Bad at parties
March 14, 2015 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations to be more sociable with a focus on networking and career advancement.

After completing the last TV drama True Detective (2014) I noticed how I relate to one of the main characters Rustin Spencer "Rust" Cohle than I feel is good for me as someone who is interested in working in business. For people who are not familiar w/the show he comes across as a loner, abrasive, sarcastic, and generally a jerk to everyone including his partner. I know it's mostly his personality and he doesn't go out of his way to be a bad person per se but people still have their assumptions.

I've had a few challenging life events so the entire topic is not exactly a new place for me. For example, many people have remarked that I am too cynical or realistic for my age (23). I don't exactly understand this comment as it's not like I'm extremely critical of everyone and everything for no reason.

FWIW: I am in therapy/medical care already. I'm definitely on the ASD spectrum based on past experiences and confirmed with a doctor years ago.

So far I like my friends as they are but I don't suffer fools gladly. In the past I have read self-help books and related guides but I get the sense that I'm still missing one key element. Maybe my timing is off or that I'm indirectly pushing people away with my personality? I try to be very careful with new people and not asking too many questions during our conversations. I dislike group therapy but I have joined clubs like for fountain pens and I feel that I get along with the members there.

People tell me I don't smile enough but I'm tired of strangers telling women that they should smile. My normal expression is closer to blank/neutral and for service jobs I do a good job w/my work too. My clothing is appropriate to my station and appearance is well-kept and I'm not doing anything strange when I'm interacting (that I know of).

Overall searching for advice to help improve my networking skills or anything I might have overlooked. Thanks.
posted by chrono_rabbit to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I try to be very careful with new people and not asking too many questions during our conversations.
I think this is sort of the opposite of what you want to be aiming for. If you want people to like you, get them to talk about themselves, and then actually listen to them.
posted by deathpanels at 11:18 AM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Energy.

Watch this behind-scenes video of Jack Nicholson psyching himself up for his famous axing-through-the-bathroom-door scene in The Shining (start at 4'45") for an idea of what's necessary.

Don't look for the party. Instead, be the party. I'm speaking metaphorically, and this works at every conceivable level, including small talk. Don't bashfully try to manage small talk to the satisfaction of the person you're with. Don't try to "keep up" with it. Instead, assume the other person is worse at it than you, and YOU do the heavy lifting, YOU make it happen, inspire THEM to keep up. It takes energy. Again: study Jack!

Bashful quiet nerdy introverted recoiled "I hate small talk" periphery people drastically underestimate the amount of energy and consideration everyone else invests in this stuff. It's super easy to retract; anyone can do it, including seeming extroverts. It's not your secret special place, we ALL have that place. Receding there not only doesn't help you, but it makes everyone else have to work harder because you're not lifting your share.

That sounds like "tough love", but it's true, and it's the best perspective you can possibly adopt. It's a matter of good citizenship to bring more energy and try harder on the small stuff and the interpersonal stuff (you do it when you absolutely have to, e.g. in a personal emergency where you need someone to dial 911 or something; your mistake is in figuring you don't always have to!). It takes energy. Watch Jack Nicholson again. That's the stuff. That's what other people do. Are you working even half that hard in these moments?

"Try harder" doesn't mean worry more. I mean outpouring energy, not internally spiraling energy. And "yes" to the two others who say you should DEFINITELY ask tons of questions. It's not about you, it's about them. The ENERGY is you, though. Get it?
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:21 AM on March 14, 2015 [20 favorites]

I try to be very careful with new people and not asking too many questions during our conversations.

To be frank, this is the completely wrong approach to be taking, given the goals you've articulated here. People like, and are interested in others who appear to take an interest in them and their "story," whatever it is. You're in the same field as them? And you're looking to make connections and build a network? Focus on finding out as much as you can about them and their work, and try to figure out where you fit into that and what you bring to the table. Conversely, find out how they can help you out; good networking, I've found, is always a two-way street.

The trick is to do it without coming off as needy or subservient, but a lot of that is body language. And lots, lots, lots, lots of practice. Well-adjusted people (and you absolutely are one!) are sensitive to, and respond to others who actively listen to, and engage, them. Full stop. This is absolutely a skill that can be learned, no matter who you are. A good book that I like (and it's actually a core part of the "charm school" I run for my team) is The Charisma Myth.
posted by un petit cadeau at 11:22 AM on March 14, 2015

I don't suffer fools gladly

With all due respect, the people that say that kind of thing are assholes.

Assholes are people that insist that social interactions happen on their terms. So yeah, you're indirectly -- or, come on, very directly -- pushing people away.

Now, no one believes you're a asshole, because you're aware of this tendency and are seeking advice. But the advice you accept should be accepted in the context with your baked-in tendencies here. Someone could tell you about body language and so forth, but you won't have gotten to the core of the problem. You'll just be the asshole with great body language.

This is a long way of saying you should read Quisp Lover's advice carefully. The party is not about you. It's about what you bring to it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:43 AM on March 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

Get a copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People - it's a great how-to on ways to talk with people and make them feel appreciated. But one of the bottom lines that other people have already touched on is to ask questions and appear genuinely interested in what they have to say and people will like you.

he comes across as a loner, abrasive, sarcastic, and generally a jerk to everyone including his partner.

One of the important things is to really limit negative things that you say, unless it's really important to the conversation. I had one friend that I gave up talking to entirely because every single conversation would veer into her complaining about something - work, coworkers, bad experiences at restaurants, etc. I'd come out of discussions with her regretting having talked with her.

Part of responding to conversations you're not interested in is the give and take of letting people talk about things they're interested in and then redirecting to something that's of interest to you. If someone wants to talk about golf with you and you have no interest, you can ask them what got them interested in golf. Genuinely listen for a while, but then use that conversation as a jumping off point to something you'd like to talk about. When I was younger, I was guilty of what you might describe as not suffering fools well and would sometimes bluntly shut down conversations I wasn't interested in. To borrow from improv, it's much better to hear something and respond with, "yes, and ..." rather than, "I don't like ..."
posted by Candleman at 12:10 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't suffer fools gladly

One thing to think about is having different standards for "fools" for different relationships. For very close friends, it's fine to be very selective. But, if you're just networking, what does it matter if people believe differently than you do? Would that preclude you from potentially working with them? Unless it's super pertinent to your career, don't focus on those differences. Another thing to think about is your definition of "fool." As I've grown older, my definition of fool has narrowed considerably. Life can be very difficult, and unless you know someone very well, you don't know if they're the fool, you're the fool, or either/both of you are just heavily influenced by your circumstances.

Since you seem to have had some success at the fountain pen club, think about what worked there and try that out in other arenas. You have a common interest with the other club members, and you should potentially have a common interest (your career's field) with people with whom you are networking. The other advice here is also really good. As always, practice makes perfect. So try out networking in a low stakes environment - a happy hour or volunteer event or something. Good luck!
posted by bluefly at 12:27 PM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I used to be like this, because I thought it made me seem interesting and cool and deep. And it did, sort of, but the people I attracted ( mainly guys, which was the point) were often on the jerky side themselves. Via a variety of methods, including a job that paid me to talk to others ( and a boss who took me in hand) and reading Learned Optimism and Constructive Living, I managed to reset myself into the cheerful, easygoing, seemingly extroverted woman I am today.
Most people are just trying to get through the day, doing the best they can. When I meet someone new, I ask questions, listen to the answers and try to see where we may have something in common. In a group, I try to get someone else to join our little conversation, and then get them talking. And then add someone else, or I move along to another person and do the same. It's kind of like spinning plates. Someone else might give the plate/conversation another spin or someone could let it crash, but no worries, there's always time for another go, or to mosey off in search of a drink.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:51 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

>>> I don't suffer fools gladly

> With all due respect, the people that say that kind of thing are assholes.


It's no great trick to notice that most humans are stupid, stubborn, deluded, foolish, ridiculous. Every 14 year old has mastered that trick. You don't get points for recognizing insufficiency. You do, however, get a few for recognizing that you, yourself, are insufficient in every realm but the very few in which you happen to specialize (and you naturally tend to overvalue accomplishment in those meager few realms you happen to focus on).

Once you've developed that degree of humility (which is really just about seeing clearly), it's possible to meet strangers halfway. Even if they're ugly, or have bad breath, or are saying something stupid or cliched, or have never heard of Terry Pratchett, or listen to the wrong band, or stutter a little, or say "literally" inappropriately. Every one of them can do stuff, knows stuff, feels stuff you can't. LOTS of stuff. We're all specialists. We come together as a collaborative art project. It's beautiful just as-is, there's room for everyone.

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid" - Albert Einstein

I highly recommend "Confederacy of Dunces", a book that's the foremost exploration of the psychology of a fucking idiot who feels superior simply by virtue of his ability to recognize that other people are fucking idiots. It's not pretty. You really don't want to be him.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:07 PM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmm---I may have misspoken my intent but I have high tolerance for a lot of people but at the end of the day it's just deep down I feel like I'm not having fun with it. I ask related questions and make small talk about nothing. I'm aware I don't need to agree 100% with people who I may or may not work with and that there's no need to befriend everyone.

Thanks for the tip for having a lot of energy in conversations as I am a low-key person overall. A lot of it is just spending way too much time alone as a kid and in hostile environment growing up.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 1:22 PM on March 14, 2015

Ah, got it.

One thing, though: there's no such thing as low-energy people. Just people who've chosen not to apply their energy to this or to that. That choice is most often subconscious, stemming from background factors like the ones you mentioned. It never occurred that you actually SHOULD apply energy in this circumstance! Or that you can be the party rather than try to join the party.

The question isn't whether you have energy to apply to this (you do), or even whether you can "learn" to apply it (nothing to learn; just diligently do it!). It's a question of whether you're willing to change, and become someone who acts differently. At first it will feel weirdly "false"; you won't feel like "yourself". There are natural inhibitions to behavioral change, so change feels unsettling, even scary. So just fake it till you make it. Consider: Jack Nicholson isn't really an axe murderer! :)

I'm guessing you may be starting to suspect this sort of attitude might be key for getting out of other sorts of stalls, as well. And it is! Also, it's a lot easier to pivot at age 23 than at 33 or 43 or 53. You'll be doing a major kindness for your later self.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:39 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have always been more of a loner so friendships have been mysterious to me. Advice from my mom (and to echo others here): get people talking about themselves! Advice from my dad: Friendships just take a lot of time and history together; it's doing stuff together over a long period of time that makes a friendship.

As for parties, I don't think you have to be the life of the party to have a good time. Usually there is at least on other person at a party that prefers one on one conversations, you can find them and really focus on enjoying getting to know them. In groups, you can also focus on listening to the flow of the conversation and getting to know the people there.

I am not sure from your question: are you more interested in having a good time yourself or appearing to have a good time? If it's appearing to have a good time, then I agree with the advice to fake being higher energy. If it's to have a good time yourself, it's OK to be low key and seek out other low key people.

On the networking front: What about looking for a specific mentor? I have found that having a single mentor is more effective than going to a bunch of social events.
posted by CMcG at 1:42 PM on March 14, 2015

Response by poster: The latter because most of my hobbies are solo activities like reading. I've not considered a mentor but will start looking for one now that you've mentioned it. I worry some times that I don't seem as engaged or personable despite being interested in the said topics. On the other hand I don't want to be that guy who is very intense and/or obsessive about one small interest that no one cares about.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 1:53 PM on March 14, 2015

Being "that guy" is better than being no one at all. I'd suggest you don't get bogged down trying to be just the right person. Your discretion doesn't stretch that far (no one's does!), and you're starting from scratch here. Give yourself some slack. The judging loop is just more burden to carry around.

Drop kludgey burden, psyche yourself up, work a bit harder, and expect things go bumpy at first. But just keep honing, broadening, caring, reaching out. Most of all, do it altruistically, to hold up your end of things and create a party for people, rather than as an anxious needy gambit to "get over". Insofar as possible, operate out of love, if that doesn't sound too corny. Love naturally makes it less about you and more about them. And the "it's-not-about-me" part, I think you'll find, is the clearest truth of all.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:07 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I ask related questions and make small talk about nothing.

These two things aren't bound at the waist. You can make small talk about something. For example, as a big reader, surely many things that come up in small talk have some overlap with something you've read and you can explore topics in light of what you know about them from books.
posted by rhizome at 2:08 PM on March 14, 2015

I thought of something else --- I agree no one should be telling you to smile --- however, one thing I have tried with some success is smiling when I enter a room and when I leave it. At first the smiling felt forced, but even then, it made me feel happier and more outgoing.
posted by CMcG at 2:59 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Since you sound like an analytical person, here's what I would suggest as a party algorithm:
1. Find a person.
2. Ask this person something specific and factual about them. Example topics: what is your job? Take careful note of how they respond.
3. Ask an open-ended follow up question. Ex: Oh, you're a nurse. How do you like it?
4. Continue steps 2-3, alternating between factual and open-ended questions, for several more minutes. You are now "getting to know" this person.
5. Eventually, the person will feel socially obligated to ask about you. This is to be expected. They'll probably follow steps similar to 2-4 above. Respond and smile.
6. If you sense a lull in the conversation, it may be your turn as the question-asker again. Repeat steps 2-4.
7. Eventually, you will likely run out of sufficiently surface-detail conversation topics and your interlocutor will excuse him/herself to get a drink/snack/use the bathroom, and then go find someone else to talk to. This isn't a rejection per se, it's just what happens at parties.
8. Go to 1.

Another thing that often happens in these conversations is establishing how you each know the person who organized the party. This establishes each of your credibility and allows you to be friendly to one another, relatively certain that neither of you is an axe murderer. This little dance takes place in many areas of human social life, so learn to recognize it.

I've also found in my own life that when I have a hard time socializing it's often because of some physical discomfort that I am not dealing with appropriately which bubbles up as social discomfort. Try to become aware of things like wearing clothes you don't like or that don't fit you well, drinking when you don't feel like it, feeling sick and wishing you hadn't come to the party in the first place, or being stiff and sore from not getting enough exercise.
posted by deathpanels at 3:04 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Watch this behind-scenes video of Jack Nicholson psyching himself up for his famous axing-through-the-bathroom-door scene in The Shining (start at 4'45") for an idea of what's necessary.

Astounding video that ought to also be on the blue.
posted by standardasparagus at 5:55 PM on March 14, 2015

Already there, years ago. Check out also this version where Vivian comments years later on her video.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:10 PM on March 15, 2015

It's me, back to obnoxiously dominate the thread (sorry). At least I waited till things died down, so it's not so bad. I'm not sure anyone will even see this. But here goes.

It dawns on me that I was wrong to use the word "energy" to describe what's abundant in Jack Nicholson's performance and what sounds lacking in your social behavior. That led you to respond "Hey, I'm not an energetic person", which led me to reply with the weak (though true) rejoinder that no one's low-energy; we just make decisions about where/how to direct energy.

That's not terribly convincing. So let's use a different word, a much more apt one: commitment. Jack was showing commitment. And you need to show commitment. As I said above:

Bashful quiet nerdy introverted recoiled "I hate small talk" periphery people drastically underestimate the amount of energy and consideration everyone else invests in this stuff. It's super easy to retract; anyone can do it, including seeming extroverts. It's not your secret special place, we ALL have that place. Receding there not only doesn't help you, but it makes everyone else have to work harder because you're not lifting your share.

It's not that such people lack the energy, or fail to apply energy. That's the receding edge. The leading edge is commitment. They don't commit when it comes to social engagement. That's really all it is. That's the problem right there. No need to look further.

Two stories:

1. I teach musical improvisation. Quick vignette: I'm in a room with twelve young musicians, and we're going around the room, trading riffs in tempo. I am working very hard, focusing very sharply, absolutely LIVING for the notes pouring out of me when it's my turn. The students, by stark contrast, are sort of piddling away on their instruments. They look relaxed and languorous, while I look like a madman. Finally, I put down my instrument and I rebuke the students: "Wait a minute. How come I'm working harder than anyone else here? Think about it! I can relax and piddle like you guys and still sound good, because I've been playing for so many years! You guys CAN'T. But yet here I am, playing like my life depended on it, and you're just freaking SITTING THERE, plunking out notes like you're peeling potatoes. I don't expect students to play perfectly, but if you don't WANT IT, how do you expect to GET IT?!?"

2. I've asked a number of highly socially adept people about their secret. Everyone has replied the same: "I work at it, man. I work much harder at it than you do. You have no idea how hard I work at it, every minute. You just sit there impassively, wondering why everyone's not warmly engaging with you, but you're barely even trying."

Same thing. If you're not good at it, why aren't you trying much, much, much harder? How can you stand there, fidgeting, when others in the room are 1. doing it better than you AND 2. trying harder than you?

I understand that nobody ever told you before that social engagement required commitment. You figured it was just about saying the right things, asking the right questions, adjusting your body english and trying to squeak through. Just like my students were trying to produce the "correct" notes, figuring that that was the game. I'm telling you it's a question of commitment more than formula tweaking. So now you've been told. You can no longer claim ignorance! :)

And here's the thing. When you commit, energy is conjured (unless you're literally frail; frail like an 85 year old who can't get up steps). Eenergy doesn't come by summoning it, ala Gandalf. Energy comes when you really care, and try really hard, as if your life depended on it. That's what social engagement requires. At least for people who are good at it. For those of us who aren't, it requires double.

You can make this commitment by digging deeply into your desperate desire to be loved by people. Or you can do it because you desperately want to love people. I find the latter more propitious (though rarer). Look at it this way: every time you fail to hold up your end of a conversation, every time you let energy dip because you're feeling nerdy and hapless, you knock the other person a little bit off their ease. Who wants to go around spreading uneasefulness among our brother/sister humans (all of whom are walking wounded in one way or other, dealing with unimaginable pain)? Instead, why not try to build other peoples' ease? Add to the flow rather than stop it? Lift MORE than your share of the social weight?

Go with that perspective, and you can't lose. You just have to remember. Those music students perked the fuck up very quickly after my exasperated speech (and played a LOT better!). When we continued the next day, though, they were all slumped back in their seats, haphazardly picking off idle notes again. Commitment is everything, but the most important part of commitment is the meta-commitment of committing to always commit. It's like a sacred vow to forever be someone else (all change makes you someone else).

Good luck.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:26 PM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

PS - in case you need it pointed out, the effort I'm making here, on behalf of a total stranger, who I'm not even sure is still reading, much less interested or grokking what I'm talking about - is an example of the intensity of commitment I'm suggesting.

I'm not patting my own back. You have no idea how badly I screw up any number of things; I'm a total abject loser, seriously. But, man, I sure do, at least, try.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:41 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

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