Best English-language books on improving one's social and conversational skills
October 24, 2009 1:24 PM   Subscribe

What are the best English-language books in existence on improving one's social and conversational skills?

A good friend of mine is intelligent, nice, and pretty-- but has somewhat low self-esteem, is fairly self-conscious, and has inveterately been awkward in various social situations, especially at parties and other larger social events.

She recently started graduate school, and has been complaining to me that her social awkwardness continues, hindering her from getting to know her fellow students and making connections and friends.

Her birthday is coming up soon, and as a present I wanted to give her a collection of 3-5 books that bode to help her build self-esteem, overcome social anxiety, and improve her social and conversational skills.

I spent a long time searching Metafilter and manifold websites for suggestions on the best books that address these issues as comprehensibly as possible. I've pasted the results below.

Though there are thousands of such 'self-help' books, which made the search a bit precarious, I couldn't find any that seem particularly good. The best of the lot, for various reasons, seem at best 'just decent'-- limited, reductive.

I can't help thinking that there must be better ones, maybe written long ago and forgotten, maybe esoteric, I must be missing. Otherwise, the genre seems to be lackluster. I'm curious to hear any recommendations.

“True ease in talking comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance.” - Alexander Pope

-- How to Win Friends & Influence People - Dale Carnegie [doesn't teach how to improve self-esteem, or why/how to be interested in others]
-- Conversationally Speaking : Tested New Ways to Increase Your Personal and Social Effectiveness by Alan Garner [mediocre to decent reviews]
-- The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace by Margaret Shepherd [mediocre reviews]
-- The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure by Catherine Blyth [below mediocre-to-decent reviews]
-- Messages: The Communication Skills Book & Messages Workbook - Matthew McKay
-- The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron

Other books (but probably worse than the former)
-- The Fine Art of Small Talk: How To Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skillsand Leave a Positive Impression! by Debra Fine
-- How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less by Nicholas Boothman

-- Self Esteem: A Proven Program of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving, and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning
-- The Self-Esteem Companion by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning
-- Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante H. Gunaratana -- [suspect]
-- Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts (audio) [suspect]

Overcoming Social Anxiety
-- The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by John P. Forsyth
-- Daily Meditations for Calming Your Anxious Mind by Jeffrey, M.D. Brantley, Wendy Millstine

SIRC Guide to Flirting/ Advanced Guide

Edge Foundation

Website devoted to improving Social Skills [seems at least okay]

"Positivity BLog" [decent, okay]

Steve Pavlina Website [middling, poor]

For Fun
posted by cotesdurhone to Human Relations (8 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't read them myself, but I'd take a look at these books about social anxiety to get to the root of the problem. I think they would help better than the more general ones you are looking at. When I was teen, I was helped a lot by reading Zimbardo's Shyness, but it's very outdated now.

Carducci, Shyness: A Bold New Approach

Markway: Painfully Shy
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:45 PM on October 24, 2009

In my own opinion, books are of little help in overcoming something like social anxiety. My reasoning is that an intellectual understanding of social interaction is not enough, you really have to learn through exposure and experience. The more your friend puts herself in situations where she is forced to overcome her fears, the more comfortable she will grow in those experiences. In a way, I think books about how to be social or improve your conversational skills are an even greater impediment to achieving your objective because they serve to increase self consciousness and take you out of the moment. In other words, having read the book and taken its advice to heart, when placed in a social setting you are now effectively focusing your attention inward because you are concerned with how well you are doing in relation to what you've read. In the end, you're still faced with the uncertainty of the moment.

Since this IS a thread about book recommendations, I'll go ahead and recommend one. The subject is not directly related to what you're after, but I know of no better book that illustrates the importance of listening and taking action despite anxiety and fear of the unknown. The book is called "True & False: Heresy and Commonsense For The Actor" by David Mamet. The book is a series of essays essentially arguing that the complex preparations many actors use to "become" the character are useless and create a false sense of comfort. In the end, he argues, the actor is always faced with uncertainty and must learn to respond to it with honesty and humility. While these essays are obviously directed at actors, I think the theme here far transcends the theater.
posted by OccamsRazor at 3:11 PM on October 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

In my own opinion, books are of little help in overcoming something like social anxiety.

I don't know how common my experience is, but I had ridiculous levels of social anxiety--to the point that I could hardly bring myself to use a telephone--until I read the aforementioned Zimbardo book. That one started me on a journey out of my anxiety. Certainly not completely, but I think I'm definitely in normal range now.

My reasoning is that an intellectual understanding of social interaction is not enough, you really have to learn through exposure and experience.

Yeah, but a good book can help you figure out how to do that. If I remember correctly, that book had a step-by-step plan for moving into situations that required more and more interaction. It showed you how to gradually work up from calling a store to ask what time they close to going to a party where you won't know a lot of the people there.

I do agree though, that the sort of books the OP is looking at aren't likely to make a difference. But the right book might.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:22 PM on October 24, 2009

Also, unless she has a confirmed diagnosis of autism or Asperger's, I'd avoid books about that. I'd hate to give those to someone who didn't actually have either.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:24 PM on October 24, 2009

As someone who has suffered from intense social anxiety since childhood, I have to say that while it is very sweet of you to be thinking of your friend in this way, personally, I would have found it *really* undermining of whatever confidence I may have had at any point to be given books that implied that I was as bad at interacting with people as I've always feared. Social anxiety for me has a lot to do with the fear that I'm "doing it wrong," saying the wrong things, not talking enough, etc., etc., and I would definitely interpret a well-meaning gift of a book on social skills to be saying, "Yep, you're right, you *are* terrible at socializing." And then withdraw even more. It would not, suffice it to say, be confidence building. I don't think that's the message you mean to be sending.

Also, if your friend already knows she has problems with social anxiety and is the sort of person who's in graduate school (and therefore likes books, I'd guess), she's probably already read about it. I certainly had, when I started grad school (and all the well-meaning books in the world couldn't have helped me with the social demands it made on me: I ended up dropping out when ABD due to anxiety because I was too frightened of people to talk to a therapist, so that's where I'm coming from answering). I practically had the DSM-IV sections on anxiety memorized before graduating high school, and yet. Books helped me know what was wrong with me (thanks, AP Psych!), very helpful in one way, but not at all in others.

Some things a well-meaning friend can do to help (at least in my case): include the person with social anxiety in low-key social events, positive reinforcement/reassurance ("No, you did fine!" "No, [total stranger] didn't hate you/think you were weird" and so on), go *with* to social events so there isn't a fear of being alone at some point (and thus looking weird/awkward). How does she feel about therapy? I might have gone years sooner if someone had simply made an appointment with someone (if she's a grad student, there'll usually be on campus free counseling) for me, because I was *way* too terrified to do that myself, gone with me to the first appointment, anything to help make that easier. As it is, I had to wait until I was actually well enough to do that for myself, which meant *years* of probably unnecessary suffering.

Again, I do think it's a nice idea, but I'd want to be very sure that your friend won't be more hurt than helped by this particular gift. She may be looking much more for reassurance/understanding/sympathy in confiding in you than help 'solving' her problem.
posted by lysimache at 5:10 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mr. Dame here.

I have an interest in this topic and have read a lot of these books. A lot of them seem to be just naturally dynamic people talking about themselves, which isn't much help to an awkward person. An area of study that I've found fascinating is NLP or Neuro-Linguistic Programming. This realm of study—in short, the science of attraction/what people respond to—is a slippery slope. The techniques here are used by everyone from salesmen to scam artists to "psychics" and pick up artists. I urge you to look behind all the negative associations and to just the scientific study of NLP.

Your friend sounds academic (grad school) so this scientific approach could be appealing. Books about NLP do a lot to demystify social interaction because they avoid vague recommendations. Of the list you have above, How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less is probably a good introduction to NLP.

As others have said, you have to be careful what you give to your friend. A book about dealing with Autism could come off badly, even if your intentions are good. Getting your friend interested in the topic will spur them to continue reading on their own.

Also, How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the greatest books ever written and stands to help anyone who reads it, so I recommend that too.
posted by dame at 11:02 PM on October 24, 2009

I'm surpised that you didn't list Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns.

That said, if she's like me, her brain is wired differently and may need an SSRI. I started taking one (Paxil) a few years ago and plan to take it the rest of my life.
posted by qsysopr at 4:17 AM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for all the replies so far. I may have been neglectful in not making my original post more detailed and specific.

I don't, of course, plan on giving her all the books I listed; only the 'best' 3-5. These are the seemingly most promising ones I found, and I thought I'd list them for general edification and to further the discussion.

I realize that the act of reading 'self-help' or kindred books and intellectualizing the task of improving one's social skills, in itself, can be ineffective, even counterproductive. However, many of these books-- and I would hope the 'best ones'-- offer various suggestions, lessons, and exercises one can do on one's own and put in practice in real life, much like a therapist, after every session, would suggest practicing and building upon what had been learned. I know for some people-- and my friend is one of these-- that intellectualizing lessons before practicing them in the 'real world' is helpful, in fact one of the primary ways in which they learn.

The books/sites on Asperger's and Austism are not specialist ones targeted specifically to these audiences, per se, but rather ones from the Asperger's/Autism perspective targeted to a general audience, that illuminate insights about social interactions others might take for granted and miss.

To clarify-- My friend has never read books pertaining to improving her social skills. She's talked with me about wanting to find the best such books and sites, etc, and undertaking a 'course of study' when she has free time, and, based these recent conversations, is to some extent expecting me to give her a present having to do with this. I wouldn't just give self-help type books to her 'out of the blue,' as this could send the wrong message. We have been friends for years, are very close, and are aware of what's appropriate in terms of our relationship.

She's not thoroughly socially awkward. She is great one on one with friends and many acquaintances, often okay in small groups, depending on how comfortable and familiar she is with the people therein, but less comfortable with strangers, in larger groups, and various people and situations that, for whatever reasons, she construes as 'more intimidating.'
posted by cotesdurhone at 11:40 AM on October 26, 2009

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