How do I improve my "offensive game" in the sport of socializing?
October 20, 2013 3:37 AM   Subscribe

I just got back from a party, and I noticed one major problem I have with socializing. I'll try to describe the problem here. It feels like I am bad at directing the flow of conversation back to the person. It's as if the person is oppressing me with his/her words. Instead of bouncing the conversation back, I simply bear it, and respond weakly with an answer that suffices.

Related: In social situations, sometimes it seems that people feel the need to express themselves - nay, to simply say words - lest they be oppressed by everyone else's words. I don't do well to combat this oppression, and I don't do well to "establish myself" in the social structure.

Related: A lot of times, I feel like I am simply reacting to people's words. If a conversation is a sport, I can do OK on defense, keeping the other team from scoring, but my offense is bad, and sooner or later I grow weary from just trying to stay alive. I am aware of and I try to do the "correct" things, such as reciprocating information, asking open-ended questions, being friendly, having friendly body language.. but I get tired from being mindful of and doing those things.

With people I'm comfortable with, this isn't a problem. However, sometimes my friends will ask questions in the form of a trap (i.e., they've thought about something more than I have, and will be able to counter what I say several times, and then feel smug about it), and in this case I get a similar feeling, although it's not exactly the same. I hesitate to include this because of how specific it is, but I hope it illuminates another facet of the problem.

Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Maybe it's a super common problem, and people have described it much better. In that case, could you please link me to resources to help me further characterize this problem? Finally, how do I solve this problem? Apologies if this question is bad.. let me know and I'll try to fix it.
posted by wuMeFi to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Can you provide some examples?

It sounds like some of your friends are argumentative. Some people enjoy this, and others don't. I fall into the latter camp and therefore I keep my relationships with argumentative people to a minimum. Life's too short and all that.

If this isn't an option for you, maybe check into the book How To Argue and Win Every Time by Gerry Spence.
posted by trunk muffins at 3:48 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I occasionally run across people who treat conversation as a game where you have to score points in order to win. My solution is to avoid talking to these people. I've nothing against their game, but it's a game I have no interest in playing. If everyone I talked to were like that, I would go forth and find new people to talk to.

I do like having a spirited argument, sending different viewpoints and assertions into battle against each other, and seeing which arguments prevail. But in this case the "winners" are the arguments, not the people, and I don't much care who initially launched the winning argument into the fray.

There are lots of ways to approach conversation. For an interesting and entertaining primer on conversational styles, I'd recommend Robert Louis Stevenson's Talk and Talkers.
posted by pont at 4:21 AM on October 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: It's as if the person is oppressing me with his/her words. Instead of bouncing the conversation back, I simply bear it, and respond weakly with an answer that suffices.

If you feel this is happening on a consistent basis, you should perhaps explore self-esteem and self-worth issues that may exist. Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:31 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you talking about not being able to wrest the conversational initiative away from the other party?

You're not honour-bound to meekly answer any cheeky/irritating/boring question that anyone puts to you. You can say something like "well, I've never given the matter any thought" or "I can't be bothered to have an opinion about that", or even "frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" (with a smile) if things are getting a bit annoying.

Or try answering a question with a question, such as "have you always had a consuming interest in [whatever]?"

Or just play for time by going "hmm" for a second or two until you can think of a good response.

Have a few parrying phrases ready for next time.
posted by Grunyon at 5:31 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a kind of dumb concept that's floating around on the internet summed up in the phrase "not giving a fuck." I don't think it's a great philosophy for life, but maybe you need a dose of it. You can just leave the goal open and go have a beer. Unless you're in a courtroom, it doesn't matter who gets the last word, scores the best point, or whatever.

It's even possible to just sit out the entire argument while other people zing each other and when you find a pause in the conversation just say "this pizza is delicious, huh?" Not that you shouldn't partake in discussions, but if you get too caught up in them, you'll end up feeling vulnerable, anxious, and defensive/offensive.

I like the scene when Frodo's gang asks Gandalf if they can't leave the Ring with Tom Bombadil for a couple of days, and Gandalf is like "dude, he'd just lose track of it and forget it somewhere." Sometimes you need to just sing a stupid song and forget your viewpoints.
posted by mbrock at 7:28 AM on October 20, 2013

I am having a hard time understand what your problem is without examples. It doesn't sound to me that people are giving you a hard time in these party conversations. You say you are struggling with "being friendly, having friendly body language", which makes you just sound passive and socially awkward to me. I don't see a lot of self-confidence - in this question, you've apologized for it more than once.

I have no idea what it means to be "oppressed" by someone's words. It doesn't seem that people are browbeating you in debates - I think you just struggle with small talk. To remedy that, you may wish to take a course like those offered at Dale Carnegie. I had a coworker who took one a year or two ago and people remarked that it helped.

As someone who attends a lot of such events for work and other reasons, here are some replies I might give if you used some of the parries suggested thus far. As you may be able to see, I think that a canned "zinger" may make your experience worse if you are struggling with party small talk:

"well, I've never given the matter any thought"

"What matters do you give much thought?"

"I can't be bothered to have an opinion about that"

"What can you be bothered to have an opinion about?"

"frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"

"Don't call me 'dear'."

"have you always had a consuming interest in [whatever]?"

"No. What are you interested in?"
posted by Tanizaki at 7:40 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know exactly what you mean, and so far the only solution I've found is to take my socialising in little chunks with lots of breaks and alone time.

Ine thing I have noticed is tgese conversations tend to be about stuff I find boring or don't want to talk about. My therapist suggested I look the person in the eye, say "you know, name, this is boring. Let's talk about X". I haven't gotten the balls to do it yet- partially because there are rarely things that I feel a strong desire to talk about- but it seems like a good idea.

Some other techniques I have for just generally coping with most peoples' assholishness/ pushyness include: responding with "hmm" or just looking at them and kind of shrugging or nodding- you know, just staying very neutral even if they're obviously wrong- basically, learning to recognise conversational traps or ambushes, and trying to avoid walking in to them altogether.

-saying stuff like "i'd never heard that", or "no kidding" or "you really feel strongly about this" or "well, everyone's different" or "things don't always turn out" or whatever. You know, non-responsive responses.

-having some rote answers to questions I'm frequently asked that I practise.

-imagining a bubble of white light around me, shieldng and protecting me from their intensity.

-taking a long time to answer and talking slowly, and learning to feel ok at taking a long time to answer or talking slowly- that is, learning not to feel pressured by their speed and intensity to be equally fast and intense

-being ok with people thinking I'm stupid or disliking me. If you don't make people feel good, they are often going to dislike you. Making you scramble to play defense or participate in a sparring match makes them feel good. You not wanting to participate makes them feel thwarted, which in turn makes them dislike you. That's their problem.

-being able to ask: do you want my opinion, or do you want to tell me your opinion

-realising that most people- myself included- tend to talk more to hear the sound of their own voice than any other reason. If talking is sex, most people are masturbating most of the time, and they're using the people around them as facilitators for that. It's nothing personal, and it's not that important. If I click with them, the conversation will naturally become interactive. Otherwise, well, you can't force a connection and I don't feel obligated to help other people masturbate.

Unfortunately, this is all advice on how to play defense without exhausting yourself. I don't know how to become a better offensive player- for me, it comes natural or not at all.

posted by windykites at 7:43 AM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The goal of a good conversation is to find common ground but both be able to still learn something new about that commonality. I can't imagine having a conversation with someone for very long if they wanted to make it a fencing match. If you have absolutely nothing in common then cut it short and move on. I tend to move in circles where I share interests or viewpoints with people I do not know. Even with people from totally different cultures, I can still find some topic of mutual interest.

If someone asks you a question, which as you say, "is a trap" then find a way to provide an answer that not only brings it back to what you know but opens it up to a friendly conversation where both of you can share. You should get in the habit of sharing your experiences by way of storytelling. Nothing can break down barriers like telling about the time when you did "this" or "that".
posted by JJ86 at 10:11 AM on October 20, 2013

Investigate and have ready to go a bunch of conversation topics where the answers will interest you, with a focus on getting people talking about themselves. That's basically all there is to being a good conversationalist - being vocally (and genuinely) interested in other people.

For instance: 'I've got a theory that everyone has an age they are inside, and they grow to and then away from it. So you get those people that were basically born as mid-50s chemistry professors, and others who stay 15 all their lives inside their heads. What's your internal age? Have you got there yet?'

And for difficult combat-like conversations that you don't want to take part in, just say something neutral then say 'that reminds me' and change the topic to something completely unrelated. No-one will ever call you on it.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:26 PM on October 20, 2013

Develop a patronizing smile that says "you're making an ass of yourself, and every word you say only digs the hole deeper." Pair it with non-committal responses like "Oh?" and "Hm."
posted by ctmf at 1:38 PM on October 20, 2013

Socializing is more fun when it's a team sport! If they insist on making it a wrestling match you can always just be like 'ha seeya later' and talk to someone better.

Alternatively I think being honest has always worked great...Just say exactly what's on your mind! E.g. in 'However, sometimes my friends will ask questions in the form of a trap (i.e., they've thought about something more than I have, and will be able to counter what I say several times, and then feel smug about it)' this situation, if what you are thinking is 'if you already knew all about it, why did you ask me?' then I don't see why you shouldn't just say that out loud. Once you guys are on the same page you can actually talk about stuff and explore topics together.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 3:21 PM on October 20, 2013

Best answer: My goodness, you sound beleaguered! Look at your words: oppress, offensive/defensive, combat, scoring...
It sounds tiring and not much fun to be you at parties.

First if all, the two situations you mention are different and should be treated differently: your argumentative friends who are looking to "score", and strangers looking to lob the smalltalk ball back and forth. I think your focus is the latter in this question so i'll talk about that.

Most people don't actually want to "oppress" you, that is, to dominate the conversation by making it all about you, to pressure you with questions that require answers, to put you on the spot. But people feel the need to fill a conversational void. Nobody likes the silence when a conversation with a stranger peters off. So if your answer is weak and defensive and gives the other person the bare minimum to work with ("no, I don't play instruments.") they will almost certainly follow up with more questions, which leaves you feeling pressured, or end up blathering on about themselves.

What you want is to steer the conversation to something that is comfortable for you as well as them. That's when small talk becomes pleasant, even relaxing. If you're an introvert, that probably means getting the other person to talk more about themselves.

I think you'll first have to change your mental image and your goal. Get away from the image of combative sport where you're looking to score points and one of you loses. You don't lose if your answer weakly. (Both of you lose, because neither of you are having fun.) Instead, try and get into a mindset of "Every person has something interesting they do or think. I wonder if I can find out what this person's interesting thing is!"

If someone talks to you and asks you something, grasp the opportunity to find out more about them. And try and prevent them from feeling interrogated by giving them some tidbit about yourself. "I never learnt to play an instrument. Always regretted it. And you?"

Assume that the other person wants to find out good things about you, too. They are not the enemy. They want to have a mutually pleasant conversation.

I really think this is mainly an attitude problem.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:30 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with those who are saying if every conversation seems like a competition than something's not right. However, if you want to push the conversation as sport analogy, there's a nifty paper on this topic by analytic philosopher David Lewis called Scorekeeping in a Language Game. It's a bit dry, but give it a shot; it may well click with you. Reading it has helped sensitize me to a way there might be said to be 'rules' of such conversations, at least if they are to stay rational.

If you don't particularly care how rational your tactics are, Schopenhauer's The Art of Controversy may be the thing. It has the reputation of being a cynical and effective guide to rough debate, that will give you some context in classical theory on the matter.

(I struggle with related issues, and one approach that seems promising to me is to be familiar with common good practice in reasoned debate, while at the same time, as others have said, seeking personal clarity about what is worth caring about.)
posted by bertran at 7:55 PM on October 20, 2013

Just want to re-emphasize, what Omnomnom and others are saying is surely wise and right. Most conversations should not be debates. But: some should be, and some that are are good conversations.
posted by bertran at 8:02 PM on October 20, 2013

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