How can I learn to communicate better and be less awkward
June 13, 2014 10:06 PM   Subscribe

I am currently 21 years old. I feel like I have been awkward my entire life and I don't know how to fix it. I am willing to go through the painful process of learning though. What can I do? Am I just a weird person?

Sometimes I wonder why my friends even want to hang out with me. When I hang out with people I usually am very quiet but smiley, I am usually listening or laughing or awkwardly messin with something like my phone. For example, tonight I hung out with my stepsister, cousin and friends we both have and I was very quiet. My cousin asked me why I was so quiet and I said I didn't know, I was just chilling. Every comment I would make would be an awkward one that didn't really make sense. My stepsister on the other hand is so cool and so much fun. I feel like around people I am always actually focused on my own internal thoughts and conflicts, worrying about what I look like to people and I'm not completely in the moment. But even when I try to be, I find that my mind is just blank. Friends have described me as sensitive, very compassionate, nice, sweet, lovely... But I have a hard time seeing why exactly people like to hang around me because I never seem to make them have a good time. I would like to think I am insightful at least or give good advice, but I feel like I have a hard time being like that.

I feel like I have trouble knowing exactly how to get my point across in the best way and sometimes wonder what my point even is that I'm trying to make. A lot of the time my mind is jut blank in social situations, and the thoughts I do have are hard for me to express and not relevant or worth saying.

Sometimes I feel like I have no opinions on things. I feel like I accept almost everyone and see the good in everyone, which sometimes isn't a great thing.

I spend a lot of time in my own little world and sometimes I feel like I am very unrealistic and unaware of things. I feel like I'm a "nice person" but don't really know how to be a good friend to hang out with. I really really wish I was more socially comfortable. I've definitely gotten better over the years but I still feel way more awkward than others.

I'm horrible at small talk but I feel like I'm always up for a deep discussion. I guess my question is, am I just a normal introvert? Has anyone felt this way and can anyone relate? How can I be better at talking to people and more socially aware? Thank you, this has been bothering me
posted by anon1129 to Human Relations (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
improv, or acting class at a community college.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 10:21 PM on June 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

One solution to focusing too much on the self, and to feeling like you have nothing to say, is to ask questions. Always ask people what they do, what they used to do, what they do in their free time, how they are, how their family is, how their projects are going, what they like, what they are looking forward to, what they think and feel about the topics that come up, and why. When you don't know what to say in response to their reply, ask another question.

In my opinion, the most superficial conversations are ones where no one asks anything of each other because everyone is so focused on entertaining each other and saying the next most interesting thing. Wit is boring. You can get to the genuinely interesting and earnest part of other people by asking them questions.
posted by wrabbit at 10:28 PM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can totally relate. I could have written this question when I was your age.

The trick I use - ask questions. People - almost everyone - love to talk about themselves. And bonus - that sort of resolves you of thinking of something to say!

The thing with being introverted is that you are so stuck inside your head, that it is hard to relate to other people sometimes. If you want to be less like that being interested in other people is how you get there. Now, it is a skill - you will have to practice, and that means failing sometimes - but after a while, you will really get the hang of it and it becomes less un-natural.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:42 PM on June 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I find it easier hanging out with one person at a time. You might think this is more nerve wracking, but in this situation you don't have to compete with more socially adept people for attention. In this framework you can ask some basic questions: how was your day, what have you been doing lately, what are you going to do this weekend, etc. Once you get practice with this you become skilled at it and can do it with larger groups. So I might suggest you invite a single friend out for drinks or dinner and see how it goes from there.

You should also fill your life with some sort of enjoyable activity that you can talk about. For me it's concerts, movies, bits of news I read on Metafilter, etc. It doesn't have to be funny or insightful, it's just something to fill space as a conversation starter.

Getting good at conversation is just a matter of practice. Most things people say are not deep or meaningful, so it really doesn't matter what you say (as long as you're not offending the other person), just go ahead and say it to fill the silence. You have to suppress this inhibition that introverted people have of trying to say the best thing at any given moment. Stop thinking so much about it and just blab out something.
posted by rq at 10:53 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

To be honest, you don't sound particularly awkward to me — you sound sort of lovely to be around! But you also sound like you are dealing with social anxiety and low self-esteem, so it's hard for you to see that. I suspect you're actually quite good at reading other people, so much so that you're hyperaware of normal pauses in the conversation and you take that on yourself and it makes you uncomfortable and sets you adrift. I guess that's not really practical advice, but hopefully it helps to reframe the problem.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:54 PM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am still pretty awkward in my old age, but this is the main piece of advice that helped:

In most social situations, nobody is really paying that much attention to you. The stuff that feels awkward, all the little things you don't like about yourself, the thing you said that you thought made no sense, etc? Nobody really notices that stuff, even though it seems like it must be glaringly obvious.

Honestly, just do whatever and it'll probably seem fine to everyone else. The less self-conscious you are, the less awkward you will seem.

Also? Sometimes, when I can't avoid being awkward, I diffuse the situation by saying I feel awkward or being a little bit self-effacing. Not like "ugh I'm the worst why do you want to hang out with me", but like "OMG did that even make sense?" And then immediately change the subject so as not to lean too hard on negative self-talk. For all I know this makes me seem more awkward, but hopefully it makes me seem charmingly awkward? Which is slightly better than just a weirdo. I hope.

Another social tip that will make people not ever notice how quiet you are or whether you're socially adept: ask people questions about themselves. People love to talk about themselves.
posted by Sara C. at 11:05 PM on June 13, 2014 [14 favorites]

Best answer: It is just a skill like anything else. Some people are naturals and others need time and practice to develop. I fall into the latter so I can absolutely relate to this. Sara C hit the nail on the head. It took me awhile to realize that what I thought was earth shattering world ending awkwardness and an inability to connect was largely unnoticed by those around me. People are too worried about themselves to be studying your every word. Even if someone does take notice they are not going to linger on it or care about it thirty seconds later.

Being in the exact same situation you are in it helps me to try to approach conversation as something that is low stakes. If I can mentally downplay it and not get overly anxious then I find conversation comes a lot more naturally, although sometimes still forced. Although not a direct link, I have found that focusing on other activities that boost my confidence has helped immensely in the confidence I approach social interactions with (example working out, focusing on practicing my instrument, studying, focusing on work). Trying to get some other aspects of life to function better has lead to a big confidence boost across the board. Don't let this worry you, since I have worked on my conversational ability I have come to find that I wasn't really missing out on all that much. Also like several people have already said it is a matter of practicing and over time developing confidence. You are not going to wake up tomorrow and be Mr. Suave but trying to relax your mind and put yourself in situations that force you to talk to people can really help. Even if you are just forcing yourself to make small talk with a cashier, every interaction can help you learn what to do and what not to do through trial and error.
posted by mrdrummed at 12:41 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As an introvert who challenged myself to become an extrovert I think the important bit is to understand the degree to which this behaviour is based on anxiety and fear and which is personal preference.

As a former Introvert I struggled as a younger person with this quite a bit, but It wasn't until I got older that I really understood how unhappy this behaviour was making me and how much of this behaviour was based on fear and anxiety.

Most of this was embedded early for me; growing up in a tricky social situations often felt dangerous for me and provoked a lot of anxiety in me so my natural instinct was to keep quiet and let other people take the lead, this made me very vulnerable to other people and not being able to push back, object or resist other people made it very easy for me to be bullied and oppressed by other people, and in that sense became a self-reinforcing loop, forcing me further and further out of a social life and into my head.

Having no outward identity execpt as a cypher robbed me of my individuality, identity and my personality and other peoples understanding of me which put me further out of anyone's social orbit as I had nothing to say, they had nothing to say to me, and when people did relate to me I was permantly misunderstood, which futher isolated me inside my bubble.

I eventually had enough of that though! To quote Morrissey, "Shyness is nice, but shyness will stop you from saying all the things in life you'd like to.." So having the opportunity to get away from my home town I finally got the space and safety to start to recreate myself and try a different way of relating to the world.

Though it was a long time coming being in a position where I had to be an adult, face adult responsibilities; jobs, cars, paying the electricity bill, going to the barber made me realise that I had to rely on myself, but that I could do all these things without having to worry that advocating my interests, telling people what I wanted or saying no to people was the end of the world.

It was hard going but from my own experience I think "fake it 'till you make it" was the best approach for me; in challenging this mousey self concept, starting small and working up and eventually challenging the people who had caused this; ie my family, but its been the work of my lifetime so far! I'm a lot happier for it ;)
posted by Middlemarch at 1:09 AM on June 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

On not being awkward at parties: You don't have to outrun the bear. You just have to be faster than the poor guy next to you.

If your goal at a party is to make a point or talk only about deep things, you'll have a hard time. Those things are difficult for even very skilled talkers. You have to work up to that.

Instead, why don't you just try to talk to (say) 10 people at the next party you attend? That is a more modest goal and you won't feel so much pressure. If you do this a couple times, I think you will get more comfortable and you may find a deep discussion along the way.

Also, don't conflate being charismatic at a party with being a nice person or even being an interesting person.
posted by yaymukund at 1:11 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think it would be helpful to stop thinking about whether you ARE an awkward person or a weirdo or other negative adjectives relating to your identity. You just have some life skills you haven't learned to your satisfaction yet. I mean, you probably didn't learn to cook a great Sunday dinner yet and maybe you also haven't learned how to change the wheel on your car or build a dog house. But at 21 that's pretty normal and it doesn't make you a special kind of NON DOG HOUSE BUILDER weirdo.

One way to start learning how to feel less awkward is to start asking people more questions. Not really personal questions, or anything too deep and meaningful. But, depending on your friends and relatives, you could try
- did you do anything at the weekend? oh? tell me all about it!
- how did (that thing you talked about last week) go?
- how is work? how are you managing with that asshole boss?
- so, (local sports team)?
- are you watching the football? what are our chances do you think?
- are you planning on going on holiday this year? tell me all about it!
- what are your kids up to these days, oh Jacob is taking dance lessons, what kind of dance? what sort of things do they do in class? do they have to do a class performance?

Once you have found a topic that someone is enthusiastic about, you can keep them going for quite a while with a mix of "oh how exciting!" and "oh that must suck" and "really! tell me more!".

Or maybe you just have boring friends with whom you don't have a lot in common and you should find new people to hang out with.
posted by emilyw at 3:06 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agreeing with what was said above, that nobody else notices you as much as you notice yourself.

Also, when people say something to you that requires a response, it's easy to feel put on the spot because you think they want you to give the "right" response. Mostly they just want you to say any old thing to keep up the conversation. If you say something, anything, with a smile, they'll just carry on. So "I don't know, I'm just chilling," seems like an awesome response to me.

Friends have described me as sensitive, very compassionate, nice, sweet, lovely... But I have a hard time seeing why exactly people like to hang around me because I never seem to make them have a good time.

Oh God, can you imagine being in a room where every single person was trying to make everyone else have a good time? It would be unbearable. There are countless ways to be good company, and it sounds like your friends recognise that you have a bunch of them that are your very own. You don't have to be the person getting everyone up to do the conga to be great to hang out with. You don't even have to say much. Someone who's often smiling, listening, and obviously caring is lovely to be around.

And you sound lovely to me!
posted by penguin pie at 5:29 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Small talk" is easy, I have no idea why this causes so much stress for people. Just be curious about the person you are talking to, and ask questions. The secret to small talk is to get the other guy to do most of the talking. He'll walk away thinking you are a great conversationalist, when in fact he/she did 80% of the talking.

It's the central thesis of the book, "How To Win Friends and Influence People." It was written back in the 40s or 50s, but IMO, no better book on the subject has been produced. Read it.
posted by COD at 6:06 AM on June 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just be sarcastic, aloof, funny, and as weird as you want. Don't be a dick in your actions, and do smile. :) :) :) Because that is the shortcut. It is a lightsaber of mutual happiness. It doesn't just mean "hey what's up," it means "this whole universe is a goddamned joke and you're an awesome creature." That's what every good smile is saying. You don't have to be Bill Moyers.

In Awkwardness, Adam Kotsko characterizes awkwardness as the fundamental origin of all communication and community. It's like a Heideggerian ground state of social being. That's why everything that's funny is awkward. That's why TV is about awkwardness. That's why artists are awkward.

"Awkward" used to be a directional term, like "forward," but with a prefix indicating confusion. In fact:
awkward (adj.)

mid-14c., "in the wrong direction," from awk "back-handed" + adverbial suffix -weard (see -ward). Meaning "clumsy" first recorded 1520s.

Related: Awkwardly. Other formations from awk, none of them surviving, were awky, awkly, awkness.
Kotsko is an advocate for what he calls radical awkwardness, which he believes is a precursor to the true human utopia. He says Larry David is the latest event in a great ethical quest towards universal friendship. Do your part.
posted by mbrock at 7:57 AM on June 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

One of the things that I've learned to do over time to become less awkward was to keep putting myself out there in ways that I could practice social interaction. (And then retreat home and rest awhile, to try again later.) If you are intentional about improving some things (and reading and getting advice), things really do get better, in terms of picking up some essential skills. The main thing you want to work on is simply feeling good about yourself in your own skin, even if you aren't "performing" for others in the room. Can you be comfortable as an observer? That's also a good thing to practice.

A couple of things that you might be interested in taking with you from the start:

1. Your friends like hanging out with you because it is entirely possible to be a cool and likable person while being quiet and even somewhat awkward. We lie to ourselves at times that this isn't possible, but fortunately other people of good character know this to be true.

2. You know that thing where people ask you why you are being quiet? I've found that this is something that very much happens in your early 20's, and happens much less so when you get older. I've enjoyed that in getting older I can be more quiet in a group gathering and people accept that this is simply what happens sometimes. Perhaps it's because as people get older, they get busier, and as they get busier, there aren't many people left who hold up "being the life of the party" as some sort of life ideal. Other things become more important, like simply being together.

Good luck, and hang in there. You are a normal introvert who has lots of time to practice branching out a bit. Totally a normal part of life for many people, and you are very fortunate to have friends who sound like they are supportive. (See writings by introverts who have friends who don't get them at all.)
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:02 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you ever been in the middle of something that you've done so many times that it feels like second nature - a dance, a familiar drive, cooking your favorite food - and, all of a sudden, you consciously notice where you are at a specific point and lose your place? Your feet feel funny, or you've never noticed that house before, and then you start becoming hyper-aware of everything and nothing feels familiar anymore. It's really easy to experience this when you're socializing: you can be having a completely fine time, but when you think "whoa, I'm being awkward," suddenly the awkwardness seems to take over and you can't get back in the flow. Self-consciousness creates awkwardness, which in turn creates even more self-consciousness, and so on.

People already do enjoy your company. And it's important to realize that nobody is scrutinizing you as closely as you are, and nobody else is keeping score. The awkwardness you feel is, in most cases, entirely internal. Have a few reassurances in your head for the moments when you feel that self-consciousness creeping in: "no one is judging me," "these people are my friends," "how would a non-awkward person handle this?" Imagine that that feeling of awkwardness is a little piece of food you've dropped in your lap that no one else has seen, and imagine yourself discreetly folding it up into your napkin.

One thing that's helped me, as a shy introvert, is observing what other people are doing when they socialize, and making mental notes of what works. Asking questions, remembering small details and following up, finding a subject everyone can talk about ("I haven't read (obscure book), but I've heard it's like (familiar book), what do you think?"). Noticing these things in real life will make it feel more natural when you try them for yourself.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:17 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you can, take your friends' description of you at face value - obviously you are very well liked and have some very lovely personal qualities despite your feeling inadequate. Feelings aren't facts.

This is the home page for Susan Cain's apt and apparently lovely book "Quiet: The Power of Introversion." (I say "apparently" because I haven't read it myself yet - maybe I should!)

I'd also recommend starting some meditation - Vipassana/Insight is what I practice but there are many schools - it's a wrench that fits just about any nut.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:51 PM on June 14, 2014

So, one of those things that I try to keep in mind as an awkward 34-year-old is that all that awkwardness is inside, and you only experience the outside of other people; in other contexts, this is called intentionality bias — we tend to accept that we do things as part of a large, contextual chain of intent, but other people just do crazy stuff, wtf!. It's similar, though reversed, with awkwardness — we feel crazy awkward and weird, but they're acting totally normal. We can't know if they're feeling crazy awkward and weird without some pretty big cues, and they can't tell that about you either.

Asking questions is really good advice, but also remembering that at least a decent portion of the people that seem totally cool around you are filled with white-knuckled social terror at the same time you are and they're faking their way through too.
posted by klangklangston at 3:13 PM on June 14, 2014

Are you my friend K? Because you sound exactly like her.

Two things changed K's life:

* She joined her local Toastmasters chapter

* She read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

To overcome your awkward, you're going to have to practice. Carnegie's book will give you the theory, and Toastmaster's will give you the opportunity for real-life, hands-on practice.

Also, see this comment.
posted by magstheaxe at 9:11 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nothing How to win friends and influence people. Also, when I was in high school, made a plan to be less shy. I took drama, debate and also debate in high school. Also another thing that helped was developing my sense of humor. You don't have to go over board, as I've learned ,because being that person who has to be the one who always makes jokes can be quite annoying. I also learned that if you can make someone laugh, they are a lot more forgiving about certain things (this has included bosses and teachers). Hmmm, what else. I'd have to say a job customer service helps too. It helps if you work in a place that isn't all about getting people out the door quickly (like Wall Mart). I've been fortunate to live in a tourist town and have made a point to make small talk at the register and most people are happy to talk about themselves. What helps, though, is having traveled and being interested in a lot of things. I can sort of steer the conversation where I I want because I can relate what they say to something I'm interested in and mention that and it becomes a a back and forth. I've found that listening to podcasts and coming on here to gives me conversation fodder. Podcasts like RadioLab, to the best of our knowledge, This Amercian Life, Bill Burrs Monday Morning Podcast (for some comedy to keep some humor in my life) are my favorites but there are so many of them in every interest.

Go to Meetups to practice meeting new people. Oh, Improv is awesome. It teaches you to think on your feet and is incredibly fun. At the beginning everyone is a big shy, but there are these warm up exercises and by the end everyone feels like they have known each other forever.
posted by eq21 at 5:29 AM on June 15, 2014

Best answer: I used to be like that (and probably still am for the most part). What helped me are the following:

- Practice. Whenever I see people, even people I don't really know or talk to, I try to at least smile. If I'm feeling brave, I can say hi or a bit more. Even then, I still stumble with something as simple as "hi" or "bye," or I would notice how I always seem so generic compared to others and hate myself for not having more to say. But it's okay. I reassure myself that no one cares and only cares that I seem friendly/approachable enough.

- Go out more. I currently have a goal to go out at least once a week, which has really forced me to learn to become more social. It could be as simple as just hanging out with friends, attending a talk, taking a hike, etc.

- Nth-ing asking questions. It helps keep the conversation going, and it's generally fun, I think, to learn more about people. I've discovered some surprising things about people by following a line of questions. But... beware of asking too many questions. Some people have told me that they feel like I'm interrogating them. Not cool.

- To counter the interrogation-syndrome, also talk about yourself. I used to be a super private person and would hate telling anyone ANYTHING about myself. It certainly makes it harder for people to continue talking with me or feel like they're bonding. I now understand how unfair I was being and try to generally straight-up tell people things about myself, my opinions, and my daily life. I keep out details I'm not comfortable sharing as needed. If I want people to open up to me in a certain way, I try to initiate or at least reciprocate. And frankly, most of my experiences are probably common and not something that needs to be strongly guarded like I formerly thought.

- Treat most conversations lightly. I used to feel like I NEEDED to build deeper connections with people (and fast!). I now don't care to and am okay if I don't become friends with everyone. It comes off as less desperate and, ironically, I'm more likely to form a stronger bond and become friends.

- If there's silence, let it roll. I was very uncomfortable with silence, thinking I'm now being awkward. I try not to care anymore and fake nonchalance or actually enjoy the lull. If the other person feels awkward, they can fill the silence. I don't need to feel like I have to bear the burden of making things less awkward anymore.

- Really pay attention to the other person. No doubt you're good at this.

- Generally, become more okay/comfortable with yourself. This is the most important point. I don't try hard anymore, and I don't care to become an extrovert. I'm happy with my introverted self and people seem to accept or even appreciate it. I find that it's gotten easier after school ended. I think in the real world, people just don't care, and there are so many other types of people (who may be worse), so even my awkwardness may be normal.

- Everyone is awkward and weird (and I think that's more fun). If they're not, then you can assume that they're trying too hard to cover up. Basically, everyone is faking it too.

Nothing revolutionary, but I have found these mindsets really helpful for me to become a less awkward and more fun person, measured in number of close friends and my level of happiness with relationships.
posted by pockimidget at 5:59 PM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

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