Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


me: "Hi!" you: "Hello" me: "um.." you: "...." me: "..." -> infinity
July 15, 2009 4:16 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop acting like a complete weirdo? It freaks people out, which freaks me out, which freaks them out more on and on in an infinite cycle.

In many situations I seem to cause a lot of tension and nervousness/awkwardness to the people around me. I sincerely don't mean to but I'm not sure what to say/do or how to behave to put people at ease.

Some background and examples:

First of all, I've always been shy and introverted and have had issues giving off "mean" vibes growing up due to rarely smiling, and basically being that weird kid that everyone wonders what happens to after high school. I've had tremendous trouble making and keeping friends my whole life (while there is no shortage of people who are friendly to me, in the long run most people can't stand to be around me too often without being severely annoyed). In my early 20's I finally learned how to be a little more friendly and smile more and have obtained a large handful of acquaintances, but still have difficulty creating any sort of close intimate friendships.

I realize this is due to the way I act; there are many social rules I'm only learning now through the power of the internet. Sometimes I read about certain unacceptable behaviors and suddenly realize why entire groups of people have frozen me out of their lives in the past.

I've learned to dress more flatteringly, and apply makeup and style my hair, so at least I appear to be a normal person at first, but then once people start talking to me I say and do things (and probably have weird body language) that creeps people out. Examples:
  1. When I see people I know I blurt out "Hi!" to them, which creates some sort of awkward moment. Usually they make an uncomfortable face and say "hi" back, but seem pretty weirded out regardless. I usually smile and if they're a little far away I'll throw in a wave which makes people even more uncomfortable, and sometimes they nervously laugh or look away. It seems rude not to say hi to them, but is there a different way to greet people that won't freak them out? This happens extremely often and makes me feel embarrassed and sort of sad. Am I being too enthusiastic?
  2. Any place I go to get my hair or nails done I struggle to make small talk with the person doing my hair or nails. I'll laugh too much at small things (mostly out of nervousness) and smile a lot (too much) and not have anything interesting to talk about, then the remainder of the appointment is conducted in mostly silence. The hair stylist/manicurists are always nice to me but seem extremely relieved when I leave.
  3. My "closer" friends aren't afraid to crack jokes around me, but I never have any funny things to say in response. I usually just laugh the whole time, and then they get irritated that I'm laughing too much. I have no clue how to spontaneously make funny observations (when I do, nobody laughs). Sometimes they get so exasperated that they start to pretend that I am no longer there.
  4. I've never had a romantic relationship, ever. Guys have expressed interest but recoil once they get to know me a bit better. Unless I have something specific reason to speak, I am terrible to talk to on the phone and in real life. My conversations have a lot of long, awkward pauses for which I have nothing to relieve with a joke or anything at all.
  5. I especially freak out mid/upper class and highly educated people. If I'm with my sister they're very receptive around her but alone, they try to avoid me. Admittedly, I start to get more nervous when I realize my presence is making other people uncomfortable which makes me even more nervous which makes THEM more nervous, etc.
I'm awkward! This is not normal human behavior. It annoys everyone and it's affecting my social life, my professional life, everything. I get the same reactions around my family as well.

How do I even begin to stop being so weird?
posted by wiretap to Human Relations (44 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
Essential reading.
posted by jgunsch at 4:25 PM on July 15, 2009


I grew up from a really shy, awkward kid into a more outgoing adult with plenty of great friends, so this question resonates with me. I'm still really awkward a lot of the time, but I think I'm figuring out some ways to make it easier on everyone. One of the best things you can do in everyday situations is to figure out what people expect to hear from you-- usually really trite stock phrases. "What's up" works really well, as long as you don't expect people to actually go into detail about what's up.

Also, you say you have closer friends-- there's no way they'd hang out with you often enough to be your friends if they didn't like you. So that means that there's something they like about you. I'm guessing that you're capable of being not awkward and even funny when you're not worried about what people will think. Most people are. Do you have interesting hobbies or something? I've found that finding something that really, really absorbs you can both decrease your stress around other people (because you know how to have fun whether they like you or not) and can make you have plenty of engaging things to say to people.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:28 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


None of this sounds like you being weird. It sounds like you're experiencing totally normal moments of awkwardness that happen to everyone and then overloading them with all sorts of negative judgments, which you then project onto other people. I assure you that awkward moments are very rarely the fault of only one person.
posted by nasreddin at 4:32 PM on July 15, 2009 [16 favorites]


1. I know someone who does this. It's not that *what* they are doing is weird, it's the timing and the tone. When you pass someone in the hallway, and don't expect it to turn into a conversation, say "hey" or give a nod at the last possible moment, so that they have a chance to do the same. It's really uncomfortable to have someone greet you too early and then have nothing to do until you are finally close enough to engage in pleasantries. Also, learning the frequency of these greetings (like in the workplace) is a subtle art. The "strength" of the greeting should directly correlate with when the last time you saw them was. First thing every morning? Great. Every damn time they walk by? Creepy and awkward. Doing this makes the other person feel "on the spot" to perform. And that's no fun. Also, don't discount the value of the trite "what's with the weather today" or "thank god it's friday" followed with "see you monday". Everyone knows those are just silence fillers, and they appreciate that you recognize that.

2. It's not your job to entertain people like that. Greet them warmly, talk about the job at hand, and then let them lead the conversation. If they are the chatty type, they will have something to talk about. If not, they will probably relish the silence.

3. Conversation isn't a competition. When it's really good and people are riffing off one another and having a good time, great. But there's no need to pressure yourself to try to make it like that all the time. If the conversation goes into a lull, ask them a question about something going on in their lives. The art of conversation, especially for the shy, is all about trying to make the other person comfortable and valued. It's no fun talking to someone who is all stressed trying to come up with interesting things to say, instead of just going with the flow. You can't create spontaneity, don't try.

4. Can't help you there. I have al lot of the same problems, and all I can say (as a male) is to try to be more in the moment. "wow, I have nothing to say. Have you always lived in Idaho?" I have found that there is a difference between someone who is shy, and someone who has nothing to say. Shy people (IME) usually have lots going on, but are often unable to "let go" or put their thoughts out there, fearing what the other person might think about them. In that respect, dating is a freeing experience. Everyone knows it's a crap shoot, why not let it all out? The worst that can happen is that a complete stranger thinks you are a weirdo. But NOT opening up has the same result, plus you never know whether that person might have preferred the real you, instead of the shy, insecure, trying too hard you. Nothing to lose.

5. I'm not sure I understand this one. People are people. Doesn't matter where they grew up or how much money they have or whatever. I once met a guy who was an important politician-government-type, but who was also a former professional athlete. I was way more nervous about the professional athlete thing (he had a really cool memento in his office, and that was really cool). People, in social, casual situations, tend to prefer it if others treat them as equals. Because in the back room, you are equals. This is easy to say and way harder to do, but don't be intimidated. These people were all gross toddlers and pimply teenagers and arrogant college students. We have way more in common than we have differences. That doesn't mean calling the governor "dude" and asking about his favorite rolling paper brand. But it does mean not freaking out.

President Bush is a really good example of the freakout phenomonon. Watch him when he is in serious mode- awkward, stuttery, dead-eye-stare. The poor guy is just uncomfortable sometimes. He's clearly worried about not looking dumb in front of the cameras. But look at when he's feeling more comfortable- almost too loose, saying weird stuff. His mind isn't quite in the moment in either situation. He's wasting resources on not looking stupid, or trying to look cool. Compare that to Pres Obama or Clinton. They are comfortable in any situation, and have figured out how to be in the moment. Look at someone, shake their hand, ask them a quick question or two, and end it quickly. They aren't worried about being your BFFL. And they have figured out some stock questions and phrases to use. That's how to not be weird. Make people comfortable by not imposing on them.

Good luck. I'm a weirdo too.
posted by gjc at 4:54 PM on July 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


Seconding nasreddin: A lot of these things are just life. Everyone struggles to think of stuff to take about with the hairdresser or nail-doer.

Sometimes they get so exasperated that they start to pretend that I am no longer there.

I don't know, but really doubt that's what they are doing. Are you sure they're not just, you know, not talking to you because you're not saying anything? It seems like you are making a lot of what in CBT are called "Thought errors." (i've been learning a lot about these myself lately.) You're "mind-reading" other people and assuming they're thinking the very worst about you, 100% of the time, with no real evidence.

Maybe you are a little awkward. So what? So am I. So are a lot of people. I work in software so I have some quite socially awkward co-workers. that's just how they are, and it's fine. no one avoids them, or hates them, or pretends they're invisible.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:54 PM on July 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm with nasreddin that some of your issue is skewed perception of yourself. I certainly feel inappropriate at times, and perhaps a little but the mind blows things up. So one thing is, chill and worry less.

You did not really describe what you consider wrong body language, but something to try. In public speaking class they say to grab the sides of the podium and don't let go, well no podium but, hold your hands in your lap and don't let go. Or get pockets, say a nice sweatshirt with pockets and keep your hands in the pockets.

Hey and quietly just ask. Someone that you have some time being around. Start with these words exactly: "Excuse me but would you mind a small personal question about me?", and just ask, "was what I said inappropriate? How do you think I should have phrased that?"

But no more than one personal query per friend per month. Don't want to freak them, eh? ;-)
posted by sammyo at 5:00 PM on July 15, 2009


Just a thought, but could you stop worrying about what people think a bit? Try it.

It's a double torture, not knowing what to do, and then worrying about what people think about you not knowing what to do. There are a lot of really eccentric people in the world, and a lot of them have regular relationships. But I think stressing out that people aren't going to like you is going to make you really apologetic, which can be annoying and difficult to deal with.

I'm not sure about this advice either, but I started looking at myself in the mirror a lot. Not in a "oh gawd I'm hawt" kind of way, but more like just knowing what I look like. I'd replay an emotion in my head and then try to make the face that came naturally and see if the person in the mirror had the expression I was expecting I was making.

Also I started smiling at people on the street. For a long time I couldn't pass someone on the street and look them in the eye. I worked on that for a while. Not a huge I'm an Idiot smile. Just a hello smile. Took a long time but now it doesn't bother me.

This is to say: I'm still a freak. I probably always will be one. I bet some people like you more than you think.
posted by sully75 at 5:02 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Toastmasters.

Seriously, Toastmasters is something to think about. If, for whatever reason (Asperger's or other neurologically atypical brainbox/weird parents/raised by wolves/you name it) you don't have good skills in socially appropriate responses, Toastmasters can help you.

I know that might sound odd, but I know a lot of folks for whom it's worked wonders.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:02 PM on July 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


1. When I see people I know I blurt out "Hi!" to them, which creates some sort of awkward moment. Usually they make an uncomfortable face and say "hi" back, but seem pretty weirded out regardless. I usually smile and if they're a little far away I'll throw in a wave which makes people even more uncomfortable, and sometimes they nervously laugh or look away. It seems rude not to say hi to them, but is there a different way to greet people that won't freak them out? This happens extremely often and makes me feel embarrassed and sort of sad. Am I being too enthusiastic?

Try this: next time you see someone you know, don't say or do anything unless they're looking at you. If they don't make eye contact, you don't have to, either, and your work is done. If they make eye contact, instead of saying anything, just smile a wee bit and nod once, then wait half a second to see if you get a respond. If they don't respond, maybe they didn't see you, but then you have no reason to be more social; your work is done. If they respond in a negative way, they probably don't remember you or don't like you, so to hell with them; your work is done. If they respond with a similar smile and eye contact, then go about their business, you've acknowledged each other; your work is done. If they respond with "hey!" you say "hey, how are you?" and then you have a conversation for a little bit.

2. Any place I go to get my hair or nails done I struggle to make small talk with the person doing my hair or nails. I'll laugh too much at small things (mostly out of nervousness) and smile a lot (too much) and not have anything interesting to talk about, then the remainder of the appointment is conducted in mostly silence. The hair stylist/manicurists are always nice to me but seem extremely relieved when I leave.

You do not need to try to talk to the people who do your hair or nails. I hate small talk, and so when I'm getting my hair cut, I don't speak beyond simple pleasantries. Sometimes a person tries to engage me, and I respond briefly but in a friendly way if it's not a topic that interests me, and if it's a topic that interests me I'll respond then ask a question about it. Most of the time, there's very little talking, and sure it might feel awkward...but some people likely appreciate being able to stop talking for a little while while they work.

3. My "closer" friends aren't afraid to crack jokes around me, but I never have any funny things to say in response. I usually just laugh the whole time, and then they get irritated that I'm laughing too much. I have no clue how to spontaneously make funny observations (when I do, nobody laughs). Sometimes they get so exasperated that they start to pretend that I am no longer there.

You're not a comedian. Your job is not to make them laugh. If they make a joke, laugh. Then listen some more. You don't have to speak at all, honestly. I have a work friend who's a very nice guy, but he barely talks. We love him anyway. He doesn't have to dance like a monkey boy to get our respect and friendship, he just has to be who he is.

Remember, you're supposed to be hanging out with friends because you like each other. Don't force yourself to be anything other than who you are -- and then if they don't like it, that's their problem. Trying to be something you are not will always exacerbate the problem.

4. I've never had a romantic relationship, ever. Guys have expressed interest but recoil once they get to know me a bit better. Unless I have something specific reason to speak, I am terrible to talk to on the phone and in real life. My conversations have a lot of long, awkward pauses for which I have nothing to relieve with a joke or anything at all.

I see a trend here. You use very, very strong words, like "recoil" and "exasperated" and "extremely relieved" -- your perception of their response to who you are is potentially incorrect in two ways, first that you might be wrong about how they feel (you're not the best reader of folks, remember!) and second that you might be wrong about the cause of their feelings. What you might be doing is projecting; you think you're repellent and exasperating and annoying to be around, so you assume that you're making other people recoil or feel exasperated or be extremely relieved when you leave.

You might be right about all this, but odds are you're not.

5. I especially freak out mid/upper class and highly educated people. If I'm with my sister they're very receptive around her but alone, they try to avoid me. Admittedly, I start to get more nervous when I realize my presence is making other people uncomfortable which makes me even more nervous which makes THEM more nervous, etc.

I don't think you're making people nervous at all, or at least nowhere near how much you think you do. Honestly.
posted by davejay at 5:02 PM on July 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


You seem to have a problem with silence when you are with other people. It's okay to just be with somebody, in silence. Words do not need to be spoken. I think you are getting hung up on trying not being shy and introverted, and you are seeking - almost desperately - to add to whatever conversation is afoot. This is most assuredly not necessary.

When you have that long silence and you begin to feel awkward, that awkwardness can rub off onto other people - they can sense it, and it makes them feel uncomfortable as well.

The remedy is to become comfortable with complete silence when you are with other people; and comfortable with the fact that "Hi!" is sometimes all that needs to be said. It's okay to just be an observer to a conversation. Build up the confidence in yourself that your presence can be as much a comfort to others as your conversation. The rest will come naturally.
posted by jabberjaw at 5:08 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think you should sit down with your sister and have a heart to heart and ask her. She will know exactly what you are talking about and be able to offer advice. Maybe you have Asperger's or just weird. Weird is not bad. One of my best friends is friggin weird. So weird that my other friends ask why I hang with him. I hang with him precisely because of who he is. He is a good guy who means well who views the world from a different perch than I do. I learn so much from him. Its the little things that make him worth hanging with like when we are at a diner and he wants scrambled eggs and ask fro scrambled boneless chicken. Weird. Took me a few beats to figure out what he wanted. I think the waitress is still talking about him right down to the extra big tip he gave because she was so tolerant.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:09 PM on July 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Quick fix:

If they make a joke, laugh if you feel like laughing. Pretending to laugh at a joke that isn't funny is noticeable. Let yourself laugh if you do, but otherwise don't.
posted by davejay at 5:09 PM on July 15, 2009


Also, there is a big difference between "hi" and "hey". Hi says you want to stop and talk. Hey says I recognize you but I am too hungoverbusylatedistracted to stop and talk.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:12 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


If your "closer" friends start pretending that you're not there after a while, they aren't close friends. No one deserves to be treated that way. Ask them or your sister how you can change or what's going on- if they're really your good friends, they'll tell you without attacking you or dismissing you. If they won't help, drop them- they aren't your friends and you deserve better.

The most socially awkward people I know tend to be awkward because they want to fill up every second of every minute with talking. If you have something to say, say it. Like davejay said, if you want to laugh at something, laugh at it. But don't feel the need to say SOMETHING all the time.
posted by kro at 5:14 PM on July 15, 2009


Adding to what GJC said #2: Unless you've been going to a salon for a long time, and sometimes even then, the most you're going to get from most hairdressers or manicurists is minimal 'what do you want' type of stuff. Most hairdressers I've been to in the past few years don't have the ability to gab about nothing/everything but just get on with it. Don't sweat it. They have a schedule to keep. If it really bugs you, find another salon where they people are looser. BTW, I sometimes think salons love shy 20-somethings who can be talked into trying everything they have to offer.

About #3: everyone loves to be funny and have an audience. So be the audience and tell them how funny they are. Not everyone has to be the comedian. (This from a woman who knows exactly 3 jokes, all suitable for children.)

I think you need practice making small talk. Been there. Suggestions: read the newspaper every day so you know what's going on, including the sports section and at least the front page of the business section; ditto magazines/web sites with content for your buddies' hobbies/interests. The more you know about what interests people and what's going on in that area, the more comfortable you'll be contributing to the conversation in a general way (not just spouting facts.) The sort of "I saw abc corp is building a plant in xxx country. What do you think of that?" Or, "nnn team is one away from the playoffs for the first time in x years." It's what they used to tell young women to do back in the dark ages: ask questions and listen. It works and you don't have to carry the conversation.

And, btw, just because the people around you look confident, it doesn't mean they are. Bet some of them go home and say "Oh, why did I tell that joke? Why did I make myself the centre of attention." You can't read people's minds.
posted by x46 at 5:16 PM on July 15, 2009


It sounds to me like the main thing you need to do is calm down a bit. I'm shy and awkward too sometimes, and I find it gets much worse if I am wondering just how awkward and weird I'm being.

It might help a lot to find a therapist who's willing to examine with you exactly what it is you're doing when you interact, what you need to change, and do role playing, etc.
posted by smoakes at 5:31 PM on July 15, 2009


As a shy kid constantly prodded by my parents to be more sociable, I learned one thing. People really do pick up on whether you're trying too hard to make conversation. I am continuing the pattern of "It's not your job to do all the talking!"
I've just decided most people talk when they have nothing to say; no need for you to do it too.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 5:31 PM on July 15, 2009


Here is my take on my own past awkwardness (which still rears its head)

1. I feel weird/strange/outcast/not fit in.
2. I try to act super normal so that I am not perceived as any of those things.
3. Trying to fit myself in a super normal box makes me almost convulse with weirdness. Its like a lid on a boiling pot of green slime ( a la You Can't Do that on Television)
4. The pot intermittently burps out splatters of green slime in the form of weird gestures, tics, saying spazzy things.
5. Other people are somewhat put off by the random bursts of weirdness.
6. I feel weird/strange/outcast/not fit in.

But I eventually realized that just being myself allow the pot of green slime to simmer as it would. By not worrying about being normal I actually come across as 10 times more normal.

An anecdote: I was 17 and I took the ACT test. The test was held at a local university. There were lots of kids from other high schools taking the test as well. I finished my test and headed out the door. My car was parked in the parking lot 100 yards away. Behind me there was a group of kids who must have all been friends. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, I suddenly became super paranoid that I was walking funny. I was self conscious about it because of the kids behind me. I better walk Super Normal I thought to myself. Umm, yeah, not so much. I suddenly practically forgot how to walk. Then I became more nervous, which made me more intent on 'walking normal.' Eventually one of the kids ahead of me said something like 'hey look at how that guy is walking! hahah' It took every fiber of willpower not to run to my car and drive 1000 miles away.
posted by ian1977 at 5:37 PM on July 15, 2009 [11 favorites]


RELAX. You're overanalyzing both your actions and people's reactions to you. I am also more of an introvert and it takes me a while to feel comfortable with new people and really show my true, funny, outgoing self. I used to agonize over this and tried desperately to change. Ironically, it wasn't until I just accepted that this was who I was that it actually got better. It lifted the pressure of being in new social situations, which meant that I didn't shy away from these situations, which meant I got more practice with small talk and meeting people.

Honestly, you don't sound like most of the truly awkward people I've encountered. Those people are plain inappropriate and/or they just have no clue that they are extremely awkward. It sounds like you instantly recognize when you've done something awkward, so relax and make a joke about it. For example, if you say "HI!" and the other person kind of recoils, just laugh and say, "Oh whoa, that came out way peppier than I thought it would!" or whatever. Humor helps diffuse awkwardness. You just have to own the awkwardness.

Number 3 really struck a chord with me. I'm not sure if this is true in your case, but I have recently discovered that I feel way more at home and it's WAY easier for me to converse and joke with people who laugh easily and a lot. Sounds obvious, right? Apparently not (at least to me). I think these sorts of people tend to be more gracious and forgiving, and have better senses of humor, so of course I would be more attracted to them.
posted by kookaburra at 5:39 PM on July 15, 2009


More essential reading
posted by Wordwoman at 5:44 PM on July 15, 2009


Stop worrying about how you are making the situation worse or how you're not carrying the conversation properly. Anxiety rubs off big time in conversations and makes them worse.
I know this isn't easy because how can you possibly pick up new social skills if you're not worrying about their feelings? Well, that's the difference. It's one thing to be sensitive of making situations worse and it's another thing to be sensitive of how others feel. One is about you and one is about them. I think you've gotten into the habit of being really self-conscious. It's okay to be a little self conscious, but if you're too anxious , you fall into the pattern of thinking that you're making them nervous all the time when that may not be the case. You've already asserted that you don't have the best social skills so it may be that you're misinterpreting their looks for nervousness. Still, it's okay if conversations don't go well, just learn to relax a little more. If conversations drop, sometimes it's just a matter of people not wanting to talk or not having anything to talk about.

If jokes are not your thing, then don't do them, work on something else. Not everyone has to joke and I know some good friends who hardly crack jokes, yet still remain interesting.

I never really thought about it before, but I think oinopaponton is on to something. If you want to make the flow of conversations easier, you will need to use stock phrases and learn to mirror phrases that they use on you. Even if you're not interested in a particular conversation, you can keep it going by asking more general questions and feigning interest. ("Omigosh! You just got a puppy? What's its name? What breed is it?") I've noticed that people love to talk about themselves so use this to your advantage if you really want to keep a conversation going.
posted by nikkorizz at 5:46 PM on July 15, 2009


Here's the thing: there are two possible issues, and none of us actually know which is the case.

Scenario A: You are overthinking your plate of beans, and nobody thinks you're weird, except maybe that you're extremely self-conscious.

Scenario B: You have somehow missed out on learning the rules of what people in your region/age cohort/profession/circle of friends understand as "appropriate social interaction skills."

The good news is that people in the thread have given you good resources to address both issues. If you need a reality check, maybe ask a few of your good friends (in a non-self-loathing way, though--if you're all 'OH GOD I'M A WEIRDO WHY AM I SO WEIRD PEOPLE MUST HATE ME' you'll just get "No, no, you're fine"; what you want to ask is "I was wondering if there were some social cues I was missing with new acquaintances" or similar).
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:50 PM on July 15, 2009


I think this has a lot to do with how you're feeling, and not necessarily very much to do with how people are reacting. I suggest this because I could have written your post, more or less point by point, but I have the advantage of having a husband who lovingly (really!) tells me that I am an abnormally self-conscious person. I have realized that, while yes, I am sort of awkward... frequently... most people are either kind enough to overlook it or they're too self-conscious or self-absorbed to notice.

1. It's polite to greet people you know when you see them. It's impolite to avoid eye contact and walk by. I'm not sure how saying "hi" and waving could make someone you know uncomfortable--are you sure this is happening? Unless someone has said "Wow, that time the other day when you waved at me? That was so rude," I'd focus on accepting that you feel awkward in these situations and tell yourself that your feelings aren't a mirror for theirs. I totally sympathize, though: I find running into people super-awkward (especially when I can't quite tell if it's the person I think it is... and oh my god it's not her! and I've been looking at this stranger... she must think I'm a total weirdo).

2. The thing is, you are paying them to do your hair or nails. I know that the customary thing to do is to chat with your stylist or nail tech about celebrity gossip or your relationship problems. But you don't have to--you owe it to them to be polite, you don't owe them interesting conversation. And, honestly, I would bet they'll judge you more based on your tip than on your conversational skills. If you don't want to chat, don't. Either get comfortable letting the conversation fade out or find a stylist and nail tech who aren't particularly chatty and stick with them--you'll exchange a few pleasantries and s/he'll get to work. I've found that sometimes conversations happen (one lady wanted to tell me all about her kids, another wanted to compare notes on our family pets) and sometimes they don't. I know it's awkward when someone clearly expects a conversation and you just can't muster any interest in talking to them, but I think in this type of situation the best option is to become someone's regular client: either you'll have chemistry and conversations will happen naturally or the person will be accustomed to you being quiet and won't think anything of it.

3. You can't force funny. But, if you are a kind and honest friend, it doesn't really matter. To avoid making people feel uncomfortable, don't try to be funny. Or, rather, know your limits. I cannot tell jokes. I just can't, I screw up the punchline or my timing is off. So I don't bother telling jokes. But sometimes I say something and people happen to find it funny. That's nice. But it kind of just has to happen organically, I think. Sometimes I say something I think is hilarious and it... falls completely flat. That's just the way funny works.

4. You assume responsibility for the whole conversation, rather than just your half? That's not fair to you. Some people are really great at keeping conversations afloat, some aren't--you and I are in the latter category. My husband is great at filling in awkward pauses in conversation, but before him I didn't have any real relationships and always felt inadequate when it came to conversations with people I was interested in; maybe you need to meet someone like that and just haven't yet. A tall order, for sure--go find this specific type of person--but what I mean is, this isn't necessarily something in yourself that needs "fixing" as much as it's something you need to understand.

5. This one, I don't get. It's easy enough to learn what not to talk about among certain groups (i.e., the way to endear yourself to Muffy and Buffy is not by squealing about the great deals you got at TJ Maxx). Once you've memorized that, what's left? As with the rest, I think this has so much more to do with your feelings about yourself than it does with the reaction anyone is actually having to you. You know that if people are impolite to you because they have more money than you, they're the ones being rude, right?

Reading back over these, I hope I haven't just dismissed all of your concerns. I know you feel uncomfortable, I totally get it. My point is not, this is nothing--get over it. My point is, the real issue is your underlying self-consciousness, and if you work on that, you'll be in a better position to manage situations that make you uncomfortable and you'll be able to see that you don't "owe" nearly as much as you think you do to the people around you.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:53 PM on July 15, 2009


Thank you all for your answers and opinions, they have been very eye-opening.

The main assessment of my personality that a few brutally honest people have told me is that I seem very young and child-like even though on the outside I look like a total adult. Sometimes when people get very angry with me they say I'm trying to act too "cutesy" or like I'm a baby but when I am really unsure of how to act in a situation it comes off as very weird, and I suppose child-like. I don't start sucking my thumb and ask for a bottle or anything, but there must be something about my response to them seems inappropriate for my age and it bothers people.

The reason I know people are annoyed by me is because more than a few times I've managed to overhear people rant about how much of an idiot I am, that I'm completely useless, that I act very stupid or that I'm ruining everyone's time. I really don't mean to be that way!

Honestly, my presence brings conversation to halts that resume once I move away. I think this is more than just in my head.
posted by wiretap at 5:56 PM on July 15, 2009


Like oinopaponton, this resonates a bit with me.

The general gist of what you're describing sounds like you need to understand that many social mores revolve around restraint. The expected response to humorous observations is usually a wry smile/chuckle/MeFi-like "I see what you did there" reaction.

Next, I can't tell you how useful this is: I learned that when people meet each other for the first time, they shake hands and say, "Nice to meet you." After that, most things are straightforward.

When I see people I know I blurt out "Hi!" to them, which creates some sort of awkward moment. Usually they make an uncomfortable face and say "hi" back, but seem pretty weirded out regardless.

People are expecting more of a restrained, "hi" or nod indicating "I acknowledge that we know each other." Anything else tends to indicate that you want to engage them in a conversation, and you either do want that, in which case you should have something specific you want to say to them, or you don't end up following up with something specific to say, in which case the other person is thrown off guard and doesn't know what to do, creating awkwardness.

What I've come to realize is that people love the opportunity to talk about themselves and want to be listened to. So when they ask you something, they welcome it if your response to their question contains an opening for them to talk about themselves.

But, like nasreddin says, a certain number of awkward moments and interactions is pretty much normal. Ask anyone and they'll talk about any number of moments they had where they thought to themselves, "I can't believe I said that/did that."
posted by deanc at 5:57 PM on July 15, 2009


Also, I stutter and stumble my words a LOT. This makes things worse.

>I love you.

haha, thank you kind pal.
posted by wiretap at 5:59 PM on July 15, 2009


I think you should sit down with your sister and have a heart to heart and ask her. She will know exactly what you are talking about and be able to offer advice. Maybe you have Asperger's or just weird.

Well, her advice is first, that I'm weird and to be more friendly towards people which I've been doing and causing horrible awkwardness as outlined above.
posted by wiretap at 6:06 PM on July 15, 2009


Honestly, my presence brings conversation to halts that resume once I move away. I think this is more than just in my head.

Then I'm going to go back to the Toastmasters recommendation.

Social skills are skills, and if you aren't confident with them the right move is to practice them in a setting that's structured to help you learn.

I know that Toastmasters may seem like a weird choice, but if you can learn to socialize comfortably with a group of strangers (that generally includes aspiring salespeople, wacky old codgers and dames, recent emigres looking to improve their English fluency, and people like you who just want practice in socializing with people they don't know), you'll be aces.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:07 PM on July 15, 2009


Then I'm going to go back to the Toastmasters recommendation.

Hm... I'm going to seriously consider doing this, Sidhedevil. Thank you for your repeated recommendations for this course.
posted by wiretap at 6:14 PM on July 15, 2009


Thanks again everyone for your input!
posted by wiretap at 6:54 PM on July 15, 2009


One thing that might help might be group therapy. Not because you need "therapy" per se, but because it could be an environment where you participate in and observe the way people interact with each other. You could ask people to specifically give you feedback on your interactions, and probably get more direct and helpful answers than you'd get from acquaintances.
posted by MsMolly at 7:22 PM on July 15, 2009


You can take all the advice & read all the books & join all the clubs in the world, but I doubt you're going to change who you are at the core. You may teach yourself to act differently, but it won't be you and you'll likely not be comfortable doing it (i.e. Toastmasters). Be who you are, embrace it & don't worry too much about being judged (perceived or not) negatively. You needn't fall in line and march in step with the world. You are you, embrace your differences and give a huge FU to the world while you're doing it. You'll manage to navigate the world just fine and come out fairly decently, if not better than most, in the end. There's something to youthful enjoyment of life that is being missed by the majority of the world's population. When people don't know how to relate to you, it's their problem - not yours. BTW - welcome to my world. I've been an "adult" for over 30 years now & still haven't embraced the whole concept of it yet. The best advice I can convey is to embrace those with whom you strike a chord (these will be few and far between - I've met a dozen or so in my entire life) and don't be too concerned with the rest of humanity. Good luck!
posted by torquemaniac at 7:47 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I recommend travel. Stay in backpackers. To have a good time, you kinda have to meet people, and you get loads of practice at it. Better yet, they are very temporary relationships since generally people are one day here, two days there, one week here, so people come and go quickly, so you'll get lots of practice at handling different people.

Don't forget the world isn't you (unusual, have your own preferred style of communicating) and the rest of the world with exactly the same preference. Some people will love your style, some people will be repulsed by it.

Its important to pick up on how people like to be communicated with and try to mirror it a bit. If you don't already do this subconciously, be aware of:

1. Do they like lots of eye contact or not so much?
2. Do they like lots of personal space or are they close talkers?
3. When they talk, are they expressive, pitch going up and down or more monotone?
4. Volume of talk, are they quiet or loud?
5. Body language - are they open or closed?

When you start to move a little more to their preferred communication style, they will start to match yours, and you end up meeting in the middle where both people are content. One thing that is very off putting is when you give these silent queues to people, and they ignore them.

For example, a close talker. A friend of mine is blind to all social queues and loves to close talk. I've seriously seen people step back and he steps forward till they are nearly tripping over themselves to get some space! People who like a bit of personal space when they talk hate being around him, its exhausting as he doesn't try to meet them half way.

One extra thing:

> How do I even begin to stop being so weird?

Never ever do that. Celebrate your weirdness.
posted by Admira at 8:00 PM on July 15, 2009


Kind of gonna echo everyone else:

You don't need to be funny. I know that for many people, their conversations are made up of funny anecdotes and comments about the world, and being funny makes a person seem cool and at ease. But everyone isn't funny. Many, many people have no sense of humor at all! You can have tons of friends without ever saying anything funny. And as for laughing too much, ditto that you should only laugh if something's funny. It really isn't your job to support the whole conversation, especially if you're naturally quiet/shy/introverted. You don't have to fill silences with laughs or attempts at jokes or anything else.

As for the "hi" thing, I'm a very low-key greeter, meaning that I usually give a weak smile to people I pass in hallways or whatever. A "HI!" would be if I was seeing someone I hadn't seen in a while and was surprised to see them and was planning to start a let's-catch-up conversation. I blame this on being from New York; if you're in the South or somewhere more friendly/outgoing, this might not work. When I lived in Texas, I had a reputation at first for being aloof/standoffish/snobby/quiet/a loner. People got to know me and it was all fine. But really, I'd rather be "aloof/standoffish/etc" than "awkward/conversation-freezing/etc."

As for boyfriends, Ursula wasn't kidding -- you can get away with being pretty silent around a lot of men. If you're not talking and they like you, they're thinking "I like her a lot, it's adorable how shy she is." And you don't need to be having lengthy phone conversations with men either. They call, ask you out for a date, you get off the phone, and then you have a much easier time being quiet/shy in person.

There's no need to speak to tradespeople. But seriously, I never talk to nail techs or hairdressers or cab drivers or whomever beyond what's necessary for the work they're doing. Unless I'm really getting into conversations with people that I really like, I don't really talk that much, by choice. Small talk is painful, right? Don't bother.
posted by thebazilist at 9:02 PM on July 15, 2009


Sometimes when people get very angry with me they say I'm trying to act too "cutesy" or like I'm a baby but when I am really unsure of how to act in a situation it comes off as very weird, and I suppose child-like.

Given everything else that you've said, I bet they really mean "ingenuous" not merely child-like. Which would be another indication that you seem to have a sort of social colorblindness operating here, where you're just not seeing cues that other people pick up unconsciously as a matter of course. (Making most people staggeringly inept at consciously explaining them and how they work, which must be hella frustrating for you. That sucks.)

Perhaps you might be interested in Paul Ekman's work on microexpressions? (Previously.) He offers training courses. I haven't taken one myself so I can't speak to their value, but it seems like the conscious study of facial expression and body language might be another way to tackle the issue --- like, doing Toastmaster gives you trial and error, learn-by-doing experience at how to charm an audience, but going the other way and breaking down how muscle movements express and are linked to our emotions might enable you to better recognize the signals people are sending out.
posted by Diablevert at 9:13 PM on July 15, 2009


I've finally gotten to the point — at almost 40 years old — where I'm relatively at ease in conversation, and I still have my potholes. I have certainly put people off in the past, mostly by trying too hard.

Here is 99% of what will fix things: slow down. You panic at the extra beat in the conversation, so you lunge to fill it with laughter or strange comments or extra words. Just relax for a moment, just long enough to take one real breath that relaxes your belly.

While you're doing this, smile. Not a huge rictus of a grin. Just lift the corners of your mouth and give the other person a small, smiling look. Show that you are at ease. Yes, I know you're not — but fake it until you make it.

Then if you need to say something, then do. But 90% of the time, just say "I see" or "ah" or "that makes sense" or "I'll bet" or "ouch" or "oh no" or just "ah well." This little stuff is the lubricant of daily commerce, and it has a lot of content. You certainly don't have to say brilliant or funny things. And take your time — there is no rush.

You can also go a long way by asking people about themselves. Something small, no great interrogation. Usually people will talk about their names, or if they're wearing a conspicuous item like a necklace or a hat with words on it, whatever. Just say: "Melinda? That's a nice name" or "Look at this necklace; it's beautiful." Then shut up and let them pick up the cue.

Mostly, though, slow down. Seriously, train yourself to feel okay with little gaps in the conversations. What if you said nothing at all? Other people would pick up the work and you can follow them.
posted by argybarg at 9:27 PM on July 15, 2009


Have you ever discussed social anxiety disorder with a therapist?
posted by dhartung at 10:23 PM on July 15, 2009


Hm. It's kind of a catch-22 in that it sounds like you might be misinterpreting some social cues while completely missing others -- but if you push yourself too hard to correctly recognize them (e.g. microexpressions) it might make you that much more self-conscious and self-critical. And it seems the crux of the problem might be the latter, not so much your inability to read people.

A quote from Eleanor Roosevelt to keep in mind:
"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do."

I think feeling less awkward is a way to *be* less awkward. Try shifting the focus away from yourself so you're not always reacting to situations in terms of you, how you're faring in the conversation, how others might be perceiving you, etc. Not outgoing and talkative? Then become a good listener and develop a genuine interest in other people. Let your own curiosity about whoever you're talking to guide your responses to them. Asking questions that show you're paying close attention should fill in a lot of those awkward silences, and is kind of flattering besides.

Not focusing on yourself so much might also be the key to *keeping* your friends. You haven't really elaborated on that -- i.e. long-term interactions with people and why they eventually get (and stay?) severely annoyed at you. If you are thoughtful, kind and consistently there for your friends when they feel shitty, many people shouldn't mind that they find you irritating on occasion.

And oh yeah, being weird and quirky is usually not a bad thing... Don't feel compelled to sand down *all* your rough edges!
posted by amillionbillion at 12:35 AM on July 16, 2009


Have you tried filming yourself? I know a couple of people who recently qualified as barristers (courtroom lawyers), and apparently the training involves them being filmed and then watching the videos. For a year. This is so they can become better aware of how they present themselves (most people have no idea) and can polish their courtroom presence until any tics or whatever cease to get in the way. You could maybe film roleplays with a friend.

Hypnotherapy can also be useful in tapping into the calmer you, but I second the suggestion that you investigate whether you might be somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:32 AM on July 16, 2009


People have already offered excellent advice--and I second Toastmasters. A friend of mine is doing it now to help her get over some anxiety she has in speaking to others and is loving it.

I never really thought about it before, but I think oinopaponton is on to something. If you want to make the flow of conversations easier, you will need to use stock phrases and learn to mirror phrases that they use on you. Even if you're not interested in a particular conversation, you can keep it going by asking more general questions and feigning interest. ("Omigosh! You just got a puppy? What's its name? What breed is it?") I've noticed that people love to talk about themselves so use this to your advantage if you really want to keep a conversation going.


This. A thousand times this. Your #3 was a problem for me for a long time, so I focused on learning how to make small talk. FWIW, here's what worked for me.

Right out of college, I got a job working in a call center, the 800 customer service # for a major corporation. Unlike the situation today, where call centers are crap jobs with crap pay, this company took it very seriously. The phone reps were seen as the face of the company, the primary point of contact for potential and current customers, so we were invested in. We had decent salaries, fantastic training on not just our product but on communicating with customers via phone, and were encouraged to move up in the company (no lie: I know several call center alumni who now hold executive positions).

What I learned most from the communication training was the importance of listening to people as they talk. Not anticipating what they might say next, not guessing what they might not be saying, not planning what I will say when they were finished speaking. Just listening*, responding to what was being said, and asking questions if I didn't fully understand their needs. I was taught that what a customer might say could change if he was upset, or confused, or eager to buy--what kinds of cues to look for in their word choice, and how to respond to those cues in ways that would help the caller.

The call center required me to do this for an average of 70 callers a day, and it was the best training I could have had for learning to have conversations with anyone.

There are certain small-talk techniques that, IME, are pretty much bulletproof:

(1) What's the local sport team (or teams) that everyone follows? Is it a pro team? The local university? Keep up with that team's performance even peripherally, and you'll be able to have a conversation with just about anyone within a hundred mile radius. Even a simple question like "So who won the game?" or "Didn't the Yankees play last night?" can kick off an hour's worth of enthusiastic conversation.

(2) If the folks have kids, ask about them. Parents LOVE to talk about their kids. You don't even have to know a lot about the kids in question--I'm constantly saying things like, "How old are your kids again, Liz? I can't ever keep their ages straight" or "Now your son is doing sports again this summer, right? What's he into this year?" The parents take it from their. And if you listen close, you'll find opportunities in the conversation to ask questions that make the speaker feel like you're engaged: "So Josh decided to switch to baseball this year? How's that commute working out for you?"

(3) The random, brief compliment will brighten someone's day, make you look observant, and requires little effort on your part. You: "Nice shirt, Bill." Bill: "Thanks. It's new." You: "Yeah? It suits you."

(4) Recall previous conversations with the person, and follow up on previous topics. Ask how their vacation cruise went, or what ever happened with that car repair. Making small talk is a lot easier when you build on past conversations.

(5) Ask open-ended questions that require an explanation. "How are you?" isn't as effective as "Whatever happened with '__________' you were dealing with?" ('__________' could be anything: business deal, family problem, you name it) Remember that just about is a potential topic of conversation 9(except the Big Three: religion, sex, and politics). You can even talk about how uncomfortable you are making small talk – and ask others how they do it.

(6) Read everything: cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, reviews, catalogs, web sites. Everything is a potential topic for small talk ((except the Big Three: religion, sex, and politics). You have no idea how many great conversations I've had because of something interesting I saw on the front page of Metafilter.

(7) Practice. Talk briefly with everyone you come across: cashiers, waiters, people you're in line with, neighbors, co-workers and kids. Chat with folks unlike yourself, from seniors to teens to tourists. You don't have to dissect American foreign policy or anything, just a brief little thing that lets you get used to the quick, small-talk interaction with strangers. You (checking out at the grocery): "You're lucky to be working in this air conditioning, 'cause it's hot out there!" Cashier: "Ha-ha! Yeah, I guess. But it'll still be hot when I leave work in an hour." You (grabbing your bags as you leave): "Well, enjoy it while you can! Have a good one." And you leave. That's it--you just made small talk.

(8) Remember that it's not all about you. Conversation requires back-and-forth, give-and-take, to work. Sometimes people talk so much, in a effort to be liked, that they talk over people and drive them out of the discussion. Don't do that--listen and observe and when folks behave like they want to say something, let them. And be polite about it: "I'm sorry, Kathy, you were about to say something and I talked over you. Please go ahead." Kathy, "No that's fine, I was just reminded of...."

(9) Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen to others.


Good luck to you. Definitely give the small talk thing a try, see if it helps.




*This was in the days before call centers went to scripts.
posted by magstheaxe at 7:05 AM on July 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


A British friend says he always loves being outside Britain because he can be as weird as he wants and knows everyone will just say "British people are weird" instead of saying that he specifically is weird.
posted by betsybetsy at 10:34 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's nice to learn the social amenities that allow you to exist comfortably in society. A few people I've known don't bother, and they are perfectly happy being considered weird. So, it's okay to be different, as long as you accept that not everyone will be comfortable with you. It's not okay to be unkind, uncivil or rude. I recommend Miss Manners for more on how to accomplish that.

If you want to fit in more, there's great advice here. I think Magstheaxe puts it well. Also, identify people you know who are socially competent and watch them/listen to them.

Again, you aren't going to be liked/accepted by everyone, no matter what you do. It's most important to like, accept and approve of yourself. Be kind, be genuinely interested in others, learn the amenities, and be your best self.
posted by theora55 at 11:24 AM on July 16, 2009


Honestly, I want to mark all these answers as "best answers" because they have all been extremely helpful. Thank you all for your insight and sharing your similar experiences!

There probably won't be any new answers after this, but I thought I should clarify some things that people mentioned not understanding in my original post.

The observation of scaring rich/educated people is in contrast to the opposite spectrum where people have been incredibly kinder and welcoming to me. Maybe it's more of a social boundary issue between the classes.

Also, it took over 10 years but I learned to finally make small talk and socialize a bit better from working a cashier job for my parents business. But somehow the small talk doesn't seem to work well outside of the job, mainly among my peers.

As for being concerned with being nice and friendly towards hair stylists and nail technicians, that has more to do with the fact that I don't enjoy feeling invisible or ignored when helping customers at work, so I guess I am just projecting my insecurities on other working people.

In regards to weird body language, I can't even explain why it's weird but I notice my father has the same type of confusing body language. Maybe there are some body language books and videos that could help me out there.

Thanks again all for your words and information. Hopefully this information will help out others in the same awkward situation as well.
posted by wiretap at 7:32 PM on July 16, 2009


There is a big difference between being ignored, being polite, and being instant BFFs with strangers.

I agree, I've noticed that people often "bark at" cashiers and the like. Just noticed it last night again- guy walked in, waited in line, and when it was his turn said "Marlboro Light Menthol in a Box". Just those six words. It also happens at fast food restaurants a lot. I think a big part of it is that *they* are slightly uncomfortable, and don't want to mess up your flow while you are trying to work. Most of the time, I see no evidence that they are being dismissive or ignoring you- quite the opposite- it's just an awkward attempt to make your job easier. They don't want to be a bother. (There are, of course, times when people are just jerks. Not making excuses for them.) This is just as common from the other side of the counter- the workers are in "work" mode and forget to slow down or not use inside jargon. (Happens at Taco Bell all the time. I don't like tomatoes and order things that way. What I forget is that some of the products don't have "tomatoes", they have "fiesta sauce", which is chunky, tomatoey pico de gallo. I forget to use the right term, they forget to think like a customer. It's perfectly natural for them to think of tomatoes and fiesta sauce as two different things, because they are.

Also, you mentioned the "cutsey" thing. The friend I mentioned earlier also does this. She does it as a defense mechanism, or a retreat into a comfort zone for her, when she is frustrated. What it becomes, however, is an attempt at manipulation. She acts like a little girl so people won't be mean to her. Might have worked when she was 14, not so much as an adult. It is very frustrating to try to have a conversation with someone who does this, because it makes the other person feel like they are talking to a child. I can't say this is what *you* are doing, because I don't know you. But the solution isn't to find some other personality to retreat into when you feel nervous, the solution is to work out what is your real personality, and what are your defense mechanisms. And to be confident in yourself- yeah, we are all delicate snowflakes. But getting along in society is knowing when to be yourself, and when to conform to expectations. If you can't or won't conform to expectations, people will treat you oddly. Probably doesn't mean they don't like you- it just means they don't know how to deal with someone like that. A lot of people enjoy that- they get an ego boost from being sufficiently different that "the squares" get freaked out by them. But if that's not you, you will be unhappy.

Class levels- I would suggest that you give up classifying people that way. Yes, some differences exist. But focusing on them will tend to amplify the differences. Rather, focus on the commonalities. It is no more right to pre judge or write off behavior based on one demographic than another. "That guy is a jerk because he's a snobby rich guy!" is not the answer. "That guy is a snobby jerk. Who happens to be rich."

Body language- I think if you work on being more comfortable, the body language will come. One of the things about body language is that it communicates on a sub-language, even sub-conscious level. You can't be all anxious and twitchy, but perform certain body language actions, and be seen as Joe Cool. All people will see (if they are even paying attention at all) is someone trying to hide their anxiety. If you find a way to be more comfortable in the world, this will show through. When you get to the point where you feel fine, but still think you are presenting yourself weirdly, that's when to start figuring out what to do with your hands.
posted by gjc at 9:43 AM on July 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


« Older What's the story behind the (c...   |  Help me find contemporary 20s ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.