Have a Nice Day!
December 19, 2004 12:22 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to be nicer to people. I'm generally anxious, socially awkward, and don't enunciate very well. I have trouble with spontaneous conversation and small talk, and get flustered by clumsy social encounters. As a result I've developed a reputation as aloof and unapproachable. What can I do to be a more pleasant person?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (48 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You may have Asperger's Syndrome, or at least that'd be my initial guess.

Research it - if you do have asperger's this shouldn't be an issue.

And if you are, or think you are: Welcome to the club! It's not a death knell for your social life. Email me. jeanettev@gmail.com - I have a lot of tips if it's asperger's and can probably help better if we talked. And hey, I promise not to regard you as aloof or unapproachable.

*offers a hug*
posted by u.n. owen at 12:29 AM on December 19, 2004

This may be trite and entirely unhelpful, but: Keep trying. Make yourself get into social situations even though it's not something you look forward to. Social interaction, like so many things, is something you learn by repetition.

As far as enunciation goes, I have the same problem. Apart from paying attention to it while you're talking, obviously, try doing vocal and singing exercises before you arrive at settings where you want to interact socially.

*would offer a hug too, but fears another MeTa-like grouphug debacle*
posted by fvw at 12:46 AM on December 19, 2004

u.n. owen, please share with the class.

I definitely share much of anonymous's problems, at least as described. Although once I know someone well, I usually have no problem communicating effectively.

In looking up Asperger's Syndrome, it seems much more severe problem than this, which sounds to me like general social anxiety.
posted by o0o0o at 12:52 AM on December 19, 2004

Read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People continually. Once a week, or once a month, whatever you're comfortable with, but read the whole book each time. (It's pretty short.) Each time you read it, make a mental note (or write it down, if you find yourself forgetting) of a couple things you'd like to try. Don't bite off too much at once, that's a sure recipe for failure, and don't worry if you find yourself not really getting on top of them. Keep trying and if you are having trouble with a particular thing, don't commit to doing anything new during that time period, no biggie, just put it on the list for next time. (But always read the book.)

In other words, make a system out of it, break down your goal into a lot of smaller goals, and don't worry about how long it takes to do it; you'll probably be incrementally improving this for years, and you can benefit from doing it your whole life.

The two most important things you need to know are:

1) Most people love, love, love, love, LOVE to talk and talk and talk, and therefore most people will welcome almost any conversation from anyone if they're not currently engaged in one. In fact, in many social situations, people will even let you butt into a conversation already in progress! That's how much they love to talk. it gets wearying, of course, this urge people have to continually flap their jaws, but when you want a conversation, it works to your advantage. There is no reason whatsoever to fear rejection.

2) Every person's favorite topic of conversation is himself or herself. So ask people a few innocuous personal questions, very general ("what do you do for a living" etc) to get them off and running, let them talk and they'll think you're a brilliant conversationalist even though you don't say a word. In fact, the less you talk, the smarter you'll appear to be! Very handy.

Another book, John Molloy's Live for Success has some good tips to teach you how to improve your perceived socioeconomic status. This might be useful if you feel inferior to those you'd like to approach, even though you know you shouldn't. The specific advice is slightly dated now, but you'll become more aware of the class signals you give off and learn how to control them, and you can look at other people you respect and learn to copy their signals to a certain extent.

If you're like me, you have to learn this stuff consciously, instead of picking it up as you go through life, so study it like you would any subject you were learning in school.

Asperger's Syndrome, it seems much more severe problem than this

There's quite a spectrum of Asperger's. I have a friend whose son (10) has Asperger's and his primary problem is that he's oblivious to what other people think of him. He gives off quite inappropriate signals sometimes but hasn't noticed how people react to him, or how that is different from how they react to others. But some Asperger's sufferers do have serious social anxiety on top of that, because they've noticed that others look down on them but don't know why, or they knwo why but think they can't fix it. Many people can, though.
posted by kindall at 1:04 AM on December 19, 2004

> I'm generally anxious

For reference: symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
posted by skallas at 1:14 AM on December 19, 2004

In re: to Asperger's.

I have what would be consider middle of the road symptoms of Asperger's, though I've never been diagnosed. What I've noticed is that most people follow certain superficial rules when it comes to relating with other people. If you learn these rules and manipulate them to your advantage (which you will no doubt be able to do if you think of it as a system), you have a leg up on those "normal" people who do it unconsiously.

Or at least, that's what I hope will happen, I'm no where near getting it right I'm afraid.

Also note, if you follow this method, you are heading toward sociopath country if you aren't careful.
posted by pemdasi at 1:24 AM on December 19, 2004

Yeah, u.n. owen, please definitely share your tips here.
posted by gyc at 1:46 AM on December 19, 2004


Sorry to derail, but... Asperger's? Based on anxious, awkward, flustered, and not good with socializing? Maybe s/he's just... you know... socially awkward. The overdiagnosis (especially from a two-sentence description) of this condition is incredible. In five years, this will be the new ADD.

Anonymous, here's a Protip. If you think you have Asperger's, talk to a doctor, not the internet.


To try to answer your question -- if you'd like to be more approachable and pleasant, there are really two routes you can take. The first is kindall's route. Read self-help books, and try to get out there and practice being social. Secondly, there are a lot of therapists out there who have a lot of experience with helping people learn to communicate well. You might be get a lot of help from discussing this with someone who is a professional.

Really, the most helpful thing will be the fact you're trying to change the way you socialize. By trying to change, you'll pay more attention to what you have trouble with, and you'll be able to focus on those areas.

Best of luck.
posted by Jairus at 2:02 AM on December 19, 2004

posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:16 AM on December 19, 2004

Although I'm not terribly gregarious, I have almost the complete opposite personality to you in this regard, anonymous, and as such might actually be able to help you here, a bit. First of all, recognize one thing that you have going for you right off the bat: if you are as you describe yourself, I probably wouldn't feel the least bit uncomfortable around you, because generally the only people who really make me tense are those who are trying to put on a big show to establish some sort of cred ("I'm rich", "I'm smart", "I'm teh hot"), or anybody trying to play me in some way. So, while you may not be lighting people up like Christmas trees, you should recognize that you are probably not actually turning them off, either. Social anxiety is so common, and so circular that it usually goes like this...

You: "I can't think of anything to say to X, and if I open my mouth, I'm going to sound like an idiot"

X: "I don't think anonymous likes me. S/he probably heard me blabbering on over here and thinks I'm an idiot."

So, what do you both have in common? You are both worried about appearing foolish and you are both thinking about yourselves. I promise you that a great deal of social awkwardness will disappear if you can stop fixating on yourself. You don't have to sparkle with wit, or even talk very much if you don't feel like it, but if you actually listen to other people and focus on them, they are probably going to be attracted to your quiet, calm interest. You will be much more intriguing to them than the guy bragging about his luxury car, and while they won't find you as entertaining as the life-of-the-party guy/girl, they will probably have an overall positive, possibly warm, feeling about you. Once you realize that about 9/10 of all casual social interactions are choreographed by fear/need , you may find it easier to put your own insecurities aside (since, obviously, the people around you have a lot more on their minds than totting up your shortcomings - mainly, totting up their own shortcomings).

Basically, it's my theory that just about anyone who manages to sidestep that fear-cycle-thing automatically becomes socially attractive, even though it may not be in some flashy, center-of-attention way. And it's not really difficult at all once you get the hang of it; if you can be interested in people in the abstract - as characters in novels or films, say - you can be just as interested in X who is telling the story of what happened last week at work, because just like everything else, there is volumes more to that story than what is presented on the surface. And while you are contemplating those volumes, you are not wondering and worrying what everybody else thinks of you.
posted by taz at 3:00 AM on December 19, 2004 [7 favorites]

Also, if we're going to route of books, the Anxiety & Phobia workbook is a good primer into behavioral-cognitive therapy (its written as a self-help book almost, but is usually used with a therapist). There's a lot of insight in here regarding things like relaxation, negative self-talk, mistaken beliefs, the habits of the anxious, etc. It has a foundation on the effective psychological treatment of behavoiral cognitive therapy as opposed to new age wisy-washy stuff. Lots of info on socializing, self-image, and assertiveness too.

Of course, I'm just guessing here. Perhaps you dont have any anxiety or phobic problems, but considering you can't reply I thought I'd toss it out.

Also, I'll second How to Win Friends and Influence People. Its actually a fun read, regardless of its silly title. There are some great anecdotes and some tried and true techniques and advice. Parts of it may seem quaint to the modern man, but it certainly has many, many timeless qualities to it.
posted by skallas at 3:03 AM on December 19, 2004

I would turn this beast off and find a hobby that involves other flesh and blood people. Something you really enjoy and that your already comfortable doing. Maybe volunteer? Heck I would even people watch to pick up clues to how they communicate.

I agree socializing is learned and takes practice. I am continually amazed by people who can make small talk (I'm horrid at it, I actually freeze up and can't think of what to say depending on the situation), I think small talk is pretty much the key, that and getting them to talk about themselves. Would also say the more you do it the easier it gets. Try being more communicative, if you want to speak to the person again say so - let them know rather than leave them guessing - works wonders for another's ego and the other person isn't left guessing how you really feel.

If the anxiety is interfering with normal day to day activities more often than not - see a doc. It might be interfering with your desire to be more social. As skallas said you can't respond so throwing it out there, I'm not trying to medicate the universe.

All of this coming from someone who read the question and said, "hey! that's me!" Your definitely not alone. Good Luck.
posted by squeak at 4:02 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

it seems to me that you're stuck in a circle which goes seomthing like:

feel awkward -> lack confidence -> nervous communication -> feel awkward etc etc

and what you need to do is break this somehow. the posts above suggest different ways. one approach that hasn't been mentioned is to think a bit more about your confidence and self-worth. if you can find other reasons to be confident, those might help. perhaps you already see this if, for example, you've got some strong technical knowledge and are happier talking about that than about making social chit-chat.

i say that because, although i don't know how i did it, that's been my approach. i still feel awkward, and i don't enjoy talking, but i don't let that restrict me. if i want to be quiet i'll just be quiet and the noisy masses can jabber away to themselves. if i need to make small-talk then i don't worry about it, i just do it. you don't have to enjoy it or feel good about it - it's pretty easy to "fake" if you feel the need (see advice above, but really, just realising nothing is at risk makes it possible).

i'm not sure this is a good solution. it would be nicer to be "normal" at times, especially when, for example, your behaviour affects people close to you (my partner likes to talk). but you can certainly become above-average with little effort once you realise that (1) it's possible and (2) you don't need to worry about it.

(incidentally, i don't think i'm psycopath or aspergers at all - i have no problem at all empathizing with others and understanding how they feel. in fact it's quite the opposite - it's obvious how much raw emotion there is, and how much people are hurt or looking for solace, or just scared and confused, that makes interacting with others plain exhausting. perhaps the trick is to realise that you can't care so much?).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:18 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

I second what Taz has said. I used to have a terrible time with social anxiety. Everything he said is true, and it works.
posted by konolia at 4:32 AM on December 19, 2004

(i think taz is a she)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:39 AM on December 19, 2004

I've dealt with this exact same problem for a long time now. I've found an approach that actually works (for me; ymmv) too well. I try very hard to make the other person/people feel comfortable. If I'm being introduced to them for the first time, I ask them about their life, where they're from, what they do, etc. If they seem to want to talk about a particular topic, I listen to them. I ask myself what kind of consideration or conversation I'd want if I were in their shoes and then I provide it. People I talk to want, I've found, very basic things. They want someone to make a serious effort to understand what they have to say. They want to be entertained. They want to feel like a friend or a confidant instead of a stranger or a guest. They want to learn interesting things.

When I say this works too well, I'm not kidding. I had a customer service job for quite a while and customers would feel inclined to spend twenty or thirty minutes chatting with me. My supervisor finally had to instruct me to reign it in. And in my personal life, I've encountered similar successes and problems with this technique.
posted by Clay201 at 6:09 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

maybe it's worth noting that i hate people asking me about me in small talk. what the hell business is it of theirs? but, assuming you feel the same, that's not the point. you're the exception here. if you want to make them feel better you learn what they want.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:18 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here: I second the don't freak out about Asperger's advice. Probably this is not a condition per se, but rather just a set of behaviors that you can change if you want to (which you clearly do).

For what it's worth, here's my very practical advice: before a party, function, interview, date, talk, or whatever, sit down at a desk and make a list of stuff you could talk about. (I kid you not--this really works for me.) If I know I'm going to be in a situation that's awkward and tongue-tying, making a list a) surprises me by showing how much I could talk about and b) keeps those ideas circulating in my mind. "That new article in the New Yorker; that new Arcade Fire album; that crazy internet movie; that wacky billboard on my commute" etc. This also gives you something to talk about besides Our Divided America, and it boosts your confidence because you'll already be thinking about these things before you walk into the proverbial packed room.

Sometimes simple prep like this goes a long way, because social interaction is really a kind of performance, just a performance that should come naturally. So make a list; wear nice clothes; square your shoulders in front of a mirror! Simple things like that before social encounters can go a long way.
posted by josh at 6:35 AM on December 19, 2004

and sometimes something does finally click, and you do actually have a pleasant conversation. which is nice.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:37 AM on December 19, 2004

andrew cooke: You're right, of course. Often, if I don't get the sense that the person is eager to talk about themselves, I tell them something about me and make it somewhat entertaining. Often, it makes them feel more at ease. And if it doesn't, then at least there's still the entertainment value. But, as you said, the ultimate goal is to find out what they want to talk about; might be religion or the weather or sports. You go with what works.
posted by Clay201 at 6:41 AM on December 19, 2004

I think everyone has offered excellent advice so far, but I thought I'd throw in my experience just for flavor. I'm all too familiar with your problem, anonymous--I was terrified of all social interaction for years. "Clumsy" is a great word to describe it: all of a sudden, you're thick and gangly, and your hands are too big for your arms, your tongue is too big for your mouth, and your mind turns to porridge. And all you want, more than anything in the world, is to be witty and charming, just once, because you KNOW that somewhere in the thick soup of your higher mental functions, you have it in you. It's agonizing knowing what your problem is--in this case, severe shyness--but being completely unable to do anything about it.

And then I went on Zoloft, and within six months, I was, if not the life of the party, at least on an even keel with everyone else. It was very humbling to discover that two tiny pills effected vastly more change than years of trying to white-knuckle my way to social success. And trust me, I tried everything before that--I don't think there's anything I'd wanted to change more than my social anxiety.

I should say that for me, my problem seemed to be the opposite of Asperger's. Instead of not picking up social cues, they were magnified for me tenfold, terrifying me into paralysis. Life in a funhouse mirror is very unpleasant, let me tell you.
posted by granted at 7:10 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

what the hell business is it of theirs?

At least for me, I ask questions about people because generally I'm interested in them. If you were a complete bore, or a complete jerk, or a combination of both, I wouldn't spend my time wondering about you. If you're interesting, however, it's fairly natural to want to know more.
posted by dflemingdotorg at 7:47 AM on December 19, 2004

Have you tried hanging out with people that you know are interested in the same things as you? It can be quite relaxing to have an array of things to talk about, even if it's just hobby-nerd stuff, or to avoid talking in favor of cooking together/playing music together/etc...

Sorry, man. I used not to be so good myself but I found that I was hanging with people that just didn't like me, and I don't think I much liked them.

Hang in there.
posted by jon_kill at 7:59 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

I have a few stand-by questions I trot out when I find myself in an awkward silence situation. The questions vary depending on the situation and how well I know the person, but they almost never fail to produce some kind of substantial conversation. For instance, if I see a friend I haven't seen in a while and don't know what to say: "So, wow! How's life? What are you up to now?" When I'm at parties with friends of friends who I know are into music, I'll say "So, did you see any good shows this summer?" or "Seen any good shows lately?" With good friends, I ask about how they're feeling about stuff: "So, are you nervous about [approaching large life event]?"

The key, I've found, is to ask someone an open question, in a friendly and easy-going way, then listen carefully to what they have to say. Inevitably something in someone's answer will spark a response ("Oh, I didn't know you started working there, do you know my friend Hank who works there?" or "No way! I wanted to go to that show so badly but I was having my wisdom teeth out the day before and was all tripped out on vicoden!" OR "I remember when I had to {big life event}... blah blah."

This is a long answer to a short question, but my point is that you can develop some stand-by questions to get the ball rolling in social situations, and fall back on them when you don't know what else to say. They call it "breaking the ice" for a reason-- everyone has trouble getting started socially, to some extent. It's okay to be quiet, just tell yourself that other people probably think you're mysterious and a deep-thinker.
posted by bonheur at 8:47 AM on December 19, 2004

There's an audiobook I've found to be fairly helpful on this topic: 50 Ways to Create Great Relationships, by Steve Chandler. I found it at the library: my favorite audiobook resource. It has some practical, common-sense tactics to improve the ways you relate to people, though itt's not that much about conquering anxiety. At the very least, I like the guy's voice and find it relaxing.
posted by faustessa at 8:48 AM on December 19, 2004

if you do have asperger's this shouldn't be an issue.

That's just silly, analogous to "if you have a limp, don't bother trying to walk." Even people with Asperger's have to live in a social world full of other people and want to learn how to interact with them to the best of their abilities.

Two suggestions: 1) Make a conscious effort to actively see other people's perspectives in a more than superficial way. Often the barrier between people exists because no bridge has been established. 2) Force social interaction, again and again and again, even if it's just making yourself say hello to the receptionist when you arrive at the office in the morning. Conditioning works (it may not work miracles, but it will result in improvement, which is what you're looking for). A few positive experiences will do wonders for your anxiety level.
posted by rushmc at 8:55 AM on December 19, 2004

I have a lot of these same issues. If I understand what pemdasi is saying, I agree that it can be very handy: Focus on the aspects of social niceties that you can deal with, even if it's just making certain to reply with your name, or say "how do you do?" when you meet someone for the first time, or wish checkout people and waitstaff a good day when you leave their establishments. It builds a habit of connecting with people. Even if it's just superficial, it's a start.

Another thing you can do is to focus on listening. I used to think of my awkwardness as being a matter of just not caring very much. People would talk about birthdays, children's school, being sick -- I was unmoved. I thought I didn't care. That wasn't really it -- it was merely that I was unmoved, or didn't allow myself to be moved. Allowing myself to actually care about other people has made a terrific difference.

The fact that you are asking these questions means you're capable of caring, or of allowing yourself to care, what other people think. Caring what other people think does not make you less yourself, or less of an individual.

BTW: Maybe you have a "syndrome", maybe not -- I Am Not An Expert. Irregardless, as rushmc points out, you still have to deal with people. Professional counseling of some sort is probably not a terrible idea (said the counselor-averse depressive....), but you can still always just make a start.
posted by lodurr at 9:02 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

A few positive experiences will do wonders for your anxiety level.

Yes they will.

Your 2 points are well taken rush, I've had to force myself to 'just say hello' to people for more years than I care to remember. I always just thought of myself as being shy, but after 4 or 5 years of being basically housebound (other than places I 'knew' like work) I had to force myself back out again. Now I travel cross country with little anxiety. Well, until I have to stop in a place I don't know, but that's just normal.

I think.
posted by kamylyon at 9:30 AM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

dflemingdotorg - i was describing how i feel. i understand why people do it, and accept that it's a normal thing to do.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:34 AM on December 19, 2004

if you do have asperger's this shouldn't be an issue.

yeah - uh, what? Asperger's is just a name for a type of personality. It doesn't change anything about the person him or herself, and how they get along in the world. The fact that the personality has a chemical nature is a given for any personality - human beings have chemical natures. If your chemicals are the type to have trouble getting along in social situations, giving it a name doesn't change anything. And I agree that the syndrome is too easily diagnosed or self-diagnosed these days...

Anyway. I personally don't much like small talk, so I try to bring up books, movies, issues or interesting questions I've been thinking about. Good conversation or good banter though - joking back and forth with someone whose sense of humor matches yours - can be really enjoyable. But if you don't really get along with people, it's a bore to hang out with them, so first thing is to find interesting people. If you have trouble doing that, alcohol helps :). I know that's sort of terrible to say, but my misanthropic side subsides under the influence.

It's good to work on being more gregarious etc, but really, if people don't interest you, you shouldn't feel forced to always be outgoing. It's a tough line to walk sometimes - Kant talked about our "unsocial sociability" in reference to this - the love/hate relationship we have to being social creatures to start with. All people (well, most) have trouble being social sometimes. If you're relatively comfortable with who you are, or who you're trying to be, it's much easier to just spend time with people and get a sense for how much you have in common. Basically, and it sounds stupidly cliche but try really thinking about what it means, what it would mean if it were a deep statement, relax and be yourself.
posted by mdn at 9:46 AM on December 19, 2004

It sounds like Social Anxiety Disorder to me (I also suffer from it). All the research I have done on SAD tells you to, basically, get out there and talk to people.

I started chatting in chat rooms five years ago. It helped me come out of my shell a bit. Although it's easy for me to chit-chat in checkstand queues now, small talk in other situations is still difficult. And calling service people, etc.? Ick. I avoid it when I can.

I don't know that being outgoing will ever be easy, but it's now easier.
posted by deborah at 11:01 AM on December 19, 2004

Have you thought of joining a Toastmasters group in your area? I think it is a great way to practice speaking in public, and will even help you in one on one situations.
posted by alball at 11:36 AM on December 19, 2004

Another option: Fuck It. Introvert Pride. Why be ashamed of the way you are wired? I have no psychic energy for small talk. I never will. Professionally, it does a little damage: is that important to you? If so, and if you don't have friends or lovers. . .maybe the therapy thing. . .which will Not Be Fun, by the way. . . but it you're in pain, give it a shot, you'll learn something. Of course, like me, it may be that you'll learn you hate therapy, too. . .

I'm just trying to say, maybe you're ok the way you are. Yeah, you posted the question, but. . . .how bad is it, really?
posted by rainbaby at 12:26 PM on December 19, 2004

I dealt with this problem from basically birth until a few years ago. What changed it? I found something I love, and that requires me to talk to other people. In my case, it's my job. I've had jobs I hated, where talking to folks was a chore. But now I'm in a field I love, where everything not-talking-to-people related fits naturally with my personality.

At first it was hard to pick up the phone to talk to a stranger, or set up an appointment for a face-to-face conversation, or walk across the office building to ask someone I barely know for more information. I did it because it was the painful part of doing a job I loved. After a few months it stopped being painful. After a few years, I even got to enjoy it when it was job-related.

I'm still an introvert. I like being an introvert, spending much of my free time in private pursuits and not having to worry about other people. Learning to deal comfortably with others didn't change my personality, it just got rid of some of the anxiety that had become a part of daily life.

Now I'm at a point where I am even capable of small talk with strangers-- to folks on the bus, in line at the grocery store, at a social gathering where I don't know anyone. I rarely initiate the conversations, but when someone says something benign and friendly to me, I actually know how to respond.

Since I don't like talking about myself, generally if there's not an obvious topic to latch onto I tend to ask whoever I'm talking to about their own lives. What's your favorite thing about this job? What's the strangest thing you've ever seen while riding the bus? I've been meaning to try that brand of mayonnaise -- does the extra cost make it that much better? Etc., etc., etc. Most people love talking about themselves.

When I don't feel like talking to people at social gatherings, I try to find an isolated place where I'll be out of the way and focus on the other people who are doing the same thing. I always used to feel like a weirdo, standing alone in the corner. But now I've realized that there are always at least three or four people standing or sitting alone at any large gathering, and focusing on them instead of myself makes me feel like less of an outcast.

I don't think you have to have a great job for this evolution to take place. Just some passion or interest that involves getting out in the world and deal with other people -- a hiking club, a D&D gaming group, mefi meetups, whatever. The glorious thing about the internet is that interest groups are easier to find than ever these days.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:35 PM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

I had many of the same problems for a pretty long time, and am still working on making myself more open to others. I've found that the hardest part of any conversation is the start; if you can force your mouth open and say something that's relatively okay (even if your brain is shouting "YOU CAN'T SAY ANYTHING! YOU'RE GOING TO BE QUIET!"), everything's gravy from then out. Also, I got a job that required me to talk to hundreds of people daily, and that really helped, in terms of making me pick up a lot of social cues.
Hope this helps, and, judging by your question, you'll end up just fine. You seem to really care about other people, and that's the only criteria.
posted by 235w103 at 12:52 PM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

I've been like that. Alcohol (applied sparingly) does actually help. After a few successful experiences with the alcohol (assuming it works for you as it did for me), you can simply conjure up the feeling of lowered inhibitions without actually drinking. Sounds strange, but it worked for me. Just don't fall in the trap of believing that you can *only* do it with the booze.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 1:21 PM on December 19, 2004

I'm no expert on this subject, but don't they prescribe paxil for social anxiety? I read an interesting Slate article on paxil vs (paxil + alcohol) a while back.
posted by coelecanth at 2:44 PM on December 19, 2004

rushmc: the "issue" I was referring to was the RESEARCH part. Reading comprehension + not immediately wanting to jump all over someone = good thing.

Aspergian people tend to like researching cool subjects. And they like understanding things. So for aspy types, researching is no big deal.
posted by u.n. owen at 4:06 PM on December 19, 2004

I second (or third, or fourth?) the skepticism about Asperger's. Feeling socially awkward doesn't not immediately mean a psychological disorder, no more so than hearing a crow and thinking you heard a cat for a moment indicate schizophrenia. Jeez, it's normal for plenty of people.

I had the exact same problems as you describe--sucked at small talk, couldn't meet new people, never knew what to say even around my friends (especially during emotionally troubling situations, hoo-boy, that's the worst), and was worse than Dubya at pronunciation, enunciation, and mixing up worst. I still deal with all of those things, but I no longer feel as awkward or shy about it. The difference is confidence. Gaining confidence--or even just appearing confident--will do wonders for how people respond to you and facilitates easy conversation. Smile, look people in the eye, stand up straight, and be completely open and assured of your ability to screw everything up. Heck, even use it to your advantage! Basically, when I run into a knotty situation I point it out and don't try to just bulldoze through and hope nobody noticed the glaring error. Say something like "Oh boy, man, I'm sorry, I'm really bad at this", some joking-type thing like that. Hopefully, it'll put both of you at ease and change people's opinions from "weirdo" to "kooky" (it better, because otherwise we're both screwed and everyone's been laughing behind my back for the past few years).

The cool thing is since I loosened up about the speech mistakes and lack of tact and all of it the extra practice from talking and interacting with people means I've improved a lot in those areas.

But if you want the perfect-speech-perfect-wit-take-me-seriously-all-the-time-but-I'm-a-nice-guy-really persona, all I can offer you is to take speech lessons or join a debate club or something.
posted by schroedinger at 4:49 PM on December 19, 2004

I may be echoing some of the sentiments of other people here, but: the key is to relax. As movie-of-the-week as it sounds, be yourself and the rest will follow.

Don't worry about what you are obligated to do under networks of unspoken social arrangements; don't think that people are analysing your every move and judging you based on poise, vocabulary and presentation.

If you find people do in fact judge you, fuck 'em. To be slightly more eloquent, dismiss their points of view. If you are a human being of any substance, not everybody is going to like you. There's a certain amount of ego involved here (or, there was for me). You need to realise there will be people in life who do not like you nor accept you. That's their fault, and their loss. For me, I was seeking out socially awkward or dangerous or conflictual (can't think of a better word) situations to test myself after a couple of years, just to prove to myself I could handle it.

You may also be surprised to discover how little the 'cool' social people analyse social interaction - so they don't remember when you knocked over their drink, spraying acidic Pepsi into their eye. They move on. So should you. And before you know it, you'll find some people you don't want to move on from, and happiness will ensue. I've seen it in myself and especially my less-adjusted friends.
posted by cosmonik at 6:27 PM on December 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

Don't read other people's summaries or paraphrases of it. There's a reason it's sold 60 million copies. Read it.

No, really. Get off the computer and go get a copy.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:56 PM on December 19, 2004

Also, notice how SO MANY people have responded along the lines of "I feel exactly the same way" or "I used to feel like this"... As much as you may kick yourself after a particularly awkward interaction, remember other people have the same problems. The more self-conscious you feel, the more likely you are to forget you're not the only one & think of yourself as a [insert lots of disparaging adjectives] freak of nature (i.e. that there is no one else like you), and you should stop trying. It's a vicious cycle.

I used to feel like this (and still to a very large extent do, only my self-esteem is much higher). What changed: I pushed myself very very hard over the past two years (in my case, I left an isolating 5yr relationship, moved across the world for a year and had to learn a foreign language, spent three months traveling in "difficult" places, started hitchhiking.. things I never imagined I could've done two years ago). After all this pushing-of-limits, I can't say I've necessarily gotten less dorky & awkward, but that I feel better about who I am, and don't loathe myself after a particularly bad interaction. Thus, I have fewer bad interactions, and the "spectre" (!!) of them doesn't linger as long. Same type of cycle.

One good thing to start on now is making small talk with grocery store checkers & baristas, being cheerful with telemarketers, giving big smiles to people you pass on the street & panhandlers. If they don't respond, it's no big loss--and you get in practice being outgoing on a superficial level without investing much in it. Plus, it's really satisfying when you do have a great 2 minute exchange with someone.
posted by soviet sleepover at 11:31 PM on December 19, 2004

(But, to follow up on what Cosmonik said, at some point early on, pushing yourself just for the sake of pushing doesn't become productive anymore--it has to be relevant to your life, too.)

Push yourself to do more things you're interested in--possibly going to shows at small venues, having a regular hangout (coffee shop or bar, etc) where people get to know you, joining a writer's workshop, or attending meetings for a political cause you care about--or otherwise going to places where conversation is pre-structured around a certain topic already..
posted by soviet sleepover at 11:40 PM on December 19, 2004

Just wanted to second alball's recommendation to try Toastmasters, or a public speaking or acting class.

The first thing you'll discover is that nearly everyone is terrified of speaking in public, even people who are very comfortable in more casual social interactions.

The next thing you'll discover is that public speaking is a very learnable skill. The amount of progress you'll make in a short time will astonish you.

I used to be shy to the point of rudeness, until I took an introductory acting class (at 30!) that literally changed my life.
posted by zanni at 4:27 AM on December 20, 2004

[Me being brusque]

Forget about Asperger's, or Social Anxiety Disorder. As someone upthread mentioned, these things are the next ADD - at best, a category to excuse and justify your feelings about your behaviour ("I know you think I'm unsociable, but I've got Asperger's / SAD"); at worst, they're a con to create a market for drugs. Not to say you don't have one or the other, but the chances are minimal.

Dale Carnegie : Oh God, no. Parts of "HTWF&IP" are good - and, on the plus side, it is small & easy to read - but in my experience it is responsible for creating more artificially plastic and manipulative people than anything else in the world. Arguably good if you're a salesman or in the "customer service" industry; bad if you want to be a human being.

Start small. As several other people have mentioned, just saying "hello" to the receptionist, or the local shopkeeper, or your neighbours every day is a good start. But you need to make a point to do it, you need to get out of your immediate circle of family / friends, and you need to understand it's a two-way street - listen to what they have to say too. You may not think they're interesting, you may think they're not interested in talking to you - but I can guarantee that in most cases you'd be wrong.

Been there, done that, came out ahead. Was a shy kid, a shy teenager, a shy adult. Somehow ended up with a wonderful, cute, interesting girlfriend. Wasted a lot of time being shy and aloof. Lost wonderful girlfriend because of it (partly).

Just to get myself out of the house, and out of myself - because both had become very boring, unhappy, and unpleasant places - took to going for a walk at night to buy milk / smokes / whatever, and saying 'Hi' to the shopkeepers. Slowly learnt a hell of a lot more than I wanted to know about them and their lives - but we became friendly. And I discovered something I hadn't realised in the previous 20-something years of life - People are interesting!

That cleaner at work, the one who doesn't speak very good English - he escaped Chile during Pinochet, and works 3 jobs to buy a house for his family. That obnoxious loudmouth guy over there - he knows everything there is to know about breeding fancy goldfish, and his wife wins awards for her decorated dollhouses. That rough biker guy in the upstairs flat - he reads sci-fi / fantasy, and likes fine Scotch and Annie Di Franco. Get the idea?

10 years later, I'm still a bit shy, a bit aloof, and single - but I have a wide circle of friends, casual acquaintances, and workmates. And every single one of them, in one little way or another, helps me be a real person. And I'm much happier because of that.
posted by Pinback at 5:10 AM on December 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

Good stuff in this thread. Here's something that (I think) has not been suggested before, and it worked for me. I once complained to someone that I was in a conversation that was like pulling teeth. It was such hard work to come up with something interesting to say, and the conversation went nowhere, and we ended up standing there looking at each other silently.
My friend reminded me that a conversation is a two-way street, and that the other person wasn't holding up his end (either). That helps me, another often awkward introvert, to feel better about social situations. I realize that, even if it's going badly, it's not always all my fault. And feeling better makes all the difference. I have even rescued a conversation or two, and I'm able to excuse myself and move to another more easily. (When I felt that the awkwardness was all my fault, there was no way that I could move to another person and try again.)
posted by booth at 6:09 AM on December 20, 2004

If it's an option, I've had good luck in being "taken under the wing" of much more gregarious people. If you can, explicitly or not, ride on the coattails of someone who LOVES to talk, who can turn small talk and chitchat into hour-long conversations, you can sometimes get the benefit of being in a conversation without the burden of carrying it. My roommate for years was one of those people, and I was fine talking to him one-on-one but often very shy around new people. But he always dragged me along on his social outings, and because I never had to worry about the conversation flagging, I could relax and make a few comments here and there and start to hear through him the occasional "Oh, so and so really liked meeting you the other night," which boosted my confidence.

At work, the de facto social organizer fulfilled much of the same function -- I just stuck around by her, and participated in her conversations, which would then generate conversations that didn't involve her.

So, two things: If you have a friend/acquaintance who's more outgoing, present your problem to them and ask if they can help you in getting conversations started in social settings. If that's too big a step for you, then maybe you could think about trying to join bigger conversations in social settings rather than trying to talk to people one on one, so that, like I said, you're not as responsible for carrying the conversation (and then other people's conversation can provide a good topic for the next conversation). It may sound even more stressful than just talking to one person, but for me at least it makes things easier.
posted by occhiblu at 8:28 AM on December 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

Smiling a lot, and speaking when I'm comfortable works for me. You may come off a bit shy, but with a generally positive impression.
posted by Manjusri at 3:21 PM on December 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

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