I believe you when you tell me that we've met before, this time you've got my interest, this time you've got the floor
April 5, 2011 7:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I get better at talking to new people?

I'm an Australian woman in my mid-30s. Because of my physical disabilities and health problems I am not able to work at the moment.

(My health issues make me exhausted and sometimes mentally 'foggy', but I am not intellectually handicapped. I have a bachelor's degree with first-class honours, and I used to work full-time in a very intellectually demanding job before I got sick.)

Fourteen days might go by between [me talking to someone who isn't my boyfriend or a Dr/pharmacist/shop assistant] and [the next time that I talk to someone who isn't my boyfriend or a Dr/pharmacist/shop assistant.]

In the meantime, my social skills get quite rusty. I shower and wash my hair daily, I dress in interesting and flattering clothes, I never mention a single word about my health issues, but people still seem to sense something 'off' about me.

In an effort to meet new people, I go along to Meetup.com style events, and I find it overwhelming.

There is often so much background noise, which makes it really hard for me to hear (I'm hard of hearing. Yes, I will be getting a hearing aid very soon.)

People expect such a quick verbal response to their questions, and get frustrated if my response isn't instantaneous (my health problems cause physical and mental exhaustion, and mental 'fog' - think about what you feel like when you have the flu or a sinus infection - that is what I feel like 80% of the time.)

Sometimes I can't think of the word for something straightaway, and use 'widget' and 'thingummy' which people think is weird/funny/makes them uncomfortable.

Often people seem really unfriendly and uninterested in talking to me, even when I briefly introduce myself, ask their name, and ask friendly questions about them and their interests/recent activities.

Sometimes people seem very uncomfortable about the mobility aid that I use.

Often, the whole experience leaves me feeling really disappointed, frustrated, and sad, and wondering why I bother.

But I would like to expand my social network, so I keep trying... how can I get better at talking to new people?

Throw-away email: morwenna.phelps@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard to meet new people 'cold' at public events or at bars. No matter what. It's always easier when there is a common interest/activity/event. I think it's better to expand your social network doing things you are interested in- like a knitting club, book club, bowling club, whatever. (the first two bc they are quieter...the last one because i couldn't think of anything else!:). That way you will have something organic to talk about rather than just yellling over some music or making painful small talk. Maybe take a class? It's all hard, but it gets easier with practice.
posted by bquarters at 7:36 PM on April 5, 2011

It sounds like you're trying really hard, and putting pressure on yourself. I'd change the venue to something that's easier physically for you, with your hearing issue, to start. I would also try to take the stakes out of it as much as possible. Don't think of it as sharpening any skills, but rather, try to go to these events because they're fun and because you want to enjoy other people's company. I think when we try too hard, it becomes obvious to the people we're trying to impress, and that can get uncomfortable.
posted by xingcat at 7:56 PM on April 5, 2011

Is there anywhere you could volunteer? I met a lot of great people while volunteer tutoring at 826 NYC. Working together with kids, or even on stuffing envelopes, has a way of bringing people together sometimes. And I'll second the idea of a book club—I for one was curious about your throwaway email name and googled the name and now want to read the book whose character you picked. :)
posted by mlle valentine at 8:00 PM on April 5, 2011


I'm hearing impaired, and while I don't have mobility issues per se, I do have birth defects that make me look different and sometimes put people off.

I never mention a single word about my health issues

Definitely no one wants to hear about them at length, but sometimes people are curious or feel awkward, and I can put them at ease if I give a very brief overview of what's going on with me. "Oh, I have terrible hearing! Here, sit on the other side of me," or "Yeah, my neck has been like this since I was born, but don't worry, it doesn't hurt." In your case, you definitely want to give them a heads-up on your "mental fog" (as you put it) so they don't think that your delayed response is because of boredom or inattention.

There is often so much background noise, which makes it really hard for me to hear (I'm hard of hearing. Yes, I will be getting a hearing aid very soon.)

Hearing aids are awesome; I would not be able to function without them. It will change your life instantly. For now, perhaps meet people in quieter places? Cafes as opposed to bars? Don't pretend you heard something when you didn't - this makes conversation very awkward. If you have to ask them to repeat everything, and they get annoyed, they're not a good person for you to talk to.

Often people seem really unfriendly and uninterested in talking to me

This is going to be true whether you're disabled or a runway model. It is a waste of your time to attribute it to your health issues.

You (and I) are outside of the range of "normal" that most people expect, and as such they don't immediately know how to deal with us. I find that while most people are somewhat distant on first meeting, they're almost always friendlier on second or third meeting if we have some basic things in common. Personally, I think that some people are afraid that we'll either want to talk about our health issues incessantly (and a lot of people do!), or that we'll require some sort of help they're not sure they want to/are prepared to give. Also, I hate to say this, but some people who are not used to positive social interaction tend to glom onto it whenever it is given, and if you give off signs of that, people will instinctively retreat. If your self-confidence level is low, you need to fake it until you make it.

Please feel free to email me if you want to talk in more detail.
posted by desjardins at 8:00 PM on April 5, 2011 [9 favorites]

(I know 826 specifically won't work for you, but perhaps there is something local in that vein.)
posted by mlle valentine at 8:01 PM on April 5, 2011

Okay, i'm an athiest so i'm surprised i'm suggesting this but what about some kind of church or synagogue. I say this because in theory churches are supposed to be welcoming Unitarians are particularly welcoming: http://www.anzuua.org/
posted by bananafish at 9:38 PM on April 5, 2011

Might it be worth exploring getting to know some people online and then meeting up with them in smaller groups, rather than going to larger events where you don't know anyone (which is what it sounds like you're doing, but I could be misinterpreting that)? Meeting new people in large groups can be difficult and trying even in the best circumstances, I tend to find. Even with pretty average hearing, for example, I find myself nodding and smiling a lot in conversations in noisy pubs where I can't hear what the other person is saying. They're just not good places for the sorts of social interactions it sounds like you're looking for.

You also might have more luck in a social setting where you already have something in common with people. That gives you a bit of an opening when you start talking to someone. For lots of people (including me), having a conversation with someone you don't know you have anything in common with can be quite difficult. They often fizz out quickly if you can't find some common ground.

What I've actually found surprisingly good for forging online relationships that translate well into real-life ones is Twitter. It's easy using hashtags to track down people who are interested in the sorts of things you are who live in the same area. And when you meet them IRL you already know a bit about them, so have some grounds for conversation. Online forums, particularly ones orientated to a particular interest, also seem to work the same way, if you can find one populated by people local to you.
posted by damonism at 9:54 PM on April 5, 2011

Talk to strangers, in situations where a studied diversion can improve their day.

People running cash registers need a little more distraction than they are usually
getting. Salespeople can be counted on to spend a little more time on you than
someone else who isn't hoping for a sale. If you are stuck with someone in a line
in a grocery store while a price check is going on, and you imagine something to
say to the stranger who is also a little put off by the unexpected delay, you
might say a word or two (slowly, and clearly, because they won't expect it) that
is pertinent to the situation.

Smile. Be a little resilient and forgiving. Don't expect much in response. Sometimes
it doesn't work out, and you might be a little embarrassed. Smile again.

Introductions can be heavyweight, and are used by manipulative people as leverage,
and they can make people suspicious and guarded. I often save my introduction for
the very end of a conversation, if I think there is a chance that I'll want to see the
person again.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:09 PM on April 5, 2011

Try meetups in different environments? I don't know if your illness prevents things like hiking, but there's usually outdoors-type events and groups. Some of them are hardcore hikes, but others could be a group of people getting out of the house and walking at the local park or something.

If they don't have events like that, some groups (ones for socializing) tend to take suggestions, so you can suggest quieter venues like outside or cafes.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:43 PM on April 6, 2011

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