How can I converse in large groups?
December 7, 2009 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Help me carry on conversations in groups with my *special snowflake* situation.

Yes, I know this question has been asked before, but my case is different.

I am an 18 year old female college student. I am a shy introvert, who is a mix of INTJ/ INTP. I have always had trouble carrying conversations in large groups (say more than 4 people). I think one problem I have is timing. I can't seem to get a word in edge wise. I don't want to be *that girl* and force my point in where it doesn't flow. When I do get a comment in, other, more forceful people seem to move the conversation elsewhere, and thus people rarely respond to my comments.

If it matters, the groups are usually 100% female. They seem like nice people, and I would like to get to know them better.

Compounding factors: I have learning disabilities (but not Aspergers) that make it hard to read people and sense timing. My parents were very strict when I was growing up, so I was not allowed to watch tv, watch very many movies, or listen to popular music. I still do not really enjoy these things today so I have very little "popular culture" currency. I am commonly lost in the conversation, because I am not familiar with the particular show or band. It would be hard to even research these topics, because they change every conversation. Further research cannot mitigate 18 years of lack of popular culture.

Potential things in my favor: I am self aware. I have a roommate, an INTJ, who can help me to a point.

The other questions I have seen before seem to be about grown up mingling. Here, this is not about approaching the group. Nor does finding fellow wall flowers apply to this situation, because everybody else is actively participating in the one conversation. I would find it strange to ask questions about topic to the group (to try to understand the topic), because it would disrupt the main conversation.

In short, I'm looking for advice to improve my conversation skills keeping in mind my *special snowflake* situation. I am still working on meeting new people with different interests, but that's hard when I can't converse with people in larger groups. I will reiterate that I do not have Aspergers. I'm just awkward and shy around people.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
So basically you're well within a standard deviation of "normal" for a girl your age.

My recommendation? Give it time. Most people your age are still figuring out what it means to be an adult. Some get things figured out pretty quickly. Some never do. Everyone feels awkward and out of place their freshman year.

As far as the pop culture thing goes, there's no time like the present. You'll find that there is an incredibly wide range of pop culture out there, you just need to find the parts that you like. When you do, you'll probably find it easier to talk about, especially with other people who like the same things. Thats how a lot of group interactions work: a group of people with common interests.

So if I were to make one practical suggestion, it would be to find some interests and talk about them. See where that takes you. If you're still feeling awkward in a year or so, maybe start to think about a different tactic, but the situation you describe is so common that I wouldn't be quite so quick to chalk up your challenges to LD.
posted by valkyryn at 11:38 AM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't worry about researching stuff on your own as you're right to think it's a daunting task, but if there's any communal cultural intake going on (if they are watching tv together, going to movies, going to concerts, etc), get in on that. Ask your roomate a lot of questions about who and what. You might even like it. It's a good way to bond. If you don't have at least some knowledge of what's going on in the world, making friends isn't going to get any easier. You don't have to like it, you just have to be open to knowing about it. There's a lot of things that I know about that I'm not a fan of or even interested in.

I would also do a lot of careful observing of how the flow of conversation works, and get a feel for it without worrying about jumping in and being heard. Watching movies and tv might even help with that.
posted by amethysts at 11:46 AM on December 7, 2009

I work with many undergrads and I see a whole range of different levels of social skills. I agree with valkyryn that you're well within a standard deciation of "normal" for your age. Lots of people have similar, "special snowflake" situations, and honestly, being 18 and in college is a great time to explore new things.

I worked with a woman who was very low on pop culture currency, and she studied it almost obsessively, which was a little awkward but not bad. If there are people having group TV nights, tag along and just hang out. You don't have to pay total attention but you will get to spend time with people and get exposure.

As for conversing with large groups, that's something many people struggle with. Focus on a small scale, 1 or 2 people, at first and just get comfortable with talking to different people, so that you can move around the group. It is a skill, really.
posted by kendrak at 11:53 AM on December 7, 2009

FWIW, I had a friend who knew absolutely zero about pop culture due to her immigrant parents and her own inclinations. But she was really interesting in every other respect because she was completely absorbed in her art & studies & unusual hobbies. Her complete lack of pop culture knowledge just became part of her charm!

In my opinion, pop culture is not worth paying attention to unless you *actually enjoy* it. Consume it for its own sake, not to fit in.
posted by yarly at 11:58 AM on December 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Wait! You're shy and awkward around people?
Welcome to being 18! :)

One thing that I found helpful is hanging out with folks of a similar interest. If I remember correctly, college has lots of different clubs and groups that are tailored to specific interests, majors and hobbies. Maybe having something else to talk about besides "pop culture' and having lots of currency due to your interest in it will help you grow out of your special snowflake situation.

To this day, I use Meet Up ( whenever I want to branch out and discover something new or discover new people. Highly recommend.

Hope this helps!

- Bill
posted by willmize at 12:01 PM on December 7, 2009

My first piece of advice is to stop obsessing over your (and other people's) Myers Briggs type. While it's a fun way of learning more about yourself, it's not necessarily going to help you relate better to people in real life, beyond letting you know what sorts of people you might like to surround yourself with.

College is a really great place to form relationships, because you're given the opportunity to explore your interests in depth and you get to meet a huge variety of people. Do things that you're interested in, and you will find people who are like you and who you'll find it easier to interact with.
posted by scarykarrey at 12:18 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

This may be too reductionist for you, but I'll throw it into the mix anyway.

I'm your exact opposite, conversationally. I'm charismatic, I mix in conversation easily, I can start, enter and steer conversations with a lot of facility. I have a couple of friends, though, who really don't have those abilities; it's difficult to watch them flounder feel left out.

So now I wingman for them. ". . . and that's how we finally got the duck out of the elevator! Ha ha ha! Hey, Violet, didn't you guys do something similar last summer at MIT?" Or, you know, whatever. Sometimes I'll even be a little pointed in helping other people leave conversational holes: "Hold up a sec, Jim, I don't think Myrtle was done."

You might consider asking one of the talky people to help you out similarly. (I should note that I only do this with really close friends; I don't like putting people on the spot.)
posted by KathrynT at 12:21 PM on December 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

KathrynT makes a good point about other people helping you join in the conversation. Truly charming people will make an effort to include everyone in a conversation. I was going to say that it may be hard to find groups in college that are this polite, but really there are people in all circles and ages that don't make an effort.

So I agree with everyone that says that you are normal. *I know, that wasn't your question*

As far as advice goes, keep in mind that the dynamics of a group can change depending on who is there. Keep trying and spend time with the people you find easy to converse with.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:32 PM on December 7, 2009

I'm concerned that you're a little too fixated on your personality type. You're way more complicated than that.

Another thing: there's more to conversation that speech. How are you physically engaged? Are you leaning forward, listening and enjoying yourself, or are you removed and on guard? Next time you're with a group try taking the pressure off yourself to talk and be witty, and just work on being physically present. Enjoy your friends. Smile. Look at them. All sorts of people are lovable and wonderful and even socially engaging-- not just the ones who tell all the stories and lead the conversation.

Boy, I wish someone would have told me this in college. I've come to see that even someone who is quiet can be really, really present and make an impression. If I had known this, I would have spent my time loving my friends and being interested in strangers and way less time being self-conscious.

Another thing-- your lack of pop culture knowledge is an intriguing fact about you, not a short-coming. Laugh at yourself for not knowing who X celebrity is. Tell stories (if you feel like it) about being forbidden to watch TV. What were you doing instead? I bet something interesting.
posted by cymru_j at 12:37 PM on December 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

This subject is quite near to me, and I don't think you have a problem getting a word in, it's that you lack confidence in your knowledge of the conversation topics. Or at least that was my case: only engaging when engaged.

Here's the process I took to widen my topic confidence:

Grew up overseas, moved back as a teenager. I didn't know who The New Kids on the Block were. Couldn't name a single Madonna song, or one quote from The Simpsons. (And, yes, this still promotes a problem at my beloved karaoke or trivia nights.)

For a while, I tried to catch up— wearing, watching, and listening to what I thought was "cool and trendy." And it all felt, well, weird. I was weird, and kids can smell that a mile away. I was shy. Geeky. A closeted Trekky; a classical music, history, and horse nerd. *Photo for proof.*

But I did find something about pop (contemporary) culture that I did love— music. I began to devour it. But I didn't go retro by doing research at first, I focused on what was "now," and what I liked. Metal. Pop. Experimental. Punk. Hip-hop. Whatever.

It was because of my experience as a geek that became interested in my new favorite music's evolution. I dug backward, treating it as a really enjoyable thesis. All of a sudden I knew Blondie! The Talking Heads! The Ramones! Nirvana! Lou Reed! And, yes, Madonna!

I'd found treasure troves of vast and interesting conversation fodder. And over the course of a year or so, I all of a sudden went from "Have you heard Schoenberg?" to "Have you heard the new Lemonheads?"

And when I didn't know something, I turned it into a joke, "Oh, you know. I missed the 80s. Pop culture FAIL" or, "Come on, you know I've never seen any movies... stupid socialism..."

And, as my friends became more sophisticated and I became more happy with my geeky tendencies, Schoenberg came back as fodder. :)

I hope this helps.
posted by functionequalsform at 1:03 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I could pretty much have written this question at age 18, and the best piece of advice I ever found (from this book, IIRC) was to focus on finding positive social role models, and then try to channel their confidence/aura/timing in social situations.

Based on the way you've phrased your question here, it seems as though you're fairly caught up in the details of your personal identity (INTJ/P, not hip to the scene, learning disability) that make you a naturally poor socializer. And while it's normally great to just be yourself, if you've decided that self = awkward/antisocial, then maybe a bit of a vacation is in order.

Here's how it works: pick someone, fictional or real, whose social persona you admire and whom you can observe at work in situations similar to the ones you're facing. (Mine was Myrna Loy's character Nora in The Thin Man; heroines of old movies are great for this because they're so self-composed and graceful, even in silence. For girl group socializing, I don't know-- maybe try someone from The Women, or one of the Sex and the City chicks, or someone popular and attractive from high school?) Then, next time you have to hang out with a large group of people you don't know, spend a moment beforehand explaining to yourself that you are no longer poor, awkward Anonymous; you are actually [Ms. X]. Think a bit about how she handles conversations: the pitch of her voice, what she looks like when she's not speaking, how people see her. Then, when you're in the thick of things, try hard to be this person. No need to worry about your performance and how people see you, or stress about what you're going to say/not say, because it's not you out there, anyway; it's Ms. X, and Ms. X always kills at these things.

After a while, you can try phasing out the persona, but the main thing is to spend some time stepping outside the self-consciousness, overthinking and performance anxiety that come with seeing oneself as a naturally shy. Good luck, and don't worry: you may well find that you've got plenty to say, once you quit worrying so much about how and when to say it.
posted by Bardolph at 1:08 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who is so incredibly quiet. Except when he has something of immense value to say. He's a fabulous listener and one of the few people I've met who I suspect fares the same way I do on bullshit standardized tests.

I, on the other hand, can't seem to keep my mouth shut. I'm an entfp (yes, t and f, I've decided!).

I appreciate his quiet presense when I'm near him, and because of his conversational style, he's an amazing asset in my life.

So, to clarify. Your (perceived) difference may or may not be noticed. I'd bet your contributions are valued.

Also, my pop culture currency stops at Dallas (a 1970s tv show), and I'm 28. I just figured out a few months ago that Fergie who sings that song is not the British royal who used to be all over weight watchers' ads. I can't even be bothered to acquire a tv, and some people like me just fine.

YMMV, but listening is a skill that so many people lack, good for you for having the skill.
posted by bilabial at 1:10 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't worry about talking about yourself. Just ask lots of questions, listen carefully to the answers, and show you're listening by asking them to clarify points, tell you what certain things were like for them, etc. I personally like "Could you say more about that?" in intellectual discussions. Don't worry about pointing out things you don't know or that are different about you. Use every interaction as a learning opportunity.
posted by emilyd22222 at 1:13 PM on December 7, 2009

If you don't give a damn about pop culture, why fight it? People like being around people who are excited about their lives...keep racking up new experiences and you're sure to have entertaining stories. The trick to making small talk is figuring out what other people's passions are and knowing how to ask them about it.

If your acquaintances don't do anything but sit around and blab about what celebrities are doing, maybe you need to reconsider your choice of friends.
posted by aquafortis at 1:22 PM on December 7, 2009

Maybe you would benefit from watching more conversation without the pressure of joining in. Rent The Office. It's a pretty entertaining social study. And watch talk shows- Ellen DeGeneris, for instance, has really nice, laid-back banter with her guests.
posted by twistofrhyme at 2:21 PM on December 7, 2009

I found your question totally compelling, since I was raised without any skills for social interaction and found myself utterly lost and overwhelmed in any personal dynamic. Unfortuanately, I was an extroverted blurter rather than an introverted observer. That's a toxic match with poor social skills, as I quickly figured out sometime around early adolescence.

What helped me was to understand that engaging with people and participating in individual or group dialogue requires a certain body of knowledge. We don't think of it as "data" or "information," but it is. Fortunately, it call all be acquired through close observation. Learning disabilities make this harder, but it may just mean that it's something you have to go about deliberately rather than intuitively. It may require more effort from you than it does for other people, but it will get easier.

The kind of knowledge I have in mind would involve using your tendency to observe rather than to talk to closely examine the language and behavior of people who you think engage effectively. How do they comport themselves when they enter a conversation? How do they modulate eye contact, responses (including the little ones like "Uh huh" and "oh yeah")? How loudly do they talk? How do they vocalize sentences? How do they balance participating in the form of talking with participating in the form of listening, so they can then say something they feel confident and comfortable saying?

A good way to practice this is to take advantage of people's near-universal tendency toward narcissism and self-absorption. Most humans love to talk about themselves, so paying close attention to what they say can give you questions asking more for information from the person, which makes them want to respond to you and make your question part of the flow of conversation.

Also, as others have suggested, consider how your personality type might be an asset that people appreciate and value. People say stupid things all the time because they have a sense that they have to say something to fill the conversational space, and most people are very bad at really taking in and processing information. In fact, the more someone talks, the greater the likelihood that most of their words don't make much of a real contribution to their conversation. You can be the observant and careful thinker who may not dominate the group, but whose thoughts and opinions are valued because they are so thoughtful.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:35 PM on December 7, 2009

Conversations between groups of girls - especially if they know each other well - tend to have a lot of overlap, meaning that people will make interjections ("Really?" "What did he do?") while someone else is telling a story, or even start telling their own as soon a someone else's starts winding down. This isn't because they want to interrupt each other, it's more of a supportive thing; ie, I'm letting you know I'm interested and involved in what you're saying by reacting.

I never noticed this til I took a sociolinguistics class in undergrad and had to record and diagram several of my conversations throughout a day. With other girls that I knew well, we could carry on a conversation where both of us were essentially talking at once, without even realizing it. (This book is a good reference.)

I'm offering this because your problem "getting a word in edgewise" may just be due to the fact that you're waiting for silence before starting to speak, while the other girls in the group are more comfortable with a more fluid, overlapping conversational style. If this is the case, you could try warming up by inserting some supportive questions/reactions here and there, then segueing into a story of your own.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 4:07 PM on December 7, 2009

Functionequalsform sort of sounds like me. (I am 19.) In middle/high school, it was a little worrying to me that I didn't know about all the latest youtube videos or all the celeb beef, but now I am glad I don't know who Fleet Foxes are (apparently they are/were popular in Chicago at one time) and I don't like youtube videos or movies or TV, for that matter. And I don't have a cell phone and I am just a luddite. I like to tell people this. It's also become integral to me. I guess the best advice I can give is don't try to pretend who know what the heck these darn kids are talking about if you don't, or if it bores you, because that doesn't mean they are more socially adept than you are (Like F=F, I would surely be the one leading the conversation with these people had it turned to classical music, history and Talking Heads).
Oh. To bring it back to me again...I remember recently starting two lively conversations, one about how much I hate PowerPoints, and one about the electoral college, and they stood up just as well as any conversation about that stupid unicorn on youtube ever could!
You can do it.
Don't try so hard.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 5:54 PM on December 7, 2009

I'm the same way. I've learned a couple of things that work for me.

For one thing, screw pop culture. I say this as a guy who doesn't follow any sports, watch TV, or give a damn about cars, trucks, fishing or hunting. I can still find things to talk about - sometimes it's even better that way. If a bunch of people are talking about a fishing trip they just went on, there are a number of different angles I can take. How was the camping/hotel? What did you eat? What do you do with the fish after you catch them? This works, because I like learning things even if I never plan to use that information, and because...

Secondly, people like to talk about themselves. If you ask them a question about themself, they will talk to you to answer it, usually. And there you are, in the conversation.

When you do know something about the topic, say it in a short statement. That is, lead with the punch line. "I stabbed a guy once" (if it's true) is better than "ok, so this one time, there we were..." yawn. Explain after, once everyone responds. Especially do that if you can see where their story is headed. "Your truck got stuck in the mud, didn't it?" That leads to "yeah, blahblahblah" with them still talking, but now they're talking to you and not just generally. Double especially do that if the topic gets near something you know a lot about.

That's going to be the toughest part, and it isn't your fault, but you're still young. You don't have the same kind of experience, and sea stories, and whatnot as someone who's say, my age. I'm sure you do have things you are interested in, though, and once you get people to feel like they're talking to you personally, they're going to start asking about you once in a while. Have something to talk about. (Just be careful of steering every conversation to it. Be sensitive to when they want you to shut up and let them talk about themselves again. That's how most small-talk conversations work; taking turns talking about yourself and asking about the other person.)
posted by ctmf at 7:13 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, everyone likes a good listener who laughs at their jokes. Just keep the one-on-one relationships going strong, and an occasional misstep won't be a big deal.

Or hang in groups where people leave more space for talking--some groups are more energetic and talk over each other a little bit, some leave plenty of room and pauses for you to jump in.

Questions are cool. Like I said, keep one-on-one relationships strong and people will forgive any minorly weird group behavior.
posted by kathrineg at 8:36 PM on December 7, 2009

I had this problem (INFJ). Eventually, I got tired of not understanding how timing and conversation work and decided to fix it. I gave myself an intense crash course by watching a lot of reality television. Some shows are better for this than others, and if you're interested I'll send you the list of shows that were helpful to me. (Not all shows are helpful, and I think some can set you back in this regard.) I watched them all on Hulu and other websites.

I don't particularly like watching a lot of television, but I approached it as a class. Here are these people who interact fairly well with others. How do they have conversations? How do they make small talk? What do they do when they first meet people that is successful? Not successful? What makes one person well liked and another reviled? How do you get heard without being pushy? Some of the shows I watched a couple times to figure out why one person had ended up popular.

It took me about three months of watching an hour or two of reality television a night. I now have real friends for the first time in my life. If you had told me three years ago that reality television would change my life I would have laughed at you, and called you a fool. But it was the most incredibly helpful thing I have ever done for myself. I would never EVER admit to having watched those shows IRL, though.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:18 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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