Avoidance due to social anxiety can be more complex than being terrified of a situation. As one who chooses a street to walk down, instead of the shortcut of an alley, avoidance can arise from a cost-benefit analysis, weighing up risk, vulnerability and discomfort – drawing from memories of past experiences.
I avoid coffee shops because, due to my social anxiety symptoms and sense of social vulnerability, the cost seems to outweigh the benefit, in the moment. However, in the interests of exposing myself to the situation and in the hope that my experience will counter my expectations of fear, I sometimes try to go.
Choosing the coffee shop: I choose a very quiet one which I have been to before. They are even quieter due to Covid-19. It is a chain shop and I am familiar with the process of buying and sitting down and some of the items sold.
Checking the staff: I immediately try to identify how busy the place is and who will serve me and their threat level. I have a very personal set of assumptions that I rely on based on, for example, age, sex, appearance, sociability, manner and ethnicity. I feel safer interacting with older women and am most fearful, generally, of men. A threat people pose, in this situation, is of making me feel humiliated, that is, being treated as lesser. Perhaps, there is a more fundamental threat which is subconscious and triggers the fear in the first place.
Incidents that are embedded in my memory include a young male barista, in the same chain shop, at a differently location, suddenly grinning at me when I made my order in what I interpreted as amusement at my nervous appearance. Other memories that no doubt influence my fear are of trying to order food or drinks in fast food outlets or, especially, noisy pubs and not being heard, despite repeated efforts.
Choosing what I want: I am by nature indecisive and fear causes dysfunction in my thinking and feeling, so I do not know whether I am hungry/thirsty or not and I do not know what I want to order. I feel no desire for food or drink. My attention on entering the shop was almost entirely on assessing the threat levels, that I unthinkingly pass the overpriced snacks on the shelf. At the counter, covered by transparent plastic, a young woman wearing a cap and a plastic face mask greets me cheerfully. Fear intensifies at entering the social interaction and I cannot think clearly. I am looking at the board on the wall advertising different types of coffees and other drinks but I do not process the information. I do not ask for time to try to read and think, because, partly, I wish to hide my fear and confusion and, partly, I know that, even if I ask for time, I will still struggle to read and process the information.
Ordering: I am wearing a cloth face mask and looking through a plastic sheet barrier. Something about my appearance makes the young barista frown, as if concentrating in anticipation of my words being inaudible or incomprehensible. I suppose it is because I have made a split delay in speaking which is noticeable. Or, I wonder, is it because I look tired or tense? I order green tea because it feels easy to order, I have ordered it before, it is supposedly healthy and it is relatively cheap. My voice is steady but sounds emotionless and false, to me. However, she hears my words and I say thanks in the same forcedly calm voice. I feel fake and a familiar sense of shame and being detached from others is growing in me.
I pay but do not read the price on the till. I consider asking for a receipt but as I am not sure I need one and thinking it is easier not to ask, I do not. I retreat from the counter, glad that the most frightening part is over.
Consumption: I decide to sit at a table behind a column so that I am obscured from the direct view of the baristas. Normally, I sit in a more open place but I wonder if I will feel more comfortable in a private spot. I find I do feel safer but am aware when the two baristas on duty move to a position where they can see me.
I drink the green tea, which I don’t enjoy the taste of. I observe a middle-aged couple, possibly partners, ordering and sitting near me. I notice the confidence with which they order and they begin to argue with each other about their order. They have ordered cakes/pastries and drinks. I also notice the confidence of the baristas. I imagine myself serving behind the counter and the fear I would experience if a middle-aged working class man addressed me. “Would you like chocolate on that?” the barista asks another middle-aged man, ordering a takeaway: ‘why not?’ he says. A woman orders medium soya latte. She sounds so confident and natural to me.
I start thinking of the decor, as I usually do, in the shop. I am appalled by the idea of working in the coffee shop. Not only do I think of my fear of a stream of demanding customers, some, perhaps, irritable or angry, but also the fakeness of the shop’s decoration. The large framed photographs and other images depict, I think, Mediterranean suburban or village cafe culture. One near me shows an old man sitting on chair with his distended belly beneath high trousers and two walking sticks by his side. The images suggest a slow pace of life, warm weather and close community. What I see in the shop is something near the opposite. It is all but empty, the furniture and photos are cheap and the service is based on fast-food culture. I feel no community and it is cold outside. I feel that I could not bear to work here – but, I also wonder if you can come to terms with it, like any workplace. I wonder what pride one can feel working in such an artificial and fake setting.
I listen to the baristas talking. One is a young English woman and the other a slightly older woman with an accent which I can’t identify. I did not process what they looked like and when they pass by, sweeping or clearing something, I avoid looking at them for fear of giving away my nervousness. I notice that the ‘foreign’ barista is chiding the English woman for being slow. I cannot follow the conversation and assume that it is being said in jest. I cannot imagine the confident English woman being bullied. I come to think about myself again and knowing I would be slow and confused and, likely, susceptible to bullying, pressure or humiliation. I don’t let myself think about the bad experience I had working in a retail store maybe a decade ago.
I finish my tea and decide to leave. I have a free day and will, perhaps, look in a shop before heading home. I get up to go and want to acknowledge the staff. I hope one will look at me, so I can nod and say thanks. If they are looking, it feels easier. Neither are looking and I try to say thank you, anyway. However, I pull out of it, as I start, so that it was probably inaudible. Neither looked up from what they were doing as I leave.
Outcome: Whilst nothing especially negative occurred, the experience has reinforced my view that the cost outweighs the benefit of drinking at a coffee shop on my own. I experienced mental confusion and dysfunction at the point of ordering. The barista frowned before I spoke, raising my self-consciousness and hurting my self-esteem. I did not enjoy the green tea and was not able to relax or sit comfortably as I drank, due to fear of the baristas and thoughts about the decor and self-conscious and self-reflective thoughts, focused around my fears. My challenge for the future must be to try this again but challenge the specific negative incidences of the experience by adjusting my behaviour, if I can.