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Who hasn’t found themselves in a social situation where they felt awkward and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible? I recently felt it in a crowded performance at my child’s school. My tendency is to keep my head down and stick to the perimeter, not engaging anyone unless I have known them for a while.

Which was a mistake, it turned out: When you keep your distance and your eyes are downcast, you miss potential signs of welcome from other people who want to connect and put you at ease. Instead, you should focus on looking for signs of welcome from other people—and projecting signs of welcome so you seem approachable to others.

How polyvagal theory works

According to polyvagal theory, our bodies react to signs of safety or warning coming from other people’s eyes, voices, faces, and gestures. This is easier to learn when you start with situations in which you’re already comfortable. By noticing the smiles, eye contact, and voices of people who make you feel safe, you’ll be able to recognize those cues more easily in social situations where you might feel less comfortable.

Try the “Signs of Welcome” exercise from licensed clinical social worker Deb Dana’s Polyvagal Card Deck: 58 Practices for Calm and Chance. According to Dana, your nervous system picks up signals from other people’s eyes, voice, face, and gestures to determine if they are dangerous or if it’s safe to connect with them. To identify signs of welcome you personally respond to, think about a person who makes you feel safe and connected.

  • Try to notice or recall what it is about their eyes that make you feel welcome. Is it a certain level of eye contact? Eyes that are open and interested?

  • What is their tone of voice like? Maybe they speak loud enough to hear clearly but not so loud they are startling. Maybe you respond to the energy or laughter in their voice.

  • What is their facial expression? Smiling, neutral, or something else?

  • What is inviting about their gestures? Do you feel welcomed by an extended hand, a certain posture, or an incoming hug?

  • What sensations do you feel in your body when you feel safe and connected?

Use polyvagal theory to be more welcoming

Now use those same prompts to think about what your eyes, face, voice, and body communicate to other people. Do you look people in the eye, smile easily, give a little wave?

Think about the ways you would express yourself if you walked into a room full of close friends or family. Those same signs (maybe dialed back a notch) will let strangers or acquaintances know you are open to connecting.

Thinking back to my closed-off posture at the school performance recently, it’s no wonder no one felt welcome to engage with me or that I missed all the friendly faces around me. “As you develop awareness of these signs of welcome, you can intentionally send an invitation for connection and watch for invitations from others,” Dana writes.

You can feel the difference between safety and danger because physiological changes occur in your body. For example, feeling safe and regulated actually relaxes muscles in the middle ear that make you better able to hear conversational speech rather than detecting the lower tones of potential threats, according to Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist who developed polyvagal theory. When people interact socially, they coregulate their nervous systems by exchanging cues of safety.

“Basically, when humans feel safe, their nervous systems support the homeostatic functions of health, growth, and restoration, while they simultaneously become accessible to others without feeling or expressing threat and vulnerability,” Porges wrote.

Practice feeling friendlier vibes

Our nervous systems are excellent at picking up whatever cues we expect to find. If you walk into a meetup feeling threatened, you could misinterpret cues as unsafe when in fact there’s no danger. Try this exercise before you go into a scary social situation: Take a few moments to imagine the people, places, or activities that make you feel safe. Notice if your body feels more regulated and calm. With practice, you can prime yourself to feel safe and connected in new social situations too.

According to Dana’s book Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection, you can improve your perception of safety cues with practice. “Cues of safety, often missed in the midst of cues of danger, can be recognized and over time become more abundant,” she writes.

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