How can social skills be improved? Or can they?
May 30, 2014 10:49 AM   Subscribe

I am currently 21 years of age (female). Growing up I didn't have too many friends and always felt intensely awkward and shy. I've grown past some of those feelings as I've gotten older and feel like I understand a lot more about how to have friendships and how to relate to people now, but I don't feel like I understand as much as I should. I really want to be more social and be better at relating with others so I keep putting myself in social situations but I'm not sure that I'm improving all that much.

When I was younger people would always describe me as very quiet, sweet and nice but probably too nice. I had a lot of anxiety at school and felt very awkward when hanging out with friends but I didn't know how to describe it back then. When I was younger I just felt different from other people. I really wanted to have close friendships but I just didn't know what to say to people.

Now that I'm older I feel like I understand more about what being a friend means and how to be myself. I try to put myself out there. I work in a busy coffee shop dealing with customers all day, and I try to learn how to best interact with customers and coworkers. I embarrass myself a lot but I keep trying because I know it will help me.

One of my issues is that I feel like I act too nice and happy when I'm not. I think people can see through my acting and it bothers them. For example, when I walk into work and greet coworkers I always say that I'm doing great and try to sound happy but I'm really not. They can tell I'm faking it. I also don't know if this makes sense, but I have trouble maintaining my sense of self and my opinions in conversations.for example, last night I was out at a bar with a friend and we were talking in a group. I am very good at observing people and found myself a lot of the time just engrossed in others conversations and had to remind myself to contribute. I usually didn't have much to say. I also feel like that because of being shy I don't have as many experiences to relate to others with and there's no way to catch up on that.

I used to think I was different from others and I worry if people find me weird or get bad vibes from me. But when in conversation with others I realize how alike I am to others and didn't know others felt the same way as I do. I spend a lot of time in my head and to myself but I feel like I'm tired of that and see the value now in spending time wth others.

I live at home currently with my dad and stepmom and I spend a lot of time in my room, I'm not close to my parents. I go to community college, which I'm graduating this summer with a general transfer degree. My friend from highschool goes to university a couple hours away. Shes very popular there. I want to transfer to a university and wonder if it's too late or I'd be too old to experience the college living life. I could either stay at home and go to a local cheap state university or transfer somewhere like there and live on campus. Would this probably be good for me?

I know this post was long and possibly confusing, I just want to give a full picture of where I'm at. Thank you
posted by anon1129 to Human Relations (11 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that stands out to me: you have a lot of self-awareness, which is a good thing. To feel more understood by others, and less apart from others, I think you might enjoy taking the Myers-Briggs personality test. It is available online for free if you google it, and it will give you a description of your personality type. When I took the Myers-Briggs, I felt like it really nailed my strengths and weaknesses, and I felt like I wasn't the only person like me.

Reading about your personality type might be helpful in gaining an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and help target why some social situations are difficult.
posted by shortyJBot at 10:56 AM on May 30, 2014

What is your question? About going to university, or what?

You write a lot, trying to tell us who you are and how you interact with people. I don't see any of it as out of the ordinary, especially for a 21 year old.

I think you just need more confidence in your quiet self. Don't speak if you don't feel like it. Don't share your feelings if you don't feel like it. But make an environment for yourself where you CAN do it if you WANT TO.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:57 AM on May 30, 2014

21 is not too old to experience college life. If you think it will help you, you should do it.

But mainly I want to tell you that I think you're doing fine. You seem to tend toward being self-conscious and introverted, but those are normal things to be. I'm not very good in groups, either, but over time I've come to realize that I just don't really enjoy being the center of attention and that's okay. In every group of friends, there are some who are more outgoing and some who are less outgoing. Everyone is different. You don't need to try to make yourself into an extroverted person if that doesn't come naturally to you. I suspect that might be the source of your discomfort, trying to make yourself fit an idea you have in your head of what "normal" is.

Rather than trying to change your basic fundamental nature because you feel like there's something wrong with you, I would try to work on feeling comfortable with who you are.
posted by something something at 10:58 AM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

The thing that helped me come out of my shell and learn how to talk to people, above all other things, was to get a job as a waitress. It builds a lot of character and it's a great opportunity to practice talking and listening and being an extrovert. I would highly recommend it!
posted by katypickle at 11:11 AM on May 30, 2014

You sound like me at 21. Hell, you sound like me at 31.

For the most part, keep doing what you're doing. Keep being social. It gets less awkward eventually, though sometimes there might still be awkwardness, depending on the situation.

Don't assume you know what people are thinking about you. I'm someone who often assumes people don't like me for whatever reason, or that they can see through my bullshit, but then things happen to make me realize that's not usually true. It's just your mind messing with you.

One thing that helped me was finding something I could do in a leadership role. Find something you're good at, or that you really enjoy. Find a group that does that thing and join it. Then get yourself to the point where you know it well enough that newcomers are looking to you for advice. In my case I became a hiking trip leader when I was in my early twenties and suddenly this kid who sucked at everything, who couldn't possibly have anything to offer, was being looked up to. People were asking ME for advice. It was a huge boost to my self-esteem.

You don't even have to be an expert at that thing, you just need to know a little bit more than the person who's coming to you for help.

Keep forcing yourself to go a little bit out of your comfort zone in social situations. I find I always dread when I have to be around a group of people, especially people I don't know all that well, but usually afterwards I realize what an awesome time I had.

And I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear, but 21 is still pretty young, it's still not all that far from being a teenager. It gets easier, and as you grow you give less of a shit what people are thinking about you and you focus more on just living your life. Once you start doing that, a lot of that awkwardness goes away.

Good luck.
posted by bondcliff at 11:11 AM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

No, you are not too old. Objectively, in higher education, anyone under the age of 26 is considered to be a "traditional" - as in traditionally-aged - student.

You said, "I also feel like that because of being shy I don't have as many experiences to relate to others with and there's no way to catch up on that."

Well, I've never worked in a coffee shop - I'm sure you have plenty of experiences you could relate to me, that would be interesting or even funny. So, ask yourself: are there interesting things I do or have done, that I'm interested in, that I'm overlooking.

No way to catch up on many experiences, you also said? Well, if you go to college away from home, take interesting classes (especially those with field trips or other components), travel, explore interesting summer jobs... these are experiences you can do. What's important though, is not that you need to have these experiences to be more interesting to other people, but that you have these experiences because they're interesting to you. Life can be like the most wonderful to-do list, filled with things you want to do, or it can be a race where you're always looking over your shoulder, judging yourself harshly.

One of the beloved mods here is a librarian who is travelling to every library in her state. I think that is a fabulous and really neat goal to have. Meanwhile, I have friends who would rather die than step into a library, and have intimated that my passion for books is weird. So what? So I love books and libraries. I have other friends who love libraries, and books, and I'll share that love with them. The same goes for being a fan of Bob Ross's painting TV program, collecting stamps, doing geocaching or historical reenactment or whatever floats your boat. All of this applies to careers too.

Getting into activities is a great way to meet other enthusiastic, different, interesting people - and with a lot of activities, you'll be so busy learning and doing, you won't have as much time to worry about your internal thoughts. College is recommended a lot because the environment is a "Experiment for Free" card for a lot of folks who might be timid about trying out new things otherwise. And these timid folks, by the way, aren't all shy or anxious - they can be popular, outgoing, but feel like they'll play a social price if they try new things in their small hometown. The cliche would be the football player who decides to try out for the school play.

I also think you would be a fantastic candidate for service learning. Why not see if one of your professors or your school offer some opportunities for that?
posted by mitschlag at 11:36 AM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding the advice not to assume that you know what people are thinking about you. The truth is that usually people are not thinking about you - everyone tends to be too wrapped up in their own life. That giant social error you thought you just made? Maybe they noticed it, but they probably forgot it/discounted it just as fast. And really, ask yourself if you really care about the opinion of someone who would hold awkwardness against you.

I also agree that you might be the happiest if you just accept yourself as a quiet, shy person. This doesn't mean you can't be more social, just that quiet, shy people can have friends too and there is no point in violently forcing yourself to be a social butterfly if that is way outside of your comfort zone or actual desires/need for social interaction.

One final thing, which is perhaps a weird sort of mind trick to deal with negative self-talk: I posted a question recently about being uncomfortable with feelings of dislike for someone else in my social group, who I liked well enough but just got on my nerves. Someone suggested that every time I started ruminating on my feelings of lukewarmness for this person, I just think to myself "hey, at least she's not Eichmann!" Weirdly enough, this was kind of effective for letting me just let go of the negative feelings I had for her and focus a bit more on the good qualities that I saw in her, because it kind of helped me to put in perspective the fact that my brain was blowing her (perceived, on my end) negative qualities out of proportion. I have since found that this trick works a bit when I am thinking negative thoughts about myself and how I (also as a shy, occasionally awkward) must have screwed up one social situation or another. I think to myself, "hey, at least I am not Eichmann!" And then I can kind of laugh at the high expectations for perfection in my social interactions that I seem to have and think about the fact that people still like me despite my idiosyncracies, and totally don't care about them as much as I do.

Anyway, that is perhaps an overly intellectualized way of thinking about it, but I found that it helps occasionally. I think that improving social skills probably requires some level of losing your self-consciousness and one big way of doing that is accepting yourself as less than perfect but still completely likable.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 12:00 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can absolutely learn social skills! I did. Other than generally observing how other people behave and trying not to be so self-conscious, it helped me a lot to read books and take classes to improve my communication skills. (I sound like a robot, right?) Here are some things you could consider:
- "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie
- "Getting to Yes" by Roger Fisher and William Ury
- "Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life" by Marshall Rosenberg
- "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office" by Lois P. Frankel
- Classes on communication, negotiation, management, or leadership skills
- Classes on, or books about, active listening

There were a few things that really helped me. Active listening and training to be a mediator helped me learn how to listen to others in a way that would establish a connection. Practicing negotiation and how to have difficult conversations and handle conflict helped me express myself and be direct in a way that felt authentic, and not feel so self-conscious or apologetic. Being pregnant and realizing that even though I felt like a giant whale for the first few months, nobody noticed that I gained 20 pounds also helped me not feel so self-conscious, because I realized nobody was paying as much attention to me as I thought.

The university question is up to you. But you don't have to restructure your life to relate to people better. Do what feels right to you, but neither choice will necessarily help you become the person you want to be.
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:05 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was painfully shy and a virgin at your age. While I still have a fair bit of shyness, I know people don't see me that way. It is, as you said, living in your head.

Here are the lessons I would tell my younger self.

1) Don't worry about it. Life is a journey. Who you are now is just a small part of it. People blossom at different ages.
2) Take risks. Most important to start out with: take small to medium sized risks. You don't have to go in front of an audience of a hundred and tell your life story. But you might read a poem at a poetry reading. (Note: with open mike poetry readings, half of the performers are typically shy and not very skilled) You might start a penpal exchange.
3) Involve yourself in something that will help you to grow. Group events. Something to your interest.
4) People are different from you. They are the same as you.
5) As has been said above, go to the university or find a people job. There are a thousand tiny slings and arrows from working with the public, but it is a learning experience.
6) I liked the movie "Defending Your Life." Alright, I saw it again recently, and didn't think it was that fantastic, but I learned this: don't let fear control you. You choose.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:09 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was your age I had some similar traits: quiet, usually observant in large groups rather than contributing, unsure that people wanted to hear from me, and feeling that perhaps I was just Obviously Different. I'd done some unusual internships and travel, but that didn't help because I felt like people would think I was bragging if I talked about them, so I didn't want to bring those anecdotes up.

I've changed a lot since then and now do things that I would have considered impossible for myself at the time, so these are learnable skills.

What helped me the most when I was at that stage was

-- learning to get people to talk about their interests -- not asking loads of nosy personal details, but asking some starter questions to find out about their tastes and then steering the conversation towards what they were passionate about, which I almost always find interesting also just because of their enthusiasm

-- putting myself in situations where I would interact with people I wasn't going to ever see again, such as travel or one-off group events, because knowing that there would be no long-term repercussions made it a lot easier for me to relax and interact with those people.
posted by shattersock at 12:39 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

You absolutely can improve social skills with practice. But other people have been working on that stuff all through middle school and high school, so it may take a little while to catch up. There are lots of good articles and books that can help you notice social behaviors and maintain a healthy attitude. (I like this one Beyond that, the main thing I recommend is paying attention to how other people are feeling and how you can affect their feelings with what you say and do. Focusing on that will take you out of your own head and empower you socially.
posted by Gravel at 3:00 PM on May 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

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