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August 14, 2010 7:20 PM   Subscribe

How do I become one of those people who makes everyone they talk to feel great? With bonus: how to manage the situation gracefully if this is taken as a come-on...

I've met a few people in my life who have really great social skills and are just wonderful to be around because they have a way of making everyone around them feel great. I want to be like that! One guy that I'm thinking of is from my gym, and he introduces himself to people, makes them feel welcome, makes people feel interesting, compliments them... all in a way that feels very genuine and warm and not as if he wants something. I would love to be like that, but am not sure where to start. I am trying to get better at remembering names but I am TERRIBLE at it, and I often get shy to approach people and might sometimes come across as snobbish because I don't want to bother people - when really I'd love to be someone who could give someone a big warm hello and ask them how they're going.

So what are your tips for being one of these people? What kind of things can I do to make the people I talk to feel great and enjoy our conversations, and know that I'm enjoying it too? How can I be warm and welcoming and give compliments without seeming sleazy or fake? (I genuinely love talking to new people and getting to know a bit about them, love it, but I worry that I might come across wrong) I'd love to be someone who makes the people I run into feel good about themselves in some small way through our interactions, but sometimes the idea of being that friendly seems... scary? Possibly because I don't know how to deal with what happens if they want more than friendship...

I'm also female and spend a lot of time in very male-dominated, or exclusively male environments, because of my hobbies. I've made friends with some awesome guys through this but it's usually taken a while because I haven't wanted to come across like I'm trying to pick them up - so I've acted very distant and "professional" instead of being warm and friendly, until we've gotten used to eachother.

But even generally, I really enjoy talking to strangers at bars, parties etc, but would like to be more confident to approach them and start conversations, which I think I would be if I didn't feel worried that maybe they'll think I'm hitting on them (if they are male) and I won't know how to manage that gracefully. If it gets taken the wrong way, is there a nice way to explain that you're just the kind of person who likes to have a chat with everyone and be friendly, and you don't actually want anything beyond that? Or is it unfair for a girl to be friendly with guys and just enjoy the interaction, without any further intentions? I'm single at the moment but the idea of not meeting new random people etc when I'm in a relationship seems depressing.
posted by Chrysalis to Human Relations (24 answers total) 215 users marked this as a favorite
We used to do an opening game when I ran conferences. It went like this:

- Everyone was told to shake hands with as many people as possible. They were to collect names, cards, contacts, etc. BUT, they were also told to always keep in mind that there was someone more interesting and influential around, and so not to spend too much time with any lowling.

I encouraged them to ham it up. to have fun being rude yuppie social climbers.

- Then I blew the whistle, had them freeze. "Change of plans," I told them. "This person, whoever you're talking to now, is the most singularly interesting person you've met in your life. Spend five minutes with them."

And amazingly, it was true. Everone always did meet someone who was downright fascinating & wonderful.

Sure it was a game, but it hit on something real, because we all are pretty damn fascinating. And when someone recognizes in you you feel great, and when you see it in someone else you feel great.

The challenge, of course, is to incorporate this in our day to day lives.
posted by kanewai at 7:43 PM on August 14, 2010 [37 favorites]

I'm no pro, but I'll share a couple things I've learned recently:

1.People love to talk about themselves. Don't you? Ask questions.

2. People also like to feel validated. Don't correct people, just let them think they're right. This doesn't mean you have to lie, as much as smile and nod. Sometimes just saying something like "you know, I never thought of it that way" can really help.

Another thing (that I'm not very good at) is not making people feel like you're one-upping an anecdote of theirs when you're just trying to relate. If anyone has any specific advice on how to relate without swapping anecdotes, I'd love to know, because I find people are often offended by this particular 'behaviour' of mine, when I really truly mean well.
posted by sunshinesky at 7:46 PM on August 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

The only tip I can offer you is to be aware of the times when someone doesn't actually want to talk to you. My former boyfriend tried very, very hard to be The Guy Who Warmly Engages People, but because he automatically assumed that people always wanted to chat, it didn't work so well. Sometimes people just need to get on with making your coffee. Sometimes when you're extra-extra-insistently-friendly to women when you're with your girlfriend, you don't come across as The Guy Who Warmly Engages People, you come across as The Guy Angling For A Three-Way.

Or is it unfair for a girl to be friendly with guys and just enjoy the interaction, without any further intentions?

Nah, it's totally fair. Enjoy yourself.
posted by corey flood at 8:01 PM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Please let me know if you figure out how to do this without it being taken as a come-on. I'm pessimistic because I can't even manage not being rude (much less being friendly) without it being taken as a come-on. Sadly, it seems that many (most?) men tend to take anything warmer than outright bitchiness from a woman as a signal that the woman wants them sexually. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 8:10 PM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

1.People love to talk about themselves. Don't you? Ask questions.

2. People also like to feel validated. Don't correct people, just let them think they're right. This doesn't mean you have to lie, as much as smile and nod. Sometimes just saying something like "you know, I never thought of it that way" can really help.

This is really true. I also find that once the ice is broken, the less you talk, the more the other person will project on you and assume that you share all their opinions and feelings (unless you speak up and vocalize disagreement). This generally will make them like you a lot.

The danger, from my experience, is that you can develop a close bond to people who really don't know anything about you. If you suddenly come out and share that you actually don't agree with them on X issue or Y opinion, they are startled and may feel you have been dishonest with them. This frequently happens when you have two very different friends in the same room and they look to you to be 'on their side.'

Just a caution that if you take this approach too deep into a friendship it can lead to awkwardness.
posted by Menthol at 8:20 PM on August 14, 2010 [14 favorites]

Charming people are often full of energy and positivity and are not made anxious by social situations. Certainly a person can learn to be less anxious in social situations but the level of social skills you are describing as an aspiration reads to me as someone with unusually low anxiety.
posted by mlis at 8:24 PM on August 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

So, I'm also a woman in mostly male-dominated environments. The easiest way to make it clear it's not a come-on is to either a) have an s.o. and mention them or b) make friends with their s.o. Of course this is not always an option.

There is also something more subtle, which I think I've learned so much that I now can't unlearn it (on the rare occasions where I actually *am* trying to flirt I totally fail, because I am so used to being only friends with everyone). Body language is key here; basically you want to anti-flirt. Look at people straight on, don't have any coyness to your stance whatsoever. If you're a touchy person, you might want to let up on that a bit. Also it's a matter of what you ask about; if you're asking about their work or details of your shared hobby there's less likely to be confusion than if you ask about their social life.

For socially clueless men, none of this works. If they are determined to think you are hitting on them, they will think so no matter what. Also I disagree with Jacqueline; i think these men are in the minority, but they are so obnoxious it seems like they're much more common.

As far as the first part of your question:
I am only capable of making people feel warm and fuzzy if I find them genuinely interesting-- so my technique is to ask someone questions until I find them genuinely interesting. This does fail, sometimes, but as mentioned above not usually. Once you believe someone is interesting, it's easy to make them think they're interesting (of course).

And if you do fail at finding someone interesting, you want to trick *yourself* into thinking they're interesting. Much easier than tricking them into thinking you think they're interesting.
posted by nat at 8:27 PM on August 14, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: That's a good points MLIS - I'd like to overcome the anxiety I get in these situations and just feel free and easy socially. Techniques for that would be great too, though I'm kind of thinking the best thing to do might be to practice acknowledging that I feel anxious, but behaving the way I want to behave in spite of any anxiety, so that I get used to it. So behaviour focussed tips are still really helpful, as well as tips for dealing with any undersired fallout.
posted by Chrysalis at 8:28 PM on August 14, 2010

This may sound silly, but do you watch Project Runway? I think that Tim Gunn epitomizes the character you describe. Everyone loves him, regardless of their own personality (except for one major douchebag from last season). My new mantra in social situations is WWTGD?

The thing is, he genuinely likes and respects people. He is happy for them when they accomplish something, and supportive even if he has to give negative feedback. He conveys that he believes in their talent and is confident that they will come up with something good (usually).

Of course, he's in a situation where he is required to interact, and is also in a position of authority. So this doesn't address the issue of being more extroverted. However, I personally think that you need to be YOURSELF, and it's okay if you are not the gregarious outgoing type. What makes people like you is how you make them feel once you are engaging with them. And I think that you MUST be yourself in order to engage with someone in the first place, because otherwise you will come off as somehow false, which is a turn off.

Keep the conversation focused on the other person. Do not talk negatively about anyone (or even anything) else. Find something to compliment them on (even if you have to dig really hard). Simply demonstrating respect and kindness will go a long way to accomplishing what you're after.

As for worrying about coming off as flirtatious, I wouldn't. Most people will not misread your intentions. Those who do misread them may not ever act upon their assumptions, and those that do act upon them can be gently let down with a simple "I'm sorry if I conveyed something that I didn't intend." You are not doing anything wrong, and although slightly uncomfortable, it's easy to be kind and respectful if confusion does arise.
posted by wwartorff at 8:28 PM on August 14, 2010 [11 favorites]

It's a difficult thing to explain how to do - especially for people who're naturals at it - because it's just what they do, they never had to learn it. I know some people who can do it, and I'll very vaguely describe what goes on -

The most memorable thing you can do for someone is walking up to them, pick up that they're in negative mood state, and bring them around and leave them feeling like a champion. To do this, you will need to mentally dominate them without them realising it.

It starts by mirroring (1) - voice, body language, emotion: you need to get them on board with you in the same state - that's the starting point. That's where the connection is built - and now they're on the same page as you. Then you need a hook (2) - something interesting, something that snaps up their attention and makes them forget what they're feeling / doing. Once you have them hooked you have momentary control of their mental and emotional state - then you need a destination (3) - where you want to take them emotionally.

Some elaboration on (1) - it's not simply enough to pick up their external state, you have to link it to their internal state. You need some way "inside" that suddenly puts you in the headspace as they are. They may think you're a mind-reader, make very sure you don't come off as creepy though. Watch their eyes. (Girl glanced backwards as they left a table, and I commented that I thought I was the only paranoid one in the table who was scared of leaving things behind). Watch their breathing. (strong emotions will override automatic physiological functions like breathing and swallowing. see the common trope in movies of fearful people having to swallow hard - their automatic swallowing mechanism was disrupted). This is actually very revealing while watching movies: you might get a glimpse as to what their deepest fears and desires are. But that's something for much later.

Some partial misconceptions ---
Getting people to talk about themselves - There are people who are "talkers" - they like talking about their problems because having a listener is good, it makes them feel connected as long as there is a good listener. You could achieve (1) with it, but I'd argue it's not something you've done - that "talker" could have picked anyone in the room and gotten the same effect. You won't be any more memorable than the other people she's talked to.

Making them feeling fascinating - again, a "yes but" statement. The value you can derive from this is function of how fascinating you are yourself. If a completely boring person finds me interesting, I would find it far less of a compliment than if someone fascinating and powerful found me interesting. You have to demonstrate that you yourself are fascinating - in the hook (2) - then turn around and demonstrate that you find them fascinating yourself. Same for making them feel great via compliments - if you're trying to compliment them on how intelligent they are, if works a lot better if they already see you as intelligent.

Not sure if anyone will find this little overview useful but it's been interesting academically to me...
posted by xdvesper at 8:49 PM on August 14, 2010 [27 favorites]

Being interested is more important than being interesting.
Really listening means paying full attention, instead of thinking of what you're going to say next.
Don't worry or think about how you're coming off. You have little or no control over the other person's perceptions of you.
I talk to people for a living (I'm in media), and in general, I find it pretty easy--I'm usually able to put people at their ease, I'm not challenging in the least, and I have a fairly benign social presence. I don't tell jokes or try to be the life of the party. My usual opening line is "I'm Susie Hoehandle. Do you know anyone here?"
And if the other person doesn't want to chat, I excuse myself in search of the ladies' room or the bar, and find someone else. You don't need to compliment people just to make conversation.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:07 PM on August 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm not positive that asking questions/complimenting/not talking about yourself is the only way to be the sort of person you're talking about, because people have always described me that way, and I have had to work pretty hard to not one-up people with anecdotes, talk about myself, etc. In fact, I find that now that I think about it, I have to actively deflect conversations away from myself, and sometimes no matter how much I try, it doesn't work.

The only thing I can figure that I have going for me is a genuine love for people and a potentially-naive trust that every person I meet is honest, good, and interesting. I'm also generally extroverted and not at all socially anxious, which probably helps as well.

Wow. That's the most assholish, self-centered comment I've probably ever typed. At least I hope it is. Good luck on your quest! I bet people already think you're super-considerate and great.
posted by nosila at 9:14 PM on August 14, 2010

Some partial misconceptions ---
Getting people to talk about themselves

Yeah I hate this. I don't enjoy talking about myself much to start with and since I live in a different country than I was born in people always jump on that topic. I've had that conversation approximately 14 millions times and it's hard not to look bored. Polite interest in personal details is fine but I'd much prefer to have a conversation about things that I'm interested in like films, books, music than my life story.

Asking people about their pets or children is always OK though. Can't go wrong with that one.
posted by fshgrl at 9:22 PM on August 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think you can see a common thread here, and it's what I came inside to say. As many others have said, the best way to engage other people is to talk about the other person, and frame the conversation in terms of their interests.

I'd heard this advice for years, but never heeded it. Instead, I liked to talk about myself a lot. Unsurprisingly, people didn't really enjoy spending time with me. Maybe they still don't, I don't know, but I do know that I've been able to build stronger relationships since I stopped talking about myself and started talking about the person I'm with.

How do you do this? As somebody else mentioned, ask the other person questions. Make them open ended and/or leading. You can learn to subtly steer the conversation in the direction you'd like it to go. And you can keep asking questions until you find a mutual interest. Let the other person talk. Ask them to elaborate. Try to get them to share something their passionate about. This is a surprisingly effective method, and it's not just slimy networking stuff. It's a way to get to know somebody without them feeling pressured. (Well, some people don't like this, but most people love to talk about themselves.)

Now, don't get me wrong: I still like talking about myself. I'm only human, after all. But I no longer need to be the focal point of every conversation. I'm happy talking about the other person, and adding "color" from my own life when it's appropriate. And you know what? I enjoy these conversations just fine, too. I get a lot out of them.

So, as most of my fellow Mefites are saying, keep the conversation focused on the other person. (For more on this subject, pick up a copy of the justifiably classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
posted by jdroth at 9:57 PM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

First off: "is it unfair for a girl to be friendly with guys and just enjoy the interaction, without any further intentions?" No. (It is not unfair) Just don't cross the line of flirtation ambiguity. That varies for people, but for me it's touch.

Lots of good tips here. I have one that doesn't work as a first impression but is a huge influence beyond that, which is *remember things* about the person -- names to start, but also job, family, interests. That's a very big deal to people (except the few that are so self-absorbed, they assume everyone is keeping track of their lives).

Other than that, though you said keep it light, so this only to a degree, be present with people. Don't allow yourself to be distracted. Focus and really listen to the person you're talking to.

Certainly a person can learn to be less anxious in social situations but the level of social skills you are describing as an aspiration reads to me as someone with unusually low anxiety.

True, but it's a coat you can wear as well. When I have a job that demands I'm friendly and outgoing, I'll be the friendliest and most outgoing guy around. Somehow it's not "me", and the usual insecurities don't apply (the big one being people thinking "Stranger talking to me -- must be a freak" -- suddenly I have an excuse. I'm That Friendly Job Guy.). May not seem to apply if you don't have such a prescribed role, but it does go to show how one can disown social anxiety through an act of will, or self-deception.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:13 AM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can't believe there are 15 comments and no mention of this - smile! It will work on pretty much everyone, every time. It is hard to imagine what you must look like to another when approaching/talking to them, but sometimes you might appear unwilling to talk or moody or possessing some other unappealing attribute. Smiling is the simplest and most effective way to let the other person know that your intentions are good, regardless of time or place or topic of conversation.

The advice to talk about other people is very good too, but I think it sightly off mark here. I have been (and still am, to an extent) very introverted most of my life, and it seemed to have skewed my perception of other people as somehow significantly different from me. I believed that what I wanted people to be like is not how they wanted me to be. Even though I wanted to talk to people, and wanted them to talk to me, I imagined they wouldn't want me to just come up to them and start conversations, and this was the deciding factor that prevented me from being more social. I'm still not sure how I got myself to believe otherwise (I suppose through books, articles, and practice), but the important things for me to realize were:

(a) most people are not all that different in their appreciation of social contact - whether that be someone interested in their work, hobbies, etc or just a chat about a movie you both just saw;
(b) if they would like to be alone, and you approach them and get rejected, it is really not a big deal at all; and
(c) people are actually really interesting! Once you stop pre-judging people and start being genuinely curious, the conversation and social connection will happen almost automatically. (This is not to say that I think you judge people, but you may be doing it unconsciously, and letting it affect your decisions.)

This will take a while, or at least it did for me, as it is not easy to figure out what others feel when you talk to them, but like with most things, nothing beats practice, and you will learn from both successes and failures.

So next time you get shy, just ask yourself, "If someone approached/said hello to/smiled at me right now, would I feel weird or would I appreciate it?" Most likely, you will answer with the latter. Then is there any reason the other person would have preferences significantly different from yours? Probably not. So go for it! And if you're wrong, you smile and walk away, no harm done to either one of you. It is a win-neutral situation for you.

"..if I didn't feel worried that maybe they'll think I'm hitting on them" - heh, can't help you out with that one, I have trouble with that myself. I guess the easiest thing is to just hope it doesn't occur, and if it does, explain your intentions. In general, I think the less you think about before you approach someone, and the less you try to plan it out in your head, the more natural and easy-going the conversation will be.

Also seconding jdroth's suggestion of Carnegie's How To Win Friends, which is a fairly quick read but full of useful, practical advice, as well as Goleman's Social Intelligence, which is fascinating in its own right - an in-depth look at the strange workings of people's minds when it comes to situations similar to ones you've described, as well as many others. An excellent read if you want to understand how people think about and act towards each other, and how to make it work for you.
posted by Scarf Face at 11:16 AM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah I hate this. I don't enjoy talking about myself much to start with and since I live in a different country than I was born in people always jump on that topic. I've had that conversation approximately 14 millions times and it's hard not to look bored.

I sometimes use this as a secret weapon. If you're talking to someone and they mention something that seems like an immediate opening into a conversation about their lives - they were born in a foreign and exotic country, for example - then you can probably assume they are VERY used to getting questions about it, and that they'd be bored of that conversation. Use that. Instead of saying "really? How long have you been here, why did you move, do you miss it?" and so forth, say "Gee, I bet you've had a million conversations about that. What's the most ridiculous thing someone's presumed about your home country?" I find that this puts you on their side, as you recognise that this, to them, wouldn't make an interesting conversation.

Similarly, if someone has just returned from a long overseas adventure, I guarantee they'll have had the "what was your favourite place?" conversation far too many times. You have to pick your target for this one, but I sometimes ask something like "Cool! You must have some great stories. What's your favourite one involving either an animal, public transport, or dodgy accommodation?" You can usually be fairly sure that their travels will have involved some sort of misadventure around one of the three, and this gives them a chance to talk about something they enjoy, instead of just "yeah, Paris was great."
posted by twirlypen at 2:28 PM on August 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Make sure your attention is fully focused on the person you're talking to. I've thought about this question, too, and realized that people who made me feel really good about myself seemed to have nothing else on their mind except our conversation.

I'm not talking pinned-to-the-wall eye contact, of course, but just constant attention. No looking around the room, unconsciously fiddling with anything, picking up new hors d'oeurve, and so on. In normal conversations (at least in North American-type cultures) the speaker makes eye contact around 40 percent of the time, if I remember correctly, and the listener much more--around 80 percent. So it's not like you're going to be gazing into each other's eyes the whole time, if eye contact makes you nervous!

Lastly, people like people who make them laugh, but they LOVE people who think they're funny. Don't you have a really positive feeling toward people who have laughed at and truly enjoyed your stories?
posted by martianna at 4:19 PM on August 15, 2010

Best answer: This is a great question, and so many good ideas in here! I'm a woman and have had just a little trouble with men thinking the attention meant something it didn't. I just try to act the same as I would with anyone and if someone gets the 'wrong idea' I act appreciative and politely decline.

Some things I have learned:

1. Keep eye contact with the person you want to give attention to, and when this person is not the one talking, STILL make some eye contact.

2. Imagine someone is an old friend before you even meet. We all have old friends that are very different from us (liberal vs. conservative, etc), but seeing them makes us feel warm and full of happiness. I love the ideas in here about talking and asking questions until you find something you feel is remarkable.

3. When making introductions, incorporate compliments, or something relevant. This makes people feel great and helps those awkward situations when we first meet people. "Sue, this is Sarah, the queen of cupcakes!"

4. Don't tease or point out fault in others unless you know them very very well. If someone spills something or trips don't point it out! As a sarcastic person, this can be hard for me, but I try to reserve that humor for those that know me well.

5. This is one of those things that is not as easy as it sounds. You can parrot or echo a bit, but don't overdo it. Listen to people carefully, and try not to gear the conversation to yourself or your own interests. Pick up key words, tone and desire and move from there. It is easy to get into a conversation where two people are simply waiting for the other person to stop talking so they can get their two cents in... What's that quotation? Few people would listen if they didn't know it was their turn next.

6. When someone is interrupted let it play out, but remember where the interrupted person was cut off and encourage them to finish by reminding where they were with a smile.

7. When someone expresses a triumph, immediately congratulate them, especially in front of other people.

8. If you're trying to get through to someone on the phone(be it business or personal), be interested and kind to their secretary, spouse, friend, etc. Ask that person about their day, try to remember details about what is going on with them.

9. This is a fun one. When someone tells you a good story or about an accomplishment, encourage them to tell it again when you are in other company. Just imagine how good it would feel if you had confirmation that someone was both listening and loved your story enough to encourage you to share it!

10. Having worked in AIDS hospices and other sensitive places, I learned to not be afraid of saying the wrong thing. It is okay to say "Wow, I don't know what to say" or to ask a question about a sensitive topic. To me, this is far better than to avoid an elephant in the room.

11. Try to see their point of view! Again, easier said than done. I love this allegory: A man's watch breaks. His girlfriend says "so what it is just a watch!" A few days later the girlfriend's watch breaks. Someone says to her "so what, it is just a watch!" She responds: "but it is MY watch. MY watch." In the film Water for Chocolate the cook says something to one of the girls that always resonated with me: Only the pots know the boiling points of their broths. Try not to downplay or think you can understand how someone has reacted to something. Everything can change with perspective.

Incidentally, @twirlypen, I just returned from 29 months traveling, and I love being asked specific questions that help me to re-live my travels and look at them in a new light.
posted by maya at 4:32 PM on August 15, 2010 [25 favorites]

all in a way that feels very genuine and warm and not as if he wants something...

But he does want something. He sincerely wants the people around him to feel welcome and at ease.

In addition to what's been said:
  • The difference between warmth and flirting is the degree of reserve you display. You can be warm and gracious while keeping your physical and personal boundaries intact. For male or female, a degree of reserve illustrated as self-respect and respect for others, is another thing that will help people be at ease.
  • Don't boast, don't compete.
  • Don't fuss, don't try to please everyone
  • As the gathering, meeting etc comes to a close, approach people again to say good-bye with a few words that show remembered your conversations and you are wishing them well for the future.
Only two attributes are required to be the kind of person who has a way of making everyone around them feel great. An ability to communicate and an intrinsic like of people.
posted by Kerasia at 5:30 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's funny that this question came up. I've been doing a bit of thinking about my interaction with people lately and what I need to work on in that aspect. With that in mind, I apologize in advance for rambling, because I'm sure I will.

I see myself as being socially awkward. I don't feel like I can easily strike up conversations with people my age or younger. This is not to say that I can't, but rather that I have to really work to keep myself interested as well as interesting. I know this might make me sound shallow or pompous, but I just don’t relate well to a lot of the people I grew up with. I find it easier with people who are older, but I still feel like I could do better.

Because of this, I'm always taken aback if someone compliments me on my people skills. This is especially true if it's someone around my age. I was just having a conversation this morning about how someone told me that I was charming the other night and I wasn't sure how to respond. True, it was the parent of a kid I've known and it seems, have been something of a mentor to, for the last 8-9 years, but I was still caught a little off-guard. We were discussing my decision to drop the education emphasis on my degree and focus on business instead. I was making light of my ability to talk to people and they told me that they were sure I’d do well because people find me charming. I jokingly insisted that I always thought that I was a little awkward and so people just took pity on me. (Though, joking when I said this, I do sometimes think this is true…)

Anyway, I’ve been focusing a lot on my people skills lately, and recently had a prime opportunity to work on my networking skills. My university hosted an international conference right after spring finals and I was required to volunteer for the entirety of the 3-day event. (Yes, I realize the contradiction in that statement.) Unlike some of my peers, I decided to make the most of it, and took it upon myself to meet as many people as possible.

A lot of my friends gave me a hard time about bothering the conference attendees, but the same friends were just as soon jealous of the time some of the more impressive names spent talking to me. I invited each of them to come meet people with me, but they almost always turned down my offer.

My strategy was simple. I smiled. Really, that was my first step. I would stand off to the side, but in the line of sight of whomever I was hoping to meet, and would wait to see if they acknowledged me. (This was a busy conference, so usually these people were already talking to someone else. I would just introduce myself if they happened to be free.) If they did, I would introduce myself, explain that I just wanted to meet them, and that I appreciated the work they did - or liked their latest album, etc. - I’m dealing with the music business here. I would pretty much talk to them as long as they would let me. Some conversations were short, while some people would ask me as many questions as I asked them. A few of the people I met knew who I was already from my involvement in the conference. Some would even congratulate or thank me for my help and hard work.

The thing that was key was that I never felt like I was forcing anyone to talk to me. As I explained to my friends, since I waited for the person to notice me, I allowed them the opportunity to avoid a conversation. If they made eye contact and smiled back, I didn’t feel bad about taking their time. In fact, as the conference went on, I even had some of the attendees approaching me to talk again - even when there were people far more important available to talk with. (This was a little mind-blowing!) I’ve even kept in contact with some of the more friendly ones in the months since. (I’m going into the music business, so this could be important to my future career, not simply super-fan-based interaction.)

As far as anxiety goes, I’m not always the cool customer you might expect. One prime example of this is my interactions with John Pizzarelli - jazz guitar and vocalist extraordinaire. The first time I met him was at a festival where he was the guest artist. (This was after several years of listening to his music and becoming an enthusiastic fan.) I employed my stand back and smile technique as he hurried back and forth between dressing rooms. When he finally realized I was waiting to talk to him and said hi, all I could manage to say was that I was wondering if it was okay if I met him. True story. I didn’t even tell him my name - he had to ask. He was extremely nice and for the rest of the evening, he made a point to notice me, or point me out to members of his quartet - “Hey, there’s, Kim!” - which was perhaps at my expense and also for my benefit, because again, my friends were jealous, but I didn’t care. (This perhaps strengthens my argument that people pity and therefore befriend me…)

I saw him perform again a year later and he recognized and remembered me from the festival. I wasn’t much better at proving I was an articulate member of society, but I was able to have a short conversation with him and each of the members of his quartet while keeping my stuttering to a slightly painful minimum. The point is, I don’t think I’ll ever fully get over my anxiety in a situation like that, but at the same time, I don’t think I want to. Even though I felt like I was making a fool of myself at times, the natural high I got from talking to him was a great feeling. I’m willing to sacrifice a little of my ego to get that feeling any day.

So I guess I’m trying to say it’s six in one hand, and half a dozen in the other. You’re going to be a little anxious with some people no matter how confident you learn to be, while some people will seem like your life-long best friend whom you’ve only just met. Embrace both experiences, and learn from them.

Keep the conversation focused on the other person. Do not talk negatively about anyone (or even anything) else. Find something to compliment them on (even if you have to dig really hard). Simply demonstrating respect and kindness will go a long way to accomplishing what you're after.

I agree with only part of this. I don’t think the conversation has to be constantly focused on the other person. If they ask you a question, answer it fully. Don’t make it an epic story, but it’s okay to talk about you. However, I think that it is really good advice to avoid speaking negatively about other people, and most things. You can disagree with whomever you’re talking to, but don’t dwell on the topic and most importantly, avoid gossip if at all possible. A sure way to end a conversation is to talk about the people at the other table and how one is an alcoholic and the other is a tacky dresser. It’s petty, and it makes you seem small-minded.

A professor of mine once told me: “Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, and small minds talk about other people.” He didn’t come up with the quote, and I’m not sure who did, but I always keep it in mind. When I’m meeting new people and making small-talk, I don’t mind falling into the category of “average minds” and talking about events or things to help find common interests. If the conversation steers constantly towards the belittling of other people, I’m not interested, and so I tend to assume the people I’m meeting aren’t either.

Also, respect and kindness does go a long, long way. Like I mentioned before, I try to compliment the person I’m talking to, but don’t make it a last ditch effort. People can often tell if you’re not being genuine, and if you offer up false compliments, you’re not going to make anyone feel good - including yourself.

Another thing (that I'm not very good at) is not making people feel like you're one-upping an anecdote of theirs when you're just trying to relate. If anyone has any specific advice on how to relate without swapping anecdotes, I'd love to know, because I find people are often offended by this particular 'behaviour' of mine, when I really truly mean well.

I’ve found that swapping anecdotes is fine, when it’s a casual conversation, but it’s not necessary, and as mentioned, it can backfire. If someone tells you they went and saw some artist in concert, and you tell them that you just had lunch with that same artist last week - that might not be your best approach. On the other hand, if you were at the same concert, that’s where a conversation can start. When you’re just meeting someone, you can seem arrogant if you follow every story with a story of your own. If you feel like your anecdote might make them feel bad, don’t share it. You don’t always need a similar story to relate. Say something about how interesting their experience must have been and ask for more details.

So I guess my advice boils down to just a few things. Smile. Be friendly and kind. Pay attention to what people tell you and don’t focus on negative ideas. If someone doesn’t want to talk to you, don’t be discouraged - they might not be the talkative type. If you feel nervous, just go with it. If you stumble over your words or stutter, just smile and shrug it off - you’re the only one who will remember anyway.

Most importantly, have fun. You say you want to make people around you feel happy and welcome? - You’re already the person I’d want to meet. Your desire to make other people comfortable is going to make people gravitate towards you, so if you seem to be enjoying yourself, they will enjoy themselves too.
posted by Kimothy at 6:35 PM on August 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Or is it unfair for a girl to be friendly with guys and just enjoy the interaction, without any further intentions?


Please let me know if you figure out how to do this without it being taken as a come-on. I'm pessimistic because I can't even manage not being rude (much less being friendly) without it being taken as a come-on. Sadly, it seems that many (most?) men tend to take anything warmer than outright bitchiness from a woman as a signal that the woman wants them sexually. :(

As a guy, I have found that a good way to deal with this has been to mention my girlfriend in conversation when I up until recently had one. Don't cram it in there first thing, but a "Oh cool, you like X? My girlfriend and I just saw something very similar to X last week." seems to help to cut the tension and make it clear that A) You are taken and B) You are not trying to conceal the fact that you are taken. I find that as a guy, women (especially really universally attractive ones) have probably had enough creepy interactions with my sex to approach the situation cautiously. Doing what I mentioned above seems to disarm that quite a bit.

I have no idea if this would work for a woman, but if a guy knows you're taken and continues to be aggressive or flirtatious, maybe they're not the person you want to be honing your skills with anyway.
posted by rollbiz at 7:43 PM on August 15, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, so many great ideas here, thanks guys! I picked the response with the most ideas I will use as best post (love love love your ideas in 2,3,7 and 9, def going to add those to my arsenal - I think imagining someone as an old friend will make me feel more at ease too) - but there were so many great posts - thank you for taking the time!
posted by Chrysalis at 5:58 AM on August 16, 2010

People love to talk about a point. You also need to give up information yourself, and sometimes you can be a lot more charismatic / charming if you are willing to offer up interesting information about yourself before you start probing people for information about their lives.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:26 AM on August 17, 2010

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