Tips for Shy People at Burning Man

Photo: Jon O.

Hi. Are you shy? Do you have a hard time walking into a camp full of complete strangers and striking up a conversation? Does the idea of walking out of your tent in a crazy outfit strike terror into your heart? Fabulous! My people! Read on.

The dumbest mistake I made my virgin year was expecting the playa to entertain me. Waiting for other people to reach out to me and draw me in, figuring all I’d need to do was show up and I’d somehow be assimilated into the vibe. I was intensely shy, and didn’t have much experience figuring out how to insert myself into an unfamiliar culture. I had all the stuff I needed to survive, except social skills.

Burning Man is full of 50,000 people who are more-likely-than-in-normal-life to want to talk to you due to our participatory culture, but they’re still just people doing their own thing. If you are desperately shy and walking around hoping someone will talk to you- it might happen, it might not. But if you make an effort to talk to other people, the results will likely be good. If you don’t make an effort, you might be disappointed. And lonely. And nobody wants that.

Here are some suggestions that have worked well for me, perhaps some might work for you too. I’ve managed over seven years at Burning Man to transform myself from a desperately shy person into someone who is less-shy and can easily talk to others. Most of the time. I still have my moments of wide-eyed terror and wishing I had a book to hide behind.

Smile. Seriously. Shy people are sometimes seen as angry, aloof, haughty, unfriendly, you name it. Pretend you’re outgoing. Yeah, it’s terrifying. Do it anyway. Burning Man is a good place to practice looking friendly. Smile at everyone until your face hurts. Then take some ibuprofen and smile some more.

Have some conversational starters. Not “lines”, per se, but there’s a few things I’ve found that most everyone wants to talk about. I have great success with sidling up to strangers and asking “what’s the coolest thing you’ve seen today?” or “what’s the best piece of art that you’ve run across?” or the like. Everyone has wildly different experiences! Explore them.

Wear It Anyway! If you bring costumes to Burning Man but then feel uncomfortable going out in them, wear them anyway. You might feel terrifyingly like the center of attention when you step out of your tent in something that pushes your comfort zone, but you look pretty normal to everyone else. Nothing is normal in Black Rock City, so the weird becomes the norm. People enjoy complimenting each other on costumes (if they notice you at all). It’s a good conversation starter, too. Ask that person wearing the fabulous costume if they created it themselves.

Float More, Steer Less. Try an experiment where you let the whims of others dictate your day. Walk up to strangers and ask them for a destination suggestion or an activity. When they say something like “go climb the Man base and check it out” or “go visit XYZ camp and do (activity)”, do it. Once you’ve accomplished that task, ask someone else. Repeat. Have adventures. Or get distracted on the way. Whatever.

Go to an activity you find in the What Where When guide. You’ll meet people there because you’ll all be doing the same thing. It provides context, and context is a great way to meet people.

Meet your neighbors in the next camp over. Bring a snack or a drink or just a smile. Ask where they’re from, how their journey to Burning Man went. Let them know that you’re there to help if they need anything. They will usually offer their help too, and often a seat in their shade and a beer and an invite to sit a spell and chat.

Go to the Volunteer table near Playa Info in Center Camp, and ask if they need volunteers anywhere. Many projects and departments need volunteers. Having a Job makes it easy not to be shy.

The Nuclear Option. If all else fails and you feel desperate yet brave, make a sign (hand-held or on a t-shirt) that says “I Am Shy” and go hang out somewhere. People will come talk to you because, well, shit, we’re all shy sometimes.


About the author: Brody Scotland

Brody Scotland is a native Californian and recovering shy person who enjoys hugs and snacks. Brody first attended Burning Man in 2004, found out that she doesn't actually know how to “go to Burning Man,” and started volunteering in 2005. Her mission in life is to increase the amount of happiness in the world, and she would like someone to teach her how to carve a wooden bear with a chainsaw. These two things are not necessarily related.

43 Comments on “Tips for Shy People at Burning Man

  • Brody Scotland says:

    Thanks to Halcyon of HugNation for the “float more, steer less” phrase, by the way. He’s a big inspiration to be outgoing!

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  • Andie Grace says:

    Nice one Brody! As a fellow conflicted shy person, I’ll tell ya these are good tips!

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  • Mischa says:

    Walk up to strangers and ask them for a destination suggestion or an activity. When they say something like “go climb the Man base and check it out” or “go visit XYZ camp and do (activity)”, do it.

    This could turn out quite poorly on the playa. The advice of strangers is always to be taken with a grain of salt.

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  • Lee says:

    I know it’s not for everyone, and self-medication is never the long term answer, but a friend of mine named Al Cohol has helped enormously in treating my occasional Playa Shyness.

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  • Meredith says:

    I once wrote ‘Shy Girl’ in big letters on my parasol with a marker because I was so shy. People were very nice to me, or maybe I was nicer because of doing it!

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  • This is all good advice. Bad advice: Try all the above (especially the “I’m shy”) sign whilst shirtcocking.

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  • kris says:

    “shy”, like most anything, is just a concept. demystify the concept by ignoring it outright.

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  • DustyHugs says:

    Love this! Where was it my first year? Haha… Never too late to open up and experiment with life!

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  • Kathie says:

    Thanks for the tips. I am very outgoing when among people I know, but rather shy when in large crowds of “unknowns.” I have been ruminating on how scary it will be among 50k+ people I don’t know. I’ll try some of the tips. I have been to other Burning Man events in the Bay area and have found people extremely friendly. That is what draws me to the week long event!

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  • TomCat says:

    Great idea on the ‘I am Shy’ sign! Wish I did that the first or second or 3rd year.

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  • floats like purple feather says:

    burning man seems like training wheels for extroversion. you just gotta try, and it’s near impossible to mess up.

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  • Alliebeez says:

    I’m normally outgoing unless confronted with large amounts of people. I clam right up!! Although I haven’t yet been, these are great ideas!! Even in our regular everyday lives :) Awesome post!!

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  • Dusty Rusty says:

    A friend of mine loaned me a golf cart. I offered just about everyone on foot, that I passed, a ride if they were walking the direction I was…or looked like they were tired..or that guy on crutches headed the opposite direction, but who could pass that up? Or the girl moving camp and hauling a ton of stuff. We chatted on our way to wherever. I learned a lot about a lot of people, things and why they came to Burning Man. A great way to interact with people and get out of your outsider shell.

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  • Varena says:

    I am considerably shy around new people unless approached but I found the energy at burning man so inviting it was almost a non issue for me. I didn’t feel judged by anyone and I think it was good for my non burning man shyness.

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  • Rick says:

    As a very shy guy, I have found meeting neighbors and helping them set up camp starts a real nice vibe. I invite our neighbors to our chill space and we have frozen M&M’s and cool misting to give them a break from the heat. At its core, Burning Man is about community and doing my part to establish our local community has done wonders for my shyness.

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  • Bitter Dan says:

    Float More, Steer Less! I recognized that term right away. Hugnation ftw!

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  • Brody says:

    @ Lee, you said “but a friend of mine named Al Cohol has helped enormously in treating my occasional Playa Shyness. ”

    Sure, it’s a good occasional band-aid to the problem, but it’s not a SOLUTION (in my opinion anyway). If I had used alcohol rather than actually ovarying it up and confronting my shyness, I’d now be a shy alcoholic.

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  • Foxfur says:

    Wonderful post Brody! Thanks for providing a useful resource to so many who need it.
    I’m with you on the booze. It’s great for recreation and enjoyment, not so great for increasing sociability. I want someone to know the ‘real’ me. THEN we can go get our drink on!

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  • Chris says:

    Great Post! I am on the shy side. So I’m going to try and be more open this year. Thanks

    2010 )°( 2011

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  • Laura Hernandez says:

    This is awesome! I don’t conciser myself “shy” but this is my first time at BurningMan, and there is some great advice!

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  • AWESOME – 4 timer here – wish I’d read this before my first few burns. Great ideas…

    I’ll use em back on the grid too…


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  • Neel says:

    great advice. Floating is great. Smiling works. And the less you expect, the more things will just happen-just as in life. Just relax and all will be fine. No one will judge you. It’s the friendliest place on earth.

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  • Ops says:

    You always make me smile Brody :) Great blog! Don’t think anyone would ever describe me as shy, but I’m looking forward to taking your and Halcyon’s “float more, steer less” advice to heart this year. See you out in the dust soon!

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  • Very good advice! I like the idea of holding a sign saying “i am shy” haha

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  • fox says:

    “Burning Man is full of 50,000 people who are more-likely-than-in-normal-life to want to talk to you due to our participatory culture, but they’re still just people doing their own thing. If you are desperately shy and walking around hoping someone will talk to you- it might happen, it might not. But if you make an effort to talk to other people, the results will likely be good. If you don’t make an effort, you might be disappointed. And lonely.”

    As a shy person, I can attest that the above is true. When I first went to Burning Man I had this idea that it would be social and fun the whole time. But as you say, they’re still just people doing their own thing. If you want a social, fun time, you have to be social and fun yourself.

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  • Moose says:

    I feel for ya! 2 burns ago I jumped into a truck drove from Florida to see what it was and not knowing a single person. By the time I left I felt I had a new family of 50,000. Put a chair in front of your camp and just start waving hello amazing
    who will drop in!
    See ya there!

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  • MitziStorm says:

    This guide is nice, but I can’t help but feel that your advice to shy people essentially boils down to “Just be hypersocial already! If you can’t be hypersocial, nobody will talk to you and you’ll have a crappy time! If all else fails, make a public spectacle of yourself!” I mean… it just sounds so horrifically against everything shy people feel (which isn’t a problem in itself, of course), but I get that sentiment from people in the ‘default’ world a lot. “You’re too shy, just open up already!” If I could, I would.

    And now to add some constructiveness to my criticisms, I’d like to suggest some things. Perhaps listing off the names of some camps where passive participation is encouraged, or places where shy people can be slowly lowered into the waters would be a good idea. Another good idea would be to list areas where people aren’t doing insanely public things, like giant art performances – where people can sit around and talk casually (maybe a few of the bars around the area?). Maybe areas that are, at the very least, unintimidating? Telling shy people to dress up weird, hold signs and talk to everyone they see isn’t going to suddenly change their disposition, although being in safe, happy, unintimindating environments on the Playa for a while might do the trick.

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  • Brody Scotland says:

    “”You’re too shy, just open up already!” If I could, I would.”

    I’m of the opinion that you can do anything you want to do, if you want it enough. There is nothing preventing you except yourself.

    My suggestions are a long way away from what I’d consider hypersocial (you’ll notice no suggestions for helming a theme camp/event, karaoke or other on-stage performance), and as stated they are just my opinion and what’s worked for me. If you don’t find value in them, that’s fine, but many people are appearing to do so.

    “If all else fails, make a public spectacle of yourself!”
    Well, yeah. Why not?

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  • Ben Zero says:

    A wonderful article, and good advice. I have a theory that lots of people (maybe most?) are shy, and are compensating or over-compensating in one way or another. Everybody has their own tricks for doing it…maybe next year Shy Burners can get together and quietly trade tips…

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  • Eric says:

    If I may add my standard anti-bike rant, someone is much more likely to approach you if you are on foot than if you are traveling past them at 5mph. Also, the “Or get distracted on the way.” is much more likely to happen on foot.

    Thank you, Brody, for this helpful article!

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  • Jason says:

    I agree with Mitzi to a certain extent… Burning Man is a highly social event, but it is also a highly individual experience. It is entirely possible to have a contemplative/meditative loner-type experience there and still have a wonderful and life-changing burn.

    That said, for those who are naturally more introverted but *want* to break through some of those internal barriers, there’s a lot of good advice here. :)

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  • 62 cent says:

    Can you be naked at burning man

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  • Aloha :) says:

    This is GREAT! Loved the info. This will be my 6th burn. I too was a bit shy at my 1st. But now…no way. My husband & I had a theme camp for 3 years. Getting involved was the BEST thing to do. We met so many wonderful people from all over the world. AWESOME friends. Anyways….enjoy Burning Man. :)

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  • El Presidente says:

    @62 cent – there is no naked people allowed at Burning Man.

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  • TwoHott says:

    Good topic. I feel for shy people at burning man. It is a wonderful place for flaming extroverts. On the other hand, it is a great place to grow and confront your fears.

    In performance art, we often take some idea/feeling/concept and simply do it BIG. The “I’m shy” sign fits into that method.

    Along those lines, picture this in the Who/What/Where:

    Come visit the shy camp! Enjoy the companionship of other shy people. Don’t be lonely, just be comfortable. We specialize in helping shy people feel comfortable in our specially designed lounge. We have areas for people who are only shy in large groups, people who are shy with the opposite sex, and people who are shy wearing strange costumes. Ask (or just read the sign) about our special dances. Our Shy Lounge is a nonjudgemental, supportive, and safe space to relax and just be yourself. It’s OK to be shy some times. Do it with us!

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  • Krueger says:

    That is one of the reasons I am volunteering as a Ranger this year, so I will get out of my introverted self and meet new people. Having a reason to walk up to someone’s camp and say “Hi, how is it going?” just makes it easier.

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  • Celebrity says:

    Finally answers! I used to be a shy person, now I am very outgoing, but over the years I’ve noticed, not feeling like I particularly fit in anywhere. Reading this post I realize at Burning Man my shyness tends to come out. I’m an observer. I hadn’t realized until not that’s what it was. Last year I decided to teach a class to meet more people. Sometimes I help people in need or talk to people in center camp and at deep heaven. Now I will try some of this conversation starters and see what happens.

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  • 7 says:

    Other tips you can try from a shy extrovert.

    Talk to people in lines. They are boring and anyone will talk to you. Heck, FIND lines to stand in and then ask what the line is for!

    Hang out in Center Camp especially off hours. People are usually just chilling and resting and are very open to chatting.

    Check out Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet (F and 8:45) to find your “Soulmate” (blatant plug). There is some waiting and hanging out with a bunch of other people. You need to find a person to go with you, so find someone else walking alone outside the camp. If you can’t find anyone, ask me or someone from CSTO for help and mention you are shy. You’ll have someone to talk to while going through the process. When you are done, you’ll be matched to two soulmates who you have an excuse to talk to in depth. Besides that, it is a great experience.

    Be happy with many short encounters. Don’t feel you have to spend 2 hours with someone to have a meaningful connection or to be able to get some social practice.

    Bring something to give. It could be an object, a talent or a service. If you give me something, you will have my attention! I will thank you and give you something back or just give you a heartfelt smile.

    Last tip I have is that 99% of Burners I’ve met are so very open, friendly and nice. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you do make the effort to talk to them. I know I continue to be…

    Good luck!

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  • Burning Red Bush says:

    Great post! There are lots of us who are usually introverted and need some pointers like these if we’re going to head out to BM and make the best of the experience. I don’t think I’m shy, but I am definitely not an extrovert and I really needed to read this. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Thanks for showing up, Brody.

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