How do I get better at managing multiple social cues?
August 19, 2012 11:11 AM   Subscribe

How do I get better at managing multiple social cues?

Being a part of multiple cultures and subcultures means I have to learn multiple social conventions and social cues. Lately I'm finding it difficult to keep up, and have found myself tripping over unspoken rules and hurting people in the process.

Some examples:
* Getting overexcited in conversations and blurting out something too intimate or saying something unclearly, misjudging people's receptiveness to what I'm saying
* I'm touchy-feely and realise others aren't always so, but even after trying my hardest not to touch people without explicit consent I still get told that I'm doing so, to the point that I'm now paranoid about some unconscious tic I'm harbouring
* Getting too loud and being unable to get my voice to an acceptable level
* Coming off as either too earnest or too aloof

Often I don't get specific enough feedback (e.g. "you poked me in the elbow the other night" or "that thing you said about X made me uncomfortable" - it's just "you did something wrong") so I'm not sure what people are picking up on and am racking my brain trying to figure it out. Just *asking* is considered offensive ("how dense can you be to not know already?!"). Sometimes after some time I learn what it is that I did wrong, the remorse hits me, and I work hard at putting what I learnt to good use...but then I end up messing up again. It's like the more I learn the more confused I get.

It's gotten to the point where I'm no longer able to trust myself or my judgement or situations, like my calibration is all off. Sometimes I am the receipient of someone else's misjudgement but I feel like I don't deserve to feel bad about it because I fuck up so much. Some people (loved ones and casual acquaintances alike) tell me that I'm being too hard on myself and that my standards are too high, but it's hard for me to internalise that without feeling conflicted about it.

I'm in therapy. I'm about the opposite of the Aspergers stereotype. Is there anything else I can do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What cultures are we talking about here? I don't know of many in which the standards of behavior are this strict. You poked someone in the elbow? Where in the world is that a faux pas?
posted by cmoj at 11:19 AM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wonder if the touchy-feely issue doesn't involve actual touching but rather being too close to people. It might help if you added a couple of extra inches to your natural standing and sitting distance. Giving a little extra space will probably also reduce any unconscious touches just because you will have to reach further.
posted by keeo at 11:59 AM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Being a part of multiple cultures and subcultures

Can you please clarify this? It would help to reach a more accurate answer.

In any event, I'm going to assume you're in North America and are trying to abide by social cues typically found there. If I'm wrong then let me know.

Based on that assumption, here are some things that might help.

1. Do more listening than talking, always. There will be times when it is okay to break that rule but in casual conversation you should just try to remember: do more listening than talking. Exactly what proportion is up to you. There's no guarantee it'll work out that way but as long as you're trying to remember to do it, your head's in the right place.

2. When in a conversation with someone, try to keep a question in the back of your head; this question should be something about something you know they're interested in. Meanwhile, pay attention to their level of participation. If they're not engaging and you're just off on a tear, act as though you just remembered what you were going to ask them, and go, "Oh, hey, how's (thing) going? " Whatever their hobby is.

3. Keep a distance of at least one full, long step from people you're talking to. Don't lean in too close. If you have to cross that imaginary boundary to touch someone, it will become a more conscious action and you might remember not to do it.

4. Pay more attention to the way others interact socially. Not just with you but with other people. Modeling that behavior may help you keep your volume low.

5. Do more listening than talking.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:13 PM on August 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

How about you start with Miss Manners, reading other books/websites/blogs on etiquette in different cultures, and certainly the AskMes on any topic you're interested in regarding human relations. Talk to your friends about the differences between your primary cultures and theirs - this is really the big one. Just make it something to coyly ask about over drinks or coffee, girl talk/guy talk/whoever you're close to. Bring up a situation to discuss impersonally, and have them tell you what the appropriate response is and get them to elaborate a bit on why.

Develop your skills at reading people and applying the prior-learned subtle rules of etiquette to situations that arise. Learn from others, work on habitually observing their interactions - in movies/tv shows, strangers around you, watching your friends/family. Watch their faces and look for subtle cues on how they are feeling - it might just be a slight shift in the face, or a pause in reaction, but as you watch them with other people you can more easily pick up on cues than if you're the one they're interacting with. Think to yourself about how they present themselves, what their motives are, what rules of etiquette apply in these situations. It's like learning a new form of logic, or different game rules. The objective is always to make the other person comfortable.

You know the phrase "fake it 'till you make it?" I've been in a very multicultural work environment for several years now, and sometimes I resort to slipping on a bit of a persona to accommodate someone else, like I'm playing a bit of a game. It's not me being 100% myself because I'm playing by another culture's rules, as far as I've learned. I have to be on guard and think about what my response style should be. I try to mirror the behaviours of the person, and remember some protip things about their culture regarding appropriate interaction and responses. And some of them become just habitual if it's part of the predominant culture where you are. I'm pretty sure I screw up regularly with the more reserved cultures, but I do my best and I know it's appreciated anyway. And it sure helps me to not be offended by the more forward ones.

Constant practice is key.
posted by lizbunny at 12:56 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can ask - I mean, so what if some people think you're dense - other people won't.

People won't offer you specific feedback because - they're too polite, they don't want to appear petty, they don't know how you'll react, they don't want to hurt you, they don't trust their own judgment - so few people will call your behaviour out directly.

I know you've said that you don't realise what you've done until later, but if you feel you've cocked up at the time, it's a good idea to acknowledge it then - it becomes harder later on and in the meantime people fester. Acknowledgement that maybe you're getting too close/intimate/loud/excited can show people that you're sensitive to how you're behaving - but don't go overboard with it or people will wind up thinking you're fishing for self-esteem.

I would focus on lowering your anxiety - the more anxious you are, the less you're able to pick up social cues properly and the more you'll ruminate on your behaviour and other people's reactions. At the moment, it's acting like a fog around your interactions.

And, if it helps at all, most people get social cues wrong some of the time. There isn't a foolproof method of knowing how to behave and most people don't realise they've hurt someone til after they've done it (either immediately or after a great deal of time). You're not alone there.
posted by heyjude at 2:06 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You sound somewhat like me. It helped to find ways to better meet my own needs so I can be more restrained in most social settings.

I need to talk with enough people, about enough stuff, on a regular basis. I either need one or two close friends who cope well with lots of facetime with me or I need adequate other outlets to spread it around and not overly impose on folks who think I am just too much.

I need adequate emotional outlet. I am just too much for many people who interpret my expressiveness as desperation and my sense of humor as dramaqueen in crisis. I try to get those needs met so I can tread more lightly with most folks.

My medical history has made me aware that standing back a few feet or interacting by phone, internet, etc, helps keep things from getting too out of control. I used to be really touchy-feely but the need for germ control has made me much more stand-offish. Physical space reduces the impact of pheromones et al. I do better if I maintain a bit of space between me and others.

I am quick to try to clarify if I think something has gone awry. Often, clarification will smooth things over. I am quick to expain that I do not see well, do not hear well, I wasn't intending any disrespect, etc. That very frequently puts a stop to a problem which might otherwise fester and deepen.
posted by Michele in California at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

even after trying my hardest not to touch people without explicit consent I still get told that I'm doing so

Despite what cmoj said above, you really need to quit doing this. Touching people who don't want you to touch them can get you arrested, or worse. Touching people who have explicitly asked you not to touch them, even in a culture where this would be generally ignored, certainly isn't going to win you any friends.

If you literally aren't noticing that you are going up and poking someone try to change something about what you do with your hands so you will notice -- hold a cup in the hand you end up doing this with, keep your hands in your pockets, wrap your fingers around your belt loops, something. Don't hold a pen or a knife that you might hurt someone with if you don't notice you have it and try to touch them.

Going up and poking someone isn't going to give them a good first impression. If you can get this under control, people won't notice any of the other things so much.
posted by yohko at 11:50 AM on August 22, 2012

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