“Sorry, you were blocking the door… could you greet each other again? And act surprised?”

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Illustration by Brittany England

Last October, I took part in a televised social experiment: A British reality show in which five strangers host each other in their homes for three-course dinner parties. At the end of each episode, they rate the experience out of ten.

The winner gets £1,000. Everyone goes back to their homes and lives. Months pass. Then the shows airs, resplendent with a gently mocking voiceover (which has become iconic) and tactically uncomfortable editing.

It’s a firecracker of social friction waiting to happen. Ever since the first on-air game show gaffes and blooper shows, the idea of real, awkward people doing really awkward things on TV has been part of mainstream entertainment. So, why did I participate? Read on, friends…

Reality TV (or the Constructed Reality Show, as networks now call them) has granted celebrity status to unassuming and fame-hungry people alike. The form also thrives on carefully devised scenarios that light the tinder of social discomfort underneath the unwitting cast.

Which is why I found myself serving catastrophic Kenyan chapatis to four equally bewildered strangers at my table last year.

I also fought off debilitating social anxiety up until last year.

In my mind, participating in the show was exposure therapy. It was a way of confronting my fears (on national television, no less). I’d be spending a week in very close contact with four people I didn’t even know while I was cooking.

So, on a scale of not really to f*ck no, did it help? Well, the clue’s in the question.

But I took away a few important lessons that can hopefully serve as a nudge in the right direction for others who fear the gauntlet of everyday conversation.

I’m writing from the United Kingdom, where socially stilted people such as myself roam the hills and sleepy towns like grazing cattle. Social anxiety, on the other hand, can catch up to you whatever country you’re from.

The fear defined my twenties. I’d regularly flee from casual gatherings and parties alike — and I mean, quite literally, run away at speed. This applied right up until the point I became exhausted with the effort and shut myself away.

According to the American Psychological Association, social anxiety is also known as social phobia, and that’s telling.

It operates very much like a phobia, throwing into vivid relief the irrational things you tell yourself about seeing other people — the same way seeing a completely harmless spider triggers extreme reactions of fear from a person with arachnophobia.

I also experienced hearing loss at a young age, so throw being an active hearing aid user into the mix, and you’re looking at a long, uninspiring life as a shut-in — unless you take serious steps to get used to discomfort and embrace it.

By my thirties, I was done feeling like this. Social anxiety was standing between me and anything resembling a real experience with others. I was getting better. I’d lost weight, I was eating right, and I was starting to hear people in crowded rooms.

But I was 10 years behind most other people my age when it came to getting through a casual chat unscathed. I’d also never really hosted parties and placed myself as the social engineer of the room before.

So, just like on Fear Factor, I submerged myself in the tank of spiders that is other people. I signed up to participate in this show.

Forcing myself into a position where I stood to win £1,000 (if I was just nice enough to everyone) was certainly a motivator to step my talking game up. I didn’t win. As it turns out, no amount of forced conversation, however endearing, can cover up what happened to my chapatis.

I also figured that experiments take place in controlled environments, right? So even though they were judging me and my cooking, nothing would go wrong in an unpredictable spiral of events. Everything would be micromanaged. In my head, the risk was quite low.

In my head, though, I could also make chapatis.

Reality shows make being “real” seem so difficult and taxing.

Why are arguments in real life bitter and galling? How come they always have the right zinger at the right bitchy moment? Do all people really come across like they have zero self-awareness?

Well, it’s real life through the lens of a person choosing 30 minutes of footage from 10 hours of film.

Real life is easier. You have agency and power, and you can choose what people see. You aren’t competing.

So while I had good intentions, I essentially plunged myself headlong into a week of prolonged exposure to strangers in confined spaces under bizarre, staged conditions.

The art of this artifice

As someone for whom self-awareness has put up all too many social barriers, let me tell you: Constructing the “reality” in reality TV is a painstaking, long-winded, and completely artificial process.

The days were long and taxing, being cramped in strangers’ spare rooms with the other contestants, waiting for interviews, and sometimes being active for 20-hour shoots.

Constantly trying to come up with the least memeable comment on any situation and measuring the risk of everything you say is a truly draining enterprise. Everything that wears you out about every conversation you could be having is not only omnipresent on a reality TV set — it’s rewarded.

However, it’s not so rewarding when you’re on your third dinner party of the week, stripped of small talk, worn out from 3 a.m. finishes, on a stranger’s floor, staring at the ceiling while everyone keeps talking.

How is this any different than usual, you ask?

What do I even say?

For starters, the directors constantly prod and antagonize you for the most biting or catty soundbite.

I watched many, many episodes of the show leading up to my week, and the absolute avalanche of dreadful puns and cookie-cutter punchlines was borderline impressive. Now, I can only hear these in the director’s voice, with an invitation to parrot what they say.

Even the greetings, the quick conversational peaks around the table, the reactions to what people are saying and doing — it’s all filmed, refilmed from different angles, and quality checked. The simplest things are contrived.

It all amounts to a surreal, nightmare version of your worst fears, with the director acting as a stand-in for your own, socially self-destructive tendencies.

So you play up to it. You say the most outlandish things you can say. You think of fun things you can do ahead of time. You buy into the format, and so the format has no way to push you from your comfort zone, because you see it for what it is: Entertainment.

All this conceiving and scenario-replaying and fretting and planning — even in the name of fun — is still the same cycle of catastrophizing and hypothesizing completely regular scenarios.

And that is simply not a good road map for someone looking for real solutions for social anxiety in an unlikely place. It’s a trap.

Watching eyes

The close management of every possible scenario was there as a way to make sure that, despite the pressures of a cooking challenge, we were still part of captivating content. There’s a living script going on, and you’re part of its creation.

You’re not only thinking about how the heck you’ll interact with these people — you’re also thinking about how not to look like an idiot in front of 700,000 others, sat with their fingers on the “Send Tweet” button.

One of the prevailing symptoms with social anxiety is a constant terror around judgement. What if you look stupid?

What if you’re peeling apples and smash a bowl everywhere? What if you fall over a cupboard door? What if your chapatis no longer fall under the technical definition of bread or, indeed, food? (These were all things that happened. The bowl and the door were within the first ten seconds of the episode.)

I felt like entering an environment where my presence and efforts are literally judged with scorecards, like a culinary Tonya Harding, would make my previous fears seem paltry by comparison. (And also like Tonya Harding, those scores were pretty low at first due to presentation.)

Unfortunately, all the hyperawareness of judgment led to me thinking about the way I was being cross-sectioned in every second by every interested party and wondering what their intentions might be in saying what they did — even the nice stuff.

And Twitter, that reliable fountain of compassion and decency, rose to the plate. If the contestants weren’t already at the mercy of the editors, the social media vultures would pick the bones clean once the show went live.

And, boy, did they. I’m not going to give these opinions airtime. But if you search for #ComeDineWithMe and just scroll past, you can bathe in the bile and pettiness all you like.

The wait

After a whirlwind week, I returned to normal life. (Edit: The 4 months of normal we had left before coronavirus made terrible chapatis of all of us.)

With a hazy scheduling date, all we could do was wait. I kept contact with some people (shoutout to retired advertising sales director Gill, who is fond of hats — always in my heart).

Knowing everything that had happened — people being booted off the show and replaced, my kitchen calamities, all the kinks and tangents and awkward moments, what you said in the interviews — meant knowing that you had no control over the edit.

And that was the feeling of social anxiety multiplied by… well, roughly 700,000.

I knew that cringeworthy events had unfolded.

I knew that it was going out nationwide.

And I knew that everyone had passed judgment, it probably wasn’t too flattering, and more people still would pass judgment when it aired. It was a prolonged, lukewarm bath of social anxiety with no end date.

Well, obviously not, because I met my bae, Gill. #TeamGill.

In social anxiety terms? Not entirely. I didn’t stride out of the week bursting with confidence and excitement, as I expected. But no conversation I’ve had since has terrified me quite as much as being told to get up and dance because someone is singing at you in their living room.

Or spending months wondering whether the soundbite “spelling is my superpower” would make it through the editing process and ruin my entire life.

(It never made the edit, but it’s something the director asked me to say that made me curl up. I stand by it. I am quite good at spelling.)

Or finding out that your decision to wear four hats meant that you had to keep them on all night for continuity, including at the dinner table.

Back in the real world, my conversations with others have been about memories. And plans. And fears. And favors. My wife and I have been locked down in a neighbourhood full of older folk. They were there right when I needed to learn about the power of real, neighborly conversation after exposure to extreme artifice.

I’ve also had old friends make contact — people from school, from old jobs, those whose names I haven’t thought about in at least 5 years. They congratulated me on the show. Like I’d achieved something.

And almost immediately, I just asked how they are. Cue the first full-on conversations in years. No awkwardness. Just curiosity.

Oddly, the strange, artificial, social ping-pong match that I’d put myself through had, in fact, led to long-forged connections re-entering my life.

Let’s face it, with lockdown, that’s been a blessing.

There’s also a connecting power in nervous laughter. When I was being asked to film reaction shots to statements from the others, there would be around 20 seconds of painful eye contact.

And as soon as the sordid deed was done, everyone in the room collapsed with laughter. The downtime between meals and interviews were the real experience.

I lived through a bizarre experience with four people. The little moments and in-jokes were valuable moments in a library of positive references. I could look back on them and say “Huh. The moments of real interaction weren’t that bad in comparison.”

There were several important lessons I took away from this mind-altering experience:

  • Have fun making yourself uncomfortable. Self-amusement legitimately leads to enjoyable conversations with other people.
  • Take on a new experience for yourself. But make sure there are new people around to share it with you. Love ’em or loathe ’em, they’re part of the experience.

    The very worst thing that can happen is that you get something new to talk about. People who fear conversations with others can simply build up their bank of new experiences for new subjects to mine.

    One thing leads to another, and you’re wearing four hats while eating a chocolate cake and getting told you have a purple aura.
  • Everyone constructs a persona. One guest got grumpy about having to take his shoes off before coming into my house. He removed his £700 Armani brogues, and a piece of his personality just fell away.

    Build your own persona around making people feel great. That’s not pretending to be someone you’re not, it’s putting who you are out there. Everyone’s managing how the world sees them. And many of them are just as worried as you about the judgment of others.

    So relax. And if you don’t feel comfortable talking, just listen. It’s as vital as speaking for a good conversation, perhaps more so.
  • Everyone’s judging, but no one cares. First impressions are powerful. But they’re not forever. Unless you’re truly repellent or make someone feel unsafe, people’s judgments are based on their own slants, gains, and biases rather than any gaping flaws.

    Even when my new TV friends were holding up physical score cards to rate my night, they were giving me marks for a vegetable risotto, not the contents of my soul.

    Sometimes, they’re not judging for any reason at all other than a desire to say someone looks like “Peter Sellers playing a tw*t” online (thanks, @ItsNotVeryNiceToPutYourRealHandleButBelieveMeImStillBitter).

    It’s all insignificant, jokes aside. So someone passes a negative judgment over something you say or do? Perhaps they find you silly or clumsy. But they’re all so consumed with their own stuff that they’ll barely register it in a day’s time.
  • Talk to everyone. Conversations can start as mundane as you like. They might be what you fear the most, but tell me this: If you say something about the nearby roadworks to the checkout person while you’re picking up a granola bar at the supermarket, what truly scary event do you think is going to transpire?

    Or if you ask someone for directions, or places that are good to go near where you are. Literally anything, just to ease you into the habit of talking to people. On set, I would chat to the crew and the drivers about any old nonsense just to pass the time. It made me feel more at ease talking to everyone else.
  • Don’t make chapatis on camera when you don’t know how to make f*cking chapatis. This one’s pretty self-explanatory.

“Is Adam cooking? Yeah, let’s order something in.”

Reality TV was a pretty bruising experience with some spaces for learning and perspective.

Most people are thinking about themselves. They’re not chiseling their lofty opinion into a stone tablet. They’re just people, navigating conversations like you or I. And unless you threaten them, no one is going to embarrass you.

Next time you’ve got an opportunity, talk to a stranger (unless you’re a kid, then Mommy is definitely right, and you should not be doing that). It’s not as bad when there are no cameras rolling.

“Okay, let’s get that reaction one last time, so Gill said she’d taxidermy her husband…”

Adam Felman is an Editor for Medical News Today and Greatist. Outside of work, he is a hearing-impaired musician, producer, and rapper who gigs globally. Adam also owns every Nic Cage movie and has a one-eyed hedgehog called Philip K. Prick.