Cultivating Genuine Interest in Others
August 30, 2011 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm not really interested in other people and their lives. I don't like this and I want to change.

Has anyone learned to cultivate genuine interest in or curiosity about other people? How can I do this? I feel like my lack of interest in other people really limits my social life and the enjoyment I get out of spending time with my friends and coworkers.

What are your favorite questions to ask people? How should I approach this mentally? etc...
posted by PFL to Human Relations (37 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
When I feel like that, I explicitly tell myself that I am going to learn something from that person and go into the conversation on a search for what I can learn.
posted by thewestinggame at 9:46 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

While I can see how your lack of interest in other people would limit certain aspects of your own life, my initial thought was that you need to meet more interesting people.

That said, most people have something truly interesting about them if you are willing to dig deep enough. I've met so few people that I would consider completely and utterly uninteresting that I can count them on one hand. Even then, someone else may find them interesting.

As far as actual skills or techniques, I'm not sure I can help in that area. Do you think you have any sort of anxiety disorder or is it just apathy when it comes to other people?
posted by _DB_ at 9:48 PM on August 30, 2011

Pick up a copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People". I would suggest that you fake interest until you genuinely have it, but sometimes that comes off as, well, fake, and that doesn't work super great in the long run.

Some questions: What ARE you interested in, if not people? What do you do when you're conversing with someone? Just talk about yourself? Have you considered that you might have a mild form of depression? Personally my interest in other people plummeted suddenly when I began to descend into a depressive state. YMMV.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:49 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh gosh, me too. Me too times a million. If I'm talking to someone and the conversation is going along with one of those "what do you do for a living oh how interesting yeah I'm in IT where did you grow up I'm from Boca Raton let's get to know each other by exchanging really generic questions and answers just to fill the airspace" sessions, the only thing that's running through my head is: "OH MY GOD SHUT UP. PLEASE SHUT UP. I WILL STRANGLE YOUR FACE OFF IF YOU DON'T SHUT UP RIGHT NOW. PLEASE OH PLEASE CAN WE TALK ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE."

And this makes me feel bad. Because they're just trying to be nice and make conversation. But I can't stand that kind of banal chitchat.

So I try to tell stories. Stories about that time my brother biked himself face-first into a tree or how I got kicked out of Sunday School when I was little or that time when my high school boyfriend saved me from a rabid raccoon by shooting it with a bow and arrow. Weird, unexpected stuff. I do this because 1) well, who am I kidding, they're fun to tell, and 2) I hope that it will encourage the people I'm talking with to share fun stories about their lives.

Sometimes it backfires, and people don't enjoy my stories. But that tells me pretty quickly that they're not the kind of person I'd get along with anyway, so I don't worry too much about "cultivating genuine interest" in them. Maybe that makes me a bad person, I don't know. But most of the time what happens is that someone will say, "a raccoon, you say!? That reminds me about this funny-looking squirrel I saw this one time! Let me tell you..." And that's a good time for everyone.
posted by phunniemee at 9:50 PM on August 30, 2011 [20 favorites]

Not saying shyness is your problem,but you might try this method (self-AskMetafilter link)
posted by sweetkid at 9:50 PM on August 30, 2011

Look, there's this universe and you're perceiving it. Through your eyeballs or your nose and your skin a universe goes, into your brain, and it rattles around there like nowhere else in the universe.

This same thing happens to every other person. You get one good handle on how you perceive things in life naturally, but the only way you can expand your perspective is to talk to others about theirs and try to get a handle on it too. (I think that's why we have two hands.)

Reconciliation of adjacent but disparate perspectives on reality is a valuable source of sanity as well.
posted by carsonb at 9:53 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

* And by same thing I mean that unique perception, perspective. It happens to everyone else too, but different!

** Ok, maybe not the only way to expand your perspective. But a valuable and well-researched one.
posted by carsonb at 9:55 PM on August 30, 2011

This is my experience from observing this in myself and others. To me, a lack of curiosity it seems to come from not having any reason to need further information and therefore it gets rejected right there. I don't logically need to know anything about you to do ___, so my brain is not going to pursue that information. When I'm feeling resource-intensive and stressed out you'll see my nosy-ness take a nose-dive. Sometimes though my brain is in an information pursuing mood though. And then it comes down to knowledge for the sheer pleasure of knowledge. Pointless facts and interactions with and about people stimulate a certain part of my brain like a rat hitting a lever for treats. This is also why I watch certain trashy reality shows when I'm lonely. And why I'm on Metafilter a lot.

I think my point is that you have to try to stop discriminating against facts based on their strict surface-level utility and just be open to knowing things for the sake of knowing things about people, even if it's pretty useless. Anyway, knowing even the most banal, stupid things about other people is the most original basic way of creating human bonds, so it's not actually useless.
posted by bleep at 9:57 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I hate asking "what do you do?" because people answer their jobs, which is (except in 1% of cases) exceptionally boring. It's also awkward if people are unemployed, studying, etc. I prefer to ask if people have any hobbies, or what they just like to have fun with. This seems to break down the boring facade a bit and helps you get to know the actual person, who might be a bit more interesting than "oh yeah, I'm an accountant" (not knocking accountants! I know some great ones, but we don't really talk about accounting when we get together.)
posted by titanium_geek at 10:05 PM on August 30, 2011

I hate asking "what do you do?" because people answer their jobs, which is (except in 1% of cases) exceptionally boring.

Me too - sometimes I ask, "what did you do today?" to strangers at a weekend party -- it's amazing how they seem surprised by the question and yet comfortable answering it.
posted by sweetkid at 10:14 PM on August 30, 2011 [13 favorites]

Well, the answer to this depends on who you are as much as on who they are; it's a talent not shared by everyone to literally be interested in 'people' in a general sense, especially random people you may meet.

So one solution is to limit your care or solution to people who've got interests or mindsets that hit upon subjects, ideas or attitudes you yourself partake of or are curious about. When you focus on these ideas, you realize that different people have different takes on them, and to understand the context fully, it may help to know their background and personality. It seems pointless to me to try to build a genuine motivation for shallow social intercourse. With that, mere practice suffices, and no deep interest is necessary to maintain sociability. People don't really expect you to care. If you're talking about a deeper connection, then what I said about ideas and attitudes comes into play; no one makes deep connections randomly with 'people'. Again, only writers, journalists, revolutionaries and busy-bodies have this innate interest in 'the people'. It seems that the level of enjoyment you'll get by hanging out with people who don't interest you depends on how much you like interaction itself, not the people involved.

Extraverts just get off on the attention and contact, pure and simple. The pretense of being super-interested is generally just that. I repeat: a true interest in other people, even among socially active individuals, is rare. Liking to gossip and/or to hang out in clubs/parties does not a true interest make; rather, it does constitute an opportunity to mingle and network and share a beer with a warm-blooded individual who is not yourself. Anyway, genuineness is (to my mind) not the distinguishing characteristic of most people, let alone most especially social people. People are successfully social through the ability to act out or 'extravert' interest, rather than through simply feeling it. Feeling and doing are two very different things, as most introverts know. The trick to taking advantage of social gatherings is to learn to act better in those situations, not to 'feel' better.

As for another route, not as practical, I'd say that reading is what truly generates that deep fascination with humanity as a whole and in particular. People can be pretty interesting if you're at all of an analytical bent. They're a complex, multifaceted, contradictory, difficult subject to master. This can include or partake from an interest in history, sociology, literature, anthropology, religion, philosophy, ethics, biology, etc etc. Socializing and an interest in others are not synonymous. In fact, I strongly feel that most people who socialize broadly do not, in fact, have a true interest in others so much as the company of others. Breadth vs depth, action vs thought. Not that social individuals aren't thoughtful or deep-- I'm generalizing. Anyway, the point is that if you act like you care, it's enough.
posted by reenka at 10:45 PM on August 30, 2011 [10 favorites]

I feel like my lack of interest in other people really limits my social life and the enjoyment I get out of spending time with my friends and coworkers.

PFL, can you elaborate a bit? Most of the responses you've gotten so far have been great, but they're addressing the issue of meeting new people and not being interested in them. But you specifically mentioned your friends, which I found very interesting*. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What's your social life like right now, and what specifically makes you happy/unhappy about it?

*I find this interesting because my boyfriend has similar issues with being interested in other people -- he has people in his life that he considers friends, but they are few, and he socializes with them next to never. He seems pretty okay with that. His level of interest in me and our relationship is only slightly different, but that is a tale for another AskMe question. My point? I had one, somewhere, but I also had beers. Oops.
posted by palomar at 10:46 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

(i meant most of the responses you've gotten have addressed the issue of meeting new people -- all the responses are great.)
posted by palomar at 10:47 PM on August 30, 2011

in other people and their lives

What about other girls and their lives? Dating success always seems to correlate with getting the ladies talking about themselves and showing interest. Your motivation for at least feigning interest is then self-evident right?

For me I view it largely as an inverse problem, sort of a Bayesian simulation thing. Given what prior knowledge you have about this person, what can you guess that they would like to do, what challenges would they face, what would bring them joy...etc. Ask questions based on what you surmise from that and iterate.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:57 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

palomar says it better than I ever could.

To the OP, I just wanted to say that I have the same feelings and wonder what to do about them.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:09 PM on August 30, 2011

Would you not rather get as much out of life as humanly possible, see many things, meet many people, learn many things, discover so much more than what is possible in your own existence?

Why do you want to limit your life?
posted by mleigh at 11:10 PM on August 30, 2011

My point being - not being curious or interested in others limits your life significantly. The more you open your world up to other people, the more you open yourself up to other possibilities, and the world becomes a far more interesting place.
posted by mleigh at 11:12 PM on August 30, 2011

Well, two possible problems here are that you either a) consider yourself to be the most interesting person you know, or b) you are hanging around with complete dullards. More likely, however, is that you're just as interesting as the people you hang around with, but because your interests are divergent, you're, well, not interested. But next time you're chatting, and they start talking about something they seem excited by, just reflect on something that you yourself are personally excited by, whatever it is, and remind yourself that the thing they're speaking of is just as interesting to them as the thing you're thinking about is interesting to you. See?

Of course, the vast majority of people are simply intolerable and if it's a matter of being genuinely bored by them, rather than just "eh, not my cup of tea", to the point that you feel hostile when they start going on about their stupid bullshit, then just find different people to hang out with.

OR. Find people who share your exact interests. They will have other other interests, which may turn out to be interesting to you, even if they weren't something you really thought about before.

A good question to ask people is "What are you reading at the moment?" Their answer will contain universes (most of them distressingly empty).
posted by tumid dahlia at 11:23 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Somewhere along the way I learned to treat my crippling self consciousness by the radical means of ignoring myself. My rule was to make myself presentable and then, absolutely no more thinking about how I am being perceived. So when I went into a group of people at a social event or was meeting strangers, I would do one of two things--sometimes both.

1) I would give them a little gift of a piece of information or a little story (like yesterday I read about a whimbrel that flew four days and then encountered Hurricane Irene but kept going and turned strongly to land on Eleuthera. That bird flew four days and then flew through a massive hurricane!) People will usually give you more stories or tell you about something they are really passionate about and you come away with more than you started with and you remember the person so much better than if you'd talked about your jobs.

2) The second thing is to ask them questions. Like, "When you were a little kid, what was the best thing you ever did in the summertime?" or "Where would you really like to go if you could go on a three month trip, expenses paid?" or "What do you collect?" or "Tell me a story" or "What is the best place to (fill in the blank)."

Everybody knows something you don't know. The things they are good at, they will tell you if you are respectful of their treasures and willing to share your own. We have opportunities to enrich one another all the time. Doing so makes us all better.

You don't have to achieve some level of confidence or get any validation at all to begin to do this. You can just decide to do it and (remember, it's your life, your rules) rejection won't even exist because this is not about how they perceive you but about giving gifts to other people and maybe getting a peek at their treasures.

Good Luck!
posted by Anitanola at 11:29 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

1) I would give them a little gift of a piece of information or a little story (like yesterday I read about a whimbrel that flew four days and then encountered Hurricane Irene but kept going and turned strongly to land on Eleuthera. That bird flew four days and then flew through a massive hurricane!) People will usually give you more stories or tell you about something they are really passionate about and you come away with more than you started with and you remember the person so much better than if you'd talked about your jobs.

With all due respect, unless you are adept at working non-sequiters into conversations to begin with, introducing random stories such as this may make your discomfort at getting to know people that much more pronounced.

Now that I've read other responses, I also wonder if maybe the people you hang out with just aren't that interesting.

Another follow-up question: do you think YOU'RE interesting?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:37 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think if you stopped doing everything else you are interested in you might become interested in other people just like if you didn't eat food for a week then almost anything would taste good at the end -- "hunger is the best sauce." Maybe let yourself get really hungry for stimulation.

So no internet, no television, no games, no books, no music, no hobbies, etc. Might be worth it to try for a week and see if anything happens.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:44 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit like this. Not with new people, but with people I know well. I'm always forgetting to ask what happened with a particular situation. I know about the situation, I care about the situation, but I don't really think about it until I have to.

It's not really a problem, and it hasn't really hampered friendship. You might consider if your fear that this is hampering your life may be unfounded.

So - I can't really speak exactly to your situation because I don't you. But I'll talk about mine. Hopefully, there's some overlap.

I think the main cause of this in me is how I view the world. If I'm in a situation, that's the situation that gets my focus. I'm not a natural multi-tasker. As a consequence, I don't spend a lot of extra brain cycles wondering how a specific friend is doing when I'm doing something else. I think people who appear more invested in others lives do. I think they think "ooh - I wonder what Sean's doing right now." So, I think the answer to asking these questions may be to spend more time thinking about how people are doing.

The time I do get to mull over other peoples lives is when I walk to work. So one solution for you may be to get out on a walk a couple of times a week. Go through the people you know, and think about where they are and what they're doing. Imagine how their lives have changed since you last saw them.

It may also be worth manually hacking an investment. If you know you're going to be in a situation where you're going to meet someone, make a list and just jot down where they were last time you saw them. Run a quick imaginary run of what they've been doing since then. I imagine you'll be left with questions you'll *want* to ask them.

Finally - To reiterate. Don't worry too much about this. It can be difficult. I've had a small amount of fallback from partners who equated my lack of questions with a lack of caring. But for the most part, as soon as people get to understand who you, and as long as you *try* to address the issue, you'll be fine.
posted by seanyboy at 12:58 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

BTW: I do the same as Anitanola. Random things dropped into awkward social situations (where people aren't talking about something else) work great. One minute you're babbling to someone that you're not sure how long a car can go between oil changes, and the next minute they're telling you a hilarious story about their sister. It's an uncomfortable truth, but a huge amount of human verbal communication is just sonar. We just swap noises to make sure the other person is there.
posted by seanyboy at 1:03 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am by no means great at small talk, but a few times I've been really floored by certain people that you would not really expect to be interesting. For months I helped this little Korean guy at my work, occasionally dreading him and the small-talk that would be required. Then one day he asked me to help him copy a photo, and it was a picture of him, Colin Powell, and a bunch of important-looking vaguely-recognizable dudes. It turns out that he was a Nuclear Physicist who taught at MIT and worked as a Nuclear Inspector in North Korea.

Another time I was chatting with a lady who was holding a very old copy of a magazine, open to a photo of a knockout young woman from the WWII era riveting an airplane Rosie the Riveter Style. It turns out that it was a picture of her! How awesome. She had all kinds of stories.

I used to work at a copy shop, so I probably came across people holding interesting photos of themselves more than the average person, but that kind of thing eventually started happening to me pretty much all the damn time. It really made me look at my fellow humans in a whole new way. Not everyone can be a Nuclear Inspector or Rosie the Riveter, but honestly I have very, very often been surprised at just how interesting random people can be, if you can get past their "Oh, right now I am a Third-Level Manager of Whackadoodle" and really get down to the crazy stuff so many folks have seen and done. Stuff like the raccoon shootings or the "being stranded in Tokyo after the earthquake" or the "well this one time I was outside during a tornado, actually..." kind of stuff.

You just never know unless you stop to chat and take the time to be curious about people. So, for me, I just think about the really awesome people I know or have met and try to remember how unassuming or even boring they can seem on the surface, and remember that even the most mundane looking person can be a lot more interesting than they seem.
posted by ZeroDivides at 1:25 AM on August 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

mleigh: Would you not rather get as much out of life as humanly possible, see many things, meet many people, learn many things, discover so much more than what is possible in your own existence? Why do you want to limit your life?

This... is not a helpful response. PFL already agrees that being interested in other people would enrich his/her life. That's the entire reason for asking how to go about it.

It's as if someone posted asking for diet tips and you replied by asking "Why do you want to be fat?"
posted by baf at 3:25 AM on August 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

Treat life like a large ask.metafilter without a one a week limit.

What might they know that you want to know? Then it is about you (so maybe more interesting to you!), but most people like talking about themselves or giving advice, so find the right thing, and they're off! Then, if they are good conversationalists, they'll pass back to you. And so on.

I skim through the papers, so there are always issues out there that I don't fully understand, or things I don't know. People out there are a source!! Sometimes they'll shrug and say who cares, who knows, but if you find the right question to ask the right person.. you'll have saved your for another time.

DVD shop or someone who loves tech stuff: Do I really need blue-ray and should I care about full HD (around time when I was thinking of buying a new tv)

People in business: how's the economy going in their industry and why is that different to everyone else? e.g. are people buying lots of cars at the moment, are university enrolments down for next year, why? (does this information help me in my job or personal finances)

People into politics or business: if I buy green electricity is it going to be more competitively priced against regular when we have a carbon tax? (practical question that I want an answer to)

accountants: so my project accountant told me it accounting is more an art than a science? (question of philosophy, I suppose, which I am interested in)

Everyone: I am always asking people what they're having for dinner. Sometimes to get ideas and sometimes because I think it tells you a lot about that person's life. Or new restaurants. Or new dishes. But I am just naturally curious about that as it is a strong interest of mine.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:40 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey, PFL. I went through an extended period of being uninterested and bored by others and being troubled about it. It wasn't exactly as though I was uninterested - I wanted to be interested, I wanted to remember to ask about the baby or the new job or if they were over their flu yet, but I just somehow couldn't.

(Even now, honestly, small talk bores me. And my life diverges so much from many people's, for example, that it's hard to make sincere small talk - "Oh, you visited Jamaica and supported their incredibly oppressive tourist industry? Woo. You're telling me about how 'natural' it is that your little niece likes pink and girlie things, and how it just goes to show that girls don't like trucks or whatever? Um, yeah. And god knows I can't tell you about my politics or my outside-work activities except in the most anodyne terms.")

The real problem for me was that I was so caught up in my own anxieties and lack of social skills that just managing normal interactions took all my resources. I couldn't pay enough attention to anyone else to get interested because I had to use all my attention managing my own anxieties and making sure that I made the correct social noises in the correct order. As I've gotten more socially competent and more confident that I am not a loathsome troll, I've found that I have enough emotional energy left to remember and be interested by little day-to-day stuff. If you also have social problems/lack confidence/are depressed, working on those problems (therapy, focused journaling, exercise, etc) will probably help with the interest in others.

And the terrible thing is that most things become interesting if you pay attention to them - you think they won't, but once you have lots of data you start looking for patterns, and whoops, you're interested. Even babies start to get interesting and so do TV shows that you don't actually like-- the whole nine yards. The key is to be in a headspace where you can remember data about something over time. (I actually find this "almost anything can be interesting" business a bit disturbing.)
posted by Frowner at 5:09 AM on August 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

(Not to put down babies - I just never expected that I'd find them interesting, since I'm not actually very good with children. But they are! Interesting, I mean.)
posted by Frowner at 5:10 AM on August 31, 2011

Other people are much more interesting as subjects than as objects. I'm talking I-Thou here. If you want to experience someone else as a subject, you need to empathize with them. Empathy is vicarious introspection. What's it like to be them? If you think their lives are boring, ask yourself how THEY can stand living them and why they don't do anything to change their situation. Ultimately, they're just like you, only their circumstances were different and they made different choices. When you truly get that, everyone is potentially interesting.

(An aside: the usual reason people experience others as objects rather than subjects is not for cognitive reasons, but because they find the former scary. It creates too much intimacy. You may want to think about whether that applies to you.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:18 AM on August 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

Just remember, there is not a person alive who does not have something about them, their interests or in their past that you wouldn't find absolutely fascinating. Think of it like a treasure hunt and try to find out what it is, remembering that it is both about the journey to that knowledge (conversation!) and the knowledge itself that is a reward.
posted by Loto at 7:11 AM on August 31, 2011

You might want to listen to this segment of an old This American Life episode called "The Rundown" - all about ways to avoid small talk and get people to open up about the juicy stuff that you really are interested in, by making it more of a game and less of a chore.
posted by Mchelly at 7:14 AM on August 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

Are you open to letting people into your world? I know in an urban setting people tend to close themselves off while out and about, headphones, newspaper, book, kindle, iphone anything to avoid having to really interact with real people.

I found that the more I am exposed to my environment the more people I interact with. I try and make eye contact with people walking by, give a nod, a smile, or some kind of acknowledgment. It helps but not in every situation.
posted by WickedPissah at 8:18 AM on August 31, 2011

similar to Frowner's point above, I found my social skills at small talk vastly improved when I stopped worrying so damned much about what other people think, and obsessing over the minutiae of 'what sounds interesting'. Eh, maybe not that helpful, but honestly, one of the problems is one of individual perspectives and expectations. Lemme see if I can articulate this without sounding insulting or condescending or whatever.

I think the issue a lot of shy, introvert intellectuals / geeks / what-have-you have with social interaction is that they GENUINELY EXPECT to be bored by smalltalk and they are really, really selfinvolved people, because they are passionately committed to whatever-it-is they believe in, be it knitting, or WoW, or gardening or cats, etc.

I am not saying this to be mean. I am a really self-involved social introvert myself, and it is really difficult sometimes not to be impatient with people who don't share my specific worldview, because I do judge and compare their outlook to mine to such a fine degree that it's hard to find any common ground. So if you go in with that sort of, I guess neurotically selfcentred approach, well then, you will get what you expect. So, like Frowner pointed out, what you need to do is build yourself a social database of sorts.

also note: I am not saying to take a clinical approach to this. To do so risks seeming detached and/or like you're treating the subject as a social experiment. This is also very off-putting and where a lot of geeks trying to bridge the gap appear awkward. I was in a relationship for a year or so with this sort of geek (who had read How To Win Friends... etc. and practiced it to the letter, might I add). He was Really Awkward in polite company because he treated people sort of like bugs on a pin, and you could actually hear him sort of going thru the script. Anyhow.

I find that the workable method to genuinely being interested in the exploits of my colleagues and the details of their experiences is for me to step outside my own head and practice a little bit of good old-fashioned empathy. Example: "Man, I hate riding to work in the rain, how was your drive in this morning?" I don't drive. In fact I hate driving. But you can often pull out an amusing anecdote from a colleague about those bastard idiots out on US 36 who drive like nitwits in the rain by priming the pump like this - the rain is still a shared experience, after all, and people like to talk about themselves. I've also tried to quit telling amusing stories about myself (because they are only really that amusing to me and talking about myself is boring) in favor of priming the pump like this for others to talk about their experiences, shared or no. From those, I build my database. Kids do silly things, and even I (not all that impressed by kids) can appreciate the comedy of my colleague's 2-year-old who tried to flush Spongebob down the toilet this morning.

My own selfcentered head really does tend to be pretty judgemental, to be brutally honest. It's judgemental in lockstep within my own narrow view of left-leaning-socially-conscious-locavore-green-envrionmentally-aware-non-car-driving expectations. But you know, that's just my perspective on things, and it's really no more valid than my colleague's NASCAR-watching golf habits. So if I go about cultivating only "my kinds" of friends, then my life becomes no more than an echo chamber and I do nothing but self-aggrandize.

I hope that all made sense...?
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:19 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: A bit late to the party here. Excellent responses so far.

PFL, can you elaborate a bit? Most of the responses you've gotten so far have been great, but they're addressing the issue of meeting new people and not being interested in them. But you specifically mentioned your friends, which I found very interesting*. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What's your social life like right now, and what specifically makes you happy/unhappy about it?

I have a solid group of friends, most of whom have been in my life for the last 5-10 years. I love them and think they're great people. But I never ask them about things they have going on in their lives. I don't even think to do it half the time. And when they do talk about that stuff, it's fine, but it kind of goes in one ear and out the other as far as my interest level is concerned.

On a conscious level, I just can't help but think that if I cared more about what they had going on, what they wanted to do, etc. then I'd have more enriching friendships and have stronger connections with them. I know how good it makes me feel when they ask me questions about my life and how things are going. I guess that's where this all stems from since I want to pay it back.

I also tend to have a hard time with romantic relationships - I'll get in the early stages of one, then it'll just flame out for me. But I also run into situations where girls I date will tell me they feel like I don't really care about them or are not intersted (this is sometimes true, but not always). The last serious girlfriend I had was someone who was, to me, a ridiculously fascinating person. She had a lot of experiences that I didn't have, and was smart in a lot of ways I wasn't smart. So of course I was going to find her interesting. I'm more concerned with digging that interesting stuff out of everyone, because I do think we all have it.

Regarding depression/anxiety, I do have some mild depression and SA from time to time but nothing major. I do feel like these things are linked though.

But anyways, thanks a lot for the help. Lots to think about here.
posted by PFL at 11:29 AM on August 31, 2011

ahh. ok maybe I see a bit of a pattern emerging here:

you say "if I cared more about what they had going on, what they wanted to do, etc. then I'd have more enriching friendships and have stronger connections with them"
and also

"I also run into situations where girls I date will tell me they feel like I don't really care about them or are not intersted (this is sometimes true, but not always)."

Let me ask you this, and please don't take it the wrong way. When talking with groups of friends or a partner, do you find yourself frequently (dare I say even impatiently?) thinking about what YOU are about to say next rather than what THEY are talking about? And perhaps not even paying attention to their words past a certain trigger / subject, except to wait breathlessly for the next gap in the conversation so that you can chime in? Possibly even interrupting/talking over the other person, or attempting to finish their sentences as if you're just waiting for a chance to get a word in edgewise?

Don't take it personally if you do this, a LOT of smart, anxious, distractable individuals tend to do this. Like, a lot, a lot. And it can be annoying as hell to the other party because the offender most of the time doesn't even have a clue that they're doing it. It makes people feel like you don't really connect to them, or value their input, and / or aren't a good listener. And not only are all of those things generally untrue, it is also so very simple to fix once you recognize that you do it.

I used to do this to people all. the. time. I talk fast, I'm adult ADHD, I ramble, I think about ten different things at a time, and I'm socially nervous. In my case, it seems to be a family trait. I got into this bad habit myself because my mother is the absolute high empress of interrupting you midsentence to ramble on and on about some unrelated completely tangential thought, which leads to another and another... and if I didn't constantly talk over her (why yes, I am also an only child from a single parent family, why do you ask?) I would never, ever, ever get a word in edgewise in a conversation.

When a dear friend of mine FINALLY called me out on it somewhere in my mid-twenties, I was like OMG, I'm doing That Same Annoying-Ass-Thing my mom does! And it hurt at first, because I considered myself a pretty thoughtful person. But then I learned to recognize when I was doing this, and that the key to being a really good listener was to, you know, actually listen to what someone is saying, and let them finish a complete thought. Then let a couple beats pass while I actually process that idea. This has the side benefit of allowing me to both gain empathy and concentrate more fully on topics with my conversational partners.

If this is not you then sorry to derail, but your update really hints at the same conversational patterns as my own younger self had.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:27 PM on August 31, 2011

I favorited this question because I, too, find myself failing to engage when I could. I love talking to people who are good at drawing me out. I live way too much inside my own head.

I have to agree with Ashley801 - I think she is saying it's possible to become information-satiated without even stepping out of our houses. We can know all about TV characters, book characters, strangers on the internet, even friends on FaceBook. This superficial fulfillment can preclude our desire for personal engagement.

Not to mention, work! Endless meetings, supervisors who want to brainstorm...

The time in my life I most tried to engage people was when I was on maternity leave. No work, spouse gone all day, too busy with baby to get online much. So I'd take her out to run errands, and oh my goodness, was I a chatterbox. I found out where the shopkeeper with a southern accent is from. I know how many kids the grocery clerk has.

There's definitely something to the starving-for-interaction model.
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:27 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, so even close relationships suffer. Well, that's a bit different than 'socializing'; the approach is different, the issue is slightly separate. I know what you mean-- and I'm someone who's highly interested and receptive to my friends, at least (I think). The truth is, it's just a gift with me-- it's pretty much 'in one ear and out the other' about my friend's job troubles, but I listen and respond properly, and give advice, without being super-fascinated, because I care about here. I was a bit more obvious about my being fed up with my ex's everyday life, and he resented that for sure. The way one behaves with one's SO is always an outlier in some way or other, if it's a serious relationship, I think.

Anyway. You say you want to be closer, but don't really want to do the work-- so you just sort of want it to come to you. You might consider a different circle of friends to be really-really close to. There are people out there-- well, guys, mostly, but some girls-- who bond almost purely over intellectual interests and beliefs, etc. I think that's a valid way of being. I'm not that far off from that-- you need to 'hook' me with shared or challenging ideas and then I stay for the daily life stuff. The way people eat up their friends' Twitter updates and facebook messages, you'd think everyone was all about the minutiae when it comes to their friends, but this is not true.

More to the point... either you care about their daily life, or you don't. Faking it with your friends isn't really a good solution. If you don't, then find people (like your ex) that you do find interesting about to be concerned about their daily context. If you care, then listen and respond by asking questions and paying attention-- you think it's devoid of real meaning, perhaps, because you don't bother really thinking in terms of relationships or human interaction, which is the sort of intelligence involved in analyzing/understanding people's everyday lives. It's hard to be interested in something you're just not very good at processing into meaning. On the one hand, as I said, reading (especially fiction) helps, but I don't know if it would help enough; like I said, I myself am biased 'cause I have a gift so it's easy for me. The other thing, though, is that you have to like them. You have to care about someone to care about whether some minor thing is a source of minor pleasure or minor pain/frustration. Then you're motivated to sympathize or offer solutions or just look attentive. You have to genuinely feel like that person matters, with your friends, and there's no short-cut to that. In that sense, you alone can generate the thing you're looking for (being closer), as it's not something you receive, exactly. But there's no short-cut to giving a damn about someone if you don't; I mean, on some level, either you like someone and find them super-fascinating or you don't.

So, you say your ex was someone you found super-fascinating, but I guess this doesn't happen often for you. Well, there's lots of different people out there, and a lot of them probably have those qualities in common with your ex. But the real point is, some people have only so much energy to spend on caring about others. If you did find like, 5 people like your ex (in somewhat different ways), maybe you'd be exhausted. Do you value
this form of connection, or is it just something that you think may enrich your life, the way we might think to benefit from more supportive comfort shoes?

The reason I am as interested as I am in my friends' lives (which, as I said, is actually not that much) is because of how they relate to them. I see their individuality in their responses and reactions. I feel some satisfaction when I can make them feel better or understand something better. I feel like... a friend by giving them something that serves them more than me. So it's not necessarily that I'm so fascinated, but that by paying attention to them, I am serving them moreso than me, which in turn makes me happy. The reason this works is because I care about them; the caring comes first, attention second. So it's like, you don't need to start listening to them to care, but you do need to care to start listening.
posted by reenka at 6:22 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Tell me about Modern Weird America.   |   "I read《花花公子》for the articles! Honest!" Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.