Are you a Glossophobic?


While ‘Glossophobia’ would be a new word to many, its meaning would not be.

Glossophobia or speech anxiety is the fear of public speaking or of speaking in general. The word comes from the Greek γλῶσσα glōssa, meaning tongue, and φόβος phobos, fear or dread. (Source: Wikipedia)

Surveys about human fears commonly show fear of public speaking at the top of the list. The fear of speaking in front of a group is so great that people fear it more than anything, even death, at least in surveys! This might sound odd considering no actual harm has befallen the average Joe as a result of being a poor public speaker. But the fear is very real and psychologists feel the answer to this lies in our very distant past.

In order to minimize getting hunted by large predators, early man learned to live in groups. This possibly is why early humans and other large primates evolved to be social, and why we are social even today. Not being very large or very fast or very fierce, man survived by his wits and ability to collaborate. Failure to be a part of the collaborative (and social) group, or getting kicked out, would have spelled certain death for early humans. Those early men who worked well together and helped each other probably survived and passed on traits to their progeny and this has continued to contribute towards social behavior.  And this is why anything that threatens our status in a social group, like the threat of ostracism, feels like a very great risk to us.

“Ostracism appears to occur in all social animals that have been observed in nature,” said Kip Williams, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue who has studied ostracism.  “To my knowledge, in the animal kingdom, ostracism is not only a form of social death, it also results in death.  The animal is unable to protect itself against predators, cannot garner enough food, etc., and usually dies within a short period of time,” said Williams. (Source: Psychology Today)

We human beings are not very different. Though social ostracism in today’s world does not affect a person’s ability to get food, it still has very lasting effects on the psyche. Small children who are continuously made fun of by bigger bullies may develop extreme emotional residues that may manifest immediately or much later. Adults go through the same problems. The thought of inadequacy in front of an audience, however small, is very daunting.

As a trainer and coach, I have seen distinct nervousness in people across age and experience levels when asked to volunteer for an activity, especially when it involves leaving the seat and walking across to face the rest of the group. Every individual who comes to be coached lists this as an area of concern. The nervousness is usually very palpable through expressions and body language. In extreme cases, the person loses his voice and cannot say anything when asked to speak. Excessive perspiration, suddenly shaky feet, dry throat or a perceived lump in the throat, nausea and stomach ache are some common symptoms of Glossophobia.

Just in case you think this post is all gloomy and dismal, fear not; there is always hope at the end of the tunnel. Like every problem, physical or mental, Glossophobia too can be addressed. While there are therapies that can help, I strongly recommend self help, coaching and a lot of practice in order to get over this . The first step towards getting better, remains the same as always – accept there is a problem and go forth to conquer it. Do not run away from public speaking because that will worsen the fear. Remember, you would not have learned cycling or swimming if you did not get back to it every time you fell or went under water to come up sputtering.