Can one learn to enjoy and thrive in social interactions?
July 22, 2014 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Is there any way to learn how to communicate like a normal human being?

I've always been a bit of an outcast; the couple people who know me well would describe me as depressed, unsociable and a poor communicator. I'm frequently completely invisible in both my physical presence and voice. This delightful cornucopia of personality traits has greatly hindered my adult relationships and career options, and I'd like to change that.

After some months of self-reflecting and observation I've realized the connecting thread in all the failing areas of my life are due to an inability to thrive in social situations. From observing acquaintances I've noticed they all seem to enjoy the company of others; have the normal give and take that conversations go through with a dash of jokes and harmless flirtation. They seem to intuitively know when to turn on the charm or take a step back, when to greet and say their farewells at the appropriate time with the appropriate intensity. Me? Well, not so much.

Socializing has always been incredibly confusing and stressful to me, and I wish to be able to communicate well with others and enjoy the company of others as I've witnessed others frequently are able to do.

My style of communication is more efficient; to the point. I have trouble with banter and small talk, and am oddly silent when apparently I should be making jokes and being charming. When I speak I tend to blurt out answers and my words and letters get frequently transposed making things even more jumbled and confusing. Many times my thoughts themselves get incredibly screwed up and jumbled in my mind making it hard to communicate at all.

Is this simply social anxiety? What can I do to fix this? What resources should I look into to help me communicate better?
posted by the ghost of so and so to Human Relations (7 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Practice. Like, literally, make lists of questions to ask people, practice what you'll say to insert yourself into conversations / when introduced to someone / etc. Watch how people who are good at it act and follow their lead, you'll get better at it with time and eventually start to enjoy yourself. Being good at chit chat makes people happy, which is a useful reinforcement. Reading a lot of novels can also help as a model for social situations - x says y, how does z react?

I'm still a bit awkward and feel invisible sometimes, but I've faked it for long enough that it's starting to feel more natural and only a few things I do come off strangely and those get mostly glossed over. Practicing / thinking over social scenarios when you're alone gives you time to think of things to say/ask that suit your personality, which helps.

Advice for people with Asperger's can be helpful, too, even if your social discomfort is subclinical. Just take the attitude that being social is a skill you're learning a bit later than those around you.
posted by momus_window at 7:58 PM on July 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: it's ok to admit just a little to the other party that you've always felt a little socially awkward with small talk etc (even if it is A LOT of feeling way more than awkward). This can be a great ice breaker, as many people have at least some of this issue, and those that don't usually are the helpful type.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 8:15 PM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not sure what to say right now except that I don't think it's right that one has to be considered autistic to get any help socializing in school. If you were always like this, then there should have been an intervention a long time ago. For some reason, educators agonize and wring their hands about improving kids' performance in school yet when it comes to socializing, you're expected to sink or swim. Nobody teaches you how to make jokes and be charming.

It does sound like social anxiety to me... MILD social anxiety, believe it or not. Actual social anxiety *disorder*, according to the Internets anyway, seems to involve cold sweats and the like.

The Wikipedia article on social anxiety may be helpful. Among other things, it discusses "communication apprehension", which sounds exactly like what you have. It also discusses techniques such as imagined interactions, cognitive behavior therapy, relaxation, etc.

You probably care too much what other people think, which makes you awkward, which makes them think worse of you. It's a vicious cycle.

Practice small talk. Study what people say before they say the important thing. In other words, how they ease into a subject or into the meat of the sentence. Learn that and practice it, and you will no longer "blurt things out".

Also, make sure to check out
posted by serena15221 at 8:23 PM on July 22, 2014

Best answer: I good trick is to ask questions. People are often happy to talk about their interests (hobbies, research, etc.). Being willing to ask a few questions can help you engage in conversation without needing to provide a stream of witty comments.

At a picnic I found myself standing next to a stranger. So, I asked him what he did.
He let me know he was a physicist.
So I asked him what the thought about gravity (I really did. I've also asked physicists (I'm an academic) about quantum mechanics, string theory and Higgs bosons).
Just a simple "I'm curious what's the latest idea about gravity?"
We had a lovely chat for a good 30 minutes.

A good natured person might, in turn, ask about your hobbies or job, etc. But, again, answering questions about your fields is easier than having to be spontaneously clever. (Also you don't need to have an "interesting" job. I've shared anecdotes about my old chicken-wing delivery job.)

I was very shy and awkward in my teens and now I'm so gregarious that people who've only recently met me, think I'm lying when I recount stories of hiding in bedrooms during parties. So, it can be done.

Good Luck.
posted by oddman at 9:55 PM on July 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am an introvert -- I get drained with human interaction. Extroverts get energized by human interaction Sounds like you are an introvert as well.

I also am socially awkward -- I learned how to read on my own when I was three, but learning how to interact with other people -- that was a lot harder. Growing up, I had one or no friends most of the time.

Fortunately, I was able to go into a field (engineering) and find other people like myself :). I got a lot of training through work -- what helped me most was Neuro-Linguistic Programming which broke down human interaction into small learnable pieces. NLP has a mixed reputation, but I found it useful.

Recently, I read The Charisma Myth -- the author's story sounded much like mine. She pulls from a variety of sources and has some useful advice.

Bottom line -- yes, I believe it is possible to learn how to communicate. It is not easy, but it is learnable. I wish you all the best!
posted by elmay at 10:23 PM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: > When I speak I tend to blurt out answers and my words and letters get frequently transposed making things even more jumbled and confusing. Many times my thoughts themselves get incredibly screwed up and jumbled in my mind making it hard to communicate at all.

Focusing on this bit --

I have a parade of weird speech problems. I would be ecstatic to find a professional who could diagnose them, but they're subtle and pervasive and make me feel inadequate, socially -- I'll try to describe.

Narration and exposition are bad because I don't know where to start: I know what I want the climax of the story or the main point of the explanation to be, but can't seem to work backwards, while talking, to figure out what I need to explain first, and more importantly, where to start.

Complementarily, I go on unnecessary digressions. "I went to a public high school -- it's one of those regional schools, where three towns came together to form one high school that was big enough to merit meaningful resources (...) -- [actual story was about a chemistry teacher I had, e.g.]" It's not totally obvious in text, but I probably top the internet's list of em dash users.

The transposition of letters / deletion of syllables happens as well; I also make up weird words instead of using existing English ones: pretty sure I have the "English is not agglutinative" and "you don't need to be /that/ precise" badges, along with the "write your sentences and then take out half the adverbs" ribbon.

I can also sense in speech when I am supposed to give another line -- the prompter is whispering as loud as possible and actually, I do know the line, but I just refuse to give it.

For example, someone brought amazing delicious vividly-, interestingly-flavored cupcakes to class today. "[name], these cupcakes are amazing!" Nothing else. I kept smiling but refused to utter sensible followups like "I have never had rosewater frosting before but it pairs perfectly with the lavender, and I love how you arranged those sprigs as garnish" (compliments should be backed up with specific details!) or even "So so good, thank you for bringing them in" (for lack of specific details, more praise!).

At a dinner party once, I met my speech twin. It was brutal to hear him, and at the same time, I wanted to kidnap him / record his speech to give to aforementioned professional to help clarify my own problems.


I dunno, people still seem to keep us around. There must be other redeeming things we do -- asking questions, making clever associations, not flaking -- that outweigh our tics. So give yourself allowance for awkwardness; there are other things that make you fun to be around. You also don't have to be the /most/ engaging, graceful person in the pack: surely you'll notice people who are better, but it doesn't mean that you're unacceptably bad. I am excruciatingly aware (see above) of how constipated my conversation is, but I still talk to people because I want to know them.

However, if awkwardness is part of your self-definition -- don't let it limit you from mimicking the slick kids. In high school, I thought it was really weird and fake that people said "Hi, how are you?" / "Fine, thanks, how are you?" / "Good!" passing in hallways. Like, please. You do not have time to really talk about how someone is!

My reaction (not logical) was to always answer "Fine, thanks" and never ask "how are you" back. Then one day, an acquaintance called me out on it. At first I was offended, but then I decided that she was far more graceful than I was, socially, and maybe I should just ignore my pedantic objection, accept that this is a verbal syn-ack-synack independent of what the words actually mean, and just be like everyone else; life's felt less awkward since.

tl;dr: Syllables / prosody / narrative structure / talking! is really hard but people will still like you if you are interested in them. It's ok to adopt behaviors of more graceful people ("fake it 'til you make it").
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:55 PM on July 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your responses.

I have managed to find a therapist through my health insurance and have begun sessions with her. A lot of her observations are the same as the observations you all have responded with. I was feeling quite lost when I wrote the question so it was of great comfort to hear similar stories and helped me to take the step to seek out professional help.

Here's the new beginnings!
posted by the ghost of so and so at 5:59 PM on July 29, 2014

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