The Zen of Shooting the Shit
September 23, 2014 1:24 PM   Subscribe

If you find social interactions to be a breeze, can you impart some of your wisdom on this envied ability?

I’m an introvert but I think childhood and teen experiences (cue the violins) have made me way more withdrawn and shy than I truly am. I'm in my mid-30s now and have improved, but my defence mechanisms are stubborn to chip away and I'm finding it unbearable to stay verbally bottled up. It's not helping me make friends or be popular with my co-workers either. I ENVY people who can shoot the shit with ease, who can strike up conversations with random strangers with joy. I want to be able to do that. I think that’s something the “real me” would do because I find others fascinating—but get clouded by fear to ever do such a thing.

If you’re someone who is socially fluid, can you tell me a bit about your attitudes, thought processes, etc. when it comes to interactions and people? What are the thoughts in your head that make this so easy for you? Since brain transplants aren't viable, I need to transplant your thoughts instead :)

Also, it’s good for me to be able to observe a socially vigorous person—my brother, a couple of past boyfriends are whizzes at this, but I don’t always have people like this around. For this reason, I love watching comedian Dave Attell’s show Insomniac on YouTube because I get to watch someone “at work” randomly striking up conversations with strangers one after the other with relish. (Sure, he and the others are usually helped by booze but let's not focus on that). I like analyzing the show to glean what he’s doing socially E.g. You can tell he means well when he approaches strangers which seems to make them more likely to respond favorably. Ergo, I should make sure to project a friendly energy, not an anxious one. If you can you think of other examples of TV shows like this so that I can play armchair social anthropologist, that would be great!

Preemptive caveats:
-I know part of getting over shyness is exposure therapy, but this question is meant to get advice on how to better prepare for that exposure
-Please don’t suggest drinking!
-Some may say I’m overthinking it. I just learn by being able to break concepts down.
-I realize being super-chatty, etc. can be obnoxious and is not something to aspire to, so please avoid giving answers along those lines.
-I’m already in therapy. But if you can suggest a particular kind of therapy, that kind of answer is welcome.
posted by oceanview to Human Relations (35 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
I am an introvert too. I too had trouble talking to people when I was younger.
But, if you engage people, in time it will become easier.
Though even still today, at age 43, I sometimes still feel like a 7th grade wallflower.

One book I would strongly recommend, and which helped me a lot is:
How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

This book was written in the 1930s, before self-help books even existed.
The book is no longer copy-righted. You can down-load it free from various web-sites.

It is a famous, classic business book, often read by the Wall St power types.
But, it is also a great read about simply how to be engaged in any conversation.
posted by Flood at 1:33 PM on September 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


It turns out people are constantly repeating themselves, making jokes that fall flat, making non-sequiturs, talking about the banal subjects (weather, lunch), and I really hadn't clearly appreciated that. Most conversation is pretty forgettable, yet people do it constantly. That said, feel free to use any and all of those techniques freely when trying to make conversation.. I do! Nobody will notice. I suggest first really listening to how much people use those crutches. And unfortunately, practice makes perfect. And worst case, interview the other person. If you find yourself stuck interviewing someone for a while without them trying to reciprocate, you have my permission to bail and find someone better to talk to.
posted by Captain Chesapeake at 1:33 PM on September 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

One thing to remember is, you're not going to successfully get on with every stranger you come across. Some people aren't interested in talking to you, and some are quite honestly not that interesting to talk to. You seem a bit anxious about "getting it right" so I want to reassure you that nobody gets it right all the time. Even Dave Atell sometimes has trouble scraping a whole show's worth of fun interactions out of his whole night spent carousing. Sometimes you'll flop, and you just have to shrug and let it go - that's hard, because shame/embarrassment is one of the emotions that most strongly cements a memory in our puny human brains. But really, it's okay!
posted by aimedwander at 1:35 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am an extrovert and a described "good conversationalist" and "good networker". I just like people. I think the best of them, and while I'm occasionally put off by an unfriendly or otherwise objectionable individual, I genuinely enjoy the act of making people feel good about themselves and receiving the same in return. That's all there is to it.

The trick to surviving and brushing off those infrequent bad interactions is just to remind yourself that the awkwardness is about them, not about you. Be pleasant and just move on to the next one.

I would also note that Dale Carnegie's book is about exactly this. It's not about gimmicks or pretension, it's about being interested in people.
posted by dynamiiiite at 1:39 PM on September 23, 2014 [13 favorites]

I once read something that talked about how most people are in a lot of pain and that's where you need to kind of meet them -- at "the hurt."

I can't always pull it off, but my big social successes seem to be rooted in that basic idea: That other people hurt and if I can figure out what their hurt is that is relevant to how they might want to interact with me, being reassuring and pleasant and making it as painless as possible for them to interact with is what gets big positive reactions.

When my brother brought home his wife (maybe when she was his girlfriend, I don't recall), I was chatty and glib and just made small talk and made sure to include her in the conversation. My brother later thanked me and told me I had really made her feel welcomed. When I attended my sister's wedding as the matron of honor, I was chatty (about mostly inconsequential things) and friendly and my sister thanked me for that and talked about what a great job I did.

When I try to talk to other people about things that interest me, that sometimes goes over really well and sometimes really bombs. When I take an interest in them, sometimes they are flattered but sometimes that also really backfires and comes across as predatory, pushy, nosy, etc. But when I keep in mind the reasons why they might be uneasy in this particular social setting and keep things relatively light and try, above all, to be non-threatening, I tend to get really, really good reviews.

If you are anxious, instead of trying to protect your feelings, think about how to protect theirs. A lot of people are quick to feel judged and/or rejected. Not talking to them at all can read as judgy and rejecting. Talking to them about heavy topics can also be a disaster. This is why topics like the weather are popular.

No one gets this right all of the time. No one. It is probably a bit like that baseball truism that the homerun kings tend to also be the strikeout kings: They swing for fences every time and sometimes they win big and sometimes they lose big. That is often how I feel. Being glib sometimes really bombs. But when my focus is the comfort of people around me, that is well received.

I will add that there is a downside to that. I sometimes feel like people expect that of me all the time and leave no room for how I can get my needs met, it is always about them. So it isn't say, a good basis for a marriage. But for social settings with people you don't know so well, it tends to be the way to come across as smooth.
posted by Michele in California at 1:43 PM on September 23, 2014 [52 favorites]

I'm not, I don't think, a natural at this but I can talk to strangers. My general strategy is to ask questions that move from your current shared experience ("Man, I've never seen this bar so crowded, have you?"), to things that are about them, because people like to talk about themselves. And as they tell you things, remember them, because you can ask followups or whatever.

"Oh, you're new in town? Did you move here for work?"

Opens up the topics of what they do, where they came from, what they think of town...and so on.

If you find that you have a particular something in common you can interject a personal anecdote but beware of oversharing or launching into something long and boring, the point is just to keep the conversation moving.
posted by ghharr at 1:43 PM on September 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

my comments are just to do with speaking to strangers, not about socializing at large and being the Life of the Party, which is hard for any introvert. but some of this might be applicable to, say, meeting new people in small groups at a party.

even though I'm a giant introvert, I really enjoy talking to strangers, because it's way to experience someone else's life for a while. The way I see it, I can only ever live one life intimately - my own - and know a handful of others. But if you chat to strangers in a way which can convey your genuine interest in how they live - what excites them, what gets them up every morning, what they love - it turns out that sincere interest in other people gets you a long way toward being sociable. I agree there is a somewhat fine line here between interest and creepy, the successful navigation of which comes with practice and with knowing how you come off to other people. But to me it's a similar sort of impulse to why I read novels. Like talking to strangers, novels give me deep glimpses of a whole bunch of lives I could never live - and if you probe, you can either find surprising connections with them, or interesting and perturbing differences which can sharpen your own convictions and sense of self. If you can get over socializing as really not being about you but about the person you're talking to, it might help you move from "argh! how do I shoot the shit? am I doing it right?" to "how can I find out more about this person?", which, when you think about it, is kind of less pressure on you.

for ways to find out more about people, this is an interesting thread from Quora: What is the single most illuminating question you can ask someone?

ymmv but I am a small and non-threatening-looking Asian woman, so maybe my approach does not translate to everyone. you could try practising on short-haul flights - I've had some great conversations on them. The likelihood that you will ever see that person again is practically nil, and it's kind of liberating to try out different conversational styles without long-term repercussions.
posted by idlethink at 1:43 PM on September 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

Focus on the shared experience. Are you both waiting in line at the grocery store, and the checkout clerk is taking 4ever? Crack a joke about it. Is there a ridiculous statue in the centre of the ballroom? Say "oh my goodness that thing is ridiculous!" You'll gauge from there whether they are chatty or not. Don't push it if they're not chatty or you will be creepy. Otherwise take your cues from them.

Actually that's what typically makes people feel comfortable. Take their cues and roll with it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:44 PM on September 23, 2014 [11 favorites]

You're in luck if you find other people fascinating. I'm not super socially skilled but I used to be really unskilled, and this is my first piece of advice: be genuinely interested in what they have to say. If you're asking someone about their job, don't just ask what the job is; ask what they think of the job. (Ask for more than facts; if you just ask for facts, it can feel like an interview).

My next piece of advice is to practice, and it sounds like you understand that too. You also understand that watching people who are good at it can help you learn. Great! Do those things!

I do have a few things to add, though; it's most useful to watch people in person, because then you can try what you learn and see how it works. If you've got a friend who can drag you to a few spots (I'd go with low-noise, so house party over bar; if you're not a drinker a non-drinking event is probably more your style), take advantage, watch the friend, and then try it yourself and see what happens.

Lastly: I can socialize without an activity now, but with an activity is still easier. If you are, say, playing a board game-- there are no worries about uncomfortable silences, and plenty of common ground to comment on. So I'd vote you get a hobby, or take the hobbies you already have and meet other people who do them.

Failing that you could always get a boyfriend who drags you to tons of house parties whether or not you want to go. That's what trained me at first. (No, I don't really recommend this, it was kinda painful. But it did work..)
posted by nat at 1:45 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most people will give you good advice here, but that advice will be primarily useful in the long term. It's like the problem with getting hired -- you need experience to get hired, but does one get experience unless you're hired in the first place?

In other words, you need tools right now to get you over the hump, to where the other good advice will start being truly meaningful.

Those tools are this: Cultivate a handful of generic interaction starters and use them liberally. Get to the point where it's automatic. Something better than "how you holding up in this weather," and definitely not anything creepy. Something that's open-ended and opens the door to other aspects of conversations.

"I really like your shoes/backpack/watch/hat. What kind is it?"
"This X reminds me of Y, which I experienced in Z situation."
"That's a great name. Are you named after someone?"
"So, what's keeping you busy these days?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:50 PM on September 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think a key aspect of this is understanding that only "5%" (or whatever) of communication is actually words. While of that 5 percent people probably only ever listen to half of anything you say, you can get away with saying most things really.
posted by Middlemarch at 1:56 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Living in Ireland helped me with this a bit --- the Irish are very good at chit-chat. I think it helps to think of a bit like a game -- like you're tossing out a ball for them to toss back. There's a physical component to this --- a look, the same category of look that you'd give someone as if you were about to toss a ball from across the room, open, friendly, playful. Eyes open, slight smile, general air of inquisitiveness, engagement. Second, it helps to have a question in mind, something they can answer -- that's the toss back.

This is something I sometimes find difficult myself, even though in my job it's a necessity --- I often feel a surge of anxiety when I have to approach a stranger. Instead of focusing on them --- what I want to know from them, what they can do for me --- I lock up with thoughts of myself --- fear that I'll fuck up, come across as awkward, or that I won't know what to say. Sometimes you just have to sort of mentally slap yourself and remind yourself that they're not going to bite, and that a minute of awkwardness is not the worst thing ever in the world. I find this easier to do when I'm mentally focused on them, on my curiosity about this person, for whatever serious or trivial reason that curiosity was piqued. There's a sort of presumption of equality in starting a game with someone, the inherent idea that you both can play, will enjoy playing. An anticipation of shared delight. If you can bring that quality to starting a conversation, you're like 90% of the way to charm.
posted by Diablevert at 1:56 PM on September 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you’re someone who is socially fluid, can you tell me a bit about your attitudes, thought processes, etc. when it comes to interactions and people?

Be warm, make eye contact, ask questions, and follow up on the questions so it's not like an interview.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:58 PM on September 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am an introvert and socializing does not energize me, but I don't in the least regret it as it does not interfere with my self esteem.

However, until a few years ago my lack of conversation skills was a problem to the point I actually did not know how to talk to strangers ! I would be tongue tied in the elevator, in a cab, in the department store etc. It was due to a combination of complete ignorance of techniques and psychological fear.

This book changed all that. Conversationally Speaking by Alan Garner. Now I have the confidence to strike up conversations in different situations, if I want to.

Note that the book focuses on conversations only. Not social skills which I suppose includes a whole lot of other things.
posted by constliv13 at 2:01 PM on September 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

My go-to for friend and stranger alike is finding something absurd and pointing it out so we can laugh at it together. Obviously if you don't know the person, it has to be something more broadly hilarious, whereas with a good friend, you know whether "strangely funny" is going to cut it.

Plus, if the person doesn't appreciate the humor of $THING, I know they are maybe not someone I am interested in getting a lot closer with.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:04 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think plenty of the above advice is good, but I would also note that if you literally try to chat up random strangers and they blow you off, it might have absolutely nothing to do with you.

Plenty of people (like me) have no interest whatsoever in small talk with strangers. If strangers try to talk to me, they get some combination of a mumbled one word answer, a WTF look, me turning away/putting in headphones/putting on sunglasses, etc. I don't want to be bothered when I'm out doing errands, I don't want to chat more than 1 minute with the person next to me on the plane, etc. I'm pretty sure on TV, they only bother showing the interactions that were interesting, not the people who basically said, "Would you leave me alone, I'm just trying to get my grocery shopping done."

At actual social events, it's totally fine. The strategies above will work much better if you try to use them when you have a genuine connection to someone (even if it's very superficial to start) -- coworkers, classmates, fellow members of a club, people at parties or meetups, etc.

In short, practice your chatting skills at social events, where conversing with others is a normal part of the activity.
posted by ktkt at 2:27 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Who said you have to be super chatty? Most people prefer to talk than listen, so that's half the job done for you, at least if you can summon up genuine interest in other people. Therein lies the rub. Introvert? You will have a shorter tolerance for people in general.

Not much to be done about that, I expect, so keep it at small bites. Trader Joes' seems to hire for easy chatty. Of course the check out line is guaranteed short order (so to speak), ergo manageble for both sides.

The TV thing is kind of useless since they edit for amusing people. You're boring, you're not invited onto Late Night, unless you have to be and even then they cut you off if you don't sparkle (John Grisham, who would probably be great dining companion, doesn't do well on TV in my view)

A lot of this is based on the supposition that you're really interested in other people up close and personal. Only you can answer that.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:35 PM on September 23, 2014

I used to think of myself as shy, but friends recently pointed out that I somehow wind up ending most nights introducing them to strangers (all genders / ages) I've picked up over the course of the night. 100% 2nd St. Peepsburg. Talk is almost always about the shared environment / moment and almost never personal (initially). I feel like that gives people an out and is probably also not as intrusive as commenting on a stranger's body or clothes etc. I might be able to get away with this because I'm an approachable-looking white woman nearing middle age. (Quite honestly, I think I might have picked up the skill as a young smoker, because often enough it'd be me and really whoever standing on a curb. Obviously, I do not advise smoking.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:50 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think body language is more important than verbal language in 'shooting the shit'. Open body language, a ready smile upon making eye contact, letting the other person speak more and giving them cues and prompts, taking the chance to say that outlandish / funny thing and catching its wave if it works or ignoring, like a fart, if it goes nowhere. Being open of heart, displaying this openness and confidence in your body language, and being willing to engage fully and follow your companion's cues all help creating an easy going atmosphere for chat.

It also helps me when I remember that I and every human on earth share more commonalities than differences.
posted by salad at 3:06 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something that has come up in a few answers, that I think bears more explicit mention: there is a difference between being introverted/extroverted, and being outgoing/socially skilled/engaging.

Extroverted people are energized by engaging with people, but introverted people recharge by being alone. This is NOT the same thing as feeling awkward around people, liking to be around people or not, knowing how to talk to people easily, etc.

Many people try to make excuses for bad social skills by claiming introversion. There are lots of people (myself included) who are great conversationalists and social butterflies--but who recharge through alone time.

You mention your defense mechanisms. I think that's a good place to start. I like myself and I like other people, and I think that comes across, so people relax and open up around me. One idea I've been thinking about lately is the notion that humans and their predecessors communicated for tens of thousands of years before the development of language. We convey so much with presentation, body language, facial expressions. If you go into a conversation balled up with anxiety about yourself, or negative projections about the people you are going to engage with, that comes across and makes conversation much harder.
posted by Sublimity at 3:14 PM on September 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

Communication is never perfect. There is no human on this planet who is 100% fluid with everyone 100% of the time. Similarly, no communication tip we give out will apply to 100% of all the people you will come in contact with.

Once I realized this was the case, I was a lot more accepting of my communication blunders, and could move on much quicker when interactions went awry. Now I often use the biggest mishaps as comedic fodder for interactions with other people. For instance, while at a party, you can tell the story of the time you made a fool of yourself trying to start a conversation with someone who, it turns out, didn't speak English.

There is no such thing as perfect communication. But trying to communicate is all part of the fun.
posted by Milau at 3:43 PM on September 23, 2014

Lots of great advice upthread, but I think it can be simplified:

People generally like talking about themselves. Showing genuine interest in someone's life - job, family, hobbies - goes a long long way.
posted by gnutron at 3:48 PM on September 23, 2014

I'm not naturally great at this — I'm kind of a seething weirdo, honestly — but I've practiced and I had a job where I basically had to have conversations with about 30 strangers a day before asking them to do something political (give money/volunteer/register to vote). And before that, I worked as a journalist and had to interview people all the time, some of whom didn't want to talk to me at all.

I don't actually like talking about myself that much, especially since I'm prone to giving answers that are more accurate than conversational (I'm pretty much always in some form of angst over whatever job I have, for example, even if it's otherwise going well).

So, here are a couple of things that help:

1) Ask questions and listen to the answers. Everyone is an expert in something. Get them talking about something they know well. This weekend, I learned about Ultraman X figurine collecting and about how planned community architects are selected. I had zero interest in those topics before talking to someone, and now I could probably shoot the shit on them if they ever came up again.

2) Ask about things that you're actually interested in. That way, you'll want to find out more and ask better follow-up questions.

3) Have some stock answers for yourself. When I was actually talking to a lot of people per day, I had a little 30-second recap of what I was up to, and I used that same recap when dealing with my fiancee's family at Christmas.

4) Use open body language. Smile, keep your arms relaxed and out to your side. If you can get away with it — be careful — spread your legs when standing to be shorter when talking to shorter people. Eye contact is good, especially while smiling.

5) Another trick is when you're stuck somewhere, like waiting for the bus or something, complain briefly about a mild annoyance that impacts both of you, e.g. the bus being late. It's easy to feel camaraderie against some abstract entity, and cracking a joke about it can help break the ice. It also gives the other person a shot to commiserate. This is the basic format for most of the discussions about the weather. Avoid government, religion and sex unless you have a clear entry to talk about them — someone with an Obama sticker isn't going to get upset if you bust on John Boehner (though they might not know who that is).
posted by klangklangston at 4:07 PM on September 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm at ease in social situations/casual chatting mostly because A. I like people and B. I'm not worried about how I come across and what they think of me. One characteristic I would use to describe people with great social/chat skills is a warm demeanor- smiling and welcoming body language, open and easygoing, talks and listens, asks questions but not too forced or interviewish.
posted by emd3737 at 4:11 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm very, very good at this and I think that my thing is that I don't overthink it. I just pay attention to where the conversation is going, show real interest, and converse. It helps that I'm a loudmouth....I've never had to "work" at this.....I know now after living for a while that this gift of gab that I have is enviable, but I think that sometimes people just get too worked up inside about what's going to come outside. Relax, be a friend to make a friend. Smile a lot...ask some more... you'll be fine.
posted by pearlybob at 4:14 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you like research? I often have an ongoing, informal "research project" that I carry from conversation to conversation. This isn't an overall approach to shooting the shit (other folks have given you some great advice about that above), but it's one more thing to keep in your toolbox.

So, for example, right now I'm trying to figure out where to go on my next vacation. Lots of people have been on vacations and have strong (sometimes shockingly strong, damn) views about where you should and should not go.

So if I'm talking to someone new and the conversation is flagging or whatever, I might say "Let me ask you a question—I'm trying to figure out where to go on vacation, have you been anywhere great?" If I get back "You have to go to Istanbul!" I'll ask about stuff to see there, where to stay, anything in the guidebooks that I just shouldn't bother with, etc. Sometimes this leads to delightful stories, but even if it doesn't, I get some useful information.

People love to talk about themselves, and they especially love to feel like experts. And, turns out, other humans are a a pretty great resource for being a human.
posted by Mender at 4:46 PM on September 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

"If you’re someone who is socially fluid, can you tell me a bit about your attitudes, thought processes, etc. when it comes to interactions and people? What are the thoughts in your head that make this so easy for you?"

It isn't easy for me -- I get anxious and feel awkward just about every single time even though I've been "outgoing" for years and years. Two realizations changed my life, though: First, even if you literally trip down a flight of stairs and fall flat on your face, most people are not going to remember, they are too wrapped up in their own stuff. Try stuff. Sound like an idiot. Flub it. Not one person in 10 will remember you screwed up. Second, 90% of other people are also sitting there going, "Oh my God I hate talking to strangers my hair looks stupid why am I at this stupid cocktail party I am so bad at networking I don't know anyone I hate this why won't anyone talk to me?" When I remember that, it's easier for me to step up and be the one to break the ice, because I feel like I'm helping other people out. If I can't be brave for myself, I can be brave to help someone else feel less awkward.

People who get to know me better are often surprised to find out how much I dread networking events/weddings where I don't know people/new situations with new people, and they say, "But you're great at those! You've always made six new friends before anyone else has a drink!" I laugh and say, "Yes, but I'm shy on the inside." And I do have fun and I love meeting new people after it's over, but I just absolutely dread them for days in advance and sometimes talk myself out of going. And I don't think that's too unusual -- lots of people feel awkward and anxious in new situations, or where they don't know anyone else, and small talk is hard. I think a lot of people, like me, just say, "Well, gotta do this thing" and do it, even though it's hard and stressful.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:33 PM on September 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have gotten much better at this over the years -- I used to dread even customer service phone calls, and now I'm comfortable at networking events (although I still give myself permission to quit after talking to five or six people). In addition to the great tips above, what helped me was figuring out some of my personal weird roadblocks, like:
- Small talk is dumb and pointless. (It's not, it helps you connect with people and can be a bridge to a deeper conversation.)
- Nobody would want to talk to me; I'm just wasting their time. (Not true.)
- I don't know how to do this and I will say something wrong and alienate people. (As noted above, nobody cares and a little awkwardness can be easily skated over if you just keep smiling; how many times have you overlooked someone else being unfunny, awkward, or strange?)

So, maybe you have similar ideas that are holding you back from being more socially adept.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:00 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Be pithy and honest and open. People like that and they open up because you are expressing their thoughts in a way they wouldn't dare.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:57 PM on September 23, 2014

In terms of attitudes and thought processes:
- I assume the things people have talked about (a basic commonality with others; that most people are mostly ok); I like and am curious about people
- I dislike being bored (as I often am in a line-up) and am motivated to pass 'dead' time in an entertaining, fun, pleasant way, and feel like little moments of connection are an excellent way to accomplish that (although not during, e.g., afternoon rush hour on a bus, when nobody, including myself, wants to commune)
- Something may strike me as funny or strange or whatever and I just feel like sharing that observation with another human who's also experiencing it
- I guess I must assume that I'm an all right person to talk to, or that I can offer some sort of value, i.e. that others might also enjoy rather than be annoyed by the interaction. I probably do not talk to people who give indications they wouldn't like to chat (or I hope I don't, anyway :/); I'm more likely to approach people who seem openish to conversations. So there is likely some selectivity going on.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:10 PM on September 23, 2014

A sample formula:

Ask a question. Then latch on to the part of the answer you're genuinely interested in and ask a follow up question related to that. Do not ask a third question yet, as that starts to feel like interrogation. The Norm of Reciprocity dictates you must then share a thing about yourself, ideally one that connects to the topic already being discussed. Avoid the pitfall of one-upping the other person, (Oh, you recently had surgery? Well I had all my internal organs removed last week!)

While doing this, practice making eye contact, using your body language to show interest and attention toward the person (face them, smile). Watch how close they stand to you and try to mirror their natural space bubble - so as not to feel invasive or distant to them.

Repeat this process a few times for each person. Allow for flexibility, but generally go for a ratio of two questions to each one of your statements. People like to talk about themselves but don't like the third degree. If nothing clicks and the two of you are genuinely not interested in each other, politely say something like, "It was really nice talking to you!" or "I'm going to go grab a drink, excuse me!" and head for the next person.

This is what I do a lot, and it's fairly innate for me because I actually really like people and find them interesting. I sometimes talk more than I ask, and am often quite awkward and weird! But in general I do pretty well talking to people and I think for the most part people find me fairly likable.

Really it comes down to, find the thing you can connect to genuinely about this person, and connect to it.
posted by latkes at 9:43 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

What are the thoughts in your head that make this so easy for you?

Don't be thinking what to say next while the other person is speaking. Forget yourself, listen. Take your time framing a response. We rush to fill dead air, but we needn't.

Years ago a perceptive pal pointed out that in conversation I interrupted people a lot more than was polite. I bristled. Me an over-interruptor? But I'm nice, I mean well. I interject with a similar experience, opinion or whatever as a kind of friend not foe signal. "Oh, I know just how you feel, one time when we were in Bendigo ..." He was right, I overdid it, and I'm grateful for the tip. I've watched others do it too. That kind of thing will chop a conversation to bits, it won't get a chance to flow.

Give and take. Call and response. Yin and ... yakkety-yak. 'Nuff said.
posted by valetta at 8:34 AM on September 24, 2014

Almost everyone who's good at conversation has an enormous amount of practice at conversation, and the correlation is likely both directions.

It's going to take a lot of practice, just like all other skills.

You'll never get better at it without regular practice, just like all other skills.

While you're getting better at it, you're going to screw up hugely from time to time, just like all other skills.

That said? Yeah, people who are good at this botch it all the time, too. Take, for example, the time that Michelle Obama hugged the Queen of England. (You do not touch the Queen without being invited to, unless you're her doctor and she's fallen unconscious, and I'm not sure if that's even fully considered OK.)

Thinking on that? People who are good at conversation aren't usually naturally good at it. They're either naturally excellent at recovering from gaffes, r they were naturally and completely oblivious to the gaffes they made. If you can't see your errors, you can practice without fear. Some of those later realize the gaffes... and some don't.

You've got a one-up on many of those folks, in that you can see your errors. The way to move forward is to temporarily care less about them, or realize that other people who regularly hold them against you may not be the people you want around forever. :)
posted by talldean at 10:05 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everyone is right upthread who says people are wrapped up in their own stuff, but I understand how that can be hard to internalize. For me, a helpful form of exposure therapy was selling things door-to-door.

Let's say it was Girl Scout cookies. Some people react negatively because:
-they don't want their day at home interrupted by salespeople
-they don't want more cookies/carbs/calories/expense
-they don't support the Girl Scouts organization

It was so much easier for me to start out in this context where I wasn't just telling myself "their reaction is not about me" and trying to believe it, but I actually had a product and process to point to and feel pretty sure "it's about the Girl Scout cookie sales." If you don't want to sell things, you could volunteer to register voters or collect signatures for a petition. You could volunteer to take tickets at a nonprofit's event like a gala or outdoor festival.

Another place it can be helpful to start out is at the checkout, chatting briefly with the cashier or barista. Some places they are expected to chat, and some of them enjoy it as a way to pass the time they are stuck at work anyway, so they'll be making it easier for you. You can set a goal to chat through the whole time it takes to do the transaction, which isn't that long.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:06 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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