The other shore looks nice, but the bridge makes my skin crawl
February 18, 2015 1:46 PM   Subscribe

People on AskMe often ask how to develop their social skills. I have an even more remedial question: why I should bother to develop my social skills? (Or: how can I do so without resenting every moment of it?)

Now, I'm not a total wreck in the social skills department. I have the bare minimum down: make appropriate eye contact; take turns speaking; respect personal space; wash your shirt if you get mustard on it—that sort of thing.

But beyond those basics, I often feel like a member of a different species. Many of the social norms that most people take for granted are baffling and alienating to me. On occasion, I've sat down and made a list of all the things about human society that I just don't understand: small talk and flirting; allegiances to sports teams, political parties, and other group identities; fashion and dress codes; and so on. It is a long list.

When I've made inquiries about the items on this list, I'm often told that participating in that domain is a "social skill". Flirting is a social skill. Using clothing and dress as social semaphore (ugh; just typing that sentence makes me feel exhausted and cranky) is a social skill. Caring (or pretending to care) about celebrities and sports is a social skill. These are broad and perhaps caricatured examples, but trust me when I say they are the tip of the iceberg.

But don't worry, people tell me! Social skills can be learned!

And by developing my social skills, I'm told, I'll be better able to make friends, influence people, establish romantic relationships, etc. Which sounds fine enough, in theory.

But when I start reading specific, actionable advice, I quickly get frustrated and resentful about how seemingly arbitrary it all is. I just don't enjoy socializing for the sake of socializing. In fact, I hate every second of it.

"Wear X type of clothing in Y situation." Why? Because someone said so? Who cares what type of fabric I use to insulate my body, and why would I want to be friends with someone who's that deeply concerned about something so superficial? Surely there are better uses for our time, money, emotional energy, and natural resources. (And the fact that these "rules" are completely different in other cultures just goes to show how arbitrary it all is.)

"Developing an interest in $ASPECT_OF_POPULAR_CULTURE will give you common ground to talk about with randos at the bar." Why would I want to learn about something I don't actually care about, for the sole purpose of being able to talk to other people about the thing I don't care about?

It all seems so crass and tedious and soul-crushingly boring. It's an unnatural pantomime. It feels like I'm asked to earn the fellowship of others by executing the correct performance, jumping through the right hoops, delivering the right secret handshake—like a trained monkey earning a banana. And I'm not interested in jumping through hoops until I figure out the sequence of hoop-jumps that people (for some bizarre reason) will deem satisfactory.

I mean, if that's what friendship and human connection are really about, I guess I don't want friendship or human connection in the first place. It sounds lonelier and more uncomfortable than simply avoiding the whole affair.

That can't really be what it's about, can it? That's crazy. But that's what it always sounds like people are telling me to do.

(And I'm not just basing these statements on what the advice "sounds like". I've actually tried following the advice, and it's mostly been as unpleasant and unproductive as I expected it to be.)

To summarize: I would (at least in theory) like to feel greater kinship and connection with my fellow humans. However, all the advice I'm given on how to achieve that tells me to do things that I find baffling, agonizingly boring, unpleasant, bizarre, obnoxious, incomprehensible, offensive, insincere, meaningless, and/or absurd. So much so, that I'm kind of suspicious of the very term "social skill"—it so often seems to mean "unpleasant thing which someone is insisting that I do for no good reason".

So...I guess I'm asking MeFites to tell me how to be more social, when I apparently despise the actual act of being social. (If you're going to say "it's okay if you aren't a social person; you don't have to be social if you really don't want to": I understand this. For the purposes of this question, please assume that I do have compelling reasons to be more social. At the very least, I'd like to not die alone, and maybe get laid once in a while.)

I hope this makes sense. Thanks for reading, and for any insight you can offer.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (74 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
So some people, maybe most, enjoy exercising the social skills that you are talking about. They (we) like picking out the right outfit for a given occasion, they like talking about popular culture with friends and acquaintances, they like belonging to a political party, they really like flirting for the sake of flirting. Much like a musician enjoys exercising their skill at guitar playing, or a video gamer enjoys exercising their skill at Minecraft. If you don't enjoy performing these skills, you don't have to, but if you want to be a part of the social scene, you are going to have to at least fake it until you make it. Much like you wouldn't expect to be a member of a band without enjoying playing music. And to extend the music analogy a little, no one really likes playing scales or practising finger positions or whatever, but you have to bear down and power through the basics before you get to the really fun stuff.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:57 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

We're a tribal and social species, but you don't want to do the various ritual dances that are at least sort of required in order to be part of it. You don't see the point; you sound like you feel maybe those rituals are beneath you? That because you don't understand them, and can't perform them easily, they are useless - and people who can perform them are "agonizingly boring, unpleasant, bizarre, obnoxious, incomprehensible, offensive, insincere, meaningless, and/or absurd."

I'm betting that other people can hear you thinking this, and that your attitude about this is also not helping you learn the things you say you want to learn. If I said that I really wanted to learn differential equations, but that I resented everything having to do with learning them, that would make it difficult to learn them. To say the least.

tl;dr: To learn how to be more social, get rid of your fear and resentment. Your attitude isn't helping. How you do that is a different question.
posted by rtha at 1:59 PM on February 18, 2015 [51 favorites]

You don't actually need to change your personal style or interests to socialize. I think what may be happening here is you're hearing platitudes of advice but someone isn't actually explaining them in depth.

So when someone says "clothing is social semaphore", what you hear is "being social requires dressing in a certain way", but what's actually being said is that how you dress will tell people something about you, your cultural alignments, your interests, etc, and paying attention to what other people are doing with their style, maybe complimenting them on their style choices, can help reveal their personality or help you relate to them.

And when someone says "caring (or pretending to care) about celebrities and sports is a social skill", you're hearing "I need to invest my time in celebrities and sports even if I hate all of it in order to be social", and what's actually being said is that people enjoy talking about their own interests, and yes, that can be a little boring sometimes, but it can also be really rewarding because it's a chance to learn about something. You don't need to spend hours watching football and reading sports commentary to ask someone else what they like about football or who their favorite team is.

You can definitely seek and find friends based on shared interests, though, and I think that's the biggest thing for you here. This is going to depend how you are meeting people. If you are looking for ways to talk to random people in bars you will have worse luck with this than if you participate in special interest groups, go to meetups organized online, etc.

But yes, ultimately, you do need to sometimes pretend to care about others, even when you don't really care how their kid is doing or whether they had a nice weekend. It is human to want to be cared about, and part of the give and take of socializing is giving and receiving that interest even if it's somewhat faked. So that is where you will need to swallow your pride.

It feels like I'm asked to earn the fellowship of others by executing the correct performance, jumping through the right hoops, delivering the right secret handshake—like a trained monkey earning a banana.

I feel this way sometimes too and it turns out I just feel more like I "click" with some people than others. It was worth it to be patient and find the people who make me feel comfortable and happy and like I can just be myself. I still get nervous and criticize my own behavior sometimes but some amount of that is natural and some amount of it just comes with time.
posted by capricorn at 2:04 PM on February 18, 2015 [32 favorites]

Do what makes you happy. You don't owe anyone anything.
posted by Fister Roboto at 2:06 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I feel like I need a little more information here to be helpful. Because my first impulsive reaction to this question was that you have the wrong friends. For example, I would consider myself a fairly unfashionable person who puts a minimum of effort into appearance. And I have plenty of good friends, and a romantic relationship, and get on fine in life. Then again, I don't wear my PJs to work at the office...I follow the social norms of dressing correctly for the occasion well enough to fit in. If it's the case that you consider it appropriate to show up at a formal wedding in a Speedo or at work in an office in your sweaty gym clothes, and it's THAT your friends are complaining about, then I will gently suggest that it is perhaps even easier to simply choose clothes that, while perhaps not the height of fashion, cause the least amount of social friction. For example, in my fairly casual office, I tend to rotate a fairly boring set of black or khaki pants and sweaters or blouses depending on the season. Nothing fancy, nothing that takes a lot of thought, but also nothing that is going to raise an eyebrow as being out of place.

Similarly, I don't think you need to know every aspect of popular culture out there by any means! But what are you interested in and passionate about, and can you talk about those interests in a way that engages others rather than alienating them. Trust me, there are LOTS of women out there who don't care about sports, and men who don't care about celebrities (to stereotype), and they still have successful romantic relationships. The key is being able to connect with people about whatever it is you are excited and passionate about, and being willing to listen to/engage with whatever it is others are passionate and excited about without being a dick, even if it's not your #1 thing.

Which brings me to another point. It is 100% fine to not be into sports, politics, fashion, pop culture, or WHATEVER you are not into. Everyone is not required to be interested in everything in the world. But, it's not cool to look down on others for liking those things. I get the sense here that you not only don't personally care about these things, but believe that those who do are kind of shallow and silly. And frankly, if you write off everyone who has an interest in politics, fashion, sports, and any aspect of pop culture (!!!) that gives you a super short list of people to ever interact with! You don't have to adore and love all of these things. But you do have to be respectful of those who do.

And while you're at it, you might try intentionally seeking out communities that love whatever it is you are into. If you go looking for friends at pop culture trivia night, you'll find people who want to chat about pop culture. If you go to events more tailored to your interests, you'll probably be happier with the mix of conversation. Stop trying to meet random people in bars, which I feel like works for almost no one, and instead set up an online dating profile with specific reference to whatever your passions and interests and preferred activities are.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:16 PM on February 18, 2015 [19 favorites]

Your Ask reeks of disdain. We social folks are so shallow and we mindlessly follow things that don't really interest us and we end up with people who are likewise.

What things DO interest you? Do they interest others? If so, why not socialize with those folks? That way you're learning about things that interest you and your conversations will be with people on your wavelength.

There are two different kinds of socializing. The first is just how we make our way in the world. We're polite to people we meet on public transportation, we tip generously, we smile when we see babies on the street. We make safe water cooler talk with our co-workers. Husbunny keeps abreast of football games. We live in Atlanta, it's kind of a religion down here. So he will watch random bits of the game, so he can be conversant at work. Does he care? Nope. He IS maniacal about Women's Basketball. No one is keeping up with the scores on that.

The second kind of socializing is with YOUR PEOPLE. These are the folks in your tribe. You have deep connected interests with them. You enjoy their company. You understand each other.

You can't live your life just for your tribe. You occasionally have to venture into the rest of the world.

If you don't want to make small talk, don't. No one has a gun to your head. Nothing we say here is going to make you give a shit about Beyonce. Hell, I don't give a shit about Beyonce. Turns out, doesn't impact mylife at all.

Husbunny is socially anxious. He uses the alphabet game to get through small talk. Ask questions using key words in alphabetical order.

"Can you believe the huge number of species of Apples in the grocery store? Can't I just pick between red and green?"

"I saw this lady on TV, looked like she Botoxed her entire face. Frozen. What's up with that?"

"Was reading an article and it turns out that Pantone has a Color of the Year. Who knew? This company just puts it out there, and the next thing you know, everything everywhere is centered around that color."

But if you're truly misanthropic, and you just don't like other people, or think they have something to offer you, no matter what you do, it's going to come off pandering or condescending.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:17 PM on February 18, 2015 [25 favorites]

The upshot of participating in social engagement at any level is "be interesting, be interested." Have something that you can bring to the table -- interests, skills, hobbies, passions, whatever -- and be interested in what the other person brings to the table. The more other people's "things" you can find it within yourself to be interested in, the more people you'll be able to connect with.

I'm not entirely sure what you're asking, here; is it that you want to opt out of these social rituals because you find both the practice and the goal to be ridiculous and unnecessary? Or is it that you want a roadmap of how to participate in normal social practices because, as you say, you don't want to die alone and you'd like to get laid sometimes? Overall, the impression I get from your question is that you want to know how to get people to like you without having to do anything so ridiculous, unsavory, and beneath you as attempting to find common interests or participating appropriately in group activities. And. . . that is just not a strategy that is likely to yield success.

The first step to solving any difficult problem is to define success. What does your ideal life look like, to you? How many friends do you have, what do you do together, what do you talk about? How do you spend your days, your nights? Once you can answer that question (contact a mod to update, if you want) you're more likely to get solid actionable answers.
posted by KathrynT at 2:22 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

There are others out there who share your distaste for social niceties so being alone and not getting laid don't have to be inevitable. But if you fake it to try to secure a socially pleasant partner, a) people can sense when you are not being authentic and will avoid you or b) they'll leave you when they realize the person who wooed them is not the grouch they're dating. So your best bet is to seek out fellow misanthropes. Put up an honest profile on one of the many dating sites outlining your dislikes (and likes, if any). You'll find your people eventually.
posted by cecic at 2:22 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

You do sound disdainful, as Ruthless Bunny mentioned, but I hear a lot of myself in that disdain--and I also hear the in-group coherence to socializing that Bunny mentioned as well. In fact, I agree with everything RB wrote.

I'd add, though, that it's ok to feel disdainful. My perspective is that of a gay guy brought up in the rural south in the 80s: to this day, even though I know it's inappropriate, I don't necessarily have automatic trust for people I know to be straight. Flipside, I automatically trust gay people more--on occasion to my detriment, and against all better wisdom. So be it, it's part of the wiring that got set up in me when I was too young to know what was going on. I do my best to hang out in mixed situations, where gays and straights commingle, but I'll probably always have a hard time being in a situation where I know everyone else in the room is straight. Again, so be it, that's when I put on the comforting mask of social convention and get the job done until I can get back to my people.

I suppose my summary then is that social conventions maynot make sense but they provide a common ground that all parties can more or less agree to when other, more casual relationships may not come easily. They're a tool, and tools are handy things to be good at using.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:24 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

You are correct that, from a mechanistic perspective, it's all arbitrary and somewhat pointless. You might find the underlying principle more motivating: What you're trying to achieve is an emotional connection with someone, small at first, gradually growing as you interact over time. Being interested in each others' interests is a way of caring about each other, and helps lead to emotional connection. You give a little when you care about them and what they're interested in, and they give a little back when they care about you and what you're interested in.

You may have a lower need for emotional connection than most people, but - as you seem to realize - you have at least some, and if you don't meet those minimal emotional needs, loneliness will eventually creep up on you. It might take years if your emotional needs are low enough, but it will catch up with you eventually, and the longer it takes to build, the longer it will take to correct.

On the mechanistic side of things, I would say: Forget about learning about sports or fashion or whatever before making small talk about it. If someone likes to talk about it, use that as your opportunity to ask questions and learn. Try to tie it back to something that you're interested in, so that the conversation goes two ways. Maybe you're interested in economics, or physics, or power, or fantasy. Enjoy the challenge of tying them together in the conversation. Two results:

- Some people will think you're a weirdo, and some people will think you're fascinating; in the second case, you'll have an instant friend who's weird in some of the same ways you are.
- You may find that you come to enjoy the challenge.

And, to close, a quote from the always reliable Dr. Burns:
But it's a part of loving humanity to bend enough to be a little phony and play the game at first.  It sets people at ease, and it can be a way of caring.  Your philosophy of remaining aloof because of your need to be sincere strikes me as pretty cold and lonely.  You're a purist in an impure society, and you're asking people to be more than they really are.
posted by clawsoon at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2015 [13 favorites]

Are you sure it is a skills issue in your case?

Your question reads like "tell me how I can be more social, and help me give a rat's ass about your answer while you are at it."

If this attitude oozes through your pores when you interact with people, then all of the social skills in the world isn't going to make anyone want to hold up a conversation with you.
posted by incolorinred at 2:37 PM on February 18, 2015 [15 favorites]

Let's not shame the OP for their legitimate observations and way of experiencing the world. OP, you're not a freak. You sound like a classic introvert. Social contact is frankly exhausting for many of us. Grab this book. You've found your tribe. Lots of great insights in this book.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 2:38 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

Thing is, humans are wonderful oddball detectors.

This is not to say that you, OP, are an oddball. It is to say that every human's brain is wired to notice the similarities, and especially the dis-similarities, of everything in the world around us. I could anthropomorphize about evolutionary notice-the-predator things, but for right now: this is how humans and their brain work.

So we as a species have developed all of these similarities and rituals that you (rightfully) notice are meaningless. They are. You're right. They serve purposes, though. They form a background of similarity against which we can notice the meaningful differences.

You'd like to talk to a person you find attractive in a bar. The more oddball you are in terms of dress and speech, in approaching that person, makes it difficult to focus in on the thing you really want to do: present your real self, and connect at the level of unique persons (and not the clothes you're wearing, or that stupid show).

So the reason you choose the standard shirt and learn to talk about Breaking Bad is so that you can CHOOSE which other, real parts of yourself to focus on and present and differentiate. You control the oddball detection. It's not arbitrary: it's all strategy. That's really what social skill is. The real human connection is what happens once you've communicated: here's what I want you to notice about me.

Maybe understanding social skills as strategy, rather than values that you need to internalize and accept, will help subdue your frustration and anger with it.
posted by Dashy at 2:40 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

It seems like you're conflating a whole bunch of stuff as "social skills that are just a grinding charade". I get by just fine in life never talking about sports at all, for instance, because being interested in sports isn't really that important a social signal except to sports enthusiasts. But dressing appropriately, asking polite questions about people, that kind of thing - those are all ways that we negotiate the fact that we don't know anything much about each other and we need to build trust and history together. Because we chat about [enthusiasm], we build a history together that helps us progress to further intimacy; because I remember to ask you how your daughter is doing at college, I am showing that I care about you enough to think about you in more than an instrumental sense - what I'm doing is saying "I care about you, so I want to find out what's going on in your life, and I want to give you a chance to share your experiences and feelings". (Granted, I can fake all this.)

I think that one of the most important social messages we send with baseline smalltalk-level stuff is precisely that: "I care about you enough to want to give you the opportunity to share something of yourself with me, I care about you enough to be interested in our interaction beyond an instrumental level". "Nice shoes, want to fuck" is like the opposite of showing that you are not instrumentalizing people, for instance - even if it appears to be a rational way of approaching your goal of getting laid.

The thing is, in casual social interactions, we need to build ways of relating that are not purely instrumental - and we do that with games (word games - joking and flirting and telling stories) and with mutual inquiry.

As far as clothes go - you confuse me a little, because "the right clothes" is a very unspecific concept. Do you mean that you hang around only with preppies, for instance, and you resent having to wear Lily Pulitzer just to get a look in? That's a sign that you need another social circle. If what you're saying is that you resent being "judged" by your clothes - I take it on faith that you don't judge, say, the women you want to sleep with on their appearance - well, if you are a nice person and generally not smelly and gross, people will get to know you and not care about your clothes. But in a situation where people don't know you, they're going to rely on your clothes for information, at least at first. Luckily, men don't face nearly as much of this as women. (You don't specify your gender, but this seems like a dude question to me.) I mean, seriously, when you show up to meet a group of strangers at a fancy restaurant in your worn old tee and hiking pants, people are just going to assume that you don't care what others think - and sometimes we love people who don't care what others think, but other times it turns out that they don't care what others think and as a result feel really free to be mean or sexist or racist or stiff the waiter on the tip. Once everyone knows that you're a loveable eccentric in matters of dress, you can do as you please. But be sure to be a loveable eccentric, through demonstrating that you care about others' needs and interests.

There are times when it's okay - indeed expected - to fake stuff. Like job interviews - if you're going in to a totally unknown situation, it doesn't hurt to know who won the Superbowl or be able to say "oh, I've heard so much about [thing] but I haven't had a chance to see it yet - what do you think?" It doesn't hurt to have a suit that fits okay. But that's all just survival stuff, and I assume that's not what's eating you. (If it is, you need to work on your eccentric genius skills more.)

You might ask yourself what your ideal relationship to other human beings would be, and how you think you'd get there. You want to "get laid" - if you envision this as some kind of transactional/instrumental exchange based on making whatever gestures it takes to get the sex, I sincerely suggest that you cultivate a good, friendly-professional relationship with an escort. That way, the "what it takes to get to sex" stuff is "being polite, communicating clearly and paying money", and that doesn't really require faking.

I mean, why do we enjoy sleeping with people on some kind of sustained basis? Physical attraction, yes, but also some degree of trust, amusement, graceful interaction - even if those things are just established briefly for a hook-up. Fucking someone who you don't have any reason to trust, who isn't amusing or interesting and who has no ability to interact in socially graceful ways - okay, maybe you're a Samuel Delany character and that's your thing, and that's all right, but it's not typical.

Social interaction is about making yourself known and inviting the other person to make themselves known. It's like you're....doing a collaborative art project, maybe, or improvising music. You're actively creating something together.

I feel like you're thinking "there is the reality of my personality - if only I could communicate the reality of who I am without any kind of social interaction then people would like me and I would get laid". But that's like saying "if only I could enjoy lasagna without actually eating it - eating gets in the way of experiencing the essence of lasagna-ness". The reality of your personality is performed through social interaction. It's not zero-sum, like "I am performing awkwardness so I am No Good"; it's more "this person is kind of awkward but they're also really funny and they bring coffeecake to the meetings, that's what I recognize about who they are".
posted by Frowner at 2:40 PM on February 18, 2015 [52 favorites]

Opting out so conspicuously says as much about you as participating does about them, you know? I've known people who felt like you and at the heart of their misanthropy was a very real dislike of their own humanity. I can even tell in myself; if I'm frustrated at something I did or failed to do, I'm much less likely to find enjoyment in being social and more likely to find things like water cooler chat or happy hour with friends a contemptible burden. Maybe start from the inside and work your way out? Like yourself and you'll like others or something like that, who knows?
posted by stellaluna at 2:40 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Well, I guess one place to start is: Do you, actually, care about *anything at all*? Because all humans are not the same. Some humans probably care about things you care about, IF you care about anything at all.

And, our social structures aren't all as arbitrary as you seem to think. Many of our social rituals have their origins in time periods that were far more, well, perilous than our current one. (Consider the handshake! Many people theorize that people shake hands because, once upon a time, you had to physically check that your conversation partner wasn't going to knife you, and demonstrate that you weren't going to knife them!) Following the rules and rituals kept you from getting run through with a goddamn broadsword, so you better believe people learned the rituals and learned them well.

Political parties aren't arbitrary affiliations; people have opinions and ideas about how society should be structured, funds disbursed, and power allocated. Their political allegiances are how they attempt to put their preferred systems in place! I mean sure, not everyone is a political scholar or a lawmaker but even shallow political engagement is predicated upon deeply held opinions about the world.

Even dress codes aren't fully arbitrary. Why do we care what someone wears to a funeral? Well because a funeral MEANS something, and people participating in it wish to help create and contribute to that meaning. (and also, at least in the US, people care less and less about strict dress codes with every passing year. I ain't worn black to a funeral since my dad's, and even that was kind of just, "oh, well, this black dress is convenient and clean, and coincidentally a funeral color! that was easy.")

You see what I'm getting at, surely--your refusal to engage with humanity means you basically know fuck-all about it, which lack of knowledge convinces you it's pointless to engage, so you continue to know nothing about it, so you continue to not engage, and here you are, angry and bitter and stuck in a vicious circle.

Decide what YOU care about. Move amongst humans. Learn about how they do things enough that you can locate the other humans who care about the things you care about. Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:42 PM on February 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

To summarize: I would (at least in theory) like to feel greater kinship and connection with my fellow humans.

Feeling connection and kinship with other human beings requires, to a certain extent, doing the same things as them, or acting similar to them in some way.

You're right in that a lot of it is arbitrary, but just because it's arbitrary doesn't mean it doesn't matter in huge ways. To make a connection to other people, you have to indicate to them in some way that you are like them. This can be through clothing, but also through your speech, what you do for fun, what sort of car you drive, whether you have a dog or a cat or no pets, etc., etc., etc. All of it is ultimately somewhat arbitrary, but it sends a signal that says I AM X TYPE OF PERSON, and that's the point. We use these signals to find each other.

Luckily for you, choosing not to do something is, in some cases, as strong a signal as doing some particular thing. So you don't care about clothing, and wear whatever*? Congratulations! You're signaling that you're the sort of person that doesn't care, and you'll connect with people who also don't care that much.

*As a side note you probably have your very own special brand of "wearing whatever" which is signaling something, like e.g., your gender identity. So, tough cookies-- you're playing along whether you think you are or not.
posted by damayanti at 2:46 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

I would (at least in theory) like to feel greater kinship and connection with my fellow humans. However, all the advice I'm given on how to achieve that tells me to do things that I find baffling, agonizingly boring, unpleasant, bizarre, obnoxious, incomprehensible, offensive, insincere, meaningless, and/or absurd

Those sentences don't jibe. If you want to feel kinship with other people, you start by realizing that people are different from you, not just bad versions of you. And specifically in cases where a lot of people seem to agree that there are things that they like or enjoy, it might make sense for you to understand why those things are meaningful to them. Or hang out for the (smaller) group of people who shares your feelings about the world. They are out there, for certain, but they often (in my experience) don't always make good friends.

So I hear what you are saying. People are strange and a lot of what they do is weird and tough to understand. And you feel like digging your heels in the more people tell you "Well you have to learn this" I'm here to tell you that you don't. You can be exactly how you are. This will limit some of your future options, possibly (jobs, relationships, sense of community, old age security, I don't know). It's a trade off. In a situation where you might not like the set of choices that you have. And ultimately that points to a level of dissatisfaction that can't be fixed by just learning how to watch football (I have done it!) or having empathy for people who are religious when you are not (it's hard!) or attending meaningful traditions of people who are themselves meaningful to you when you find the traditions a little empty (I've been there!).

And some of it just has to do with your ability or desire to be part of a society instead of this "I am a rock I am an island" thing. You can be a rock/island and people will say weird things about that but whatever, people are different. The thing that allows you to ignore people giving you "helpful" advice that you may not like is also the thing that will enable you to make connections with people. Society requires a lot of different sorts of people. The church isn't my thing but they run the foodbank and that is a good thing so I see the value in it. Everyone doesn't have to be like me. I think the thing is trying to figure out what other people or things in your life do you feel have value enough that it's worth bending a bit to learn a bit about them as they learn about you. Because if your entire perspective is "This all sucks" then that's more like "Hey you might benefit from therapy because you sound like you've got some cognitive distortions gong on" and not "Hey manners are good because they are shortcuts to getting along with people whose values you might NOT share."

I value kindness, for example so even if people seem weird to me, I can be kind to them and that's a totally acceptable way to be most of the time. Some people are like that with love, or generosity, or even just "I fix their computers" or "I am nice to dogs" or "I pick up the litter on the highway" Finding a slot for you that you are comfortable with and that you can see yourself doing some of the work on is when you'll know you're on the right path. It's a pain and it takes a while sometimes to shed that protective outer skeleton but it's good to be known by people just like it is good to know them.
posted by jessamyn at 2:47 PM on February 18, 2015 [27 favorites]

Here's the thing. You don't realize it, but your question is circular. You're saying essentially I need to have social skills to win people over...but only shallow people care about social the people I need social skills to win over must be why should I care about winning them over?

Which, when you put it like that, is inarguable! I agree there is absolutely no point to doing something you don't want to do in order to win over people you don't care about.

But here's a thought experiment. Say that 99% of the people in the world aren't worth your time, and you'll never connect with them because they care about stupid stuff like sports and culture and what fabric your sweater is made of. But 1% of the population is absolutely like you, and they are the super coolest, and if you could just meet them, the rest of your life would be spent skipping through meadows and farting rainbows. And the only thing you need to do to connect with them is wear a shirt that says "I'm not a murderer" on it.

That would be doable, right? You're not a murder, and so that's a small price to pay for meeting your soul mate. But it's also social sephamore: you're signaling something that's true about you in order to signal to someone who's opinion you care about. You don't have to do any other kinds of signaling in order to have social skills, I swear to God.

Act politely to someone who's talking your ear off about something boring? You're signaling I am kind and don't want to hurt this person's feelings to sensitive, thoughtful people in range.

Wear X type of clothing in Y situation? Well, if this means "wear expensive uncomfortable clothing to falsely signal that you're the type of person who cares about expensive uncomfortable clothing," then no, don't do it. But maybe it means "Wear a Doctor Who tiepin to signal to other people who also like Doctor Who," or it just means, "I am aware enough to honor the dress code of this restaurant and I am signaling to other people who also appreciate a willingness to follow basic social conventions."

Right now, you are doing all this signaling you hate...ll you need to do is think about your signals and figure out if a.) they accurately reflect who you are (i.e., does your brusqueness maybe inadvertently signal arrogance?) and what kinds of behaviors are likely to win over the people you care about. Maybe you are signaling exactly the way you want to...or maybe there is a little leeway, and you could change your behavior and reap much bigger rewards.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:55 PM on February 18, 2015 [28 favorites]

It feels like I'm asked to earn the fellowship of others by're being asked to earn the fellowship of others by caring about them and what they're interested in, and they earn your fellowship in the same way.
posted by clawsoon at 2:58 PM on February 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

On occasion, I've sat down and made a list of all the things about human society that I just don't understand: small talk and flirting; allegiances to sports teams, political parties, and other group identities; fashion and dress codes; and so on. It is a long list.

Also, have you thought of trying to understand these things? Some of them are really interesting! You could read all kinds of books on fashion, dress codes, modernization, fabric production, race and gender, for instance - there's loads of stuff about queer signalling via clothes, there's loads of stuff about anti-colonial movements that had a dress element; there's loads of technical stuff about fabric (like the poisonous emerald green dye that they had in the early 19th century); there are tons of memoirs about subcultures and fashion and the meanings that fashion has for people. It might be that if you worked toward understanding these things, you would feel a little more...charitable? interested? towards/in the humans around you.

And it's interesting that you feel so baffled by "group identities" - why not put a little pressure on that? What kind of group identities? Do you feel baffled that librarians have their various sodalities? That there are GLBTQ support groups in high schools? That there's a Gay Men's Chorus of Minneapolis? That people who collect lego run message boards? What is it about "group identities" that is so confusing? (And why do you feel that you have none? Believe me, you have several, will you or never so.)

It's like, you seem to expect that if you could cut through all this bullshit about conversation and socializing and talking about common interests, then somehow the "real" of your being could emerge...and you would then have a social group. So you're looking for the very thing that you basically scorn. Where is that ambivalence coming from?

(My bet is that it comes from loneliness, insecurity and some social bad luck, by the way. Nicer people, either online or in real life; possibly a change of venue if you're stuck in some nightmare suburb; people who already share at least some of your interests so that no matter how much you stumble on the "so what do you do" part of the conversation you can at least sort out how you both feel about the Avengers franchise or whatever. As ever, if you live in Minneapolis I will be happy to recommend some places and volunteer opportunities for social oddities - you're welcome to memail me.)
posted by Frowner at 3:01 PM on February 18, 2015 [23 favorites]

I've had thoughts like yours - and to some extent I still do - but ultimately what shifted my mindset was, I realized two things:

1) I'm intensely curious about the world, about experiences other than my own. It's something that happens the older I get, and I'm very thankful for it. I think all people should be curious in this way. I think all people are, to an extent. I approach my social life and conversations with people in this way - from a starting point that other people are super fascinating, and the ways in which they differ from me are worth knowing about. All the smaller details - sports, fashion, chatting about the weather - are often just in-roads, ways of starting to make possible connection points with other people who you might find interesting and worth knowing, or vice versa. Just cultivate this active interest. When you're on a bus or sitting on a park bench, look at the people around you and imagine their complex inner lives, their life stories. Everyone has something unique going on. This is what makes the world so cool.

2) When I get too inside of my own head, for too long, things get pear-shaped. I have an active inner imagination, like most nerdy types do - focused intensely on very niche things that I find important, but few others do. I also get very self-aware to the point where my brain tumbles in on itself and does unpleasant things, and I begin feeling unwell. We're social creatures, even those of us who are destined to be into solitary pursuits. Get too hermetic, and you begin to lose that important perspective, the larger picture of what we're all doing here. You need other people to get you out of that. It's a constant balance for people like me (and maybe you) - too much socializing is overwhelming, too little is alienating and perspective-damaging. It's a tension, but it's absolutely worth it to make the effort every once in a while.
posted by naju at 3:04 PM on February 18, 2015 [11 favorites]

So I'm a mom (disclaimer: not your mom! :)) and part of my job is to try to help my kids both a) have the space to be themselves, b) learn enough about how to interact with people and culture to expand their choices, and c) be kind and decent to people.

I was raised by at-the-time hippies who taught me that anyone who cares about clothes is shallow and pop culture is a crock. And I am actually glad, because I don't feel pressured about a lot of things that people do...and yet guess what? I work for a really mainstream magazine and I like clothes.

So for you:

A) Is where you seem to need some help. Who are you? What do you like? Which people in your life have you liked? Where might they hang out? How would they want to be connected with you? What's your deal? If I were your best friend what would I like about you? If you were dying what would you most want to have had in your life this week?

B) See above for lots of advice. But mostly remember that social stuff is about you having a range of response. Sound like you know how to judge, be quiet, and leave. These are excellent skills, truly. Now you need to expand your range. What would you need to know to be able to start up a conversation at, say, a book reading? How would you give someone 5 minutes of your time to see what they have to say?

C) Your post sounds a bit mean but I am guessing you are not. I think you are preoccupied with trying to make people consistent when they are not. I don't know what you love but other people love their things that way. Sometimes. Sometimes they are just saying what they heard on TV last night.

Clothes, since you mentioned them, to you are just coverings and that is fine! For me, they are sensual (I buy used a lot both for ethical reasons and because I like my clothes "broken in") and right now my sweater hits my wrists right where the little line is to my palm and I like feeling that nicely knitted edge, and it actually is proportioned right so when I look in the mirror I look like "me" and not like someone in dress-up clothes because I have a long waist and certain tops and dresses make me look 5, and my skirt holds in my stomach that has born three babies full-term, and I think everyone should love stretched out jiggly buddha bellies except when mine is sticking out jiggly at work I feel old and most people I work with are ten years younger so this affords me the creative space to join them and pretend my belly is in their tribe even though my feminist brain is sooooo angry, and I am wearing the world's ugliest most practical boots about to leave for the day because fuck the nice boots I am not slipping in the snow.

So judge me for being shallow if you like -- I have accessories! If you look close one of them looks chic and is engraved "not all who wander are lost," OH NO TOLKIEN AT THE FASHION DESK. What does that mean? Am I geek shallow? Help.

And I don't care, at all, what you are wearing but I sort of hope that if it doesn't give you joy, something does.

And if we are going to do the dance of the tribe, to say hey, let's maybe care about each other (not creepily)...I want to kindly hear what that is for you and maybe you for me.

But I am not, even now, going to tell you my heart's true desire, I don't know you! So I'll show you my boots and talk about the weather to start. Kindness for both of us starts not by assuming you are clueless and I am shallow but by waiting to see who is there.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:06 PM on February 18, 2015 [24 favorites]

I'm an extrovert with the gift of gab. But I also like hearing what people have to say and I find few people boring or intolerable. Yeah there's some jerkwads along the way, but in general, I think most people are best kind. I have had conversations with all sorts of people over the years, and many people I assumed I shared no common ground with became dear friends or friendly acquaintances. I also live in a place where people are sociable and friendly, so that doesn't hurt either.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, when people let you in, you can learn so much, sometimes when you least expect it. When someone tells you part of their story, they are telling you what made them the person who is standing in front of you. That fascinates me to no end.
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:07 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

So something that I've been doing with respect to allegiance to group identities specifically, which I too find really baffling, is asking people with such allegiance about their allegiance. At least some of the time this comes off as disingenuous (why do you like football? doesn't always play well) but acknowledging some of these social niceties and your lack of understanding of them may help you to understand them, and even establish a bond with the other person.

A common version of this is, in a situation where small talk might be accepted, to talk about how much you dislike small talk. Almost everyone thinks they dislike small talk, and almost everyone likes talking about how much small talk sucks.

Same with fashion and dress codes: it's ok to comment on the arbitrariness of dress codes! A lot of people find them confusing and arbitrary! People don't know how to interpret party and wedding dress codes, no one really gets what business casual means, etc.

Basically, there's a lot of potential for connection to be found in your discomfort with these things. Own it and go with it.
posted by mchorn at 3:20 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

>I'm asking MeFites to tell me how to be more social, when I apparently despise the actual act of being social.

Perhaps realize that personality is mutable, and you can choose to change who you are? "Fake it until you make it", so to speak, in the same way that physically smiling seems to lead to happier thoughts. Go through the motions as genuinely as you can, and choose the change your mental shape, as much as you might if you were trying to build or extinguish any other habit or personality trait?

(Or, just memail me. I sympathize with a lot of what you wrote, and I'd probably like to be your friend.)
posted by solitary dancer at 3:23 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

how can I do so without resenting every moment of it?

You sound like you need to find your tribe first. By tribe I mean, people similar to you. Who are those people? I could speculate, but it's interesting that you don't mention a single thing that you like to do in your post.

Could you connect the mods via the "Contact" link at the bottom of this page and ask them to update this post? 'Cause there's really not much anyone here can help you without that information. It sounds very much like you're hanging out with in the wrong places with the wrong people, so you're forcing yourself into situations that are awkward for you.

But if, for instance, you like comics books, then we could tell you find a comic book shop or convention or something similar, then go there and start talking to people about comics. There's no need to make vague small talk about the weather if you're looking for Uncanny X-Men #219 because you really like Brett Bredding's art and want to find out other stuff he's done. And the story, the direction it took Forge was pretty neat, and you want to know where the character went after that.

The other thing you is mask the disdain that your post reeks of. Be interested in something and then follow that interest. So when you go to a local art show or book signing, you're going because you're interested in this particular artistist or art style and you talk to the artist or others there about those things. Yes, you make be dressed odd or what have you. That's fine, more or less, as long as you're interested in something and want to share that interest with others.

So yeah, let the us know what interests you and if possible, the city your'e located in, and we can give you more specific information on how to not die alone and maybe get laid once in a while.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:24 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have the bare minimum down: make appropriate eye contact; take turns speaking; respect personal space; wash your shirt if you get mustard on it—that sort of thing.

As a thought experiment, I would say to ask yourself why you do even that much? After all, those are arbitrary social conventions, too. Maybe because the consequences of not doing those basics would be too isolating and emotionally painful? Maybe because once you got started and built the habits over a period of years, those basics feel pretty normal and natural by now? It's really a choice you get to make as to whether your compelling reasons truly are compelling enough for you to choose to do even more arbitrary socially prescribed crap than you're already doing. But draw the analogy from your own experience. Compare what your life would be like with mustard on your shirt and without eye contact, to what your life is like when you put those basics in place. If you add some beyond-basic social skills, it will add that much more to your life.

OP, I could have written your post some years ago. The insight that helped me most was realizing that socializing takes effort for everyone. Yes, even for extroverts who tend to catch on quickly to how to do it well, and who usually find the effort enjoyable. To expand on Rock Steady's analogy, a professional musician may have a lot of natural talent and enjoy playing their music, but it took years of unpaid work to get to where they are and once they're professional, it is work they expect to get paid for. As fun as it may be for them, and even though people say things like "do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life," it actually never stops being work.

When the only people I was interacting with were mostly people who felt some kind of duty toward me (parents and teachers) or who were exceptionally caring and inclusive and were going out of their way to smooth the interaction, it finally dawned on me that I was a mooch. I was letting others do all the work of making the connection, and I wasn't reciprocating by doing my fair share. If I did more of that work, it really would expand my circle, and expanding my circle really would enrich my life. At the very least, having more people to rail against societal conventions with is pretty fun.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:33 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

Here is the only social skill, in terms it sounds like you will understand it: Form a model of the person you're interacting with. Use that model to guess how they'll react to something before you do it, and decide if you want them to react that way. Boom, done.

But, geez, from your question, you are hella angry. I feel resented by you. People detect anger really really well. It tends to color interactions. If you want to deal with people, you need to get a handle on that. I dunno why you're angry but you should probably figure that out.
posted by PMdixon at 3:39 PM on February 18, 2015 [12 favorites]

But when I start reading specific, actionable advice, I quickly get frustrated and resentful about how seemingly arbitrary it all is.

You say "arbitrary" like it's a bad thing. But it's actually fine. Let me explain.

Did you ever take physics? Or any advanced math course? If you didn't, please ignore this whole comment as it probably won't make sense. But I'm going to guess you did, and I'll go further and guess you were probably at least decent at it. If you did, you must've run into the situation where the teacher's saying, "Okay, we have this equation, x = y + pqr" and you know that those variables are totally made up, and completely arbitrary. But you (hopefully!) didn't get frustrated or resentful; you probably didn't badger the teacher asking "But WHY is it x = y + pqr, why can't it be a = b + jkl?" One set of variables is just as good as the next, for purposes of solving the equation, and so getting hung up on the arbitrariness of the variables is a waste of time. If you saw somebody who was getting hung up on why the variables were always x and y and never a and b, you might guess that they didn't really get the more important, underlying concepts because they were getting hung up on stuff they ought to recognize is trivial.

Now here's the thing: "Wear X type of clothing in Y situation." is exactly like those math or physics equations. The fact that it's X and Y and not A and B is, indeed, completely trivial and unimportant; what IS important is that somebody needed to pick a couple of variables so they could "solve the equation". Asking "why is it [BLACK TIES] at [FANCY RESTAURANTS]" is just like asking why e stands for 2.71828... and pi stands for 3.14159... and not the other way around. In both cases, the real answer is "random historical accident, but that's not important, what's important is that having it always be that way gives us a way to make sure everybody's on the same page."

Right now, you walk into a fancy black-tie restaurant wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and you see everyone else, dressed to the nines, as mindless sheep, and you congratulate yourself as the only one to see how superficial and arbitrary it all is and think that their judgement of you marks them as equally superficial. But it ain't that. That's a misread of the situation. Instead, walking into a black-tie restaurant wearing a tie-dye t-shirt is like getting up in front of a math class and writing equations on the board where you use pi to mean 2.71828 and e to mean 3.14159 and thinking those deluded, superficial sheep who are judging you just don't *get* how meaningless and arbitrary the symbols chosen to represent numbers are, how any symbol could be anything and it doesn't matter which ones are which. And you're wrong, and in both situations all you're really doing is making a fool out of yourself. They do get that. They completely get that the symbols are arbitrary, but they also get that these are the symbols that everyone uses, and what makes them valuable is precisely that everyone uses them.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:47 PM on February 18, 2015 [42 favorites]

You might want to read through this thread ( because a lot of the responses there offer further insight on why starting off with a baseline level of scorn for people who like things (especially things you do not personally like) is really toxic, and bound to undermine any attempts to really get to know people.

One thing I will mention-- you seem to be under the impression that people who like things like them wholeheartedly and uncritically. That is not the case for 99% of the people I know. People interested in fashion are often well aware of the class/gender/body image baggage that goes with it, and are interested in talking about it. People interested in sports are often very troubled by steroid use and concussion statistics. People who like silly movies are often interested in discussions about how Hollywood tends to quash more intellectual/unusual plot lines. Stop assuming everyone you meet is part of some sheeple horde.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 3:50 PM on February 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

A stranger could hurt you. You have no idea, in interacting with a new person, if they are a serial liar, murderer, cannibal, what have you.

Low-stakes interaction gives you a way to suss out strangers. If those low-stakes interactions convince you that the stranger doesn't intend you bodily harm, maybe you're willing to have slightly higher-stakes interactions. If those slightly higher-stakes interactions convince you that the acquaintance is not likely to cause you severe emotional harm, maybe you're willing to have even higher-stakes interactions. If those higher-stakes interactions convince you that the friend is not likely to cause you moderate emotional harm and that the friend may actually bring you some joy, maybe you up the stakes some more. Etc.

Developing relationships is about developing trust, and earning trust requires being consistent over a fair amount of time. Yes, a lot of the way we classify which interactions are appropriate to which level of relationship is slightly arbitrary, but any individual conversation or signal is part of a larger story we're telling people about who we are and using to assess who the other person is -- not necessarily at face value, but as a puzzle piece that may (or may not) fit in with the other puzzle pieces we discover about the other person. The more the pieces fit, the more consistent and trustworthy we find the other person. The more their fitted-together pieces fit together with ours, the more fun and inspiring and delightful we find the other person.
posted by jaguar at 3:57 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

Many years ago, when I was still a misanthropic teenager, one of my co-workers gave me a piece of advice that I’ve carried with me ever since:

You’re going to have to lick a whole lot of brown before you get to the pink. To put it in less dirty terms, there’s no shortcut to the good stuff.

There are things about me that pretty much everyone knows. There are things about me that only my very trusted friends know. There are things about me that no one else knows, because I don’t trust anyone that much. Conversations may seem arbitrary to you, but they’re anything but. Small talk serves an important purpose; it provides you with low-risk opportunities to feel out whether or not a person is socially trustworthy. When someone brings up a topic, they usually don’t care whether or not you care about the topic; they’re just trying to figure out if you’re going to respond in a friendly way.

I care less about sports than I do about just about anything, but I recognize that when someone brings up a sport to me, s/he is offering me a chance to be friendly. For example:

Q:Did you catch the game on Sunday?
A:No, my Sundays are reserved for hiking.

What that answer does is signal that I’m not trying to shut down the other person, because I’m volunteering a (fairly inconsequential) piece of information about myself that gives them an opportunity to respond. Over time (and usually several conversations), as I see that the other person doesn’t respond in a shitty way to the inconsequential stuff, I trust them with gradually more important things. If s/he responds to the inconsequential stuff by being a jerk, I can walk away without having exposed anything important.

My deeply personal stuff is fucking complicated, and it has the potential to hurt me very badly if it’s not handled carefully, so I need to check that people can handle the social basics before I let them in on the next-level shit. To be completely frank, anyone who looks at the social vetting process and sees it as being arbitrary is already showing that their particular skill set and outlook probably disqualifies them from anything deeper than very casual acquaintance with me.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:07 PM on February 18, 2015 [22 favorites]

Have you ever been evaluated for Aspergers or Autism? I ask because your attitude about social norms and social interaction is identical to the way one of my family members operates, and they're an Aspie in every way. Just something to consider. Contrary behavior, disdain for others, feeling alien, etc, can be markers for non-neurotypical wiring so to speak (IME and in the experience of my family member anyway)
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:22 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Small talk is like radio: the main frequency (the words) are just carriers for the really important stuff: how you feel about other people and the world. These feelings are too subtle and nuanced, and important, to be communicated concisely in mere words. By choosing what small talk to perform, you can say the only important thing: I'm interested in knowing you and being on your side. By disdaining small talk, you're also saying something important: I don't want you to know me, either because I fear or dislike you. Unfortunately, people are hard-wired to always seek to learn if a new person is a friend or a (vague) threat -- there's no neutral. Neutral is how enemies act when looking for weaknesses, or when they haven't noticed you yet.

Choices in fashion etc. are a way to offer information about yourself to others. Again, saying nothing is not an option: no matter what you're wearing, people will unconsciously draw conclusions (perhaps not all people, but I think for the vast majority of people, extracting information from others' appearance is involuntary and nearly impossible to overcome).

So: what do you want new people to know about you? If the answer is nothing, then it's normal for them to regard you as a non-friend, at least before you give them information of some kind about yourself.

(I write as someone who has recently decided that I've been letting my appearance give people a false impression of my personality).
posted by amtho at 4:28 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

i am sure other people are giving you great advice. i will not give you good advice. instead, i will tell you that i agree with you and feel the same way. i struggle with not caring and wanting to completely abstain from social interactions 99.99999999% of the time. however, i have to pay the bills somehow, and i have to grocery shop sometime, and i like to socialize sometimes. just do what you think is best for you and ease into it and back off when you don't feel like it. be true to yourself. you don't have to be lvl 99 social to talk to someone at that same level. sometimes they'll stoop to your lvl 15 (in my case 9) and help you quest and do dungeons and stuff. so take it easy, recognize you're a noob and everyone is trying to figure out how to relate to each other in a way. (not always the best way, and i'm a special snowflake that my mode of speech is monologues and book references with an occasional poetic side tangent. i have yet to meet someone who isn't immediately put off by my "normal" way of speech, so i make a concerted effort when i have to so i don't come off klingon.)

some people have cheat sheets and fake it til they make it like they say. put as much effort into it as you think you're getting back. but at the end of the day, wasting energy on something that might not make your life any better isn't helping anybody. so talk if you want to talk, don't if you don't, throw out minor references to the weather sometimes. good luck, and make sure you think before you say something, there isn't a load screen in life.
posted by lunastellasol at 4:32 PM on February 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

Social skills are a tool kit that you can use to interact with other people. Let's start with fashion. With a little bit of skill you can learn to identify which of a small range of stores people shop in. For example, if there is an alligator on their clothes they probably bought LaCoste which means they were willing to pay an extra $30 to $100 per garment to inform people around them that they are in the social class that shops at LaCoste. Their parents are probably going to be able to pay for their entire university education and the won't have any student debt to speak of when they graduate and they will be able to take an unpaid internship. On the other hand a different range of patterns and styles will indicate that this person shops at Suzy Shier, which is one step up from Wal-Mart and indicates that they possibly had to go into debt to finance their high school graduation, and are firmly in the struggling and probably not succeeding middle class who can get clerical jobs, and management jobs at franchises, but not higher than that, and not any creative career.

People's choices in what they wear provides you with a lot of information. Now, depending on what you are doing in life, you may or may not have any use for this information. If you are trying to find friends who will be interested in the same stuff as you are, you will probably have more luck if you talk to people who are in your own income, education and expectations bracket. The LaCoste person may look at you as an intolerable upstart for speaking to them at all, and the Suzy Shier person may look at you as encroaching stranger if you try to speak to them, both of them making a quick assessment of how different you are from them by the clothes you are wearing and deciding that you are the wrong sort of person. This is true even if you are trying to talk to them about say, music, instead of fashion.

But let's say you are trying to raise money for a worthy cause, rather than to make friends. The LaCoste person will likely have access to a lot more money than the Suzy Shier person, but they will probably require recognition in some way that will enhance their status or at least defer to it. The Suzy Shier person will likely have a lot less money but be more willing to give some of it to your worthy cause. But the LaCoste person will be more likely to give you money if you are a LaCoste person, and the Suzy Shier person will be more likely to give you money if you are a Suzy Shier person. Of course, if you are a LaCoste person you can always pretend that you think the Suzy Shier person is one of your LaCoste tribe, and get some money from her because she gains an increase in status when she passes for a LaCoste. Their fashion gives you information that you can use in a lot of different ways.

This is what social skills are for. It's to give you fewer uncomfortable and miserable and boring and alienating experiences. It's so that when everyone is jockeying for positions you can guess how long you can talk before someone will interrupt you, whether anyone will say something rude to you or be condescending, whether criticizing a suggestion someone else makes will get you pushed out of the group, or gain you adherents.

Whenever you have to interact with someone else you can use social skills to make the experience better. You use your social skills to decide whether you chat with the manager, cut the conversation as short as possible, make a few tactful suggestions or make some strongly worded demands. In different situations different approaches will be better. How do you decide. You are at a disadvantage if you only ever make strongly worded demands.

What about all that boring stuff. Football stats? A detailed recap of the game including the information of what player was drafted when for which position? The reason it is stulifying to you is because you are not part of that tribe. The conversation is designed to be boring so it will exclude you deliberately. The thing is, people divide into different groups, and usually belong to quite a few of them. Some groups, such as families and ethnicities are much harder to break into and often impossible. Other groups are a lot easier. Anyone willing to do skutwork such as painting backdrops can get into the fringes of the after school theatre crowd. Anyone willing to role up a D & D character can join a gaming group. It takes having seen the Harry Potter movies to join a group writing Harry Potter slash. It takes having physical skill at sports to get onto a team. If you go to a few football games and read up on the subject you can probably become a peripheral member of the football group. If you want to. Many groups have an argot which makes it easier for their members to convey information and harder for non-members to understand. What the heck is a fourth down? Half-time?

Getting into groups that are based on common interests is easier if you have other group kinship with the members. So if the women in the D & D group all wear Wal-Mart clothes, you may have to dress down a little before they will be as comfortable with you.

There is a good chance that many people are thrusting social skills at you because they are seeing them as important to your income and status in the years to come. It's much easier for the kid wearing LaCoste to get a good recommendation from one of their teachers than it is for a Suzy Shier kid, and even harder for a Wal-Mart kid. The chances are the lead in the theatre group is going to wear LaCoste rather than Wal-Mart. The chances are the person who has the most say in the D & D group is going to be the one with the highest status, and probably the most power. Perhaps they are the one who provides transportation or hosts the game, or owns the most D & D manuals. And all that will probably go with the type of clothes they wear. What's more, if you hang out with LaCoste kids you will be treated much more like a LaCoste kid, whereas if you hang out with the Wal-Mart kids you are much more likely to be treated badly, even if you are a LaCoste kid yourself.

Social skills are designed to help you advance in this status competition. After all, a Wal-Mart kid can buy second hand LaCoste and make people uncertain if they are Wal-Mart or LaCoste. If you put in enough hours working on set design and blocking and understudying, and providing transportation to rehearsals and fetching coffee you will become a member of a group and thus entitled to the perks and benefits of belonging to that group.

One perk is information. If you want to find a job, or learn who to talk to in order to change a course, or find out where people are meeting, or if it is worth it to sell your textbooks or any of a zillion other useful bits of knowledge, the more people who consider you part of your tribe the more likely someone is to help you out with this information. There is a lot of information that it is much easier to get from people than it is to get from research. By the time a job is advertised it is very often filled.

Every group works on enhancing the status of that group. That's why people tell you that the thing their group is into is so important. If they can convince other people that their thing is important it gives them more power and control. For example the sports team and the theatre group are both competing for a limited supply of resources and money.

So how do you connect with other people?

Well first of all, do you actually want to connect? For example, there are a fair number of people out there who want to be loved, but don't want to act loving. They want to be given status and resources and attention and respect but they don't want to give anything in return, or they want to give far less than they get. They want someone to read their poems and don't want to read other people's poems. If you are one of those people you have a really difficult problem. It's basically impossible to connect with other people unless you can reciprocate. And unfortunately faking it means that someone who isn't faking it will be much better at it than you are and you will lose out to them. You might find someone to read your poems for awhile, but they will need things from you and if they don't get them you will lose them.

Sometimes when you have spent a long time doing things alone it can be hard and uncomfortable to include other people. During a fifteen year period when my kids were small, I got very isolated. I worked midnight jobs, often alone and lived in a city where people were culturally different from me. Before that I had used to write a fair bit of collaborative fiction, but during that decade and a half I had nobody to write with, or to show my work to and to get feedback. Now I find it hard to write fiction for other people. My first impulse is to think, I don't want to write it like that. I want to control the story minutely because I am so used to being in control. I find myself feeling that I am going in the wrong direction when I steer the story towards plot elements that please other people. What used to be a fun social activity can be a chore instead.

And yet when I write only for myself I find my work getting narrower and narrower. It doesn't expand in scope in theme, or anything. It just gets repetitive, stock characters moving mechanically through stock plots. There is a real value to me in working with other people because they have different needs and details, which allow my stories to expand. Connecting with people requires you to expand and trust that there will be a payoff. And there will because your mental environment becomes much richer and then much more fertile.

So if you actually want to connect with people, I would suggest you start thinking of the things you already like doing which are a form of giving or nurturing or helping. This is tricky. For example, allowing people to read your poems is not a form of nurturing because there are fewer people who want to read poems than there are poets. It's the same with being an expert or giving advice. There are many more people (like me!) who want to give advice than people who want to get it. The odds are high that you will say feh when you read this post, if you even get this far. I'm giving the best advice and information I can muster and still most likely I'm not going to hit that sweet spot where what I write will be of use to you. But my point is, being an expert is something that other people allow you to be and there are far more people who want to be an expert than that want to be condescended to.

It's tricky connecting to people. If you do them a favour you may be forcing them into a one down position. So the technique is to make sure that the things you do for people build their public status and their self-esteem. Social skills are techniques you use for doing things like this. It's a matter of saying, "I enjoy your company so much that giving you a lift home is a pleasure to me," and meaning it enough to carry it off.

You definitely don't need to go out and take up a hobby that you find teeth-grittingly boring. You are almost certainly not the only person in the world to like the things that you like and to be interested in the things you are interested in. You might start by figuring out what you like and then going out and looking for experts who can tell you more about that particular thing you like. I'm guessing that either everything in life bores you, or that you are interested in some things that are not mainstream interests in the people you get to see regularly.

Now if everything in life bores you and you don't have any special interests -all I can do is suggest an alternative possibility. It's not that it's all boring, it's that it's all too difficult. For example you may find talk of fashion bewildering and pointless if you have trouble telling people apart, let alone figuring out what they are wearing, what it signals and where they might have bought it. So in that case you need to go back and figure out what makes the topic so hard to grapple with. The answer could be that people are using the topic to push you away. Or it could be that you just have to back up to the beginner steps and figure out what they are.

One good thing to do when you have difficulties with social skills is to see what happens when you are completely truthful about them. If you are forced to join a conversation about sports begin with an honest question like, "What sport do the Dallas Cowboys play?" People might be willing to back the conversation down to a level you can participate in without being exhausted. Or they might be completely disdainful of you. If they are disdainful it means they don't want to talk on your level; they are probably a bad bet for working on your social skills with or for getting your social needs met.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:41 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

Oh, and if you want to meet people who you'll actually connect with, use this stuff as a kind of language with which you can show who you are, so that people who are interested in you will be able to find you. No need to intimidate the masses, but at least give your real friends, who are out there and who also think that faking an interest in sports teams is vaguely repulsive, a chance to find you. At the same time, you can share enough about yourself with everyone to show that you are worth introducing to their more extreme acquaintances.
posted by amtho at 4:59 PM on February 18, 2015

I used to also hate smalltalk and feel like "Who cares what type of fabric I use to insulate my body".

Then I was forced to be in situations with many strangers, e.g. mandatory work events. I discovered that smalltalk makes those situations much more pleasant! In fact, sometimes I would be standing in a crowded room feeling out-of-place and miserable, and then someone would come up to make smalltalk, and I would actually be very grateful.

I also found that smalltalk often evolved within a few minutes into very interesting conversations. The smalltalk part was still boring, but I could quickly take it into interesting places.

Also, sometimes I met people who I was really attracted to, and smalltalk was the only way to start conversations with them.

With regard to clothing, I discovered that I look much better when I'm wearing clothes that fit well. The first time I put on well-designed clothing and looked in the mirror, I was quite surprised. I was surprised that I looked better than I ever thought I could, and also that it was very pleasurable to see this.

I venture to guess that you've disconnected the being-social activity from the social-positive-feedback reward. You don't imagine yourself looking fantastic in fashionable clothes, and then having people you find attractive cooing over you and developing a crush on you and wanting to date you. That's what you need to imagine! Instead right now, ou probably imagine yourself wearing fashionable clothes and feeling out-of-place and unhappy, and then still getting the same response from your potential dates.
posted by vienna at 5:20 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

One day you're going to meet someone you really like. Like, you want to be around them. And you're going to get a chance. But then you're going to be all, ummm..... what do I do now? And it will be really awkward and painful. You'll probably say to yourself then, man, I wish I had something to talk about, or I wish it wasn't so uncomfortable just then. So first, look at it as preparing for that ahead of time so you don't blow it for yourself. It takes practice, so practice now on the people you don't care as much about.

But then think about it a little more. Sometimes you won't even notice you like that person until you've been around them a little. Sometimes you DON'T like them when they're in 'you're a stranger' mode, but it turns out you really do when they relax a little around you. How many people are you keeping in stranger/awkward mode because you can't be bothered to learn some making-people-comfortable skills? And then wondering why you don't like more people.

Lots of people don't like small talk. It's just a way of getting through the "Does this stranger seem dangerous? Is this friend in a grumpy mood? Is it safe to relax?" and into the real part of being with people. It's either over soon, or you decide you don't like the other person or them you. That happens too sometimes; it's not a magic thing that makes people like you because you're a great small-talker.
posted by ctmf at 5:24 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Why? Short answer: why not?
I don't care about sports teams, political parties, alumnae groups, or any of that stuff. I do care about people individually and collectively, and want not just my day to be easier/better, but also that those with whom I come in contact have an easier/better day. If my asking about the Dodgers or the traffic or the cute doggie in the window makes someone smile or relax a bit, I'm contributing to the greater good.
Even if I'm a tiny bit bored by the interaction--what's my 10 minutes of boredom in the big scheme of things?
You don't have to be a tap-dancing extrovert who juggles and wears Chanel #5 and gives everyone a big smile and warm hug--you just don't have to be a jerk who makes things worse.
So what if you think it's absurd or dull or pointless? Do the kind thing anyway.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:34 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

It seems like part of the problem is you are feeling overwhelmed; all this pop culture stuff etc. is a huge amount of information that other people seem to know, and you don't.

And the amount of advice in this thread is probably more overwhelming.

Don't let it all boggle you; just do whatever sounds easiest, or makes the most sense, or feels the most natural, and advance at your own pace.

And realize that other people are often winging it too.
posted by serena15221 at 5:57 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

But when I start reading specific, actionable advice, I quickly get frustrated and resentful about how seemingly arbitrary it all is.

Rules of spelling, grammar, and language itself are all arbitrary, and yet you're pretty good at using all of those tools to communicate. And you use the common rules that we have agreed upon to communicate with us instead of insisting of using some set of expressions and words of your own choosing.

It's precisely because social interaction is tiring and potentially dangerous that we have a set of norms in place that allow anonymous people to "feel each other out": is this person pleasant to be around, even when he's just in the room and I'm not talking to him? If I interact with this person, will the interaction be a positive one?

Just as an example, I don't know you. So all I have to go on is your post. I can understand it, and it's spelled correctly, so it's not distracting and difficult to read. The topic is somewhat interesting, falling into the category of a social skills AskMe, and it's interesting to hear your perspective. On the other hand, there's a certain amount of seething resentment coming through, which makes it unpleasant. But this is a forum in which you ask for answers, and by reading it, I accept that not all questions will be easy or asked by someone I relate well to, so I continue, given the context. That didn't seem so hard for you, so I think you have the basics down. Given that you are capable of reaching out to others in an appropriate manner, do you think you can keep doing that?

What exactly are you looking for, anyway?
posted by deanc at 6:03 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

OK so I am probably the last person who should be giving advice on social skills, but this IS Ask Metafilter after all.

I get where you're coming from. I am a pretty introverted guy. I don't care about sports either. I don't have cable. I don't know who the celebrities are or care what they do.

You seem to be really concerned about jumping through hoops and following arbitrary "rules". Those aren't rules, but more so guidelines to smooth things over.

If you don't care about sports, then don't talk about sports. Sports - or celebs, or TV, or whatever - are just convenient small talk topics for people who otherwise have nothing in common (or don't know what they share in common). Nobody is going to make lifelong friendships over discussing the latest Kanye West hijinks.

As for small talk, as you must have read in countless other AskMes and answers here, nobody actually likes to do it. Talking to strangers is awkward and we'd rather to talk to our friends about cool stuff we actually care about. But given you don't care about sports (or TV, or celebs, or whatever), you use small talk to figure out things you both care about discussing. If you just know that you have nothing in common, then you small talk because standing around looking at a casual acquaintance in silence is even more awkward.

I don't even know where you're going with the clothes thing. It seems more a complaint about cultural norms than social skills. Just wear the type of clothing everyone else is wearing. Don't show up to a formal event in a ratty t-shirt and jeans. That's probably the least difficult and most tolerable aspect of social events; you don't even have to say anything.

I mean, if that's what friendship and human connection are really about, I guess I don't want friendship or human connection in the first place.

You must know this, but you won't click with everybody. The whole point of friendship is finding people you don't have to do all the BS with. People who you feel comfortable spending the whole day with without saying a word. People you know won't judge you for your personality or the things you're interested in.

I think what you need to do is figure out if you want to be more social because you feel that's what you're "supposed" to do, or because you want to be less awkward in social situations, or because you want to make friends.
posted by pravit at 6:30 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just wanted you to know that I'm another one like you. I strongly suspect I have Asperger's, though I'm not diagnosed yet. I'm most definitely an introvert. But I have found books for Aspies about socializing to be helpful and relatable. You might too. Try John Elder Robison's books and if you are a woman, Aspergirls by Rudy Simone.

My experience with small talk and the like is a bit hollow. I do it mostly to set others at ease around me and it makes me feel sort of dissociated when I'm talking to someone I'm not connecting with. However, there are those rare-gem type people that I do connect with, and the only way I've found them is by sifting through those that I don't really click with. Generally these people are other introverts and are often interested in things I'm into. There are a lot of people who don't care about sports and celebrities but are into things like programming, literature, music, etc. These are the ones I will relate to more.

I think you might be on the spectrum because of the black and white thinking you have about socializing, like there are rules and that if you follow them you will get friends. I can relate to parsing things this way, but unfortunately people are not that easy to hack. Relationships are more gestalt than a collection of transactions. When you meet someone whose brain works like yours, you will feel a click with that person and you won't need small talk. You won't have that feeling of boredom and awkwardness and wanting to jump out of your skin. Interest-based groups would be a good place to start.

MeMail me if you want a few more reading recommendations or to commiserate.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 6:47 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

-Tao Te Ching (Mitchell Translation)
posted by landis at 7:17 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Re: dressing a certain way in a certain situation, yeah, there certainly is an arbitrary nature to it. And you're right to point to the fact that different cultures have totally different rules here. However, the idea of clothing denoting different levels of formality alsocuts across cultures: that in some situations (e.g. weddings) you wear something more "special" than your everyday wear. Which clothes fulfill which functions is to some extent arbitrary and driven by history, but the underlying idea is less arbitrary. Similarly, the word "book" only has its meaning because we, speakers of English, have agreed that it does, and it wouldn't be intelligible to someone from a different culture who didn't know English. But that doesn't mean that language is inherently absurd or nonsensical.

And if it were truly just that it was arbitrary, I don't think it would actually bother you to the degree that it does now. You mention that you think it's a waste of "time, money, emotional energy, and natural resources." With respect to natural resources and money, I actually think this is a fine thing to object to: a lot of conservation-oriented people who still want to be able to satisfy certain dress codes get around these objections by thrifting and buying second-hand clothes. As far as time goes, sure, this costs some time, but consider that your sense of how much time people devote to it may be skewed by knowing people who shop recreationally. It's okay to make your own decision about how much time you think it's "worth" and to have that amount of time be much less than other people's.

"Emotional energy" is an interesting objection to me because it suggests that thinking about clothes stresses you out a lot. I think it can be worthwhile to explore these emotions more. I had a lot of baggage about clothes growing up, for instance, and wrote about it in another AskMe answer here. I really resented clothing and dressing a certain way for a certain occasion in what I think is similar to what you've voiced here, and now I have a lot less angst about it. Basically, a lot of this "emotional energy" I was spending dealing with clothing and dress codes actually had more to do with my feelings of being insecure about how I was perceived. When I worked on trying to fix that, a lot of my resistance to caring about clothing evaporated.

It's definitely not all gone -- for instance, I am currently annoyed because I probably have to wear a suit at an event this summer. But I think about it a little differently than I used to. For instance, I think some of my annoyance about this event is actually just that I don't have a suit that fits me well, so I don't feel confident wearing one. This seems like a legitimate consideration to me, but is not a reason that suits are inherently bad: I recognize that they actually make suits that flatter a really broad array of body types, as well as ones that are less stuffy/frumpy looking. It's also my college reunion and I'm nervous about whether a bunch of hypercompetitive assholes are going to judge me -- but again, that's not really about the suit. The list of things said assholes can judge me on already is very long even without clothes! It includes my career choice, my politics, how much money I make in said career, where I live, whether I own a car, whether I have kids, etc., etfc. Once I unpack things like that it often suddenly seems a lot less overwhelming and I can make a more clear-headed choice about whether I want to, e.g., spend money on a new suit, rent one, have mine tailored, or dress a bit under the code and wear something I already have.

Anyway, this is sort of long-winded and circuitous but maybe you'll find something helpful here.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:49 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

People who want to improve their social skills generally want to do so, in part at least, because they feel uncomfortable and awkward with their current social skills. Yes, there are all the side benefits of smoothing things out at work and being more influential and having more friends. But for most people, having bad social skills and knowing it is deeply uncomfortable, because we want to connect with our tribe and feel that they belong, and we know it's not quite working yet in the way we want it to.

However - The things you talk about - clothing, sports, celebrities - these to me are not what I think of when I think of social skills. They might make small talk with a certain type of person easier, and I've seen people who are interested in that stuff anyway use it very effectively as a bonding tool. If you were fascinated with celeb gossip it would be a great way to strike up conversation with tons of random strangers you have nothing else in common with. But asking people about themselves, and listening, showing you care, being empathetic and curious, practicing basic manners, are the kind of social skills that help create trust and friendship.

I give you permission to forget about sports and celebrities and succeed socially anyway. Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 7:54 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, I think Rock Steady has it; smooth, harmonious social interaction is basically hedonic for most people. It just feels good to experience a moment of shared understanding. You meet someone who likes the song that gets you dancing every time - you both know what that pleasure feels like, and talking about that song is a shortcut to that feeling, and is a way of identifying that you and that person are kind of similar, in that way. Talking to someone else who read that book or watched that episode at roughly that same time of life, and discovered the same meaning or enjoyment in it at the time, means, basically, experiencing recognition. Talking shit about fashion and movies and TV can be shortcuts to less aloneness, for those who've cared about the experiences in question.

I met up with a childhood friend not long ago. We've long since moved from the city we're originally from. She reminded me of the bakery we used to go to for $1 brownies when we were eight - the place with the gold-rimmed display cases and green wallpaper. And that chunk of our lives came back to me, like a gift. You might say, so what, you ate some brownies from a shop ten million years ago. It's stupid, ok, but remembering those brownies and that shop together was sort of a way of affirming that time, that we existed in it then - she was there, I was there - and also that we were here, together, in the moment of remembering.

Kids play games of mirroring each other and communicating before they know what the hell is going on. Look at these guys here. They don't even know what they're saying. They just like hanging out together. It feels good to them. (Well, I guess it's hard to know what they're feeling exactly, but it does seem that way.)

Spending time with a bunch of friends, laughing at stuff, teasing each other, indulging in nostalgia, eating and drinking together, can feel kind of like you're all sharing the same big, warm blanket, or a hug. (Not far, I would think, from what's roughly meant by the Danish word "hygge" [I think I saw it here first], which shades into concepts like "well-being" and is described here as "the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one".) Not everyone has felt this feeling, for one or another reason, or necessarily always has access to it, but it's really nice when you can get it. I think it's worth working towards.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:16 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Purely practical advice: Take an introductory class about [topic]. People often make friends in school environments because it's a social situation (a group of people all interested in [topic]) but a very structured one (you're not there to gossip with each other, you're there to learn), so it's easier to both choose to get to know someone and choose to keep things less personal.

So! Take a 101 class; it can even be an online class or one of those workshop things that only last a month. Best case scenario: you will bond with a classmate or your teacher over your shared interest in [topic]. Worst case scenario: you never have to see any of these people again, and you have learned a bit about [topic].
posted by nicebookrack at 8:44 PM on February 18, 2015

""Wear X type of clothing in Y situation." Why? Because someone said so? Who cares what type of fabric I use to insulate my body, and why would I want to be friends with someone who's that deeply concerned about something so superficial?"


That's what pretty much every one of your questions come down to — these are modes of communication. You obviously care about some; why not others? What you're communicating right now is that you don't care about the audience — the people with whom you are communicating.

"On occasion, I've sat down and made a list of all the things about human society that I just don't understand: small talk and flirting; allegiances to sports teams, political parties, and other group identities; fashion and dress codes; and so on. It is a long list."

For pure utility value: Small talk establishes trust and builds affinities; flirting is a method for assessing romantic interest while minimizing potential fallout from unreciprocated interest; those groups offer different benefits but group identity both helps consolidate power and provide for mutual defense; fashion and dress codes both communicate affinities and personalities…

You're right that many individual signifiers are effectively arbitrary, but that doesn't mean that they're without meaning — the shapes of letters connected to sounds or abstract concepts is effectively arbitrary too, and yet you seem to have found some utility in pursuing literacy.

"I mean, if that's what friendship and human connection are really about, I guess I don't want friendship or human connection in the first place. It sounds lonelier and more uncomfortable than simply avoiding the whole affair."

… and that's about the exact point where "Sounds like you are suffering from social anxiety and could probably benefit from medication" comes in. Or possible some other chemical reason that shifts you from the neurotypical population.

"(And I'm not just basing these statements on what the advice "sounds like". I've actually tried following the advice, and it's mostly been as unpleasant and unproductive as I expected it to be.)"

Wassup self-fulfilling prophecy. "This thing I don't want to do but feel like I should is hard and uncomfortable! I knew it wasn't worth it!"

"So...I guess I'm asking MeFites to tell me how to be more social, when I apparently despise the actual act of being social. (If you're going to say "it's okay if you aren't a social person; you don't have to be social if you really don't want to": I understand this. For the purposes of this question, please assume that I do have compelling reasons to be more social. At the very least, I'd like to not die alone, and maybe get laid once in a while.)"

A friend of mine was once talking about an uncle who could never get along with anyone and who was the black sheep of the family. What he said was that this uncle was unpleasant to be around because he was obvious in treating everyone as if they were inferior, and that his uncle didn't realize that everyone is an expert on something and that you can learn something from everyone. A lot of common interests are common because they're easy and likely to hit upon a topic of mutual conversation. I can go up to pretty much any group of guys in public and they'll have some opinion about $localsportsteam. That's an easy out. But one of those guys may be an expert on H&O railroads or plant life in the area or macro photography or any number of other niche interests where I only know a little about them. That, for me, is really fascinating when someone who has spent a lot of time studying a subject can explain it to someone outside. That's how I get through most basic socialization.
posted by klangklangston at 10:43 PM on February 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

I hope that this won't get lost in the shuffle, but I think you're majorly overthinking things like clothes, assuming what you're wearing isn't ratty and is clean I really don't think most people care in terms of day to day wear.

Echoing other people here, but small talk is about making connections with someone you don't know that well, so people might start with sports or celebrities but it could be about anything. A great way to small talk with people who might have more similar interests is going to events, like board game nights, or whatever you're hobbies are. Where you can lead with things that actually interest you.

Small talk can be tough, but it really doesn't have to be about sports or celebrities. Ask about what people do and go from there.
posted by KernalM at 4:58 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is there a Zen or Insight meditation center near you? If you aren't particularly committed to another religion, you might want to give that a try.

I've found a refreshingly diverse range of personality types at my local Zen center-- and you don't have to do small talk to be an accepted and valued part of the sangha (community). Showing up and sitting zazen, going to classes (where you can be quiet if you wish), being part of the temple cleaning crew -- it is all valued.

There are different flavors of Zen. Try 'em all out.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:21 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I completely understand this question. I almost feel like I could've written it myself, except I am satisfied with my social life. But no, there's no reason to deal in BS. You don't have to wear certain clothing or feign interest in something (no one is EVER going to get me to even fake an interest in sports, I'm sorry) or jump through all these hoops. All you need to do is these things:

a) Put yourself in social situations. Meeting people off the Internet is legit, I've done that more times than I can count.

b) Be kind and polite. Don't make people feel bad about themselves, even if they are different from you in some ways.

c) Keeping the rule of kindness in mind, aggressively be yourself. Don't apologize for who you are. Skip the small talk. Make real remarks and ask real questions (although try to avoid stuff that could make someone potentially uncomfortable if you're first meeting them). Show them that you are laid-back and accepting and that it's okay to talk to you about anything.

You have a golden opportunity here. I wish I could meet more non-shallow, non-pretentious people. Use that resistance you have and be that person for someone.
posted by cosmicbeast at 7:09 AM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Original poster here. Thank you for the comments so far. Sorry that this update is so long; there's a lot to unpack.

I actually hesitated to post this question, because I suspected it would provoke a pile-on. I have long gotten the message that I'm wrong to perceive and experience the world the way I do, that it's not acceptable, that I somehow offend people merely by being different from them in this regard.

Even so, I'm surprised by the number of answers here which assume that I feel "disdain" for other people, or that I believe myself to be a "superior super special snowflake", that socialization is "beneath" me, that I think that "only shallow people care about social skills", that I think others are "just bad versions of [me]" or "mindless sheep", etc.

I accept the majority of the blame for that misunderstanding; obviously I didn't ask my original question well. All the same, it's very frustrating. I didn't say that I refuse to perform social behaviors because I think they're shallow, or that I'm too good for them, or anything of the sort. What I said is that when I try to perform the social behaviors that are suggested to me, the experience is almost invariably one of bafflement and awkwardness and frustration.

It's like someone gave me the advice "well, you just have to foonfoon kwyjibo!" And I have no idea what "foonfoon kwyjibo" means, but I try my best to do it anyway, and it doesn't work. So I ask someone for a clearer explanation of "foonfoon kwyjibo", and they say "well, it's a lot like blongblapping a murm—you have to pwowl the narten". I hear the words, but I don't grok their referents. I can find little in my own experience that maps to the experiences that are being described to me. You might as well describe colors to a blind person.

For some reason, that notion is difficult for people to understand or accept. They hear me saying "I honestly do not know what 'foonfoon kwyjibo' means, let alone how to do it"—but they can't believe that's really true, so they assume I'm really just a jerk. (Or they repeat just the advice to foonfoon kwyjibo, even though I just told them that I don't know what that is.)

And my frustration at this persistent misunderstanding is part of what prompted me to ask this question in the first place! So, please: I apologize that I'm not explaining myself well, but please try not to read uncharitable things into my post, and please try to believe what I'm telling you.

Have you ever been evaluated for Aspergers or Autism?

I haven't, though I've long wondered. About 50% of what I read about Asperger's—mainly the bafflement at the purpose and mechanics of social behaviors, and feeling like I was born on the wrong planet—describes my life to a T. The other 50%—repetitive stereotyped behaviors, obsessive pedantic interests, not understanding humor or metaphor—sounds nothing like me. So I know that I don't meet the clinical diagnostic criteria. If I do have Asperger's, it's an atypical case. I did have an odd gait when I was younger (maybe I still do?), which is a symptom.

people who can perform them are "agonizingly boring, unpleasant ..."

Jesus. No. I didn't say that. I said that performing socially myself is an agonizingly boring, unpleasant experience for me.

Then I was forced to be in situations with many strangers, e.g. mandatory work events. I discovered that smalltalk makes those situations much more pleasant!

I'm happy for you, but it doesn't make situations more pleasant for me. That's what I'm trying to say: I've tried all the "Social Skills 101" stuff, and sometimes I can even fake it well enough to satisfy expectations—but it is rarely rewarding for me, and it is often distinctly unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Most people seem to be able to establish human connection with others because they actually enjoy the act of socialization. I desire the end goal—the connection—but I find the process of getting there to be bewildering and nightmarish.

Say you're hungry, and you need nutrients. If you like eating—which most people do—then satisfying your nutritional needs (say, by eating a sandwich) is enjoyable. Not only do you nourish your body, but you have a pleasant time in the process. Win-win!

But what if eating is unpleasant to you? Every food you've tried tastes like moldy dog food; chewing makes your jaw ache for hours afterward; and 80% of the time you get violently nauseous and spend all night hurling into the toilet (so you don't end up digesting any nutrients anyway).

You would spend a lot of time hungry—and you'd probably get a little resentful of all the people constantly saying "well, if you're hungry, why don't you just go get a cheeseburger?".

That is the problem I have. I don't need advice like "eat a cheeseburger" / "do X social behavior". I need to know how to eat a cheeseburger, or do X social behavior, without wanting to fling myself into traffic to get away from it.

if you envision this as some kind of transactional/instrumental exchange based on making whatever gestures it takes to get the sex

I don't. My use of the phrase "get laid" was more a flippant commentary on my own lack of romantic success. I prefer my sex to occur in the context of a mutually fulfilling relationship. Hence, my desire to understand how to get myself into mutually fulfilling relationships.

They completely get that the symbols are arbitrary, but they also get that these are the symbols that everyone uses, and what makes them valuable is precisely that everyone uses them.

Thank you for this comment, mstokes650; it's one of the more helpful ones in the thread.

But if (to use your example) dress codes are symbols—that is, if they carry some meaningwhat do they symbolize? What is the meaning being communicated? (And why do people communicate it by wearing a particular arrangement of fabric, instead of just saying it, like we do everything else?)

That's the part I don't get. If I'm hung up on the form instead of the meaning, it's because that's all I can see; it's all I have to work with.

That's what pretty much every one of your questions come down to — these are modes of communication. You obviously care about some; why not others?

Because I don't understand that they are modes of communication—I don't understand what they're meant to communicate, or the language they're being communicated in, or why they're being communicated through these elaborate, impenetrable, unspoken iconographies, instead of just saying them.

Also, have you thought of trying to understand these things? Some of them are really interesting! You could read all kinds of books on fashion, dress codes, modernization, fabric production, race and gender, for instance

Yes, I have tried. I read about a wide variety of things, including some of the ones you mention, and it's often fascinating. But this only helps me appreciate things on an academic level. It's like reading a shelf full of books about the theory and history of music, without ever actually listening to music. I would like to learn how to hear music, not just read Wikipedia articles about it.

(I regret the way I framed my question. I didn't mean to put so much emphasis on the fashion / dress code thing; it was supposed to be an illustrative example. My bad!)

Social skills are designed to help you advance in this status competition.

Wow—I've never seen someone praise class stratification, status-consciousness, and manipulative behavior quite so openly. There are no such things as "Wal-Mart people" and "LaCoste people" and "Suzy Shier people". They are just people, and their purchasing power does not determine their value. Even I understand that much.

Political parties aren't arbitrary affiliations; people have opinions and ideas about how society should be structured, funds disbursed, and power allocated.

Sure, but you can't deny that people form very intense tribal identities around their political beliefs, and that those tribal concerns often eclipse or overwhelm the practical questions of governance. For most people, most of the time, politics seems to be more about having an in-group to belong to, and an out-group to oppose.

People won't join a political tribe whose platform runs counter to their actual beliefs—but once they've found a political identity that's compatible with what they believe, the beliefs often seem to take a back seat to the tribalism. That is, the beliefs are sincere, but the group that forms around them is more about belonging to a group than about promoting the belief.

I can already hear people asking "well, what's wrong with that? why shouldn't people form tribes around shared beliefs?" And maybe I don't have a great answer for that. I'm kind of...allergic to groups and institutions. I've never been a "joiner", and (I know this will be unpopular) I don't really trust people who are. Maybe it's because I felt excluded from so many groups when I was younger (probably because I have no comprehension of the social rites one is expected to perform to be accepted into them), and so concluded that groups are bullshit? I don't know. Just a guess.

Blargh. I hope this comment clarifies some things. Thanks again for the discussion.
posted by mathowie at 9:36 AM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

Because I don't understand that they are modes of communication—I don't understand what they're meant to communicate, or the language they're being communicated in, or why they're being communicated through these elaborate, impenetrable, unspoken iconographies, instead of just saying them.

Hmm. Maybe you could think of it as being deaf, or blind. It would be very frustrating for a blind person to constantly be spoken to as if they understood color, but at the same time, there would be no point in them railing against it and wishing that colors didn't exist at all.

Maybe the best thing for you to do is just to be very open about who you are. "Sorry, I just don't get fashion at all!" "Oh, I don't really follow politics." Etc.

I notice that in your answer, you don't respond to the many people who asked what you DO like and understand. If you could answer that, we might be able to make more concrete suggestions.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:44 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Because I don't understand that they are modes of communication—I don't understand what they're meant to communicate, or the language they're being communicated in, or why they're being communicated through these elaborate, impenetrable, unspoken iconographies, instead of just saying them.

That's happening constantly, though, with all sorts of unspoken communication. Most communication between most humans is nonverbal, and most humans have more of an intuitive than academic ability to read that nonverbal communication, which is why (I think) a lot of instruction about reading it is kind of poorly explained.

I do think it would be helpful for you to be evaluated by a psychologist for Aspergers/Autism or other potential cognitive/neurological/psychological issues, even if just to rule them out. (And it's impossible to diagnose oneself, because it's impossible to look at oneself objectively enough.) Having a better sense of how your mind might different from average might give you a better starting point for understanding the average.
posted by jaguar at 9:53 AM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

> Jesus. No. I didn't say that. I said that performing socially myself is an agonizingly boring, unpleasant experience for me.

People perceive this pain in you. They perceive that you find it boring and awful. It is unpleasant to be around someone who is always unhappy and uncomfortable, especially when that person is an unknown quantity.

> I've never been a "joiner", and (I know this will be unpopular) I don't really trust people who are.

People perceive this. People you might like, who you might have some cool things in common with, may perceive from the beginning that you don't trust them if they've done something as innocuous (in the grand scheme of things) as express interest in politics, pop culture, sports. This is a huge range of things, and you've just said you don't trust people who have joined in a tribe of people interested in one or more of those things.

This is why how-to stuff is going to be of limited help to you - you already know, as you said, to make eye contact and stuff like that. You have a narrative that you are allergic to all the things that allow for making connections with other people; maybe that narrative is absolutely true, and maybe it is also true that you cannot change it, ever, like it's your eye color. Then this is where you will live.
posted by rtha at 10:09 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

So basically what you're saying is that you hate talking to people unless you already know them well? I am still having trouble with this question, because it's difficult for me to understand what a connection with other people is besides socialization/communication. That's what I do for fun with friends, after all - we talk, mostly.

What does your ideal connected relationship look like?

I feel like you're separating things that aren't separate - like with the clothing issue. Sometimes clothes symbolize very specific stuff - "I'm rich enough to own a tux and I have the social connections to patronize the correct tailor", for example, and we probably all agree that this is fairly repugnant. Sometimes clothes symbolize "I have to perform gender and labor in the manner that will keep me earning a living because we live in a brutal and unjust society", which is also repugnant. But most of the time, clothes symbolize "we are all basically on the same page about this event and all want to participate in it" - which is why if you're a total stranger and you show up dressed wildly out of tune with the event, people will surmise that you may not want to be there, may have scorn for people, etc....and only through your behavior can you convince them otherwise, and that means that you have to make sure to display Super Niceness To Everyone . So it's a bit easier to wear, say, beach clothes to the beach barbecue instead of a suit and tie, because you're priming your audience that you want to be there.

What kinds of problems do you typically run into with clothes? Not just "I am baffled by clothes" but "I wore a suit to the luau and everyone looked at me funny".

I feel like you need to do some serious unpacking of "social rites" and their specifics in your life. That's the only thing that seems like it has any use at all. Right now, you have an abstraction "I can't do social rites, some of them go against my principles and some of them are just miserable and even repeated practice doesn't help", and that is the typical recipe for nothing changing, and it's very difficult to make recommendations because we're all dealing with this abstraction.

Also, why do you need social rites other than dating? Is this a career thing? If it's a career thing, can you come up with alternative strategies for interacting with people? Like, just working on your really awesome portfolio and Twitter and so on, and sending funny emails...such that people think you are so wonderful and clever that they just accept that you are a super genius and don't need to hang out at the bar with you in order to want to kick work your way?

The thing is, if you really can't - if you can't eat solid food without getting sick - you're going to be on IV/enteric feeding for life, and you need to accept that this has to change your approach. That is where, I surmise, a therapist would come in handy.

Reading your question and follow-up, it feels mostly like "I am stuck forever and I am trying to create a narrative to affirm that yes I am stuck forever and there is no alternative" - you hate socializing, you can't do it and yet you want something to Make You Able To Do It, but that something can't be instructions because you can't understand instructions, and it can't be practice because you've already exhausted practice, and you want a kind of ineffable explanation for just why people wear clothes in the first place because you can't just try wearing clothes until you have the explanation nailed down.

This suggests to me that perhaps you shouldn't push yourself to socialize (for whatever values of socialize you are using) for a while. Maybe socializing is a boulder too heavy to lift right now. Maybe a few sessions with a therapist and some specific goal-setting ("I want to be able to chat to [this kind of person] at industry conferences"; "I want to be able to go on an OkCupid date and talk about my life") might help by breaking the problem into small, specific pieces. Maybe trying to "explain" socializing is what's hanging you up/holding you safely in the realm of Never Changing.
posted by Frowner at 10:13 AM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

But if (to use your example) dress codes are symbols—that is, if they carry some meaning—what do they symbolize? What is the meaning being communicated?

Dashy said: "So we as a species have developed all of these similarities and rituals that you (rightfully) notice are meaningless. They are. You're right. They serve purposes, though. They form a background of similarity against which we can notice the meaningful differences."

I think part of what motivates the tribal signalling, as I kind of unsuccessfully tried to explain above, is a wish to telegraph a private, individual experience of, basically, liking, disliking, valuing, or rejecting some particular thing or idea, in contrast to other things, ideas, or values. (That private experience is also, of course, shaped by pre-existing networks of cultural meaning before you feel it, but we as individuals can obviously only experience these things privately.)

Say you believe in secular humanism. Odds are good that you may also have valued Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, if you happened to come across it; a corollary to that is that someone who got a lot out of that book may also share your humanist beliefs. They may not, they might believe something different. But, like jaguar, pretentious illiterate and others said earlier, going through the dance of small talk - which is painful for a lot of people! - is a way of finding out these kinds of correlations, so that ultimately you can find people who share your views, and who, in sharing those views, offer fellowship, and confirm your experience, and in doing that, affirm who you are.

You're in the long tail, you don't care about sports or celebrities. That's ok. There are other people who also couldn't care less about sports and celebrities, and are baffled by other people's preference for LaCoste. It's just that they're also in the minority, and it will unfortunately have to take more of that unpleasant work to find them.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:38 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Social skills are designed to help you advance in this status competition.

>Wow—I've never seen someone praise class stratification, status-consciousness, and manipulative behavior quite so openly. There are no such things as "Wal-Mart people" and "LaCoste people" and "Suzy Shier people". They are just people, and their purchasing power does not determine their value. Even I understand that much.

I am going to respond bluntly to this. While I treasure my ideals of humanism and the good within all people, I can also be honest that some people are bad. They are dicks, they hold discriminatory beliefs I resent and/or despise, they are dull in a way I find repulsive, etc. I will not enumerate the reasons one might judge another negatively but I trust you can believe that. I am speaking on a level of individuals and not groups or cultures. And these are people that I am more prone to think "can get fucked". I will not go out of my way to do them harm but I will not worry terribly about my ability to assist them and whether I could be doing more to benefit them.

In my daily life, I often have a surplus I might wish to share with my friends. Reciprocal giving is important in my social networks, I like to do nice things for people or share my large meals or garden's harvest or something. My friends have done nice things for me in the past, and it both gives me pleasure and is in my own interests to return those favours so that in the future they might do those favours back to me. This is reciprocity and this is the benefit of forming strong social relations with people around you. This happens in the workplace and this happens in private life. "Status" is a fraught term and I respect what you are grossed out by there, but really, think about it. Status means, I know who you are, I remember our history of mutual assistance, and I trust you to accept my good intentions and return them in kind. It has nothing to do with economic disparity ("class stratification") and it is the furthest thing from manipulation. Manipulation implies the absence of consent, but the whole purpose of social niceties are so that people may fumble closer towards a reciprocal relationship through layers and layers of consent. Each nicety communicates, 'okay, come closer, I do not hate you or resent your presence'.

I hope that helps. I believe you are genuine in your question and don't read it resentfully, I just think the answer is available to you if you can look at it respectfully.
posted by kaspen at 10:47 AM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

"But what if eating is unpleasant to you? Every food you've tried tastes like moldy dog food; chewing makes your jaw ache for hours afterward; and 80% of the time you get violently nauseous and spend all night hurling into the toilet (so you don't end up digesting any nutrients anyway)."

Then you would have a behavior or physiological aberration that was negatively impacting your life, pretty much the definition of "disability."

"Because I don't understand that they are modes of communication—I don't understand what they're meant to communicate, or the language they're being communicated in, or why they're being communicated through these elaborate, impenetrable, unspoken iconographies, instead of just saying them."

There are two responses to that: The first is that pretty much every organism on earth has evolved some form of signaling behavior, humans included, and those predate written and spoken language. In many ways, humans are more fluent in paralinguistic signals (body posture, hand motions, facial expressions, etc.) than verbal or written communication. Second, because verbalizing a lot of this stuff is an extra layer of abstraction — if I wanted to communicate red to you, I can either say "red" or I can show you the color. Fashion and clothing are a form of non-verbal communication. I frequently find them frustrating too (you might actually benefit from reruns of Project Runway, since there's a decent amount of fashion criticism and history bound up in it for being a reality show) but it's a medium. Media may be more or less suited to what the intended message is, but none are inherently superior to others across the board and all can communicate the same basic emotions and concepts.

In essence, you're grousing that people aren't communicating to you in a mode that you prefer and are instead communicating in a mode they prefer for that message. As a horizon-broadening exercise, you might try going through "Drawing with the Left Side of the Brain" (I think that's what it's called). That or some Principles of Visual Communication book. Both will give you an entry into another mode of communication, and the drawing book will help you practice as well.
posted by klangklangston at 11:09 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

(And why do people communicate it by wearing a particular arrangement of fabric, instead of just saying it, like we do everything else?)

Because it's a more efficient mode of communication, for people who easily catch nonverbal cues. Here's an example: I get called "ma'am" almost as often as I get called "sir", and I get called "um" even more often. This wouldn't happen if we all wore unitards; I have a body that is right in the middle of the bell curve for a woman.

If I wore the aforementioned unitard with a sign that said "I am a cis woman but my relationship with gender is a long story," people would need to stop, read the sign, and then decide on a title for me. Language is a pretty late-developing ability in humans and that sign takes processing time that the folks would otherwise be spending swiping groceries in the cashier's line or deciding if I'm the person that dropped their wallet 10 steps back.

But most people catch my short hair and/or my earrings and/or my unfitted nerdy t-shirt and/or the body language of someone without a strong binary gender identity, along with my unchosen visual markers of height and breasts and waist-to-hip ratio, and they make a decision. "Excuse me, s.. m... um?" It's kind of astonishing to me, that this is a thing I'm not very open about, and which takes a lot of talking to explain to friends I trust, and that it is nevertheless perfectly visible to a stranger at the grocery store who is not consciously checking off a Gender Performance list.

And gender is a really simple example, since most people belong to one of only two tribes! The fact that your assumption is that words are the truest or most obvious form of expression makes it really obvious where you are coming from, here. You're missing a lot of information and that must be very difficult.

> I would (at least in theory) like to feel greater kinship and connection with my fellow humans. However, all the advice I'm given on how to achieve that tells me to do things that I find baffling, agonizingly boring, unpleasant, bizarre, obnoxious, incomprehensible, offensive, insincere, meaningless, and/or absurd.

So, folks are folks. I like people, because I assume that everyone is doing the best they can to do right by the tools they've been given. What tools have they been given? When I have the time or openness to it, I feel amazing kinship with the human standing next to me in the cereal aisle, because whatever our lives are, doing our best meant both of us reaching for Rice Krispies on a Tuesday night. It's neat to think about, and sometimes when the time is appropriate, I get to ask people about that stuff. And if I find out something interesting, or something I've also experienced, I ask about that, or share my semi-parallel experience. If they don't want to talk, or if they're offensive or not interesting to me, I say goodbye. You shouldn't cause yourself pain on behalf of relative strangers.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:12 AM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

For what it's worth, I think a few people were being unduly harsh to you. I think it's clear that you were just trying to honestly describe your situation - which includes bafflement and aversion, but not judgment or feeling like you're better than anyone.

We may be of limited use to you, ultimately. Get an appointment with someone who can evaluate you and speak to you one-on-one!
posted by naju at 12:05 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is maybe too far out of field, but you could look into how animals communicate, specifically animals that live in groups. Some animal species* are solitary and don't care about communicating with other. Other species only come together to mate. But what I'm talking about is how does a young chimp join a new troop; how does my dog (who is totally awkward loner) try and fail to play with the other dogs at the dog park (he barks too much and all the other dogs read that as stopping the play); how does a male red deer know that he's the biggest and so get the females.

Again, this maybe too far out of what you want but animals communicate with each other. They really want to. They get stuff from each other by being honest or lying or judging or whatever, but they don't say anything. They may make noises but they don't say long sentences or whathaveyou. And as a human, you can learn how to 'talk' to animals or at least how to read their body language. I can tell when my dog is happy or scared. I can tell when wolves are happy or scared. I can tell (though training) how birds are happy their partner is home from the sea and that they'd really like to mate now. It boggles my mind every time I think that humans have decoded how bees tell each other where flowers are.

And then there is so much about how visual appearance tells you in animals. Like the brown spot on the front of a male sparrow. The yellow or red in a house finch.

My big point being, we're animals. We have fancy words and clothes and jobs but we're really just trying to say the same things we did when we didn't have words. Words aren't really our base language. Like, have you ever been in comfortable silence with someone? What is your body language like? Are you side to side, face to face? How well do you know them?

Anyway, trying to translate animals is hard. Humans are pretty bad at it and we don't have great ways of checking our assumptions but maybe you can use some animal behaviour or ethology techniques to describe humans and how they communicate (I had this dream of studying the lekking behaviour of young humans at bars - totally opposite grouse, how come?). Then, you know, start doing some little experiments. What if you start chatting with the bartender - do you get a free drink? That probably means he's enjoying your conversation. Or if you compliment your mother (I have no idea about your mother, this would work on my mom), does she smile at your more. If you throw in some comment about sports, do you get invited to watch the game?

This is already very rambley but I guess I want to say that humans are just animals and some of the stuff that you don't get about humans (tribalism, class, appearance, etc.) are things that are found all over the animal kingdom (and some probably in plants and fungi) so aren't something we're going to drop easily. But study animals and maybe people will make more sense?

*note: species, not individuals - there are individual 'personality' traits within a species, but I'm talking about the general overarching behavioural patterns.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:15 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

If I'm hung up on the form instead of the meaning, it's because that's all I can see; it's all I have to work with.

But every time someone here says "well here are some of the meanings," you respond with something that sounds a lot like "but that is STUPID," and then you seem upset that other people do not agree with your assessment.

Stop assuming the reasons are impenetrable/absurd just because you do not understand them. This is why you are getting so much blowback. It sucks that they seem impenetrable TO YOU, but that does not mean they have no meaning in general. It means you have to work much, much harder to discern things that most people consider to be fairly obvious.

You are also doing this thing where you write fairly derogatory things (perhaps unintentionally, but still), then when people call you on it, you say "but I didn't mean it that way, don't criticize me!" Your entire question is drenched in implicit criticism of 85% of the things humans do.

(For example: why do clothes contain meaning? Because EVERYTHING contains meaning, and clothes...exist. We do not live in naked Eden or futuristic identical jumpsuit world, and so clothes mean things. You might have a hard time deciphering that meaning, and you might dislike the fact that most people consider it a given. But to respond to people saying that clothing is a signifier with the implication that they are demeaning clothing-wearers' very humanity while you alone are able to see people as valuable individuals is...pretty offensive, whether you mean to offend or not.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:27 PM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

But if (to use your example) dress codes are symbols—that is, if they carry some meaning—what do they symbolize? What is the meaning being communicated? (And why do people communicate it by wearing a particular arrangement of fabric, instead of just saying it, like we do everything else?)

Well, the "why use these symbols instead of just saying it" is easier, so let me answer that one first: they use those symbols for exactly the same reason we use the symbol for pi instead of writing it out as 22/7 or 3.14159 every time, which is, once you have it down, it's just a faster, easier, more efficient shorthand. Until you learn it, of course, it's an extra thing you have to learn and that extra required learning seems like a inefficient nuisance, but ultimately once learned it ends up being faster and more efficient. I know you don't see that right now, but like with any learning process, for now you need to trust that eventually, the benefits will be worth the extra learning required. For one example: Being able to spot, at a glance, who is the least comfortable person in a crowd of people is a whole lot more efficient than having to briefly interview each person in the crowd one-by-one and ask them how good a time they're having.

Of course, when I say that eventually the benefits are worth the extra learning, I am taking you at your word that you do want to learn how to socialize better and connect with people better. Truth be told, socializing, particularly with strangers, is not something I myself do very much. But then, I also don't do that much math, so the fact that I've memorized what pi is to five decimal places doesn't get a lot of use for me either. YMMV, depending on how much socializing you ultimately want to do.

Anyways, "why symbols" is a lot easier than "what do the symbols mean" because the symbols have a huge range of possible meaning. Asking "what do they mean" is kind of like looking at this image and saying "but what do those symbols mean?" It's a whole alphabet! Some possibilities (mentally I'm sticking mainly with clothing, I get that you're interested in more than that, this is just for illustrative purposes. Most of this list could also fairly easily be applied to body language and small talk as well) include:

-level of interest in [current location/activity]
-level of comfort with [current location/activity]
-level of experience with [current location/activity]
-other interests, hobbies, or experiences of theirs besides [current location/activity]
-socioeconomic class/status (I know, I know, and I'm with you, insofar as I just don't care, but hey, it's what some people want to communicate and what some people want to know about. Not everything written in English is worth reading either, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't learn English or that English sucks.)
-tribal affiliations or lack thereof**
-unity of purpose with other people dressed the same way (basically a more temporary, ad-hoc version of tribalism)
-level of interest in and fluency with the "language" of clothing itself (some people like to show off their mastery of English by writing amazing-but-dense-and-hard-to-unpack prose; some people like to show off with fashion the same way; others of us should stick to short, simple sentences and/or similarly simple fashion)
-current mood
-how long it's been since they did laundry (kidding! well...partly kidding)
-any combination of the above

And more. I mean, I'm not exactly a Professor of Fashion over here, if you wanted to become an expert you should probably read some fashion blogs or books, just like anything else, I'm just shooting for a See Spot Run level of literacy here on AskMe. So, how do you get there? Well just like learning anything else: observe, study, ask questions. If you're curious about what somebody's outfit is supposed to convey, ask them! (Try to ask politely and in a way that sounds genuinely interested.) Look for patterns in how people dress for different things.

**And: I want to add, it's not all about tribal identities or being a joiner vs. being a loner. I'm just speculating here, but I think the reason it often seems like fashion statements are all about tribalism and conformity, to people who don't know anything about fashion, is because tribalism and conformity are the really obvious ones. Learning English, you learn "dog" and "cat" before you learn "elephant" and "giraffe", and it's not because English is all about the folks who like domestic pets and not a language for people who like large African mammals; it's because "dog" and "cat" are really simple words and "elephant" and "giraffe" are not so much. Likewise, a whole group of people wearing the same colors, especially if those colors are the same colors the local sports team wears, is about as idiot-simple a fashion statement as it is possible to make. It's not because that's all there is, it's because that's the simplest, most obvious stuff, the one-syllable words of the fashion world.

In the end it's a learning process, like anything. And I'm going to be bluntly honest with you here: a lot of both your post and your follow-up just sounds like a kid struggling with algebra homework going, "But I just don't LIKE math. Math is STUPID, why do I have to learn math anyways? I can totally get the right answers, it's not that I don't get how to do it. I just HATE DOING IT. Math makes me SICK. I never want to do math EVER AGAIN!" [stomping feet, door slam] What the both you and the hypothetical anti-math kid are reacting to is something they're having a lot of difficulty learning. You, like me, are probably used to learning things quickly and easily, and you're probably used to, as a result of that, deriving your pleasure in learning from the learning itself. It's easy to feel like learning is fun, or at least, not terrible, when it's quick and easy. But this? You're not learning this quickly or easily; honestly, it's probably never going to come easily to you. So when your brain reaches for the spot where the fun of learning about it should be ("it's fun because it's quick and easy") that joy isn't there this time and so your brain decides this activity is uniquely awful and unpleasant and starts coming up with reasons to avoid that unpleasantness. You need to let go of the resentment you've built up over the fact that learning this stuff is not coming naturally to you, and you need to look for something else, some other aspect of learning it, that you can find some enjoyment in.
posted by mstokes650 at 12:35 PM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

Have you ever watched House M.D.? If you haven't, I'd encourage you to watch a few episodes or at least this one.

House is a Sherlock Holmes' type figure. He's brilliant. He seems to be aware of most social rules, but hates to follow them (and doesn't for the most part). In other words, he acts how many of us would like to act. But there are consequences for not following the social contract, which this show explores in great detail.

As I've grown to see it, these social norms are the "rules of the game" or the traffic laws. It's a good thing that no matter where you are in the U.S, "Red means stop and green means go." Sure speed limits can be taken as "suggestions," but drivers need to take in account their surroundings when they determine how fast to drive their car. And sometimes the speed limit is really dumb for a given environment, but you don't argue with the police officer as he writes you a ticket for speeding.

Have you ever considered looking at social norms from an aggregate (and not individual) level? In theory, social norms are supposed to maximize welfare from a societal perspective. Making small talk may annoy you, but might make someone else feel more comfortable. This someone else could prove to be a valuable ally later on... or maybe not. Regardless, sometimes we do things that are a minor inconvenience to us, to prevent a major inconvenience to certain others. For instance, most able-bodied people do not park in the parking spots for persons with disabilities.
posted by oceano at 12:48 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just want to chime in on a couple of points that were brought up already. But I'll preface this by saying that I get where you're coming from. I can also be super awkward in social situations though I've gotten a lot better. I sense you're probably self-absorbed, which means in social situations you're hyperfocused on your own needs, likes and dislikes and fairly oblivious to what the people around you are experiencing. This can come from spending a lot of time as a kid being the odd one out, rejected by the group, unable to connect, retreating inward and creating a comfortable space there. This makes socializing even harder because it's like pulling teeth to come out of that comfortable space and subject yourself to more unpleasant social situations, so when you do have to you assume it'll be horrible, you wear this assumption on your face or at the least it's oozing out of every pore--and, well yeah, guess what, the other person picks up on it because they weren't born yesterday, and you both walk away from the encounter unimpressed.

What you'll need to do is a paradigm shift (aka a come-to-jesus moment). For this to occur I think you'll need to mature a lot more emotionally (or see a therapist to deal with the potential asperger's) and experience some more social lows--the ones that make you go, "oh boy I really has to change or I'm not going to have a job anymore." What happens is that it becomes damn clear pretty damn quickly why, for example, dressing incorrectly matters, especially if you're a woman, unless you like being ostracized from groups on a regular basis. I already linked to this, but it's a great example of why clothes matter. What you wear is another way of everyone agreeing that they've signed the social contract. If they're a woman it may mean that they're not going to dress super sexy and make some other girl's fellow salivate. There are exceptions to the rules, but you'd have to be so charming or desirable to the group in other respects that it cancels out the requirement to dress appropriately. I'd recommend reading up on social psychology to understand how these dynamics work.

-The animal metaphor is great, and I, too was thinking specifically of dogs. When two dogs meet in a park they invariable sniff each other's butts. They don't do this because they like to sniff butts per se. They do this for an evolutionary reason, which is that the glands around the area secrete chemicals that tell the sniffer all sorts of information about the sniffee's diet, mood, immune system, etc. Ie, is this dog okay? Small talk is the human version of butt sniffing. It's not about liking it per se. We all complain that "Hi how are you" "I'm fine how are you." is meaningless. As is elevator chat about the weather. But it's our way of saying, subtextually, I'm okay, you're okay. (Actually, I wonder what we as humans did back in the day, say 30,000 years ago, before language evolved.)

Because I'm assuming you're young, say mid to late 20s?, I'll say that when I was your age I hated small talk, the mere idea of suppressing my natural desire to express my thoughts in all their glory just to be polite. What a waste of time, I thought. I was, in a word, clueless. Luckily I've wised up and I'm not quite as overbearing as I used to be. I am genuinely drawn to things like small talk and chit chat because I learn about how we interact. So that's another suggestion. Join some meetup groups and just observe how people interact and try to understand the world from another's perspective, excluding your own. Put on your anthropologist's hat if you have to and when you get back home, write down what you saw and try to write down what other people were thinking and feeling. You want to learn how social interactions are experienced from the other person's perspective.

I also recommend volunteering for an organization. This is a great way to get out of your own head and into someone else's. Find a cause you care about and volunteer a couple of hours a week. You can observe, meet like-minded people and take the focus off of your own fears and dislikes.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 3:01 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh man. The terror of the arbitrary.

Hey, anonymous. I could have written more or less your question. (If you could get a sympathetic and charitable reading of the question from most people, then you wouldn't have to ask the question, though, so it's a somewhat strange move to post it on AskMe, although there's nothing wrong with doing this.)

I have a slightly different answer, which is: I am lucky to have a number of long-lasting social connections that are extremely important and valuable to me. The existence of these connections has not in the slightest diminished my bafflement about numerous common conventions, practices, tendencies, and fascinations. Having mutually loving and interesting relationships need not have any effect on the bafflement and alienation -- justified, in many cases, I think, by the genuine arbitrariness of those conventions, practices, tendencies, and fascinations -- or the sense of oppressive fatigue engendered by having to navigate an environment to which you're in numerous ways not adapted. It's a "taxation without representation" kind of feeling, to live in a world where the order of things is not imposed by some inevitable law of the way things are, but where instead the nature of reality itself is governed by the whims of a bunch of assholes just like you and me (except that there are more of them).

It's first crucial to remember that nobody else got much say in how things are, either. They just don't have the same feelings because either their tastes match their environment better, or because "arbitrary" is not as intolerable to them as it is to you and me. Nobody is to blame; averaging makes shit boring.

It's second important to note that it's perfectly possible to establish meaningful social connections while being extremely "unconventional".

It's third important to note that, despite the boringness and vapidity of the mean and the typical, the human spectrum is still extremely weird and interesting, and that most people are actually pretty bizarre and fascinating. The way to access this is, in my experience, to be extremely open about who you are -- don't try to play games and follow norms if you don't want to, and don't openly denigrate those who do -- and also to develop a basically curious orientation toward other people. The idea is that you might be able to trade weirdness with someone, if they know that it's safe to go off-script with you (and it must actually be safe). Actually, an incurious attitude toward other people doesn't reflect reality very well. An important fact about humans is that the average set of attitudes, norms, expectations, etc. is pretty boring and lame, but the variance is high and no individual actually embodies the average.

Finally, as long as you don't allow it to affect how you view individual people, based on the actual evidence gleaned from interacting with them, the kind of baffled alienation you feel doesn't have to dominate your emotional landscape, and it's also probably quite useful. Plus, fuck: there are at least two of us. My guess is actually that it's a rather common set of feelings.

I am not asking you to blow your cover, but feel free to drop me a MeMail if you want. I'm not sure I agree on all the particulars, but I was happy to see your question.

But yeah: fuck spectacle, fuck tribalism, fuck fame, and fuck dress codes.
posted by busted_crayons at 5:05 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Question: Why I should bother to develop my social skills?

Answer: You shouldn’t. You should learn to accept your lack of understanding about these things instead.

I read your question and I have had (and continue to have) a lot of your same thoughts and feelings. Your synopses of this way of looking at the world made laugh. I don't understand why a lot of “social conventions” are the way they are either. It does not make intuitive sense to me. It is not an infrequent occasion where I learn something "new" about the world/how people relate to each other and realize, upon later reflection and with some embarrassment, that these things must be common knowledge to most people.

I actually looked up the definition of "social skills" just now as I have heard that term a lot and it was always nebulous to me, as I have been similarly uninterested in what I viewed as "normalizing myself”, for the most part. Here is the first definiton I found off Google:

"Social skills are the skills we use to communicate and interact with each other, both verbally and non-verbally, through gestures, body language and our personal appearance. Human beings are sociable creatures and we have developed many ways to communicate our messages, thoughts and feelings with others."

In my experience, being kind and polite are the only social skills you really need. And seeing as you said you have the basics down, you probably are aware of this much already.

I am not sure what an assessment of my social skills looks like (and perhaps don't want to know, in some regard), but I do have a social life I am generally happy with and have not become a pariah, or at least not yet anyway. (FWIW, I have also wondered if I have Asperger’s and I have family member(s) that have some of the same traits, but really, what is a diagnosis going to do? Explanations are helpful, but sometimes irrelevant.)

I think you are not solving the right problem or asking the right questions. I propose accepting yourself as you are — backwards way of understanding the world and all -- and seeing where that leads you.

More specifically, here is what I think you should do:

1. Give up on the idea that you were ever meant to fit in anywhere. And further, and perhaps more importantly, give up on the idea that anyone ever truly belongs anywhere. Because no one does. No one truly belongs anywhere more than anyone else does. These connections that one makes as they hurtle through life, strange and sad as it is, are fleeting. As you have mentioned in your question, you have a different understanding about the world than most people, it seems. People don't understand you, you don't understand them. Don't try to become like them, because you can't. I have tried and it is like trying to play music you can’t hear — boring, incomprehensible, and as you alluded to, rather unrewarding (unless you’re Beethoven ;) ). I have instead just come to accept I am unconventional, and surprisingly, have met people I don’t have to work to enjoy being around since coming to this state of acceptance. Socializing feels completely different once you find yourself and find your people. I am guessing, as you have proposed, you are resistant to the idea of trying to fit in a group because you know you won’t quite fit, just as you haven't many, many times before. So just forget that groups exist, forget that there is even such a thing as an "outsider", because there is not. We are all united in our humanity.

2. Focus on what you do share with other people: humanity. That is my eccentric take on relating to people and it works well enough for me. We all have fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams, things we're passionate about, things we enjoy, things we think about, experiences weird, wonderful, and anywhere in between. I try not to make any assumptions about people other than these things. Knowing that everyone has these kaleidoscopic worlds existing inside of them, I am naturally curious about people. There is so much to know about a person that you don’t know, especially when you don’t understand what seems to be the “average person” in the first place. I think cultivating this mindset has really helped me to better understand people. To be honest, I have long felt that I've just been bumbling my way through life, socially (and perhaps otherwise), but have come to accept it. Some people even seem to find me charming and I suppose they find my take on the world “refreshing”, as one often hears about eccentric people. I genuinely like people and I like talking to people and I think it shows, even if I am not always the smoothest person about it.

So, this is going to sound "woo" but I think you should focus on humanity. Yours and everyone else's. Own your "shortcomings", your foibles in the face of relating to society. Maybe I have gotten lucky, but it seems as long as I have approached people and social situations with an open mind and an honest heart, and something of a sense of humor, people are rather accepting of my odd gaps in understanding about things. On the flip side, I think my naivety is sometimes glaringly obvious and people can be keen to take advantage of that, so watch out for those people too.

(As a note, it was an interest in Buddhism and meditation that led me to these thoughts of acceptance and the focus on humanity as whole, so that is something that might be helpful for you too. It was definitely helpful in dealing with my chronic feelings of “otherness”. If you would like to do some reading, I recommend Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron to start with.)

I have done some reading on this recently and I think the crux of your problem and my problem and anyone with this problem is that we are people who communicate, firstly, for information, while the rest of the world communicates, firstly, as a way of connecting and relating with people. If your aim is the latter, all the arbitrary social conventions you speak of make total sense, in a circular way, as those are the behaviors that achieve your goal, and if you are achieving your goal, who cares how you get there? But when your aim is the former, you are left with a lot of questions and not a lot of answers when trying to grasp these things that seem second-nature to the “communication is for building relationships” camp. I guess I try to look at in a hybrid way… I communicate to learn more about people, and sometimes we connect and sometimes we do not. I do not want to just relate to anyone for any particular reason either and will not watch TV or follow sports just to have something to talk to someone about. Why waste your own time trying to relate to people in a way you don't even find meaningful? It has taken me a long time to realize that words, the way people speak, the things people say and don't say, etc. are not just information, not just background noise or chatter -- people are communicating with every choice they make in this regard. It took me a long time to notice these things -- or maybe I should say it took a long time for me to internalize this -- and now, sometimes it seems like people are constantly trying to be heard (and it was actually a misunderstanding I had with someone that brought me to realize this). I think it is partly because I feel like I exist in a vacuum sometimes, meaning I don't really think people notice things I do (even though I have now come to realize they actually do), and hence just assumed anything people communicated via clothing, choice of words, etc. was just haphazard because it felt that way for me -- these things for me were an attempt at conveying information and not necessarily an attempt to connect with someone or dependent on anyone's reaction.

Lastly, I propose you stop using your “lack of social skills” as an excuse for not participating in life. Go forth and bumble about. It is either a choice between that and staring at the computer screen rueing the fact that everyone seems to know some secret about how to get along in the world that you don’t. Not to mention, the more people you meet and situations you encounter, the more you learn about the hows and whys of people and make less fumbles in the future. Is there anything you wanted to do but were worried about feeling like a fish out of water doing? Do that thing. And if you don't have a thing, I second the recommendation for volunteering your time for a cause that means something to you. You might actually enjoy yourself, find some yourself in good company -- hell, someone else might enjoy your company too.
posted by sevenofspades at 9:56 PM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

You may find some helpful suggestions in this recent Ask, in which the OP tries to understand people who like the film Guardians of the Galaxy.
posted by hush at 8:06 AM on February 20, 2015

What I said is that when I try to perform the social behaviors that are suggested to me, the experience is almost invariably one of bafflement and awkwardness and frustration.

Not to be unduly glib, but...welcome to humanity?

It seems you feel like you are struggling alone while others sail blithely through these hoops with nary a second thought nor a stumble. (And I know, it can totally look that way--we are not taught to share our struggles in this arena.) But in actuality this shit happens to everyone. EVERYONE. A lot.

Not all the time, certainly, and we do indeed get better at it with age and practice. (And ideally, as people keep saying, we use those moments to build deeper connections that then render social niceties obsolete in that relationship.) But I would imagine that every single responder on this thread has a virtual binder full of moments when they attempted to perform various social engagements and failed miserably, resulting in bafflement and awkwardness and frustration. For some people this is more common than others. But you only learn through exposure, and you can't actually die of bafflement, so you just have to power through.

I'm not going to say that it was super fun being a really awkward human for most of my life. I was painfully slow to grasp codes and nuances, and rejected almost universally by my peer groups until nearly adulthood. I'm still not the sharpest social tool in the shed, and now that I work solo all the time it's much harder to hang on to my skills. But frankly I never felt like I had much choice; I felt a deep compulsion to connect with and understand my fellow monkeys in shoes, and it sounds like possibly you do as well.

One thing I can say, from the perspective of someone who now has friends and relationships and can absolutely navigate a social situation pleasurably, like...80% of the time? Is that the connections have been rewarding in proportion to the amount they were desired. If your desire for human connection is only moderately present, well, perhaps you may not find them worth the effort.

That's the part I don't get. If I'm hung up on the form instead of the meaning, it's because that's all I can see; it's all I have to work with.

We ALL can only see the form. It's all ANY of us has to work with. We infer meaning from form via prior knowledge and experience and context, the same way you can often work out the meaning of an unfamiliar word in an article. But you can't get that experience and context without exposure.

I agree with others above that the level of repulsion and anger you feel at the act of being social probably merits some kind of professional intervention. A skilled therapist can probably help you work through that resistance and get to a point where you can approach an unfamiliar social situation with only the vague angst and nervousness that afflicts the rest of us in such a situation.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:24 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

But beyond those basics, I often feel like a member of a different species. Many of the social norms that most people take for granted are baffling and alienating to me. On occasion, I've sat down and made a list of all the things about human society that I just don't understand: small talk and flirting; allegiances to sports teams, political parties, and other group identities; fashion and dress codes; and so on. It is a long list.

When I've made inquiries about the items on this list, I'm often told that participating in that domain is a "social skill". Flirting is a social skill. Using clothing and dress as social semaphore (ugh; just typing that sentence makes me feel exhausted and cranky) is a social skill. Caring (or pretending to care) about celebrities and sports is a social skill. These are broad and perhaps caricatured examples, but trust me when I say they are the tip of the iceberg.

You know, I haven't read any of the other responses, which I'm sure are interesting and wise, and I don't have a lot of time but I decided I wanted to respond to your question because I think I know exactly where you're coming from. Look, I went to MIT and I lived at a co-op there full of the geekiest hippies on the planet. I know LOTS AND LOTS of people who find allegiance to groups (whether it be political or sports teams) baffling. I know lots of people who would rather launch directly into a discussion about astrophysics or animal rights or the details of some anime manga than engage in any kind of "societally approved" social bonding process. I lived for years in an environment in which the social rules bore only a passing resemblance to the rules of society at large. Right down to literally not requiring clothes of any kind, let alone correct ones.

Personally I identify with some of what you said. I have never felt even the slightest twinge of interest in "supporting" a sports team, and the phenomenon honestly continues to baffle me. I have never worn makeup, never worn high heels, and I own only 4 sets of clothing. I'm not interested in a number of aspects of popular culture that many people care deeply about. I understand that this can be alienating, and I know what you mean when you say you feel like a member of a different species. Read on, though, please...

I'm 29 now, and I left the co-op when I was 23. Since then I've gotten married and moved in with my husband in our own private apartment. We have a toddler son now. I go to work at a lab (PhD student) and my husband (who also lived in the co-op and went to MIT; fellow geeky hippy) has a Real Job. So, I'm 6 years older, and in that time we've had to make favorable impressions on landlords, survive interviews and get jobs, secure childcare for our son without appearing like crazed hippies, and you know, generally be grownups working and surviving in the real world and providing a secure and happy upbringing for our child.

What have I learned?

1. This issue is more about being appropriately confident in who you are than anything else. I say appropriately confident because there are two sides to this issue. First of all, I bet you feel defensive, hesitant and confused by the fact that "everybody else" seems to care about all these sorts of things that you don't care about. Perhaps you wonder if there's something wrong with you, and likely you feel marginalized. On the other hand, you also wonder what the hell people are seeing in these shallow pursuits that you aren't interested in. Maybe there's something wrong with THEM. The answer of course is neither. You can be be unapologetically the person you are, without being defensive. For example, at my own wedding, I wore neither a white dress nor any makeup. I had no bridesmaids, didn't do any special dances, wasn't lead down the aisle by my father, and didn't participate in about a zillion wedding customs that didn't have meaning to me. But neither did I make my wedding all about how anti-wedding I was, you know? My husband and I had a great time. We had good food and drink and the company of our friends and family. That's what really matters. Which leads me to...

2. No matter the details of what people care about (fancy shoes, football, flirting, keeping up with the celebrities - or the latest in philosophy, space exploration, wearable technology, feminist ethics or grassroots politics), EVERYBODY wants the same basic things: to be heard and recognized for who they truly are, to be loved, to be appreciated, to contribute something meaningful to the world that others acknowledge. You have to learn this. If you know it somewhere in the back of your mind, remind yourself. Volunteer to take care of other people or take care of the environment. Meditate on what would truly make you happy, and what you think would truly make others happy. It's not so different. Read novels - you'll get in the heads of other people, fictional though they may be, and you can remind yourself that everybody, EVERYBODY, wants to be seen and appreciated and loved. If you don't know this, or you don't believe it, actively pursue this question. It will be life-changing.

3. The details of social interactions, like whether you're a smooth flirt, whether you have the latest news at the tip of your tongue to discuss in casual conversation, whether you've kept up with the sports scores from the night before, or whether you know how to gloss over awkward situations and keep conversation bubbling... Do not think about these things. No. What matters is whether you care to hear what other people have in their hearts and minds. First, do not assume that just because somebody cares about football, you and s/he are utterly incompatible humans who cannot have a conversation. See point #2. Everybody cares about things. Everybody appreciates being cared for. Ask questions, and listen. Once you figure out what a person cares about, you can see how s/he is just like you.

4. Wear culture lightly. From my perspective, yes, dressing as a social semaphore is meaningless. Fashion is transient, culturally dependent and I'm just not that into it. I choose to dress in a way that I feel comfortable with. It feels authentic to me. I don't look too "weird" from an outside perspective, and I certainly don't look like I'm following the latest trends. I'm not really sure how much of my style is dictated by something internal to me, in terms of pure self expression, and how much is me being subconsciously influenced by my surroundings. It's obviously a bit of both in some mix. I could agonize about how I'm a sheep following meaningless trends without even realizing it, but I have better things to do so I just get dressed in the morning and then forget about it. This doesn't mean I can't have 3-hour discussions with my sister about the societal pressures on women's appearances, or have strong feminist opinions about body image - it just means I'm not applying every anxiety to myself, personally, today.

In summary, there are people out there - hi, hello, I'm waving at you - who totally, totally understand your lack of interest in sports/celebs/whatever. There are people who live in very different spheres of social interaction. There are far more people who HAVE lived in these different spheres of social interaction and hold strong counter-cultural beliefs despite the fact that they "look like regular people" because they're wearing culture lightly and participating when it feels harmless to them. There are also people who are deeply involved in specific cultural trends of our time, or feel deeply invested in protocol. You can learn things from all of these fellow humans. You can feel connected to them and you can enjoy them. To do so, relax, accept yourself, breathe deeply, lower your defenses, ask questions, listen to the answers, and don't take this whole life business seriously ALL the time. It's mortally serious, right? But it's also ridiculous and it can be enjoyed.
posted by Cygnet at 11:36 AM on February 20, 2015 [15 favorites]

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