I'm weird, boring, or untalkative. How can I stop being these things?
March 22, 2012 11:30 PM   Subscribe

So, being myself isn't quite working out, in that I either wind up being entirely untalkative, boring or entirely strange. How can I stop this?

I'm not really sure how to describe this issue, but it seems like I'm currently operating between extremes. In social situations, I'll either wind up being entirely untalkative, or according to other people, bizarre.

I spend most of my time in my untalkative state, being mostly unaware of what's appropriate to say and of what the point of saying anything at all is. Small-talk is obviously somewhat irrelevant, simply by virtue of what it is. If people need concrete information on something, they can always look it up. More serious ideas can be difficult to accurate convey in spoken words, and it's not always appropriate to discuss them. Personal issues are personal. For the most part, I feel like there's no practical reason to talk at all. In most situations, I have difficulty coming up with anything besides a one-word answer.

When I do talk more freely the experience can be somewhat...disorienting? Apparently I'm weird, even though I have difficulty seeing how. At least once a month, I get told something along the lines of, "You always sound high even though you're not," or, "Nothing you say ever has anything to do with the conversation," and this bothers me to no end. Being the "high" or "random" person in no way strikes me as desirable. Sometimes I seem to have offended certain people, and I'll have no idea as to why. In general, I have a difficult time determining why I come off this way to other people, and as it stands, I'm terrified of saying or doing something more inappropriate than what I'm apparently doing now. It seems I'm incapable of monitoring myself.

I've tried balancing these issues out by attempting to be talkative while also editing out anything potentially controversial from what I have to say. But the end result of this is that my reaction times to other people's remarks is highly delayed (making me seem slow), and everything I have to say is devoid of sincerity or personality. As I mentioned before, I don't talk that much, so being boring on top of that is a deadly combo. I don't have that many friends to begin with, and all of this in combination- the quietness, the weirdness, the blandness- is putting me on the fast road to dying completely alone. Instead of ineffectively playing a part all the time, is there a way that I can genuinely tweak myself so that I can want to talk to people and avoid weirding them out once I do? Advice on this issue...?
posted by jumelle to Human Relations (31 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to different people.


I get along with a wide variety of people in day to day life, but for friends that I'm going to hang out with I need some people that can handle a couple levels of abstraction without freaking out. I need people that won't flip their shit when I have no idea that it's superbowl weekend or whatever. If I spend a couple minutes struggling to articulate something difficult, I don't want to have people giggle about how "high" I sound.

That said, what sort of things have offended people? I have said some truly heinous, offensive shit from time to time. It wasn't until later that, with dawning horror, I realized what an awful thing it was to say. If you piss someone off, apologize first. Drop the subject unless they pursue it. If it seems at all possible, apologize again later on and ask if they'd be willing to explain why it was not an ok thing to say. If they agree, try very very very very hard to empathize and imagine yourself in their place. Maybe google some stuff. Feminism 101 or whatever is appropriate in the context.

Good luck!
posted by kavasa at 11:38 PM on March 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

Sometimes when this issue is really 'bad' (ie, social maladjustment), it's a sign of something more serious (ie, Asperger's-type issues). I say this because of the suggestion/focus of the post on fitting in and/or seeming more 'neurotypical', if you will. Especially if you're not neurotypical, that doesn't seem like the most productive way to go about things, since you'll never become something you're not and instead you'll have spent a huge amount of energy becoming increasingly frustrated and/or alienated from yourself.

Not that change isn't possible, as naturally it is, but one must try to start from a place of complete clarity. In that spirit, I encourage you to explore this with a psychiatrist, if you haven't already. I'm not actually a fan of labels, but they can be helpful in deciding the most useful plan of 'attack' to solve a problem that can be solved in a number of different ways, because it may have a large number of different reasons. Your problem qualifies as possibly having a wide variety of reasons. Severe non-understanding of human speech/behavioral preference is most often rooted in neurological differences (note, I don't say disabilities). Knowing the true nature of the problem will greatly affect reasonable solutions; for example, Asperger's syndrome people will benefit from an accepting community of folks who struggle with the same issues.

More broadly (and this applies to the autism spectrum folks as well), I've found that people will tolerate difference (and asocial behaviors) more well the further you go from mainstream interests. In other words, seek out nerds and geeks, for they are your people. Especially geeks who obsess over very specific things-- they will enjoy and embrace a variety of non-neurotypical styles of communication, as long as that communication has, for example, a relationship to speaking Klingon, or the practice of knitting, or D&D. If you're in the midst of super-weird people, being weird is suddenly an asset. Also, even neurotypical nerds are severely communication challenged, so it'd be easy to get your socializing in by silently playing WoW together or something. Boys. Seek out nerdy boys (not to be sexist, but geeky girls are talkier, geeky boys are more into shared activities rather than words as such). I guess you can also play sports (silently) with people, or like, fish together.

Anyway, yes. Hobbies. Also, embrace weirdness and it'll embrace you back (but in a totally respectful non-touchy way).
posted by reenka at 12:03 AM on March 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

Yep, talking to different kinds of people would help. Perhaps go on meetup.com and join a couple of groups that focus on something you're interested in. I always find it easier to talk in the context of doing an activity or discussing a particular issue... and then I find it much easier to branch off into other topics.

I've never been really good at "hanging out"--meaning, shooting the shit and talking about nothing in particular. When I find myself in these situations, I end up sitting there mostly silent, thinking about how unnecessary it all is. Or I try to muscle my way into conversations that I have no interest in participating in anyway, simply because I feel like I have to say something to prove I'm not comatose. It doesn't end well.

However, with people I'm particularly comfortable with... which would only be my dad, sadly enough, I find I talk a lot more. This is because I don't feel pressured to talk at all. I could be in his presence silently for hours, and I know he wouldn't think any less of me or think I'm weird or unhappy or anything like that. I have yet to find this kind of bond with anyone else.

This kind of issue is what's held me back from participating in mefi meetups... there's a common interest, but it's so impossibly broad that I don't know what I would possibly have to say to people.

Maybe being up to date on current events/celebrity gossip/movies currently playing would also help. If there's really nothing else to say, you could always ask what people think about such and such issue or so and so's new life development or what they've heard about the movies that are currently playing.
posted by shipsthatburn at 12:10 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

People who know each other fairly well tend to exaggerate and mythologize their descriptions of each other, drawing attention to perceived differences in ways that make for better stories and convenient shorthand for talking about each other's behavior. But typically, that stuff is pretty inaccurate--very relative to the relationship dynamics. So if these comments are coming from your family, friends, or colleagues, bear in mind there's probably a good reason you don't see yourself the way they do, and you shouldn't take their feedback as gospel. You don't sound weird in print, I'll tell you that.

That said, it's generally worth it to practice conversation skills: listening, acknowledging, echoing, offering sympathy, asking questions, learning to notice which conversation partners do the same for you, etc. Saying things that are off-topic is nothing more than a quirk, if you even do that, and some people will like you for it.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:12 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

OMG, jumelle, are you secretly me? All 2 of your questions have resonated with me, hard.

So, a few things. If you've got to be at a party or something, have a drink. Just one. If you really *are* like me, this will dampen the overanalysis a little bit but not let the normalcy wheels fall completely off the conversational bus. I think I come across the most socially normal when I have had exactly one beer or glass of wine. Unfortunately I really like both beer and wine, and once I go past my optimal point I go either very quiet or very weird, and how. I don't recommend this. Anyway, probably try the single-drink strategy around someone you trust first since YMMV.

I find that if you're quiet too much, people tend to try to read a lot into it when you do actually say things. So something that would come across as a joke or just a weird thing to say if a regular, talkative person said it, comes across as some kind of profound utterance coming from you. I think a way around this is to drop in loads of formulaic pleasantries in your speech. Small talk is dull but think of it as a way to throw down a little more noise to drown out any weird signal you accidentally say. If you say exactly one thing all day, people will remember it. If you say 9 things and 8 of them are about the exact weather outside, which you know to be the least interesting topic of all time, the people with whom you interact will ascribe a lot less importance to the 9th thing, which can be on a topic of your choosing.

I used to really loathe small talk and have a very difficult time doing it but now I regard it as the safest possible conversational harbor, which I didn't recognize when I was younger. I suspect you will come to this in time. Being forced to say something like "How about this rain? I mean, I know we need it, but all at once?" would have made my high school and early-college self literally wish for death, but now I welcome the opportunity because it makes me less of an oddball to the people I deal with daily.

I guess this is more advice for getting along in the workplace than getting along with friends, though. I've had very few friends in my life, too. I married a guy who has mad social skills and have pretty much just piggybacked on his friends, and that has been pretty helpful. A lot of my difficulty is in getting to know people since I am very distant, quiet, and a little prickly at first with strangers. I guess these people are still strangers but at least I know they have something interesting to bring to the table since my husband likes them.

One thing my husband does really well is just know loads of facts about current events. He is interested in news and I feel like he has a good handle on what's happening in the world. This is a great way to start conversations but I think you have to be genuinely interested in it to be able to pull it off. Definitely it's an advanced technique.
posted by troublesome at 12:16 AM on March 23, 2012 [15 favorites]

Boys. Seek out nerdy boys (not to be sexist, but geeky girls are talkier, geeky boys are more into shared activities rather than words as such). I guess you can also play sports (silently) with people, or like, fish together.
As gently as possible: this is, indeed, sexist. Sorry.

We also have no indication from OP's question if they consider themselves to be nerdy, or are interested in nerd things, or whatever. Further, OP wants to chat with people, not silently play WoW together. Or... fish.

Also the idea that nerdy boys aren't as talky as nerdy girls is - seriously - it is just silly. There's no way to make an accurate statement about groups that large. And whatever your experience with nerdy boys + girls is, it does not match up at all with my experiences. My friend groups have always been pretty well shifted into the nerd spectrum, while gender balance has varied wildly. "Staying up talking 'till 3am" has been a constant.

It seriously sounds to me though like OP is hanging out with folks who do not really engage with the conceptual world in the same way they do. I too have had people call something that wasn't at all random "random," and the solution to that is to talk to different people.
posted by kavasa at 12:17 AM on March 23, 2012 [10 favorites]

Small-talk is obviously somewhat irrelevant, simply by virtue of what it is ... For the most part, I feel like there's no practical reason to talk at all.

May I suggest one?


Small talk is a gentle way of building a sense, with people, that you have some kind of connection.

I am a person. You are a person. I see and acknowledge you. Here we find ourselves in a situation together. What's going on in this situation that we're both experiencing, in this moment? ("Crazy weather we're having today, eh?") We will think about it together. We will talk about it together. ("Yes, I haven't seen this much rain here in March since I was a kid!") We are finding common ground in this situation. ("Me neither! You grew up here too?")

Now I see you as someone who has agreed with me on something, even though it is something small. I see you as someone who has been pleasant to me, even though our interaction has been short.

It can go other ways too, you can make small talk about things that are funny, or interesting. And we will start thinking of each other as funny, or interesting. And enjoying each other's company.

That is what small talk can often achieve:
-Acknowledgement between people
-Sense of being in shared circumstances
-Sense of having common ground
-Sense of having agreed with someone
-Sense that time spent with the other person is pleasurable.

That is the beginning of rapport. So, I encourage you to give small talk a chance.
posted by cairdeas at 12:23 AM on March 23, 2012 [70 favorites]

nthing different people.

Also, if you are in a group of people who you don't think will get you, try asking questions instead. Like if someone is talking about their vacation, ask them how they decided to go there. Or if they are talking about their dog, ask the breed or how they trained it. Asking occasional questions makes it appear you are participating in the conversation and people seldom notice (I have people do this to me all the time, as I am a rather quiet person, so people with better social skills ask questions just to get me to talk and I am usually thankful for it.) that you are just asking them stuff. People love having excuses to talk.

Of course, don't over do it, or you will seem like that 5-year-old kid that drives adults crazy with all the questions.
posted by chiefthe at 12:27 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like you're cutting off entire venues of conversation for not being "serious" enough, i.e. the degradation of smalltalk and not wanting to talk about personal issues.

You're simultaneously overanalyzing and underanalyzing. Smalltalk doesn't have to accomplish some greater philosophical purpose and people don't want to go look up information when they can talk to someone and find out and smalltalk is a gateway to wider communication. At the same time, you're underanalyzing because it sounds like you're trying to jump several steps ahead in the conversation to the Serious Discussion so we can all get around to being Serious and Saying Important Things.

What I don't think you're getting is that conversation is not usually about trying to hit some deeper purpose or have a serious intellectual discussion, it's about moving things along and getting to know each other. I might be willing to entertain a more philosophical conversation, especially as the booze flows, but if we don't even get to know each other (because small talk isn't important enough or whatever), then that opportunity will never happen. It's a gradual process and I get the impression you're trying to skip to the Very Serious Real Discussion bits because you feel light chatting is beneath you, but the light chatting is how you get to the Very Serious Real Discussion phase.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:58 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

So I was going to ask a question along these lines and my answer to you (and ergo to me) is: yes, meet some new people to talk to. Where we are to find these people, I do not know, but the people you are talking to, these are not your people, you need new people.
posted by mleigh at 1:16 AM on March 23, 2012

Get out among strangers and make some mistakes. Somewhere where you don't have any obligations to come back to and quite possibly won't see any of them again. Talk, make faux pas and learn from them. Sure, if you mess up those people might think you're a bit odd, but who cares? You'll never see them again, and you'll learn what works and what doesn't.
posted by fearnothing at 2:11 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is a whole field of academic inquiry about conversation, what it is, why people do it, and how they achieve what they achieve through it. I wonder whether you would benefit from reading about this a little. It would help you emulate more "normal" smalltalk, and come across less weird, at times when that might be important to you, and it might help you understand what other people get out of conversational interaction.

Google "conversation analysis". Look on Google Scholar for open access papers if you can't access journals through a university. Most of the research in this field is accessible to a non-specialist.
posted by lollusc at 2:18 AM on March 23, 2012 [11 favorites]

My perspective is that social 'talk' is not an exchange of information but an exchange of feeling. Generally it's not what you say but how you say it and the feeling behind it that forms the actual communication. Sure small talk is 'small' but it's important because it can lead to disclosures, like a side street is important because it can lead to a highway.

Disclosures are important because through them we learn about the perspectives and depths of each other and ourselves. Being exposed to these disclosures helps us recognise the people we do and don't feel comfortable with.

I understand what you mean by silent vs bizarre. I am/have been just like this. And I agree with other posters: get new talking companions.
Instead of ineffectively playing a part all the time, is there a way that I can genuinely tweak myself so that I can want to talk to people and avoid weirding them out once I do?
Yep, there is a way you can genuinely tweak yourself. It requires the development of listening skills, courage, self-trust, practice and a duck's back.

Listen to the people you meet. Concentrate on what they are saying, not what you might say in response. Small talk often has very fluid subjects so try to follow the style, not the substance, the vibe not the subject.

Have enough courage to speak your truth. Don't overthink your verbal contributions just make sure they are aligned with the feeling you want to communicate.

Trust yourself to say an appropriate thing, if your focus of feeling is true. If your focus is true and the folk think you are weird, they may be inappropriate folk for you. Or you may have misheard the feeling/style of the conversation.

Practice. Say nice true things to people for the sole purpose of saying something nice and true. Compliment the server on his tie, give up your seat to someone saying 'you deserve this', be gracious and appreciative on the phone to the next help-desk peon... You've no-doubt heard the saying "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"... well there is an equal and opposite saying... "If you can say something nice, true and genuine to someone who doesn't often get compliments, do it."

When you speak kindly and with a personal truth yet you still get called weird or whatever, be like a duck and treat it like water. Find other ducks to hang with.

Making conversation and friends is a learned skill.
posted by Kerasia at 2:30 AM on March 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

Have you considered that this might stem from a form of social phobia/social anxiety? I can be almost silent - sometimes with people I know really well. Then when I do say something it falls flat or is straight out weird, either because the train of thought that led to it has all been in my head, or because there's a kind of 'say something! Anything!' blurt.

Recently, to people I'd just met in person for the first time:
"Someone did a really angry poo in the toilet cubicle next to me at work today."


Whether it's this or not, attempting to filter/monitor sounds really counterproductive to me. You'll make what you do say even more of a big deal to yourself now, read too much significance into people's responses and so on. You could end up saying nothing at all.

Talk more, not less. Fuck it if the odd thing is a bit weird. And anyway, the more you say the less weirdness there'll be.
posted by spectrevsrector at 3:10 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm in agreement with much of what you said though I don't have the trouble you do. I'm mainly non-talkative because I don't care much for "small-talk." personal things are personal, etc. like you said. I can go on quite a bit about deeper philosophical things I'm interested in if the topic is brought up, tangentially usually. Maybe that's weird, but people haven't told me so if it is.

My simple suggestion is... What tv program or book or music are your friends into and talking about? consume those media and talk about them with your friends.

My friends are all into Game of Thrones. TV and the fantasy genre are not really things I'm into and I stubbornly refused to watch it for a long time. But then I did, and it's kind of a fun show... I'm enjoying it well enough and now I have something to talk to my friends about. Sort of a small-talk short-cut.

Just as a practical matter, I think what you need, what you're looking for but don't know it, is some common ground with your friends upon which you can make small-talk and not seem silent or detached or slow. It can be anything, and maybe it's something you aren't particularly interested in, but if you put a little effort into the interests of your friends, that can go a long way to improve those social bonds.

That said, don't force it. You should like whatever hobby or media your doing in service of friendship, but i do want to suggest that it might be something you have previously dismissed without giving it a chance.

I don't think my suggestion is a quick fix that will solve all your problems, but one of many strategies that you might find useful in addition to other advice found here.
posted by j03 at 3:14 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I do talk more freely the experience can be somewhat...disorienting? Apparently I'm weird, even though I have difficulty seeing how. At least once a month, I get told something along the lines of, "You always sound high even though you're not," or, "Nothing you say ever has anything to do with the conversation," and this bothers me to no end.

Is it possible you are not understanding the distinction between talking and conversing? Because if people are telling you the things you are saying don't have anything to do with the conversation, it sounds like you're interjecting with something new and unrelated rather than being responsive to what other people are discussing. Examples of conversation seems like something YouTube could help you with - and this also seems perhaps relevant.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:45 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

being mostly unaware of what's appropriate to say and of what the point of saying anything at all is. Small-talk is obviously somewhat irrelevant, simply by virtue of what it is. If people need concrete information on something, they can always look it up.
Not all communication is about information transfer. A lot of the time it's about the need to spend attention on others and getting attention. There's no point to that but that it feels good to people. Which you might also call 'the ultimate point'. So the question that you have to ask yourself, I think, is; when do I feel like that? And when not; why not? F.i. being depressed can subdue the expression of these impulses leading to the kind of alienation with normal human interaction that you describe.
Yes, making conversation is a bit of a skill. And you can study some 'rules' about how to go about it. But also there needs to be a tiny flame inside of (sometimes) feeling it. People react well to a certain kind of emotional authenticity in smalltalk.
So I'd say; don't overfocus on 'rules' to the detriment of 'feeling it'.

When I do talk more freely the experience can be somewhat...disorienting? Apparently I'm weird, even though I have difficulty seeing how. At least once a month, I get told something along the lines of, "You always sound high even though you're not," or, "Nothing you say ever has anything to do with the conversation," and this bothers me to no end.
I can see how that is bothersome to hear.
Personally I think that 'weird' is a perception. So people experience you sometimes that way. But that doesn't mean necessarily that your brain runs on Direct Current while the others are running on Alternate Current. Don't take that moniker and let it make you feel (more) different from others.
Your description reminds me of a friend of mine. He used to be prone to following long trains of thought and not socialise with people very much. As a result his thoughts were built on whole edifices of thinking and musing that people weren't aware of. Without that context people weren't able to place the things he said very well.
Also if you don't follow the smalltalk going on around you, because you don't relate, you fall out of step with the people around you. Most people can't help but listen to smalltalk to a certain degree and easily 'synchronise' with the 'current context' of the conversation. It's the pointer that says; 'here we are in the conversation'.
Not being synchronised very well that way is something people associate with people who are high.

Sidebar: people say you come across as high. Can you find out if your voice lacks affect? I.e. has little modulation either in tone or volume? That might point to depression.

Instead of ineffectively playing a part all the time, is there a way that I can genuinely tweak myself so that I can want to talk to people and avoid weirding them out once I do?
Apart from the other good ideas that people are mentioning about experimenting with other people and doing fun stuff, I'd add: try to fan the inner flame of curiosity, engagement, excitement; genuine emotions.
And talk to a doctor to rule out dysthymia / depression.

For what it's worth: your post sounds very cogent, structured and to the point. So in text you don't come across as spacy or high at all.
posted by joost de vries at 3:49 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bring up topics that you're passionate about. I know that I'd act the very way that you describe if the subject was ballet or the Eurozone monetary crisis. But if I was talking about a TV show I love or the Phillies, I'd be a chatterbox.
posted by inturnaround at 5:47 AM on March 23, 2012

Small-talk is obviously somewhat irrelevant, simply by virtue of what it is.

Do you know why you want to stop being untalkative, boring, and/or weird? It sorta sounds like you're participating in conversations because somebody told you that you had better start and so you're doing it. Figure out why you're talking to the people that you're talking with -- not just "not be alone", but why you're actually conversing with people -- and that's a start.

Smalltalk isn't obviously inherently irrelevant. It's showing people that you're interested in them as a person, which is how people make friends. For a person to want to start smalltalk with you, that means they're willing to become friends with you, and want to find out more about whether or not you're actually the kind of person they want to be friends with. Friends are a big gray area, that ranges from "the checker at the grocery store who you talk to all the time" to "bail me out of jail" levels. There's all sorts of friends, and many do not need to go beyond the smalltalk-acquaintance level of friendship. It is from that pool of people that you pick the better friends, and from that pool the best friends, so you need to start with casual, environmental acquaintances first.

Smalltalk is also a signal to the people around you that you're not angry, a threat, or sick, or any number of things. If people generally start smalltalk with you, and you shoot them down --Them: "Traffic's bad, eh?" You: "Huh." -- then you come off as sick, or angry, or hostile, or at least not engaged and connected with the person standing right next to you. Or, by people who already know you and know you're none of those things, they just interpret it as "weird", or if you always look like you're in your own little world and the people around you bounce off of it without engagement, that might seem "high" to them.

Also, smalltalk is the impetus for a longer, more interesting and heartfelt conversation to start -- you start with "traffic's bad, eh?" which leads to, "yeah, but it's not so bad if you leave twenty minutes earlier, like I have to." "Why do you need to leave so much earlier?" "I have to drop my dogs off at the dogsitters" "oh, you have dogs? I have a beagle--" which leads to a long and varied discussion of how much you and the other person love dogs. You have to get through a lot of your "obviously irrelevant" smalltalk to get to something you and the other people have in common.

Also, a stereotype of high people is that the conversation will be about politics or primetime television and then they'll suddenly blurt out things like, "did you ever notice that you can touch every finger with your thumb, but can't touch each finger to each other? And FEET, man, don't get me started on feet." That might also be why you come off as weird, too. If you don't think that smalltalk, engaging people directly, is relevant, you may be trying to start conversations in the middle of where they begin and not on a topic that the other person in invested in.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:09 AM on March 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

You need to be true to yourself above all else.
But it also sounds like you could use some knowledge about how to handle people.

I suggest you read Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People.
The title might sound ridiculous, but the book is truly a classic.
It basically invented the business-power and self-help book genres. It will help.
posted by Flood at 6:19 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, here's one point of reference for you in complete contradiction to your own perceptions: this post is one of the least boring posts out there. Your narrative about yourself is fascinating. Perhaps maybe there are others on the planet that would find your thoughts about yourself just as fascinating. Finding those people is the work of life and IT IS NOT EASY IT IS WORK. So yeah, small talk sucks for EVERYONE except for sociopaths - the secret is that most people understand that it is necessary work to achieve a goal - rapport, as so clearly laid out above. You work and work and work to find rapport with the people who will find you fascinating and vis versa. But you must understand that it is work.
posted by spicynuts at 7:11 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing the suggestions to find groups of "your people," which might be creative types, nerdy types, people with slight social anxiety, non-conformists, etc. I have felt the way you feel often, but it was worse in college, when there were so many new people to get to know it became overwhelming, and at the dining hall it was almost a competition to see who could be the most interesting. I found that conversation got easier the older I got and the more practice I had.

Also: set yourself a time limit for conversation or social interaction (15 or 30 min or whatever you're comfortable with) and gradually increase that window over time.

Also: once you find a few like-minded and accepting people, why not own your "pot thoughts" and run with them? I used to be afraid of expressing these (and by these I mean just odd thoughts that come to you without actual pot), but I gradually started letting them out around people I trusted and they dug it. (For example, I liked to find facial expressions in car grilles and mimic them, or make animal noises or sound effects for small children, or point out the "music" that you can hear in dishwashers or fans. You probably have some sort of "talent" like that, and the right people will appreciate it.)
posted by Lettuce_Leaves at 7:58 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

30 years for me to learn: Ask some questions.

Maybe for you and I getting asked smalltalk questions feels like the Inquisition, but for many if not most people it's like food or sex. (Most) humans crave human interaction, however superficial, as long as it is pleasant and maybe a smile or a laugh is involved.

Listen, ask a related question, and then watch because usually they will light right up.

Don't worry about trying to change the way you feel, just make the commitment to try to 1. listen and 2. ask a related question. Approach it with the cool objectivity of a science experience if you want. You will see results immediately. People who like small talk become almost instantly comfortable when you ask this situation. Like if you put a chicken on its back and cover its eyes it goes into some kind of fugue state.

Plus, for what its worth, it sounds like in these conversations you feel nervous and uncomfortable which causes your brain to be inundated in reams and reams of whirling, tangential thoughts to cope with and distract from the unpleasant feeling, which means that when it's your turn to speak your mind is basically not even in the solar system anymore and what comes out seems, well, random. Or that you can't think of anything to say at all because the overwhelming barrage of interior monologue makes it impossible to pay attention to what anyone is saying.

If that seems accurate, you should look into learning about social or evaluation anxiety, for which there is effective treatment.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:07 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Realize that logic and reason have serious limitations when it comes to conversation. Not only is it too slow (as you recognized) to analyze in real time, but people who focus only on logic and reason tend to have big blind spots. One such blind spot is the idea that that small talk is irrelevant. Small talk is so useful that it is nearly universally engaged in by humanity.

Instead of assuming that something you do not understand is "irrelevant," start asking yourself what it is that 95% of humanity knows that you don't. You are very smart, but not emotionally/socially smart, you know? Find people who are and try to understand them.

You need to learn how to get into more of a right-brained kind of state. In that state, you are "living in the moment" and simply "doing what comes naturally." It does not feel like it comes naturally to you personally, but that's because you usually do not exist in this state. Start by just accepting the fact that small talk is necessary and useful. Go along with it. If somebody starts talking about the weather, just go with it. Don't launch into analysis of the weather or change the subject, keep it "small talk." Try not to think about it while it's happening, just go with it.
posted by callmejay at 8:09 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Being yourself" and "learning social skills" are not mutually exclusive. If you're making small talk, you're still yourself making small talk.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:16 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sure you can look up any information you know that you need to know. But:

1. There's always that section of information that you don't even know you need to know.

2. There's a ton of information that I might not need to know, but that is interesting and fun and enriching to know, and often the way I learn that it even exists is by talking with people who already know it.

I do believe there is something to be learned from everybody, and trying to figure out what it is can be fun, educational, and helpful for guiding conversation.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:22 AM on March 23, 2012

Hi there, I'm also weird, quiet and boring, but I'm old enough to have figured out some work-arounds by dint of practice.

I loathe small-talk but it's a learnable skill: it's formulaic and very limited in scope, and used either as an ice-breaker to start a more interesting conversation, or as noise to fill the empty air. In neither case is it interesting in itself. You can learn the ritual too. A few topics are perennial favorites: weather, traffic, sports, movies. They are all widely shared experiences that are not controversial or personal/private so they are safe choices for chatting with people you don't know well.

The easiest approach is to wait for the other person to initiate the small-talk, then respond with some stock phrases. Since small-talk is predictable (e.g., weather, sports) you can have some canned replies in your repertoire; you don't need to be original, profound or witty. Then tack a small question onto the end, to give the other person an excuse to talk about themselves, and they will happily chatter away. In my more misanthropic moments I make a game out of this, to see how much I can get them to talk without revealing anything about myself.

For me, the magic secret of conversation was learning how to let the other person do the work. People love to talk about themselves and their families, so give them an opening and they'll run with it. All you have to do is show an interest in them, and they will perceive you as interesting. The art is learning to ask the right sort of questions - personal enough (yay! all about ME!) but not too personal (ew, creepy). With my craptastic social skills I stick to safe "public life" topics: stuff that people do in public (at school, work, book clubs, etc).

Watch other people making small talk a few times and notice how predictable it is. There's a formula that people probably aren't even aware they're following - that's how deeply engrained it is - but you can figure it out.
Them: opening ("Lovely weather today").
You: softball response ("Glad it finally stopped raining").
Them: can we talk about me? ("Should be good weather for the game this weekend").
You: fine, let's talk about you ("You a Giants fan?").
There's only a handful of patterns involved in small talk, and the sooner you can get to Let's Talk About You, the easier it is.

You're expected to stick to the formulas - it's a way to show that you fit in, understand the social rules, etc. Luckily the patterns are very simple and you don't have to care about the topic. It's not about exchanging information, it's about establishing a rapport and showing you're safe and predictable, part of the "tribe".

Once I figured out the rules it got fairly easy to make small-talk. I still hate it but if it's unavoidable I get cynical amusement out of how easy it is to wind 'em up and let 'em go. (Parents of small children are the easiest marks.) By tossing out an occasional leading question, I barely have to say anything at all!

I think The Red Army is onto something with the idea that you might be overwhelmed inside your own brain and weirdness ensues. I think you might try adopting the attitude that small-talk is a game with simple rules, and you "win" if you can get the other person to talk more than you. (Note: you should master how to ask non-creepy questions first.) It's not how neurotypical people see small-talk, but it helps me cope with this time-wasting ritual. I don't give a shit about yourkidsoryourcatorshoppingorsportsblahblahblah but I don't want to be rude so I take a mental step back from the annoyance and enjoy my own private game.

By the way, your question is very articulate and insightful. You sound smart and interesting in writing, so it's probably lack of social intuition that's hindering you in the real world. Finding like-minded friends is the best, but you still have to interact with neurotypical people so you need to learn their rules. Majority privilege, and all that. You can learn how to socialize at a superficial level well enough to put people at ease even if it doesn't come naturally to you, but first you need to put yourself at ease. (Otherwise your brain goes into a tailspin or people pick up on your weird tense vibe.) So, since some of us weirdos are more comfortable with highly structured rule-based systems like games, maybe try turning small-talk into a little game for yourself.
posted by Quietgal at 9:56 AM on March 23, 2012 [14 favorites]

It's not how neurotypical people see small-talk, but it helps me cope with this time-wasting ritual. I don't give a shit about yourkidsoryourcatorshoppingorsportsblahblahblah but I don't want to be rude so I take a mental step back from the annoyance and enjoy my own private game.

...is one way to approach life.

Or, you could realise that small talk is a general set of platitudes that have low emotional stakes, and its function is to indicate potential friendship compatibility and to filter out sociopaths/ people with destructive emotional makeups. Small talk sets the stage for big talk (meaningful talk). Basically, if your new friend can't even make small talk, there is a much higher probability of he or she being unable to cope with more significant emotional interaction or human connection. Not always, but higher probability. Small talk is not everything, obviously, and most people in my life will fall at the jump from small talk to big talk. But as a filter, it is excellent.
posted by moiraine at 11:48 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

One tip from Dale Carnegie - if you want to be interesting, be interested. You may start (and feel) by faking it, but you probably are interested in some stuff that people have to say. Try and figure out what they're interested in and ask them about it. The only guaranteed way for people to find you fascinating is if you are fascinated with them.

Try it out.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 12:30 PM on March 23, 2012

Best answer: Just re-reading, I wanted to bring up something extremely helpful to me in learning smalltalk. It was taking an improv class and learning the "Yes, And" game. For example:

"Is that your baby elephant?"

Welp, so much for that scene. On the other hand:

"Is that your baby elephant?"
"Yes, and he's growing up so fast..."

See, now we're in a scene where there's a baby elephant and we're working together and can play off each other. The principle is not literally or always about saying Yes, And, it's about working together to keep the scene going.

Conversation's kind of the same way, in that you want to work together rather than just shut things down. Let's take an example.

"Did you see the game this weekend?"

"No." You've shut down the conversation and left the person feeling kind of awkward, making them less inclined to talk to you.

"No, I think sports are overpaid men in tight pants getting paid millions to play a children's game." You've shut down the conversation and established that you're kind of angry and unpleasant about mundane things, making them less inclined to talk to you.

"I didn't catch it, I was (working in my garden/reading about quantum physics/going fishing), was it any good?" Now you've answered in the same way as the above, that you didn't see the game, but you've volleyed the conversation back to them. They can either tell you about the game or they can use the topic you brought up to segue into that. Maybe they talk about the game some and you follow along and nudge them further with "So, are you a big sports fan?"

It's not about the game (or the TV show or the movie or the weather), it's letting people talk about themselves, which is what most of them like.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:40 PM on March 23, 2012 [24 favorites]

Once I figured out the rules it got fairly easy to make small-talk. I still hate it but if it's unavoidable I get cynical amusement out of how easy it is to wind 'em up and let 'em go.

Coming back late here, but I thought I'd throw out one more tip. I try to gently steer them towards something I find interesting. Most people have SOMETHING about them I might be interested in.
posted by callmejay at 8:56 AM on March 26, 2012

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