Is it possible to develop conversational skills later in life?
February 9, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I grew up as a painfully shy, socially anxious extrovert. No friends that weren't online, could not talk to anyone. This was not a fun combination, so after Highschool I worked on fixing it and I've gotten better. I can make small talk, break the ice, carry on a general conversation. But this is not what I want.

To pull from a recent AskMe, this is what I want for myself:

"I am the person at the party or the bar who can win hearts and minds, leave with everybody's contact info without asking for it, introduce like-minded people who are unable to hook up on their own, draw shy people out, etc. "

Can these skills be developed, or are people born with them/have to learn them at an early age? I'm early/mid twenties. I want to be a master conversationalist, emotionally intelligent, all that good jazz. If it's possible, where/how can I continue learning?

Things I'm already doing:
1) Seeing a therapist/on meds
2) Meeting a lot of people/okay with talking to service people, so I have a lot of opportunities to "practice"
3) Have read "How To Win Friends and Influence People" and "Emotional Intellegence 2.0"
4) Observing, which can bite me in the ass sometimes in group conversations when I just sit back and try to learn something about communicating instead of participating
5) Small talk. Lots and lots of small talk. Sigh.

My problem... I seem to grasp the formulaic concept, but not the intuitive concept. For example, I used to frequent grocery stores/gas stations with a very social person. I noticed that when people said "How are you/How's it going/what's up" instead of responding "I'm great, how about you?" (which to me followed the formula -> answer, follow up question, they probably don't really want to hear about your day) they would answer with a quick blurb about why they were in the store, how they were doing, or something light-hearted about plans later that night. They ended up making a LOT of random store acquaintances that way.

That's something I never would have thought to do had I not observed that person. But I want to do things like that on my own, to put people at ease, be easy to talk to, make people smile.
posted by Pericardium to Human Relations (10 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
If you can find a Toastmasters chapter near you, I'd give that a try. They let folks sit in to observe, so you can see what it's all about. Though it's very much focused on making speeches, the "table topics" section is all about impromptu speaking, which I think would be of great value to you.
posted by xingcat at 2:04 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "I am the person at the party or the bar who can win hearts and minds, leave with everybody's contact info without asking for it, introduce like-minded people who are unable to hook up on their own, draw shy people out, etc. "

I am a learned extrovert. A few things strike me about that comment. Firstly, people like this are rare. It's a natural talent, that has been honed over years of doing it because the person doing it, enjoys it. They aren't practicing it, or even thinking about it really. It's just a part of their personality. Secondly, that comment is probably the shiny side of the truth, in that, there's a significant number of people who also see the commenter as a nosy, egomaniac, who doesn't know when to shut up.

Don't expect to be a master chess player, if you hate chess. From an extroverted perspective, the people who strike up conversations in the gas station aren't doing anything at all. They are just talking. If you want to be like them, you have to get to the point where what you're doing is "just talking."

The only way to get there is to over-share and just start talking, not read a book alone in your house.
posted by 517 at 2:15 PM on February 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

I think it's totally learnable. I am reasonably good at it, and sure as hell wasn't always. There are two things:

1. Cultivating a genuine interest in people. The biggest barrier to that is anxiety/self-consciousness - if you're stuck in your own head worrying about how you look, you're not focusing on the other person. So you're doing the right thing there dealing with the anxiety, and as that gets better, you'll find conversations go more smoothly.

2. There is a trick to making open-ended observations that your friend seems to have mastered, and I can't figure out how to explain. Toastmasters is a good suggestion along those lines - certainly it comes up every time there's one of these questions - but it can be learned. Finding the right balance between "familiar enough to comment on" and "not too personal" is tricky, though, which is why the weather is such a damned popular topic.

Practice, of course, helps - I used to (and still sometimes) make vaguely-directed amusing observations while standing in a line just to see if anyone bites. Not a technique to overuse, but I found that most of the time I'd get a smile at least, and that's fun - plus, if it gets no reaction, I have nothing invested in it and it basically costs nothing.

Group conversations, alas, never get much easier. There are just too many variables, and the best you can do is go with the flow.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:25 PM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was painfully shy when I was growing up. So much so that I was put into Junior Kindergarten instead of Kindergarten because I was "too shy" even though I was able to pass the academic tests with flying colors. As a toddler, I would seriously burst into tears almost any time a stranger tried to say hi to me. I didn't have many friends all throughout grade school because I was terrified of talking to people.

I started working in restaurants when I was 18 (I'm 32 now) and started bartending when I was early 20s. I can pretty much talk to anyone about anything now and it's second nature. Yes, you can get better at this, you just have to practice, practice, practice until it becomes second nature and isn't forced. Also, most people can tell when you're just asking "How are you?" as merely a social courtesy or obligation. People will not open up to you this way. The people (like your friend) who can get people to open up come across as genuinely caring how the person is doing. Try to view it that way, do you actually care? This is also something you can't force.

Next time you are out and are required to interact with someone (restaurant server, cashier, sales person, etc.) notice how they talk to you and your reactions to it. The people you feel more comfortable around, what were they doing? The people who you felt more tense around, what were they doing?

Another tip, relax. It's just conversation, what is the worst thing that can happen? People won't like you? Big deal, some people will always dislike you no matter what you do. Anxiety is going to make you tense and come across as awkward and the conversation will seem forced.

Admittedly, the only thing I still can't do well is talk on the phone, I seriously hate it (I also hate it when Askmetafilter responders think a phone call is a better communication tool than text message...haha nope!). I still have all the old anxiety feelings surface every time I'm required to pick up a phone. But face to face? No problem!
posted by MaryDellamorte at 2:28 PM on February 9, 2013

Best answer: My son (17, natural charming extrovert, complete opposite of me) said something interesting to me today after holding an exit door open for, and having a pleasant exchange with, two men entering a building today. He said "I just talk to random people as though they already know me," with the same tone and humor he'd use with his friends.

So for example instead of "thanks" when someone else holds open the door, he'll say "hey thanks man, you're a prince among men" or "ok but next time it's my turn" or whatever. These things make 99% of people smile when he says them, because he says them with confidence. Other people (myself included) might sound obnoxious or weird or even sarcastic, because they're forcing it.

He also said that if somebody didn't like his familiar brand of chitchat, any negative response is on them. His confidence doesn't depend on other people liking him so he's not invested in their response ... which ironically makes him that much more likable and nearly always results in a positive response. So think of how you act with your most comfortable friends, and chat that way with others.
posted by headnsouth at 3:21 PM on February 9, 2013 [30 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, I'm the person who asked the question you quoted above. This stuff is totally learnable, I learned it primarily by observation, trial and error, and having limited ego in the game. I learned it as a reflexive response to being in environments where I was alone for long periods interspersed with bursts of hectic sociability, which sounds similar to you. my question phrased it in the form of bars/parties because that's the easiest way to emphasize the far end of the spectrum, but it began because I grew up between a few different countries and households, and each had wildly different norms of interaction - if I didn't learn how to navigate at least casual conversation in foreign situations with limited help from others, and very rapidly, I would have had a much harder time of what was already a pretty difficult situation.

Things that helped me -

- I have a lot of hobbies and interests. I trained as a pattern maker, but I work in tech; I row and sail; I know a few languages and have done a lot of travel; I read a LOT. This means I have a huge pool of topics to pull from - I can talk sewing, or technical Java code stuff, or bs about messing around on boats, travel, etc. Conversely, I don't really follow the 'news' or politics beyond a very brief skimming, I have no clue what's going on in popular culture, I rarely watch tv, and none of those things are ever topics of my discussions. This helps socializing in several ways, primarily: my interests are the stuff I care about and usually how I make 'actual' friends, and so random chat with strangers becomes a casual exercise - icing, not the cake - and I have limited investment in whether it succeeds or fails beyond ensuring I'm not making the other party uncomfortable. I also never get into the rut of asking how someone feels about a tv show, or politics, or anything that could lead to an impassioned debate because: I don't care to get into those with people I barely know. And I definitely don't care what some stranger is watching on tv and how they feel about it.

- That being said, I very rarely turn the topic of discussion onto myself. I try as much as possible to keep the focus on others, using my experiences and input as a platform to get them to talk. I'm curious (but I don't care, if that makes sense) about a lot of passing stuff - that book you have but aren't reading, what's it about? What drew you to the topic or did it just look interesting? That bowtie you're wearing - is it a clip on or did you tie it? I recently went to a formal party and my date figured out how to tie his just for the event, he felt like a god when he got it but by the end of the night it was sideways - watch out for that! Etc. There's a balance between making the other person feel like they are interesting and drawing them out, and making them feel like they're being interrogated: you have to learn how to read cues and body language. You have to respect their physical space and their psychological 'bubble', so to speak, because you're kind of intruding by opening your mouth. Most people, especially in a social environment like a bar, don't mind that, but if you're in a place like a store you need to respect that sometimes people aren't going to be into it. And you need to withdraw gracefully if they do because it isn't personal (it can't be, you're strangers). If you just talk about yourself, you're forcing yourself onto their bubble. It's boring and annoying when you're strangers. Doubly so if all you have to talk about is tv and politics.

I want to back up two comments above: 517's statement that the portion of my ask that you quoted is the 'shiny side of the truth' and there are people who find my chatter egotistical or annoying (this is true and unavoidable), and headnsouth's commentary about her son's confidence not depending on the input of others so he is not invested in their response, and treating strangers like they are already friends. The most valuable thing you can do is develop a strong sense of self that isn't dependent on the whims and opinions of others. Have your own interests and opinions, and don't desperately talk to strangers to fill a lack in yourself (you're smart, right? You can probably pick up on others desperation when you see it. It works the same way for others). Conversation is, on some level, about getting to know the other party, however temporarily or deeply. The best way to keep the conversation going, assuming all parties are willing, is to be the kind of person that the other party wants to get to know. You are never going to be able to control anybody else's response or predict what they may or may not be into. All you can do is control your own input and responses, and ideally you can do that while still feeling good about yourself at the end of the day. Get into some stuff that you find interesting and has some kind of social component (cyclocross or bikes! sailing! maker spaces! table top gaming groups! god, there are so many cool things in this world, and most of them involve the company of others) and practice bullshitting with people you're already doing something with. Learn how to read bodily cues and figure out when to drop a line of discussion or the talking entirely. Eventually you'll find that it's a skill like anything else - you have a baseline level and some days you're totally on and others you, well, you may as well just have kept your mouth shut.

Good luck!
posted by par court at 7:12 PM on February 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

If you can find a job where you're forced to interact with the public, that can make a big difference. I am a very shy person naturally and I spent years working from home, and I'd reached a point where I could barely speak to strangers. Then I got a job where I was forced to interact with people all damn day, and within a week or two I was much more accustomed to small talk. Then I had a few weeks off, and I was amazed at how quickly my small talk skills atrophied. Really, nothing gets you over your awkward social skills like being FORCED to talk to strangers.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:38 AM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I got good at this because I used to have a job (journalist) that paid me to talk to people, and ask questions, and draw them out. It was hard at first, largely because I was a fairly self-absorbed young woman who thought that I could never learn anything from those random folks at the bus stop. I was wrong. And the more I did it, the better I got and the better I got, the more praise and $$ I got. Thus, a cycle of risks and rewards.
I still chat up random folks, and I almost never ask a banal question "How 'bout them Dodgers?". Instead, I ask if they're going to bake that squash or make soup, or mention how much I like their shoes or something personal that can't be answered with a yes or a no. I look people in the eye, smile (but not manically so) and if they don't want to chat, I don't press them. I'm also fairly non-threatening. (When I was a TV producer and had to do man-on-the-streets, I often would have lipstick on my teeth, and leave it there. People respond well to someone who seems not quite perfect.)
posted by Ideefixe at 1:19 PM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and you know:

leave with everybody's contact info without asking for it

Isn't all that realistic. At first, you need to ask for what you want, and be comfortable doing so, and being equally comfortable getting contact info or getting turned down. Not many people are just born to be the sweetheart of the rodeo. It's perfectly okay to ask--most people are flattered. Being someone sought after by dozens of total strangers is a fantasy.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:27 PM on February 10, 2013

What you are doing will get you there - keep it up!

I would add one more - develop a couple of friendships out of your practice by meeting some of the same people consistently. Your next book might be 5 Love Languages, which could just as well be titled 5 Appreciation Languages. Figuring out how to show your appreciation in a way that is best for a person (as opposed to the way that is best for you) will take you a long way in any relationship (romantic or not).
posted by jander03 at 9:42 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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