentional, but yes, I think humility is always a safe way to go. Now that doesn’t mean you want to be quiet and not say anything, but it simply means you want your abilities to be seen through your actions, not simply through what you tell everybody on the first day you arrive.

Peterson: Finally, performing in new situations can be nerve wracking. Rollag says that people shouldn’t obsess about perfection at the outset, but keep that as a long-term goal…

Rollag: We’ve been imbued with those desires, feeling like we have to perform as well or better than other people around us. When, in reality, much of what we do these days are not things that where that performance has a life or death implication or even impact in terms of putting food on the table, or shelter. Yet we will enter those kinds of situations with those kinds of feelings. When, in reality oftentimes what we really are trying to do is we want to meet new people, we want to learn new things, and so the extent we can focus on what’s interesting, what’s new, what’s challenging about the experience or the event or whatever it is we’re going into as opposed to “oh, I gotta perform,” to see other people as potential friends and acquaintances as opposed to evaluator and judges, it will put you in a better mindset, and as a result you’ll probably be less reluctant to enter the situation and have more fun when you’re there participating in whatever it might be.

Peterson: Being nervous in a new situation is normal, and Rollag says you won’t be a newbie forever, so just relax and enjoy the experience. He says that once you’re a real veteran in a group, it’s time to give back – by smoothing the way for other new people who come into the organization, and helping them forge new relationships and learn the ropes. You can read up on what it takes to overcome newcomer anxiety in Keith Rollag’s book, What To Do When You’re New, available now in stores and online. He invites listeners to visit his website at You can also learn more about our guests on our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

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