What should I do when large numbers of somewhat important people find me unpleasant to be around? Can I make myself more pleasant?
November 16, 2012 10:38 AM   Subscribe

What should I do when large numbers of somewhat important people find me unpleasant to be around? Can I make myself more pleasant?

I'm graduating college without having done much networking and this disappoints me. I don't think that I'm a terrible person, though it's possible- when I try speaking with my classmates, they're unresponsive to most anything that I have to say. No one tries to initiate small talk with me. Though some people warm up to me after I chat with them for just a day or a week or two, there are other people that I've known for years that still treat me like an alien. There are a few people who seem to blatantly have a problem with me- if I say hello to them, they'll stare me in the eyes and ignore me. If I say something in class, there's always one or two particular people that seem to go out of their way to nit-pic or shoot down anything that I say. It's fairly aggressive.

Based on this, I would say that the problem is definitely me, but there are two things getting in the way of my understanding how that can be. When it comes to the people who blatantly ignore/disrespect me, well, I know with absolute certainty that I've never had a conversation with these few people once in my life. I'm not sure what they're basing their sense of dislike on. Secondly, this ignoring/disrespect stuff only happens when I'm in college, and only in certain parts. When I'm on campus, for the most part, I'm a shadow. I took some courses in other departments where I was able to become fairly popular. The atmosphere was different and friendly and I'm still speaking with a lot of the people I met in those courses. When I leave school, people routinely try and chat with me. I get along with coworkers just fine and I've babysat for one of my supervisors- her little son really seems to like me for some reason. Although I am introverted and it is still hard to get close to people, the treatment is definitely different from one situation to the next.

I am not sure what to think. It's possible that the reason I'm being treated differently is because I somehow act differently when I'm in other places vs. being at college, but I'm not sure of how to figure out what I am doing wrong (I also don't think it would be possible to salvage much of my social life there after being ostracized for so many years. Has any one managed this?). I know I'm definitely more stressed out at school than when I'm in other places, but I don't know that this significantly impacts my behavior. Maybe I'm having trouble getting along with my classmates because maybe our backgrounds are too different and we're all working with different sets of social cues or something. Maybe I offended an influential student at the start of the year, and things snowballed from there. I'm not proposing these as definite or even plausible explanations, it's just that I really don't know what to think. Whatever I'm doing isn't clear to me. I can think of little reasons that might get in the way of us getting along, but I don't have a solid explanation for why I'm so consistently ignored.

My first instinct is to ask a prof what my malfunction might be (I seem to get along fine with them, though it's possible they secretly hate me too and are just being professional when we interact) but I'm not totally sure if it's appropriate (Do you think it isn't?) and it's an embarrassing subject to broach. Are there any other approaches that a person might use when they find themselves in these situations?

Speaking to some of the people that I'm friends with, it seems like they also think the school environment can be kind of hostile, but at the same time there are lots of people who get along just fine. I feel like if I don't start trying to figure this out now, I definitely won't know what to do when I inevitably find myself in this kind of scenario in the future. Up until now, I've never found myself in a situation like this. Can I please have your thoughts?
posted by jumelle to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I am a professor and I would feel uncomfortable if you asked me this.

I'm inclined to advise you to just ask one of the people who has a problem with you why (or, to start with, whether) they have a problem with you. I am not usually a big proponent of direct interrogation of this kind, but what do you have to lose? You're about to graduate, and these people don't like you anyway, so how could this make the situation worse? And you might learn something that could help you later.

(I am referring to the people who stare you down and cut you dead by the way; the nitpickers might well just be kids who like to nitpick aggressively in class, and it's less likely to have anything to do with you personally.)
posted by escabeche at 10:47 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know you have turned down suggestions of therapy in previous conversations here, but this is another sort of thing that a good therapist could probably really help you figure out, if you're interesting in considering it now.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:51 AM on November 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Staring at you when you merely say, "hi," is the thing that stands out the most to me here.

Are you in a highly-social and/or competitive program? Have you rebuffed others' attempts to network with you?
posted by rhizome at 10:52 AM on November 16, 2012

If you have at least one friend, ask them. And preface it with a lot of "Be honest, I swear I won't be mad"s, but only if you truly will not be mad. Personally I can't handle negative feedback basically at all, so I don't seek it out. In general, people don't spend as much time thinking about you as you do, but people also enjoy gossip so you may get a good answer. Or it could be that your perception is way off, which would be good to know too!

FWIW, from your question you seem to be perfectly normal so maybe there's something physical? BO or a brown tooth or something? People are kinda judgmental (me included, clearly, and apologies if it is one of those things but at least they're fixable!).
posted by masquesoporfavor at 10:52 AM on November 16, 2012

1. You could be imagining the hostility and caught up in some kind of weird feedback loop - you feel weird, they are a little bit remote, you feel weirder, they act remoter. This could be because you're more tense and anxious when you're within your program.

2. Your program could be hostile - some are. Do you feel that others have friendships among themselves? How are those friendships sorted? ie, is it like hedgefund wannabe bros hanging out together? Do people put each other down a lot? Is your program a rumor-mill such that you could have, I dunno, mispronounced "Derrida" back in freshman year and it's turned into "well, jumelle thinks that Derrida is for fags, jumelle said so in freshman year, jumelle is a total homophobe" or something dumb like that?

3. Do you stick out in some way - is your program really white and you are not? Is your program male-heavy and you're female? Is your program really conservative and you are not? Is your program really social-justice oriented and you are conservative? I add that a racist program is morally very different from an ideologically conformist one, although both exist - it's not that being a department where everyone is a Lacanian is morally the same as a department where the white kids are racist jerks who freeze out the kids of color.

4. What characterizes your friendships outside of your program? What do you talk to people about? How did you begin those friendships? Are you really "business oriented" in your program and more relaxed/fun outside it, or vice versa?

5. Are you prone to anxiety? Some things in life are just random, and if you beanplate them you'll drive yourself crazy. Do you routinely worry that people 'secretly hate you'? (I worry about this! It has never been true!)

6. Do you have professors who are mentors to you? People you chat with a lot? That is probably more important right now that your "network" of students, and it can be easier to build up.

I've got to say that back when I graduated in the mid-nineties, the whole idea that students had to do ten million internships and constantly be working the room whenever they were on campus ("network" with the kids in my Mandarin class? What?) would have struck us as laughable, and I'm sorry that the economic crisis makes it so that kids today have to leverage all their social interactions.
posted by Frowner at 10:54 AM on November 16, 2012 [22 favorites]

Based on this question, you seem very open-minded and considerate of others, as well as articulate and pensive. In other words, you seem like the complete opposite of a typical college student.

In light of the fact that most grown-ups seem to get along with you fine, have you ever considered that perhaps you're simply more mature than most college kids, and it'll take them some time to catch up?

Another alternative - based solely on your prior questions - is that you might need to stop getting resentful when other people have good ideas. Have you solved that problem yet? Even if you don't remember cutting somebody else's ideas down, they will remember it, and if you do that too much (even for perfectly valid reasons) it will become an open hunting season on you in any community environment.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:54 AM on November 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Is there any sort of counseling service on your campus? That's where I would go for help.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:55 AM on November 16, 2012

Do you have access to a counselor at school? This is one of the things they are there for, and they would likely have the best knowledgebase for helping you suss this out. More of a fact-finding mission than therapy, in this case.

I have turned a negative social environment around for myself, but it took concentrated effort at making interaction effortless, if that makes any sense. It took a thorough examination of my demeanour, interaction style, and output. I ended up taking more of an observer role in most situations, being openly friendly but quiet unless called upon specifically. It helped me to learn more about the culture of the group I was in and gave me insight into how we were mismatched. I didn't become a favourite member of the group or anything, but I did make a couple of very good friends and certainly had much less discomfort overall. It was more to make room for making an unrewarding environment work for me than being liked, so that approach paid off well for me. Maybe it would help you, too?

Other than that, I'd focus on doing well academically, strengthening the friendships you do have, and striving to keep from absorbing non-constructive negative interaction.
posted by batmonkey at 10:56 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

When you talked to your friends and none of them said "You know you are a little abrasive... come off badly... are taken the wrong way etc etc" That was your answer.

They pointed to the culture of the college, just as you have.

For better or worse I did not find that any of the 3 colleges I went to reflected the real world in any meaningful way.
posted by French Fry at 10:57 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would say that the problem is definitely me

I took some courses in other departments where I was able to become fairly popular.

Well, given that you are the only constant between these two situations I would suggest that the problem is not you. I'm not saying the problem is your coursemates, either. I wonder if the problem is that your coursemates have made close bonds already, and you just operate outside that dynamic (I've been there, it's lonely and it sucks). I really think that their exclusion is far more subconscious and less aggressive or direct than you think it is.

I find college dynamics to be a hotbed for superficial frenemies and miscommunications during class. All of my close friends from uni, I made either through living in halls or in extra-curricular societies. Take academic competition off the table and friendship seems to flower more organically.

I know it's a cliche here, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can really help to separate the objective reality from your negative thought patterns, and gives you strategies for approaching social situations.
posted by dumdidumdum at 10:59 AM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm with batmonkey here. More below.

I don't think it matters a bit that you haven't networked in college. I had four close friends and lots of people I was friendly with in college, plus a few professors I liked and who liked me. I am still close friends with a couple of my college buddies, but have lost contact with the other two over time, and have lost touch with the professors since the early post college times when they were writing recommendations for me. Nonetheless I've been quite successful -- people don't need big college networks to do well.

But I do think that you need to work on an ability to meet or work with people and get along well with them, and to spot social cues before they get very obvious like the ones you are reporting.

I was a social outcast in high school my first year. I really just didn't have social skills. So I started consciously trying to make friends my second year, beginning with a history class that seated us at group tables. I asked other people questions about their lives, paid attention to the answers, was sympathetic and helpful where I could be, and also tried to bring some jokes and fun stories to our classes. This didn't transform my life instantly, but I was much more popular and accepted in that class group than I'd ever been before, and I have been building on the skills I learned there ever since.

So, I'd say that next time you land in a group setting, like a class or a workplace, start to pay attention, in a kind way, to the people around you, to talk to them, to be warm to them, and to share some fun or humor with them. If you do this sincerely, you'll find it coming back at you.

Also, look at how people who are comfortable socially behave in meetings and groups. Think about what differences you see between their behaviors and approaches and yours. Modulate accordingly.

I think you are thoughtful and you care about this, so I believe you will move ahead of this current situation when you've developed some new approaches.
posted by bearwife at 11:16 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know it's a cliche here, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can really help

What are these opinions you express that people seem to nitpick with? Are they multi-level marketing? Are they that those who aren't born-again will go to hell? Do you assert that global warming is a myth? Communities, though they usually claim otherwise, have their cultures and if you violate them, there will always be those who will defend the norms. For example, if I assert that CBT is not the way to deal with your problem, I would be going slightly against the AskMe norms and I might find people rushing in to take me to task. This doesn't make me wrong, nor does it make you wrong if you find others treating you as if your opinion is barely worth responding to. Nor does it make me (or you) right. I'm just saying that certain points of view will bring out disagreement, nitpicking, and even get you demonized in your community. Sometimes it's not even the opinion but the timing of the expression--e.g. saying something true, yet critical, of someone who just died tends to be poorly received.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't hold your point of view or even that you shouldn't express it, but you need to become more aware of what the norms are and what puts people on the defensive.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:18 AM on November 16, 2012

If you have a tutor who has a pastoral care role, you could bring it up with them. Also colleges have counseling services, and those might be helpful. Bear in mind academics are not necessarily selected for their interpersonal skills, and any given academic may be unwilling or unable to help you in that area.

A few things are worth saying though...

1) It is normal that people behave differently in different environments, that different aspects of your personality come to the fore in different situations, and that to some extent you are actually a different person in different contexts. Also there are feedback loops that can make this almost a night-and-day difference, where for example your small initial degree of extra anxiety comes across as coldness which leads people to keep their distance, making you even more reticent, appearing even more aloof, and so on.

2) If you have a few good friends, plus a bunch of people that you get on with and hang out with occasionally, another bunch of people that hardly know you and don't show any signs of wanting to, and a few that appear to dislike you.... well, that doesn't seem particularly abnormal. If you were a super-networker with amazing people skills and considerable personal charm you might have a warm relationship with almost everyone in your community, but otherwise not.

3) If you are interested in connecting with more people on a deeper level, my comment here and that whole thread may be useful. There are some learnable skills, but it takes some courage and some alteration of your worldview about other people.
posted by philipy at 11:20 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going to be frank, I don't believe that you are encountering what you report your are encountering. I believe that you think you do, but I think you're a bad reporter here, and all of the disconfirming evidence that you present in your question suggests that the problem here may be one of perception rather than actuality. I'll go further and say that at least one of your other questions informs my belief that you may be misinterpreting your interactions with other people.

I do think you need to discuss this with someone, but I don't think a professor is the appropriate person to discuss it with. A therapist would be much better.
posted by OmieWise at 11:27 AM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, this is probably more a college-thing than a you-thing. Be happy that you'll be out of there soon! And you want to be able to network with people outside of college, not those you go to college with - and from the sounds of it, you're able to communicate, interact, and form good bonds with people outside of college just fine. I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by heyjude at 11:59 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The scope of this question may be a little too broad for this site to be able to provide many specific useful answers. In order to even begin to tell you what the problem is, I'd need to be able to have some insight as to how you come off to other people, and oneself is never a reliable narrator in situations like that.

We never really know how we're coming off to other people, you know?

So I can only make a best guess, and I can only do that with the information I have available.

Here's my best guess: If you get told at least once a month that you seem high or that you say things that are entirely irrelevant to the topic at hand, it's likely that more people are noticing it than you think; if you avoid spending more time around people than you absolutely have to, you run the risk of not really getting a sense of which behaviors are normal socially and which aren't, and even if you do grasp those behaviors, people do notice when you're withdrawn from society; if you are usually distrusting and pessimistic, that attitude may possibly shine through to other people more visibly and often than you believe it does; if you are resentful when other people tell you that you're wrong to the point where you get angry even when you already know the other person is in the right, that is the sort of thing that will get a lot of chances to come up in an academic setting.

And maybe it won't come up all day every day, so maybe it comes up more in some environments than others. But basically the sense I'm getting is maybe sometimes you're coming off as weird in a way that rubs some other people the wrong way. Again, there's no way for us to say for sure.

I can pretty much guarantee you that this is something a therapist can help you with, and that you have got options even if you think you don't. If you're in a college town, there's a very very good chance that free resources exist, or at the very least, people who work on a sliding scale. If your school can't provide counseling, they may at least be able to point you in the direction of someone who can.

If, as before, you find that therapy is not an option, it would help to be a little more explicit about why that is, and maybe we could help with that and find workable ways for you to get to a place where it is an option. I say this because, again, the scope of this question is huge and there's no one answer we can give you and I can guarantee you that it's not something you can figure out by yourself.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:30 PM on November 16, 2012 [22 favorites]

My first instinct is to ask a prof what my malfunction might be (I seem to get along fine with them, though it's possible they secretly hate me too and are just being professional when we interact) but I'm not totally sure if it's appropriate (Do you think it isn't?)

As someone who teaches students at the college level, I would be secretly hoping that a hole in the earth would open up and swallow me if I found myself cornered by a student who wanted to ask me this question.*

You seem to ask this question repeatedly, in different forms, on askme. This seems to be a recurring concern. Perhaps you want to consider therapy, which is a great place to work through issues of recurring concern.

* If you, say, had a few questions about why a work presentation went awry, and you were in my Public Speaking course, I would be totally happy to problem-solve that with you, and maybe go over concerns you have about your speaking and presentation style, or your general approach to conveying information in a professional setting. Figuring out why you seem to have trouble making friends or maintaining other personal relationships, though, is really outside the scope of my role as an instructor, and my area of research and training, you know? This is why schools have counseling centers; therapists are trained in this very thing, whereas your professors are more trained in theories of persuasion or 17th century underwater basketweaving or whatever.
posted by vivid postcard at 12:36 PM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, and yeah, in any event, don't ask a professor.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:40 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

What strikes me about your question is your desire to know "important" people and to "network." It doesn't sound like you want to get to know your classmates because you want friends. It comes across as though you want to get to know these people because you are disappointed in your lack of networking and not knowing the "right" people.

Unless you're a master manipulator, I think people can easily pick up on your lack of real interest in them. You might want to work on slowly becoming more genuine in your interactions with others, even though this increases the likelihood you will get hurt at some point.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:56 PM on November 16, 2012

Yeah, as FAMOUS MONSTER suggests, there's a common thread in some of your questions, and it seems to have to do with communication problems. This can get to be a fairly vicious cycle where you feel self-conscious or insecure, and people can tell.
posted by BibiRose at 1:00 PM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Group therapy is really helpful in this kind of situation, because it's a place where you can ask someone, "How do I seem to you?" and get a real answer. You never really know how anybody sees you until you ask, and it is a safe place to ask.
posted by tuesdayschild at 1:35 PM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

FAMOUS MONSTER's roundup of your previous questions makes it really clear that your diagnosis of this as a communication issue originating on your end is accurate.

If therapy is out of the question (it could really help you, though) try going to some Toastmasters meetings or working with a coach who specializes in presentation skills.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:48 PM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hmm. FWIW, if a student asked me what their problem was, I would probably have to restrain myself from giving them a hug. I just wanted you to know that not every professor you might turn to for help will die of mortification. (Apparently some might though, so a therapist is your safest bet if you don't want to run that risk.)
posted by january at 8:10 PM on November 16, 2012

If you're older or more mature, naturally introverted, smart, diligent, and studious, and don't party--or any combination of the above, there's your answer.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:29 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're older or more mature, naturally introverted, smart, diligent, and studious, and don't party--or any combination of the above, there's your answer.

Seconding this. I attended several colleges and had many inexplicable encounters like the ones you describe. Many people in college are just out of high school and don't know any social graces.

I was somewhat overweight during much of my college career. When I lost most of the excess weight due to other health problems, suddenly other students were much friendlier, presumably because I looked more like them. I don't recount this story to say "try to fit in," but to emphasize how petty some college-aged people can be.
posted by gentian at 7:52 AM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

It might be you but it also might be a bad feedback loop between your behavior and the characteristics of the program/school. I had a horrible time making friends in college, with a lot of random nastiness directed my way (like the time I was walking home at night and someone threw a piece of mulch at me, which, what). Since graduating, I've never had a problem making friends and people generally treat me decently and respectfully.

The fact that you have friends in other areas/departments reinforces that conclusion. If I had to guess, I'd guess that it's a combination of you not fitting in to your program and clinical-level social anxiety that really does need to be treated.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:52 PM on November 17, 2012

There are a few people who seem to blatantly have a problem with me- if I say hello to them, they'll stare me in the eyes and ignore me.

I just want to say one thing about this. I play sports and live in an area where people come down to the park for pick-up games. (Which is where a bunch of people just show up randomly and you find people to play with from whoever is there).

My friend and I showed up on a day when not many people were there and we were walking around looking for others to play with. We saw this one girl sitting by herself and asked her, "Would you like to play with us or are you waiting for friends to come?" She said in (what seemed to me) a really disinterested way, "I have friends coming."

I felt kind of guilty, because based on what she said and my interpretation of her tone it seemed like we had bothered her. So we started walking away. We were about 20 meters away when she yelled "Wait!!!" She asked us to play with her and her friends who were on their way.

Guess what, we ended up becoming great friends and later on talking about how we met. She said that when she approached her, she really wanted to meet us and play with us but she didn't know what to say. She was new to town and working in a very male-dominated field and really wanted to meet other women. She said that she didn't know what to do when we started walking away and finally made herself yell for us to wait.

Just remember that this might be happening in some of these cases. It may be that people really want to meet you and talk to you, but they just might freeze and not know what to do even when you are the one who is initiating contact with them. It can come off as being disinterested or even unfriendly to you, when in reality it is just surprise, or shyness, or anything else.
posted by cairdeas at 8:56 AM on November 18, 2012

Perhaps this is why your classmates find you off putting?

Maybe it's also why you seem to resist seeing a counsellor or therapist. But as Forktine mentioned above, a number of your questions are all inter-related. Instead of repeatedly coming to Ask Me to ask another variation, it might be more directly beneficial to you to get some professional help.
posted by violetk at 12:05 PM on November 18, 2012

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