Are there any techniques that make someone better at social situations?
January 14, 2015 2:19 PM   Subscribe

I've done the meetup thing and it's alright, but I feel like people are turned off by me a little. There are awkward silences and such. I'm an introvert and can fall into becoming a hermit really easily if I don't watch myself.

Someone told me that every day I should go out and smile and interact with someone... even if it's just people behind store counters. But I've been doing that for months and though it might make a little bit of difference, talking to people behind counters is very limiting and doesn't help that much. I wish there were classes or courses on how to be more socially adept. I haven't had much practice in life. I've never once had a birthday party. Not even in childhood. Once when I was 11 years old I tried to set up a party for myself. I invited a bunch of people- primarily family members and no one showed up. Not a single one. That led to my never trying that ever again. But no one ever bothered to throw me a party either. My parents didn't encourage me to be social and would actually try to limit whatever friends I had. Being an introvert by nature, this made me even more so to the point of hermitsville.

I'm just not sure how to develop my skills in this area. Are there any techniques? Exercises? tricks? Ideas?
posted by manderin to Human Relations (21 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Two things that have improved my social relationships:

1) Don't complain about things. Complaining is not small talk (eg: "ugh, this weather is the worst!") and will only make you seem negative and tedious.

2) Ask people questions about themselves. Appropriate, light questions. People generally enjoy talking about themselves, it takes the onus off you to fill the space, and it can be fun to see where the conversation can go.

Good luck!
posted by magdalemon at 2:33 PM on January 14, 2015 [18 favorites]

First of all, I would say to you that it's great that you're reaching out. That pretty much guarantees that you'll improve your social skills. I would just follow the notion of "practice makes perfect" and also accept the fact that improving any skill involves a "2 steps forward, one step back" developmental timeline. I would suggest just to find things you are interested in already and participate in them. That gives you a natural inclination to speak and talk to others. Take advantage of any opportunity to share and interact with others. Good luck to you -- I wish you the best!
posted by gilast at 2:39 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hey you! Follow some of the advice of comedians advising other comedians on how to do well. I know this doesn't fit the bill, per se, but listen to what they're saying like you're an aspiring comedia. A lot of this boils down to things like persistence, patience, recognizing cues from others and so on. Plus it's less dreadful than putting yourself through self-help talks.

I'll add a couple notes, but with the proviso that this is just coming from a naturally shy person who over the years has learned to be someone that stragngers call "witty" or "fun to talk to"--characterizations that I still find surprising. But hey I like it and I think some of these might actually be Good Advice:

Build up a repertoire of light, funny stories that you can tie in to almost any situation. Feel a lull in conversation coming? Change the subject casually by letting the brief pause signal to everyone that a change in subject is welcome, then volunteer to kick off that change. "Hey, did you hear about... ?"

Remind yourself that awkward silences aren't some sort of reflection of a person's lack of interest in you. It's just something that happens in conversations--people have different levels of interest on every subject, so it behooves you to pay attention to the vocal, visual, and body language cues that indicate to you that someone is bored (eyes searching around, flat affect, short responses), or uncomfortable (fidgeting, only making eye contact fleetingly, biting or pursing lips) and so on. You can cut off an awkward silence at the pass if you see these cues giving you advanced notice of a coming pause.

React to other peoples' stories with interest that shows you're not only hearing them talking, but you're sharing the story with them. Widen your eyes in shared surprise, let your mouth open a bit in a gasp of shared alarm, roll your eyes in shared irritation, hunch up your shoulders in shared anxiety, etc. People love visual feedback when they're speaking with you.

Ask questions! If someone's telling a story, don't make them give a monologue--ask questions and otherwise interject things, it can be a kind of lubricant for a story. "What did you say back? Did you know him before you saw him? Had you never driven one of those before? When do you usually get there? How many days until the next one?"

Is this the sort of thing you're looking for? I don't want to assume that I'm giving you good advice when you're already keen on this sort of thing.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:44 PM on January 14, 2015 [12 favorites]

I guess I can't really parse out from your question what it would mean to you to be "socially adept." It could mean a lot of different things--do you mean "i want to be someone who has birthday parties"? Or "someone who can strike up a conversation without being too anxious" or....? The skills needed for those two things aren't completely different, but they're not identical either and you wouldn't practice them the same way.

Awkward silences don't mean you're failing at socializing, by the way. They just happen because any two people interacting won't be on the exact same page all the time. My boyfriend and I sometimes have awkward silences here and there, and we have been together for years.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:44 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

If practice is what you want, you could join hobby group; a sports club, knitting circle, boardgame night, take a class, whatever you'd like. You'll be forced to interact, but the interactions are structured around said hobby and therefore quite predictable and easy. There may be some people there you'd like to know better n time, you could ask them to go for a coffee sometime and make a friend or two.

Or maybe you could try to say something nice or giving a compliment to someone everyday? Positive interactions will make your self esteem grow!

Really it's just a skill you can learn. First you have to do it. A lot. Then you get comfortable and at some point it will come naturally.

And don't be scared! Most people in the world are actually really nice :)
posted by leopard-skin pill-box hat at 2:46 PM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about drinking alcohol? Many, including myself, find a beer or 2 really lubricates conversation, even with strangers.
posted by u2604ab at 2:52 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I always say the same thing to these kinds of questions but you should try improv. It's a) all about connection and communication and you learn in a structured, safe environment b) full of slightly socially awkward people trying to solve that.

To add to that there is particular (admittedly slightly esoteric) way I've started thing about conversation which is informed by improv. In a sort of ying/yang way I think good conversation is driven by two polls. The art is about flipping between these things and you really need both.

- Listening. Take in what the other person is saying and respond to that. Keep with the subject. But don't expect them to do all the work, also...

- Take risks. If there is an awkward silence you break it by saying anything. Say the first thing off the top of your head. Be dangerous. But then listen.

- Make eye contact
- There seems to be a lot of negative self talk in your question. Improving your general self esteem will also help things.
posted by Erberus at 2:53 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

2) Ask people questions about themselves. Appropriate, light questions. People generally enjoy talking about themselves, it takes the onus off you to fill the space, and it can be fun to see where the conversation can go.

Corollary to this -- ask people follow-up questions about themselves, e.g.:
"What do you do?"
"I'm an attorney."
"Oh, that must be interesting. What sort of work do you do mostly?"
"Are you married?"
"Yes, that's my wife Joan over there."
"Oh, I love that dress. How did you two meet?"

This not only lets people talk about themselves more, but it shows that you're listening, rather than just going through the standard list of questions. It makes things feel more like actual conversations.
posted by Etrigan at 2:54 PM on January 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

There are a bunch of good conversation starters that are slightly complicated ways of getting people to talk about themselves;

'if you were a car what sort would you be?
'everyone has an internal age that they grow towards and away from, like some people are basically five year olds all their life and some people are born as grumpy 53 year olds. what's yours?

posted by Sebmojo at 2:56 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Before heading out, have a few ideas 'in your pocket' to talk about just in case. One could be a light news or local item "did you hear about..." Another might be a heavier discussion item. Listen intently. Respond thoughtfully and positively.
posted by artdrectr at 3:13 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everyone else at the meetup is at the meetup because they felt they needed a meetup in order to meet people. I go to meetups myself, so this is definitely not a slam on people who go to meetups. It is just to say that you might possibly be expecting an unrealistic level of warmth and smoothness from either yourself or the other people at the meetups. It takes time to get to know people. There might be other people there whose level of social discomfort is similar to yours; try not to expect them to do more social smoothing for you than you are capable of offering to them. Awkward silences tend to happen a lot during the getting-to-know-you process which can take six months or a year before you get comfortable with a group, and with some meetups it kind of never really gels because there is so much turnover. There are always going to be occasional silences, and it's often a matter of what's going on in your own head as to whether you interpret it as awkward or not.

All that being said, I have found that the best way to get practice being social is to hang out with people who want you around, even if they aren't the exact people you're the most eager to spend time with, even if the interaction isn't the most fulfilling ever. If the people at the meetup greet you when you walk in, and they don't just tighten the circle to show you their backs, then they probably like you well enough for you to use them as your practice social group. You could also volunteer at a nursing home or with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters or something similar where what you have to offer is your company to someone who is seeking someone like you to hang out with.

I had some serious problems socializing in childhood, somewhat similar to yours, and one thing that was important for me to do as an adult was to separate out the fantasy of how child-me thought it would feel to have friends! and be accepted! which would fix everything! from the reality of how adult-me is likely to feel when my social life is more or less where it is best for me. It's an important part of my life, but it's also really draining (introvert here), and it never feels perfect, and that's OK.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:20 PM on January 14, 2015 [9 favorites]

Yes! Do the improv class. Not only does it get you out of your shell, its some of the most fun you can have with clothes on!
posted by eq21 at 3:23 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Husbunny is doing an alphabet thing. He asks questions that the subject of which begins with a letter of the alphabet, in order.

"Have you seen how many Apples they have at the store now? I mean, you could eat two a day for a month and never repeat! What kind of apples do you like?"

"I'm looking forward to seeing that move the Best Man Ringer. It looks stupid, but the good kind of stupid. Seen any good movies lately?"

"The place that sells frozen Custard by my house closes for the winter. It's in a store front, not a separate little hut in the parking lot. I'm baffled. What's up with that?"

You get the gist.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:48 PM on January 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

CaptainAwkward has some good advice on this topic; some of it is ostensibly focused on dating but really it applies to all social interaction. The one I just thought of was this recent post, but it's really worth checking out everything under the "social interactions" tag.
posted by Wretch729 at 4:12 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's easier said than done, but I do think the guidelines from How To Win Friends And Influence People are probably accurate. It does come down to what magdalemon recommended above, but: Don't be too negative, and be interested about the people you meet.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:41 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I trained myself to make eye contact with people and smile at them, over a period of a few years. I noticed that I liked it when people made eye contact with me and smiled at me, strangers on the street. Not like everyone who goes by on a busy sidewalk, you're not interacting with more people than you were before. Just make it your default instinctive reaction when you notice someone-mine was to look away and pretend to be invisible, yours probably is too. Eye contact shows confidence, smile shows friendly. People like friendly and confident. Not a big beaming toothy grin, just a small smile will do. Not a death stare, just a half second or so.

Many people smile back and that is great! But you must have no expectations, many people will look through you. Eye contact and smile is its own reward. This is a trainable basic social skill. I did it, and so can you.
posted by Kwine at 6:08 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeahhh, agree with all the above but might have a slightly different take. I've been to a couple meetups and other big social gatherings with loud music and collections of people. Yes, absolutely, don't be negative, and show genuine interest in people. To hold attention, be FUNNY. Have a short list of funny stories. Keep some awesome videos or pictures of places you've been or great people you've met or some other fun anecdotes that you can pull up on your phone and chat about. Collect funny stories and jokes. Laughter is the best way to energize and get people to feel comfortable and connect with you. Plus, you might be able to break the stuffy mold at these "getting acquainted" functions and find someone who shares your sense of humor, and hear more funny stories to add to your collection.
posted by hampanda at 7:18 PM on January 14, 2015

When you're trying it out, it can help to go to events and talk to people that you never really plan on seeing again. So go to classes and weekend seminars that you're interested in, engage with the material and the people, but without expectation that you will ever see any of them again. If you mess up and every thinks you're weird, at least you learned about the topic and learned from your mistakes. If you go to conferences for work, you can find stuff like this-- bars or meetups in a city you're usually not in-- and use that. If you never plan to return to Chicago, it becomes your sandbox for weird. You can even take a weekend trip for no other reason than to try out conversation. Think about it-- you get a neutral hotel room all to yourself as a retreat, and when you exit your hotel room and interact with people, you literally are only what you show them and since you're getting on a plane or a train in three days, you control whether they ever contact you again.

I have also had luck with just being interested. Forget being interesting-- just be interested in other people. Did you ever watch Huell Howser on California's Gold? He visits random places in California that are in some way notable, but the bar for notable is really low. He literally goes up to people who run a fruit stand off the highway in the middle of Nowhere, California and is incredibly happy to meet them and ask them about what they do. One-room corncob doll museum, pit of bubbling mud, rock that looks like a face at 3:30 in the winter, flagpole in the desert commemorating the Spanish-American War, he's absolutely overjoyed to talk to the people running it. For a while I pretended to be Huell. Every person you meet is inherently mildly interesting because they do stuff you don't do. Even if they have the same job, they do it somewhere else and come to it with a different perspective. "Wow, how do you do that? How did you get into it? Do you like it? What would you change?" The secret to being liked is being interested-- people LOVE talking about themselves.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:32 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really dislike small talk but have to make small talk a lot in my professinal environment, most often with total strangers.

One thing that has helped me with those akward silences, or moments when I have no idea what to say, but know I need to say something, is to make the awkward silence the topic.
I just say something like: you know, i never know quite know how to start a conversation, I always find standing around with a glass in one hand and a sandwich in the other makes me akward/dries up my conversation/makes my mind blank.
Or: now, shall we discuss the weather or the bad flight connections to get here or the poor service? (in a joking sort of way)
Or: I know I shouldn't say this but I am very bad at small talk. Or any other stupid thing to get the conversation going, perhaps I say: formal receptions always make me want to run, or: I never understood how people can talk so much with a sandwich half chewed - depending if there is enough of this going on around.
Or I might say: I really enjoy wathching people interact at social events. Often that works best as a conversation opener (becuse it is true, I do like observing and watching othersd ineract).

And funny enough about half the time the other persons responds by sharing they also feel tongue tied and akward. And we have some sort of rapport over our shared dilemma.
And if the conversation dries up soon afterwards, no problem. We exchanged a few lines, and I move on. And I know I am not the only one in the room feeling akward which helps me tremendously.

Generally it helps to put a smile in your voice (try that at home). And I try not to mumble (I have a tendency to mumble or speak to fast) and breathe slowly.

I have been told much or even most of personal interaction is determined by body language and found it to be true.
There are many books and videos out there about body language, look at them in your local library.
I try and remember my posture - I am bad at that but it helps so much not to slouch, either standing up or sitting.
Remember also the importance of distance to your conversation partner. Now this is a cultural thing (I work with international guests) as well as a personal matter, and sometimes I find that taking a small step back actually makes contact easier rather than closing up on the other person in an effort to make contact.
posted by 15L06 at 1:48 AM on January 15, 2015

I'm a shy introvert, and I wanted to add some perspective to the "Take an improv class!" advice. I did so, because I saw it recommended quite often in threads like these. I am still taking improv, because I really enjoy it.


I am very self-conscious and a perfectionist, and since I'm not much of a talker the things I say tend to be on the concise side. These things do hold me back when I'm doing improv scenes with other people. I usually let the other person take the lead in terms of building the scene, and as a result I know that it's not as strong or funny as it could be.

Recently I went to a practice session where--unlike class--there was no feedback and it was very low-key, but I was still too self-conscious to actually jump in and perform a scene with someone. (One of my fellow improvisers noticed this and dragged me out to do a scene with him anyway, and it was fine once I got up there. But that's beside the point.)

So try improv if that sounds interesting to you--it is really fun and awesome, but depending on your level of shyness, improv may not be the cure-all some people make it out to be, at least not right away. It is a great way just to play and have fun and you meet some nice people in the process, though.

This kind of relates to the second thing I'd like to say, regarding asking people questions. Yes, it's a good way to keep conversation flowing, but I would encourage you to try to add to the conversation by talking about your own experiences that relate to what the other person is saying, too. Statements, anecdotes, stories, etc. That way, the conversation is an equal exchange: You learn about the other person, and they learn a little bit about you. (And in improv, asking questions of another character is not heavily encouraged, because it puts the onus on your scene partner to do the heavy lifting, instead of the two of you making a joint effort to create a scene.)

Finally, thanks for asking this question. It's been great reading the responses.
posted by dean_deen at 12:26 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

The one thing that changed my life was hearing other people interact and realising that a lot of them were just as awkward as I was, they were just forcing themselves to make conversation. The other thing that changed my life was starting to play tabletop RPGs and story games. For some reason what I couldn't achieve when I was talking to someone I could achieve perfectly when I was pretending to be an elf or a witch or a robot!
posted by Laura_J at 2:02 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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