I am a man of many interests... with no idea how to talk about them.
January 29, 2015 5:48 PM   Subscribe

How can I become more comfortable talking about myself and sharing my interests with others?

Recently, I found myself chatting with a friend-of-a-friend who has a conversational style that is almost the complete opposite of mine. We only talked for about 10 minutes, but in that time I feel like I had heard the bullet points for his entire life story, his future ambitions, and his hobbies. I keep thinking about the interaction because it put in sharp relief a deficit of my own. This person told me more about himself (possibly to the point of oversharing) in 10 minutes than I've probably expressed to some people I've known for years. I think I'm a good listener and I'm fairly adept at asking the right questions and generally holding up my end of a conversation as long as the other person is doing most of the talking. Yet whenever the questions turn toward me, I'm a deer in the headlights. I'll awkwardly mumble something, but mostly I just try to turn the focus away from me as quickly as possible. This is especially true when I'm talking to someone new, but it's even an issue when talking with friends.

I fully recognize that a big part of the problem is my self-esteem and longstanding social anxiety. There's always that underlying feeling of, "They don't *really* care about anything I've been doing or have to say." This creeps in even with people I've been friends with for decades (I'm in my early 30s).

The other issue is that I don't like talking about things that I feel the other person can't relate to. Examples: I live near a major university and go there to public talks or panel discussions at least once each week. I sometimes go to book readings. If there's a local jazz or classical concert, I'm there. I love live theater. I'm a big film geek, keep up with the big festivals, and sometimes drive a couple hours away to see films that aren't available here or for special screenings. I read comics. I'm really nerdy about a lot of this stuff, and I almost never talk about it around others. It's absolutely not a snobbish thing, it's just a recognition that the people I interact with aren't heading directly from work to a discussion on constitutional issues or Middle East foreign policy. I don't mention these things because I envision the blank look or polite nod I'll get in response; I don't want to alienate people. I also do a lot of these things solo, which I know is a foreign concept to a lot of my peers. A good friend, for whom money is not an obstacle, moved to NYC a few months ago. I asked him if he's been able to take advantage of all the things the city has to offer and he basically said, "No, I don't really know anyone here yet to do things with, so I mostly just go to work and come back to my apartment."

The issue is that this is how I spend a huge portion of my time. So, when I'm catching up with someone, I worry that I give the impression that I'm sitting around doing nothing, when that's far from the case. Even when it comes to things are much more common and relatable, like my humbling attempts to start running or clumsily learn how to play the guitar, I just don't know how to bring them up or talk about them.

I've become increasingly aware that I'm not doing myself any favors by keeping so much private. I hate thinking that I'm missing out on opportunities to connect with someone just because I feel weird talking about myself. Sure, my friend may not care the least bit about jazz or any pop cultural stuff, but maybe his co-worker does and he could introduce us and hey - new concert/movie/whatever partner! Maybe my friend's spouse is really into sci-fi and fantasy novels and we never realized that we had that in common! Hell, maybe someone would have tried to play matchmaker with me by now if they had a better sense of who I am and what I'm looking for in life (or that I'm even open to a relationship!). Things like that. I guess an answer would be to find more people who actually do share my interests, but that, as countless prior questions and responses on here have addressed, is not the easiest thing to do as an adult, especially in a semi-rural area. And I do feel fortunate to have the small handful of good, long-lasting friendships that I do have. They're just based more on history and similar personality types than shared interests.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has tried to navigate these waters, so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
posted by thornhill to Human Relations (15 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Talk about your interests on the internet if you can't find anybody in person to talk to about your interests. Or just talk about your interests on the internet anyway because the internet is awesome for things like this.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:27 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Most people love to hear about anything, if the person telling them about it is enthusiastic. I do community theater, and nobody in my life outside of the theater even goes to plays (unless I ask them to see mine), but they always ask about what I'm doing, and when I go into minutiae about things like lighting design or props sourcing, they ask questions and want to know more. I do the same for my friends who love woodworking or sports, even though I don't know or really care about those things.

If people like you, then they want to know what you like and care about.
posted by xingcat at 6:41 PM on January 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

Even when it comes to things are much more common and relatable, like my humbling attempts to start running or clumsily learn how to play the guitar, I just don't know how to bring them up or talk about them.

Wow, you actually have two great conversation starters right there. As long as you can feel just fine about not being great at running or playing the guitar. You're probably afraid of the person feeling superior to you if they are good at those things. Let them have that brief little kick, who cares.

Let's say you just met, or you were talking about something else. Wait for a slight pause in the conversation, and then say, "You know, I've been trying to start running/playing the guitar lately, but it's harder than I thought. Do you ever run/play the guitar, or have you ever tried it?"

They will either say "No, what's it like?", or something to that effect, which almost forces you to talk about yourself, or "Yes" and ramble on and on about it (in which case, don't attempt to befriend them as it seems you already have enough friends like that) or "Yes, and it's like THIS, and I'm having THIS problem, or I go THIS place to do it, or I have THIS kind of guitar. And have you ever tried doing THIS for your problem?" And you're off and rolling, comparing experiences and learning from each other.
posted by serena15221 at 6:45 PM on January 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

I have been making an effort to be more open with new people and to be honest, it felt really weird at first but now sometimes I walk away from a conversation thinking about how proud I am of myself for sharing. You don't have to jump in with everything all at once, just slide in a little bit of yourself at a time and gauge interest.

"What did you do this weekend?"

"Oh, I checked out a great new film about BLAH, it was playing in AREA. I'm really into DIRECTOR's work." or "I went to hear a lecture about THINGS. I find that sort of thing fascinating."

Worst case scenario you get a blank stare back and an awkward pause, which you can fill by redirecting the conversation. How about you? You would have to redirect anyway if you chose to deflect their initial interest.

Best case scenario you make a deeper connection with someone! Or get a referral to a third party connection!
posted by cessair at 6:46 PM on January 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

These skills are things that you can only develop via practice and repeated exposure. I've heard toastmasters works well for this sort of thing. Look up a group near you and join.
posted by manderin at 7:25 PM on January 29, 2015

If you figure others might not be interested in comics, say, maybe you can look at it as an opportunity to introduce them to something exciting. You might spark an interest, and that'd be cool, wouldn't it?

A way to do that might be to say "Are you familiar with ____? [Don't presume they're totally unfamiliar, because they may have an idea about this thing, and that's a potential point of connection. If not:] Oh, ok. Well, I think it's a fantastic story. Basically, ______ [keep it short - plot in one sentence]. I really like it because [one or two key things about the comic's style or place in a movement; the main thing you think this person should know about it]."

Odds are, the person you're talking to will either want to link what you've said to something they know about, or they'll ask a question, and that's a conversation started.

It's hard, though, I know! I'm a bit like you, I prefer to ask questions and hear stories. Others are great at telling them. But anyone can improve their ability to get things across.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:51 PM on January 29, 2015

I do feel fortunate to have the small handful of good, long-lasting friendships that I do have.

My guy is a little bit like you. He's interesting and pretty into doing a lot of solo stuff and has a variety of interests but when you get him in a group he gets quiet and even one on one in conversations he doesn't seem to remember the interesting things he does/thinks or doesn't himself find those things that interesting. I'm sort of the opposite, I'm really interested in a lot of things (myself, other people, etc) and so sometimes need to dial it back when I'm talking to people so I can hear what they're about and what they're into. He and I sometimes brainstorm before we go to a social thing together like two or three things to talk to people about.

Me: You should tell them about that time you got attacked by an owl
Him: You should talk about changing all the moss out of your mossariums
Me: No one wants to hear that, it's like "I did the dishes..."
Him: no it's unusual and it's something you're really into so you should talk about it
Me: OK you should talk about the weird classic ipod collection you've created
Him: But that makes me sound nerdy
Me: But you ARE nerdy


You might want to brainstorm with a friend or just talk it out with yourself, a few things you are interested in or thinking about so you're not caught in the moment. The guy you were talking to probably had the same bulleted list that he goes down with everyone. You can have a shorter list but then have a few things at the ready that you are confident you can get into a conversation about and get out of a conversation about ("so what did YOU do this weekend...?" sort of way).

And with your friends, think a bit more about what you'd like them to know about you and why they don't know those things and how you might be able to pivot your normal conversations into a direction like that. More public speaking whether it's with toastmasters or just some meetup like groups (book club, who knows) would give you space to practice without it being the people you're likely to run into all the time. And, on that topic, see if you can figure out where your people are. The ComicCon people, the filmgeeks, the new runners, the guitar flailers. Having people with like interests around, even as just light acquaintances can put you in a space where you know you have a thing in common so you can talk about $THING and that can be relaxing. Board game meetup. Uke Club. Hiking Club. Something.
posted by jessamyn at 7:53 PM on January 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

There's always that underlying feeling of, "They don't *really* care about anything I've been doing or have to say."

I've felt that. I also get not wanting to alienate people who don't care about or don't appreciate the things you care about and like to do. My main hobby is fan fiction, and most people don't even know what that is, or worse, think it's immoral or childish or "technically theft, right?" So in the past whenever anyone asked about my hobbies or what I like to do, I would waffle ("I don't know, I like to read and write I guess. What do I write? Oh, not much. Short stories.") But one day one of my new supervisors was giving me a ride home, and after a few non-committal responses from me to her Getting to Know Each Other questions, she got a tad offended and told me, essentially, that I didn't have to talk to her if I didn't want to. The tipping point had been when she asked me what I like to write, and I had at first not answered and then replied with some awful remark like "I don't know, that's kind of an awkward question" that I thought was self-deprecating, but which came across as a rejection. The thing is, I love talking to people. I had enjoyed talking to her about her life and work, and I felt bad that I had upset her by making her think that I actually didn't want to get to know her at all, or let her get to know me.

It made me rethink my position, really. I thought I was being tactful by not bringing up my weird hobbies and thoughts about, say, LGBT politics, or The Iliad. I thought I was being a good, interested conversationalist by focusing on the other person. But I had accidentally rejected her, and unfortunately never recovered it in the time that I worked with her. It made me realize that whether or not the other person cares about my hobbies and interests, even knows what they are, or doesn't have an opinion either way, if I actually want them to be my friend I need to figure out a way to be more open. It can actually be incredibly alienating to ask about someone's life and be shut down with vague comments all the time. After so many times I've asked someone about their weekend, or what's new, or what projects they've been working on, or what they've been reading or watching, and gotten a minimal non-answer, I begin to assume that they don't actually give a shit about being my friend. And generally those people haven't become or stayed my friends. As long as you're not actually a narcissist who dominates every conversation with your own interests and never asks after other people's lives and interests, sharing things candidly shows someone that you really care about them more than shutting down references to yourself and turning the conversation back to the other person can do.

I don't want to make you feel bad at all. You say you are still in touch with friends that you've had for decades: if your friends generally felt uncared for and unwanted, they wouldn't have stuck around that long. But I think that it might help if you didn't think about changing your conversational style as being good for you, but rather as a favor to the other person. It sounds like your social anxiety is telling you that talking about your interests would be selfish, because, afterall, the other person probably doesn't care, right? Well, think about what you're doing when you share things about yourself: you are sharing. You're being the opposite of selfish. You're being generous with yourself to someone else.
posted by wrabbit at 8:02 PM on January 29, 2015 [19 favorites]

I think I understand. If I am reading you right, I'm a little bit similar, with an unreasonable number of interests and a substantial few of them that I'm pretty deep into, so much so that it goes beyond 101 level and makes for tough cocktail conversation because of things like a big knowledge or position gap. If I read you right, it's the challenge where you do want to share, but you don't want to come off so nerdy and idiosyncratic and full of quirks that you just seem like a giant weirdo to new people and make them not want to talk to you. So, a fine touch is called for.

Jessamyn used the term "dial it back" and I think that's an applicable phrase. It's true that not everyone in the world shares the depth or breadth of every passion you have, even though they probably have a few of their own passions. I sense a feeling of shame or embarassment that you are interested in stuff. But you don't need to feel that way. It's great to be interested in stuff, and at least some people in the world like meeting someone that can let them know about new niches in life. The answer probably lies in a happy medium between doing an enormous, death-grip brain-dump of everything you do and learn and see and think, and giving a quick synoposis of it in a way that invites further comment but is also a perfectly fine "hello" if there is no further comment.

Some things that might help:
-Self-understanding and self-acceptance are part of this. Acknowledge that you're kind of a polymath person and also pretty serious about getting deep into topics you love. You have an intellectual/aesthetic bent. You may not be like a lot of other people and that's fine and good. They love and value you anyway.
-It's okay to embrace this part of you and be that person. Feel comfortable acknowledging your weirdnesses to people, with all their strengths and weaknesses. Keep some humor. "One of my nerdy hobbies is..." "This might sound a little oddball, but..." "I'm one of those strange people who...."
-Communicate your enjoyment. The important thing about your pastimes is that you love them, and they make you happy. So share that, and people will mostly infectiously at least be happy that you're happy. Describe what you love about the things you're drawn to, what interests you about them. On that level you can make an emotional connection, even if what you love is rock collecting and what they love is recipes or curling. Everyone understands loving something.
- Start small. One sentence's worth of "I'm really into medieval manuscripts and just saw this great exhibit" or "I just came from a lecture on jazz influences in modern art" is plenty. Drop the info as a way of giving a window to your life, but let the other person follow up, or not. That way you can be sure you've opened a door, but you're not haranguing them with every detail of what you just did whether they're interested or not.
-But if people ask you more, they are interested! Follow-up questions are usually not the "just asking this to be polite" ones. When someone says "wow, that's really interesting, tell me more!" or even "wait, I don't get it, can you say that again?" they usually mean they're actually interested, so go ahead. Don't presume they're dumb for not knowing. Assume they're intelligent and interested but uninitiated and give a response that helps them get a better understanding.
-When someone just asks what's new, don't give a content-free response like "nothing I guess" or "the usual." Give a capsule summary of what you've been up to. Instead of being like "oh, knocking around I guess" offer a 2-3 sentence overview of stuff you've been working on or looking into that are personal highlights. It doesn't have to go anywhere, but honestly, especially in a rural/remote area, I think people are interested in hearing about pastimes and thoughts that are a little refreshingly different. You are a spice that helps to make that rural area more flavorfully intriguing.

If there's any one thing that helps, it's self-acceptance. You are the person you are, and you get excited by whatever gets you excited. There's no need to apologize for that and no shame in that. It's okay to be a little bit of an outlier in some respects, and if you're okay with it, then other people will pick up on your own internal comfort and be okay with it too.

And for situations where no one around you can really go there with you, as far as your current passion, definitely do use the internet, and use opportunities for travel, meetups, and special excursions to meet like-minded people to geek out with. Most of my real-life friends do not geek out on the history, music, or food topics that light my fire, so I go to conferences and concerts and events and special internet communities for that stuff whenever I can. A lot of people share different interests with different freind/contact groups - it's totally normal that not all your friends like what you like. But chances are that when you go to jazz concerts or lectures you might be able to strike up a friendship with people there who you can share that deeper interest with.

I hope this is at all helpful. Good luck!
posted by Miko at 9:17 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

I bet your gabber friend has repeated that glib life story a hundred times over. What's yer deal? Package some soundbites and riff off those. Look! It's a salad! Look! A pot of greens! Oh man, is that a bunch of crunchy ground vegetables? Dang! You're so cool thornhill!

Everyone's a specialist. The trick is relatable packaging. Sure, your convo partner may not know the ins and outs of basket weaving... but they surely get how good it feels to finish a craft project, or how rad that basket is gonna look in your living room! And it's okay to drop info they *won't* know. That's a total favor to them, because it gives them chances to ask follow-up questions and learn new stuff.

You know how cool that is... it's your conversational specialty!
posted by fritillary at 10:39 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

You sound like a very interesting individual. But then, I'm a nerd. I'm likely your ideal public. And we are out there, and we love finding others like us. So the advantage to making your interest more visible is that you will meet more people who share them.

That said, I think fritillary's "packaging" idea is great. That combined with a sense of humour could help.

Acquaintance: "Thornhill, what have you been doing?"
Thornhill: "Learning how to run. You'd think it would be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, but it turns out you also need endurance!"

I also think the elevator pitch idea could work for you. It just so happens I work in a building that has an elevator and I'm learning to master the 2 minute conversation. The trick is to get to the most fascinating point ASAP. Share what you found most interesting about the talks you attended in two sentences.

Acquaintance: "Thornhill, nice to you, what's new?"
Thornhill: "I just saw a great talk at the university about (topic). I didn't realize (what you found interesting)." Alternatives: It got me thinking about / It made me want to get involved in / etc.

If the interlocutor engages with the topic, proceed. If they don't, no harm done. Ask them what's new with them or leave, depending on what's appropriate. You're under no obligation to please everyone at all times. Plus, I don't think people will feel alienated. Adults rarely think less of each other because we have differing interests (I hope).
posted by Milau at 4:31 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

One thing it took me awhile to learn is that usually, when you're having a conversation with someone, the goal is not just to exchange as much information as quickly as possible but to forge an emotional connection with someone. One part of this is making sure your side of the conversation has a lot of emotional "loose threads" that the other person can pick up on. So the key to talking about activities is to make it more about your emotional relationship with those activities, like Miko and fritallary noted.

For example, there's not much someone can say in response to "I went to film A by Director X yesterday. He's also directed B and C." unless they happen to also know a lot about Director X. But there's a lot that someone can say in response to "I went to this film by Director X yesterday, and it weirdly made me feel both happy and sad at the same time. I think maybe because I've been interested in his work for so long and also I just feel like there's something special and cozy about seeing movies in the dead of winter, you know?" The other person can respond with their own knowledge of film, or their own experience feeling happy and sad, or things that are special to do in the wintertime.
posted by LeeLanded at 6:58 AM on January 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

There's always that underlying feeling of, "They don't *really* care about anything I've been doing or have to say."

It might help to think of it as "entertaining" them. Instead of thinking about how this information is about YOU, think about it like a little skit that you put on for free to entertain people. People love to be entertained and it sounds like you actually have a lot of interesting stuff you could share.

Another thing that might help is to try to find some connection between that person and some thing you have done and talk about the two things together. It can be a tenuous connection. It can be "Oh, hey, love that hat. It makes me think of that live performance I saw recently of the song "You can leave your hat on." It was a jazz ensemble at blah blah. Do you know the place? They do live jazz there every Wednesday. Anyway, great hat!"

If they are interested and asking questions, go with it and tell them more. If they aren't, hey, move on to something else or go back to letting them carry the conversation. No big deal.
posted by Michele in California at 1:07 PM on January 30, 2015

One way to talk about something without talking about it is to ask questions. Is it worth the money to move up to a Gibson? What's the best IPA brewed in this city/state? How can a non-Christian relate to Kierkegaard?
posted by SemiSalt at 4:52 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't mention these things because I envision the blank look or polite nod I'll get in response; I don't want to alienate people.

Sure, some people will be alienated by you having different interests than they have.

But some people are interested in hearing about things they don't already know about! Would you like to talk with people interested in hearing about new things? If you never bring up topics that are different than the average, you'll never know someone is interested in hearing about less run of the mill things.

You are robbing yourself of new friends who would find this sort of talk interesting by being too put off by the blank look. Boldly go forth -- and if you get the blank look, you can always jump to a new topic that's more relateable. Parking was terrible, weather was nice, etc.
posted by yohko at 2:20 PM on January 31, 2015

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