Improving social skills through TV/film/theater
April 3, 2010 11:47 PM   Subscribe

My sister panics in trivial social situations. Immersing herself in everyday social encounters is not helping her make any progress, so I'm looking for ways she can feel more comfortable in social situations.

By trivial situations, I really do mean trivial. For example, she needed to talk to a secretary. Then she noticed that the secretary was looking at some papers that seemed semi-private. She started panicking and trying to look away. My first thought was that she has some kind of social anxiety disorder and that she should see a psychologist. But she seems really reluctant to follow my suggestion.

Last week, I mentioned to her that my social skills/understanding improved when I started taking an interest in quality theater and television. I've loved musical theater since I was a child and a few years ago, I got hooked on Sondheim which led me to reading lots of theater commentary -- critic reviews, forum discussions, etc. I learned to pay attention to body language and developed the good habit of quickly assessing character personalities and motivations. I told my sister that I was learning interesting stuff from watching 30 Rock. (My understanding of pop culture and "good" comedy is weak.)

To my surprise, she started trying to watch the show to improve her "social skills" (!) That got me thinking that maybe watching TV could actually help her. I suppose it doesn't have to be TV -- it could be film or plays.

This is what she wants help with: body language, social norms, polite pleasantries, responding to typical situations, e.g. like compliments, attacks, making friends, how to socialize with guys without being weird. Some of her social cluelessness comes from the fact that our parents were not born in America and they kept us pretty isolated growing up.

So any suggestions on TV, film, plays she could watch on DVD? Or maybe a theater/improv class? She lives in the Los Angeles area.
posted by qmechanic to Human Relations (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Doing non-social things to help someone get used to being social seems counter-intuitive. I think that perhaps she is using this as a way to not have to deal with this issue with a psychiatrist or other mental health professional.

I do like your mention of a theater/improv class, though. That's social, certainly, and it had a built-in structure. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles has classes that teach improv basics. I think it might be good if she gave it a try.

You can find info on the classes here.
posted by inturnaround at 12:11 AM on April 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If she has this much trouble dealing with social situations, watching scripted entertainment will probably hurt more than it will help. Not only do a lot of TV/theater/film productions dispense with mundane but important social niceties to save time (just one example), but you have to keep in mind that every character in these stories are, well, scripted. They have an entire team of writers behind them crafting witty, funny, urbane dialogue that drives forward a story in an engaging way; they never fumble, misspeak, or run out of interesting things to say. Real life social interaction simply isn't like what you see in the media, and having your sister immerse herself in that will only instill in her an unrealistic standard of beauty social acumen. And when she finds she cannot match that standard in real life, she might feel inadequate and boring.

I'd recommend setting her up with a therapist, who can help her deal with whatever underlying anxieties she might have and develop her social skills in a healthy, natural way.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:17 AM on April 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Actually, she find a support group more useful than individual therapy. The chance to be with other people who understand what is going on and will be supportive of her interactions within the group as well as her accounts of real-world experiences can be a big bonus over private work.
posted by metahawk at 12:23 AM on April 4, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far! In case it's not clear, the roadblock is her hypersensitivity. If she freaks out, then it's not possible to make progress on social skills. I also notice that she have significantly more trouble with superiors and senior people compared to colleagues her own age. Like all of us, she has problems socializing with strangers. From what she tells me, she is well-liked and respected at work.
posted by qmechanic at 1:27 AM on April 4, 2010

Best answer: I have a friend with social anxiety who had significant success by using Clonazepam under guidance of a therapist. Medication and therapy seemed to allow the person to experience some social situations without worrying about the list of things that your sister lists above, and practice them until the point at which drugs became unnecessary, and then later practice them some more without medical support.

This person went from the inability to order fast-food tacos at the counter to teaching college students in about four years; looking back I think s/he might say that s/he never lacked the social skills required to succeed (even an insular family will teach you that), what s/he lacked was practice in ignoring fear, anxious self-examination and hypercritical thought patterns.

I know that's not an answer to your question, but my (totally uneducated) guess is that TV programs will only reinforce the illusion that there is a 'right way' to handle social situations that everybody knows about but your sister, and the real knack, which is staying calm and making decisions when something unexpected happens, needs other kinds of practice.
posted by Valet at 3:27 AM on April 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

If your sister decides to try therapy, I suggest Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It was designed for a specific condition, but nobody in my group has that diagnosis.

(we're actually all survivors of trauma.)

The therapy is a specific set of skills, and the groups are about discussing the skills, and how we've used them. We don't talk about our trauma.
posted by bilabial at 3:55 AM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

My social anxiety used to be quite similar. It has drastically improved with Diagnostic Behavior Therapy, which involves one-on-one sessions (with a counselor, not a psychiatrist) and group sessions, each once a week. DBT focuses on skills to help get through situations that cause anxiety. I highly recommend that she look into it, or at least read about it in books or online.
posted by motsque at 3:55 AM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learning how to be social by watching TV is like learning to play baseball by watching it on TV.

It's an idea riddled with false assumptions.

The best way to learn how to be social is to, well, be social. Go out and engage with people. Practice makes perfect. Nothing can be adduced from television.
posted by dfriedman at 6:00 AM on April 4, 2010

Best answer: I actually don't think watching TV or movies is a bad idea, since it sounds like she needs practice reading social cues, and the entire point of visual media is to give visual cues to tell a story and give clues to a character's inner motivation without having them explain it. As long as it isn't her ONLY "interaction" with people, I think it's a good idea. Watching television shows can be a very useful method for people with autism, for example, who have trouble understanding emotion and social cues; they can practice understanding in a safe situation where their reactions are NOT being counter-reacted-to by others and where the people on TV won't get upset with them. Often a family member (or even a therapist) watches with the autistic person and asks appropriate questions ("Why do you think he did that? What do you think he's feeling? How could you tell?") and is available to help explain motivations or cues that seem obscure to the autistic individual. Of course television isn't real; it is overly neat and exaggerated, but that in and of itself can be helpful as a learning tool by stripping away some of the excess stuff. And presumably your sister understands television isn't real.

I would also suggest anywhere with good people-watching -- parks, zoos, cafes, etc. -- where she can watch actual people exchange polite pleasantries and make a game of ready body language and so forth.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 AM on April 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

*reading body language, sheesh
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 AM on April 4, 2010

She needs to be "present" with her anxiety. Go to a party and stand off to the side, then just experience the anxiety and slowly learn that, like any other phobia, there are limits to how much anxiety you can experience and that it won't kill you. Worked for me.
posted by teedee2000 at 7:47 AM on April 4, 2010

Best answer: Working as a waitress was the thing that helped me bust out of my social anxiety. I went from being extremely socially awkward and shy to being able to make small talk with anyone in a variety of situations. Also, you have an automatic group of friends working in a restaurant. People tend to hang out after work and host get togethers. Can you sister pick up a couple of shifts working as a hostess, barista, waitress at a busy establishment?

Learning to come out of a shell of social awkwardness and anxiety is a bit like trying to learn a foreign language. It's quicker if you just immerse yourself in the culture and force yourself to interact and talk.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:22 AM on April 4, 2010

My first thought was that she has some kind of social anxiety disorder and that she should see a psychologist. But she seems really reluctant to follow my suggestion.

Why is she reluctant? Is it because the whole process of going to therapy freaks her out causes her high levels of anxiety? There is a lot involved -- how to go about finding a decent doc, what to expect of them, how to pay for it, when to go especially if you work, etc -- which would not be easy for someone with social anxiety to deal with.

I would suggest you offer to do all the leg work yourself. Finding a therapist, calling them, making the appointment, even offering to go with her if she wants.
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:26 AM on April 4, 2010

I have a friend with social anxiety who had significant success by using Clonazepam under guidance of a therapist. Medication and therapy seemed to allow the person to experience some social situations without worrying about the list of things that your sister lists above, and practice them until the point at which drugs became unnecessary, and then later practice them some more without medical support.

I am not the friend in question, but this is exactly my experience and I highly recommend this approach. I went from not being able to leave my house to being able to give presentations to 50+ people in grad school. I still take Klonopin (Clonazepam), but much less often, and just knowing that it's available helps keep me calm. Also, meditation. Learning to breathe correctly has been a tremendous help.

Watching TV or movies has never helped me in any social situation, other than to have something to talk about. It's just another form of isolation.
posted by desjardins at 10:31 AM on April 4, 2010

Best answer: Seconding the people watching/service job recommendation above. It's basically the same idea as your TV watching approach, but in real life. I tend to feel awkward in the kind of trite social situations you describe- I envy people who have good phone skills, for instance, or who can make small talk with anyone. Two things have helped with getting better at it: passive exposure and practice. People watching and eavesdropping (not in a bad way, just overhearing minor conversations in public places) helps with figuring out what's "normal" in various situations. Becoming more aware of the social situations and behaviors around me has helped me develop better "scripts" for social situations. Having an idea of how a conversation will go beforehand is good for calming nerves.

The other part of this is practice. Service jobs or anything that involves a lot of exposure to people are great for this. When you have brief contact with dozens of customers in a shift, the importance of each interaction greatly decreases. You can't worry about each interaction- you don't have time. It also helps being on the other side of these interactions- you might agonize over an awkward phone call, but to the person on the other side it's just one phone call of many, and totally not a bog deal.
posted by MadamM at 4:49 PM on April 4, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! My sister did followup on that idea to take improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, so hopefully that will help.
posted by qmechanic at 12:39 PM on May 4, 2010

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