How does anyone ever talk to anyone else?
February 17, 2014 8:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm in a new relationship and we just had a fight that was started more or less because of an issue I've been struggling with my life: I never know what to say to people. How can I work through this issue?

I'm a man a few months shy of 30, and I've been dating a wonderful woman since December and we've been in a relationship for about half that time. The fight we had today was caused by bad communication about our plans for the day. Mostly I just failed to talk about the plans enough in time for them to solidify into something that actually happened.

Maybe today's fight wasn't completely relevant to this question, but it's what got me thinking and worrying about this again and it does feel like this fight was sort of a symptom of something I struggle with in every relationship I have, romantic or not.

In short, I just don't know what to say to people. I get by fine with the people I've known for a long time, and when I'm just getting to know someone there are enough obvious questions to last for a while. But during the intermediate period between those two extremes I just struggle so hard to keep a conversation going. I'm an open book, and I'm genuinely interesting in people, (especially in this relationship, where I really care for her and am really interested in getting to know every little thing about her), but I can just never think of things to either ask or mention. A typical conversation during the intermediate period will have a few back and forths and then peter out when I run out of things to add, then long awkward silence until the other person offers up something or a miracle occurs and something comes to me from the blue.

I've had relationships before that have lasted long enough to get close enough that things flowed naturally, but I also know I've lost at least one romantic relationship specifically because of this.

How can I work on improving this trait in myself? How can I work to get past the awkward intermediate stage with people faster? And what can I do to work through this in my current relationship?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Here's one theory. You are too worried about keeping the conversation going, and that if you start talking about something, you won't find anything at the end of it. Just...say stuff. Don't worry if you feel a bit garrulous or prying. If you ask about the most obvious thing (how was your day?) you can start a chain of questions that *will* eventually lead to something interesting, even if you can't possibly guess what it is at the start. Yes, there's technically a chance you'll get dumped because you wouldn't leave someone alone, but you're already having problems because you don't talk enough and even losing relationships because of it.

Here's another theory. When you listen to someone talk, you are not actually hearing them or you're applying rules in your own head to the information. When you hear, "I had lunch with Jan," you should be hearing, "how's Jan? Where'd you go for lunch? What did you have for lunch? Want to get lunch? Do you find yourself keeping up with a lot of friends?" etc. Instead, you hear, "I did a private activity with someone to which you have no connection and will never meet, so don't bother asking about it." It's hard to work with that.

This is nothing that can't be solved with practice and a willingness to gain experience the hard way (it's actually the fun way, but it probably seems hard right now.)
posted by michaelh at 8:43 AM on February 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I totally understand this and I can promise you you're not the only one who feels this way. Sometimes I get completely terrified about the prospect of hanging out with some of my best friends because I become convinced that, at any moment, I'll completely run out of things to say and they'll realize I'm an empty shell with no personality and our entire friendship has been a sham.*

Dumb as it is, I sometimes try to come up with mental lists of topics, stuff that's on my mind or that I know my friends or family members are thinking about. These can be pretty varied, everything from "how's work?" to Parks and Recreation or regional cuisines or "if you were to get a tattoo, what tattoo would it be?" or "what is true about you now that would have surprised child you" (e.g. I am neither a pirate nor British and young Mrs. Pterodactyl kind of figured I'd be at least one of the two) or, frequently "So I saw this thing on Metafilter and I was thinking..."

I almost never have to use more than one or two of these and yes, definitely asking them follow-up questions about how they feel or what's going on with them is helpful, but just having a long list of questions or topics that I CAN address helps me feel a lot better and sometimes even very close friends and I will go through several topics before we end up finding something to talk about.

*NB I also suffer from some mental health issues tied into this including some anxiety; there really doesn't seem to be any evidence from your question that this is your problem, but you know yourself better than I do so if you ARE very anxious that might be worth considering.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:54 AM on February 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm really not trying to be glib or anything, but I used to be a quiet, shy, kind of awkward girl back when I was younger and what made me grow out of it more than anything was realizing that I was being really rude. This may or may not help you. I eventually caught on that my angst and my quietness and my lack of natural flow was bullshit, basically, and that I just had to be willing to expend a certain amount of effort and energy into making other people comfortable. I just up and decided to put in the effort because I was unintentionally being kind of a self-absorbed navel-gazing ass. I had a sort of romantic notion of quietness and thoughtfulness and genuineness wrapped up in my behavior that I was really invested in, like, "I am so much better than these chatty Cathy shallow people" going on as well, that is just embarrassing for me to think about now. I guess I also had an epiphany at some point that a LOT of those chatty Cathy types were actually incredibly nice, warm people who were making a massive effort to be kind to me by engaging in mundane small talk and I came to notice and appreciate it a lot more. But there was hope for me, and for you too. I just went to a meetup yesterday and was one of the people who got the conversation flowing and warmed up and it felt really good to be that person now. Things I talked about: The Olympics. That spun off into Russia. That spun off into Russian restaurants in town. That spun off into other new cafes and stuff in town. Etc.
posted by quincunx at 9:18 AM on February 17, 2014 [18 favorites]

I'm a little curious about how this abstract idea of "I don't know what to say to people" relates to the more concrete reality of getting into a fight with your girlfriend because you guys didn't adequately communicate about some planned activity.

It doesn't sound like you don't know what to say in that situation. It sounds like you had something perfectly good to say ("Details about Planned Activity") and didn't say it.

So, why?

I'm not trying to rake you over the coals, here. In fact, your situation reminds me a lot of myself.

I find that when I first start dating someone, I sort of walk on eggshells. I'm a little bit afraid to commit to any one thing, or to put my opinion on the line about anything important. For some reason it can be really hard for me to say, "I really want to go see this art installation on Saturday," and then hammer through all the details and make the thing actually happen, if I think my partner might not really want to go to that art installation that much, or might have something else they want to do. Like, it's just really hard for me to put my personality out there if I'm afraid the other person might not be into it.

This can cause both situations you describe. Firstly, I often don't know what to say to people when I'm first dating them, because I don't already have a map of their interests and tastes and things to talk about without rocking the boat. Secondly, I am often so afraid to broach the subject of Let's Make A Plan To Do A Thing that I can't effectively communicate to set the plan in motion.

Unfortunately, because I suffer from both of these problems, I can't give you advice about how to overcome it. But I will encourage you to keep working at it, and try to relax and let loose and just be yourself.
posted by Sara C. at 10:02 AM on February 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

I used to have a bit of this problem with new people, until I realized that nobody except narcissists wants to literally talk about themselves all day. What they do want to talk about is their views on "stuff." So have stuff lined up to talk about.

My single biggest tool for proactively having conversational topics ready to go is listening to a ton of NPR (and other podcasts). Doesn't even matter what shows, but the broader the range of subjects, the better. Once you realize you have something in common, or if you can add tidbits to a topic your conversational partner knows a lot about, you're off and running.

From a lively discussion of a tv show or a newly discovered species, you can learn a lot about how the other person thinks about the world, without having to focus directly on that goal of Learning About Her, which can feel oppressive enough to kill natural conversational flow.
posted by jessicapierce at 10:21 AM on February 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would just like to point out that in this instance, you did have something to talk about -- the plans -- and you still didn't discuss it. Just make sure you're addressing the right issue, whatever it is.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:25 AM on February 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

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