I need to get outside my shell. How do I begin?
March 29, 2015 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm a plain-vanilla guy, and I really want to change that and get out of my shell. Snowflake details inside.

So, I consider myself both an extrovert and an introvert, but I've had certain struggles socializing and would like some concrete advice and/or thoughts.

Some key information before I begin:

I have social anxiety. Mild, but it's there.
The people I'm trying to socialize and/or expand my social circle with is Deaf, like I am. That may help with the context of this situation.
I live in a large city (DC) with a reasonable number of other Deaf people.
I am in my late 20s. Others I am trying to socialize with are also in their 20s/30s.

So, I consider myself a reasonably smart/astute, well-read guy, but for some reason, in person, it's hard for me to hold a conversation. A majority of my socializing is done at clubs and bars, as that's the easiest way to catch a large group of Deaf people at once. Interactions pretty much consist of "oh hello there, been a while, how have you been?... oh, I've been busy working." From that point, the conversation pretty much dies off, with a bit of awkward shuffling, until the person sees another friend and excuses him/herself.

I've tried observing other conversations between Deaf people, mostly about work, sports, pets, families, and whatnot. I can't really relate with any of that, as I do work, but I'm still new, and I don't work with any other Deaf people, and my job probably wouldn't interest others. I'm not into sports at all. I don't have a family or a pet. Heck, I don't even have a boyfriend!

That's something I've been really struggling with, and it sucks so much because when I try to hold a conversation with people, I feel so... dumb. I feel illiterate. It's weird because my thoughts are always running, and I have so many interests, but they're mostly obscure stuff that others wouldn't care about, or not to the extent that I do. Bottom line: I feel boring, and incapable of holding a proper conversation. It also makes me feel socially awkward.

Obviously, there are exceptions: a few closer friends and I do have good conversations. But even those conversations center around the same things and same conversation loops we had.

I've been told people view me as "vanilla", in a general, broader sense of things, and in a social context. It's difficult because I can be very shy. I even tried going to a gay Deaf coffee group gathering, but had a very hard time holding a conversation with almost everyone, and ended up leaving early. It was a bust.

Another thing I'm really struggling with is the anxiety I have asking other people (at bars/clubs/random passing by's) for their text numbers. It seems like every time I'm at a bar or club, I see people handing each other their phones to exchange numbers, but that never happens to me. I'm also afraid to ask, in the fear of being rejected/being told no/whatnot. I remember vividly last year, asking one person I've known for a long time (almost 10 years now) from the same university, running into her at the mall, for her text number. She balked, saying she preferred Facebook contact. It was very awkward, because I had my iPhone ready in my hands for her to take. I was also taken aback, because she was always nice and bubbly to me, so I imagined it would be a cinch asking her for her number, to expand our friendship a bit more.

(Disclaimer here: I'm gay. Had zero romantic interest in her, and she knows I'm gay.)

Since then, I've shied away from asking people for text numbers. I don't know why, but I feel this literal pause when being about to ask. The only times I feel comfortable to is when I'm buzzed/drunk, and even then, it's a challenge.

I prefer text because Facebook is easily distracting and doesn't feel as personal.

So, I guess here's the tl;dr of this:

-How do I hold a conversation better and make it flow more smoothly? What topics do I talk about? (other than the obvious topics, such as news and recent events)
-How do I get over my anxiety/fear of rejection asking for text numbers?
-What am I doing wrong?

I really want to expand and branch out. The weird thing is, at bars/clubs/etc., people generally seem happy to see me, but it's just that the conversation doesn't last, in a majority of cases. For the sake of this AskMe, this is purely concentrated on Deaf people, so please don't suggest expanding out to hearing people.

I will answer any questions and/or clarify if needed in the comments. Any honest feedback is also welcome. Thanks for any advice or suggestions you may have!
posted by dubious_dude to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
-How do I hold a conversation better and make it flow more smoothly? What topics do I talk about? (other than the obvious topics, such as news and recent events)

I found the best conversations are where you ask people about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. And then, as they're talking about what interests them, find connections in what you like, and talk about that. You're probably more interesting than you think. Everyone loves to check in on other people...why else would Facebook exist, if we didn't care what everyone had for lunch?

-How do I get over my anxiety/fear of rejection asking for text numbers?

Exposure therapy. Ask and ask. The worst that can happen is that you'll get rejected, and the more that happens (or....doesn't happen!), the less life-or-death it's going to feel.

-What am I doing wrong?

Probably nothing more than diminishing your own value in your own head. You're just as interesting and worthy of attention as anyone else. Let yourself relax and show yourself to others.
posted by xingcat at 5:43 PM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Your obscure interests are fascinating, particularly to people who don't know much about them. You know how everyone's topics of work and sports etc seem boring to you? That's because they are boring. Talk about what actually interests you. Your excitement coupled with it being something different will engage another person much more easily than trying to fit into pre-existing topics that you don't care about.

I mean, do a little small talk just to begin, but when they ask "what's been going on with you?" say "oh I've been learning a lot about [topic]. It's so cool because [reason]." Then, if they're interested in you just generally, they'll gratefully take that hook and respond with another question. Maybe "where'd you get started learning about [thing]?" or "Oh, my niche interest is [other topic], which has some stuff in common with yours." Then you go from there.

Think of it this way - you don't want to be friends with people who don't want to learn and experience new stuff, right? Because you are new stuff to them. So it's both a way to engage more genuinely and a way to vet people who are truly just interested in small talk - who you can then comfortably ignore, because they really won't care!

Also, I don't want to sound mean about your chosen demographic but if the only stuff they talk about is their work, sports, and other family members, then they are the "vanilla" ones. It's pleasant to touch base about these sorts of topics as a general wellness check ("how are you? how's your sister? did you get that thing worked out with your boss?") but beyond that everybody has niche interests that make them light up. If this social group makes people feel like they can't share these things, it sounds like a stifling situation for everyone! I'm not very familiar with the Deaf crowd but it's not like you're all homogenous. I wonder if your people are just elsewhere?

Although you say your social anxiety is mild, are you seeing anyone about it? There are a lot of ways to help, and since you're using drinking as a way to medicate that anxiety when asking for contact info it sounds like you should try nipping that habit in the bud. You might find that once you're treating your anxiety it was affecting your life a lot more than you realized. Or you might find that having some medical backup will give you confidence to take chances ("Well, I'm scared to ask him out, but if this totally bombs I have my appointment on Thursday and we can work through it together. I'm not alone in this.") or just give you techniques to deal with unexpected stressors.

My best suggestion for making friends is to find someone you actually find interesting and make sure they know that you are interested in them. Not romantically, but just in terms of "tell me about you, and what you think about things." It's what people really want - to be appreciated and noticed for who they actually are - and it's an opening for them to be interested in you, too.
posted by Mizu at 6:05 PM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

-How do I get over my anxiety/fear of rejection asking for text numbers?

I'm not deaf, but I'm hoping that it is okay to give a suggestion for this part of the question. I'm answering this as a person who is a bit anxious/shy, has met people in various one-off scenarios, and had contact info given to me (and later contacted some of the people).

One low anxiety way that I have seen people provide contact info is to give a business card right before they leave; it doesn't have to be a business card - you could get a bunch of cards made up with your social contact info. Then, right before they leave, say something along the lines of "It was fun meeting you. Let me give you my card. If you want to do a (bike ride, or whatever mutual hobby you discussed) sometime, let me know."

But they have your contact info with various ways to reach out to you. I think that it is less threatening to have many ways, even if you prefer one over the other. I've contacted some people that I met this way. If you hand out several and don't hear back, you can remember that there are many reasons that have nothing to do with you (ie, lost the card, forget who the person that they met over the weekend was, etc.).

The person is likely to give you their text/other contact info - not immediately, but it should still work.

If you are phenomenally stressed out by someone acting the way that the woman did before - you won't experience that because you are not asking them for anything. You are just saying, here, and they can feel free to followup or not.
posted by Wolfster at 6:46 PM on March 29, 2015

I remember vividly last year, asking one person I've known for a long time (almost 10 years now) from the same university, running into her at the mall, for her text number. She balked, saying she preferred Facebook contact. It was very awkward, because I had my iPhone ready in my hands for her to take. I was also taken aback, because she was always nice and bubbly to me, so I imagined it would be a cinch asking her for her number, to expand our friendship a bit more.

With this situation in mind, why not try being more open flexible with the way you communicate and be open to the methods other people like using too? If someone prefers Facebook to communicate, and if you actually want to genuinely become better friends with them, why not add her to your Facebook and start texting her via Facebook messenger?

To be honest, I can see where this girl is coming from because I prefer texting via Facebook messenger to actual texting. I'm not always by my phone, so I like having something I can use across a lot of devices.
posted by modesty.blaise at 7:09 PM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: A quick followup:

One low anxiety way that I have seen people provide contact info is to give a business card right before they leave; it doesn't have to be a business card - you could get a bunch of cards made up with your social contact info. Then, right before they leave, say something along the lines of "It was fun meeting you. Let me give you my card. If you want to do a (bike ride, or whatever mutual hobby you discussed) sometime, let me know."

That's a good idea. The thing is, I know those people I tend to see at bars/clubs/passing-by's, and have known them since either college or high school days. It may come across as a bit awkward handing them a card. But, I can see this working in scenarios where those are completely new people.

Although you say your social anxiety is mild, are you seeing anyone about it?

Yes. I am seeing a therapist.

I guess what I'm trying to ask, although I didn't word it clearly in my original question, is, how should I ask someone for their text numbers and/or offer to exchange information? Let's say I've known this person for 3-8 years through college, have mutual friends, but didn't talk much. How would I make the segue to ask for that seamless and less awkward? What suggestions would you have if I was met with rejection (polite or rude)? Should it be something like: "You're a cool guy, do you want to exchange numbers and maybe sometime hang out?" or... "Want my number?" I don't know, it just makes me feel anxious, and I guess I'm afraid of rejection and feeling hurt that cute guy/cool woman didn't deem it worthy to get my contact information. Does this make sense?
posted by dubious_dude at 7:20 PM on March 29, 2015

Yes, it makes sense. Often what I try to do is to get a person's number the first or second time that I meet them, so that if I want to reconnect later, I can. (Also, the stakes are lower.) No one has ever said no, and I'm sorry your friend was rude. But -- what I would say, the next time you see a longtime acquaintance like this, is "Hey -- I realized recently that I never got your number! Do you want to exchange numbers?" That's really it. You can follow up with something like, "I'm planning to [do this activity you have in common] soon if you'd want to join me," but you certainly don't have to. They'll probably say, "Sure!" and be flattered to be asked.
posted by tooloudinhere at 7:47 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hrmm. I think it's hard to exchange contact information when it's ambiguous why you want to. It's good to have a concrete goal. So like "Hey, let's exchange contacts so we can go try that restaurant/see that movie/go to the park when the weather's nice/talk more about [niche topic]." Instead of ambiguity "Why does he want my number? Is he hitting on me? Does he think I want him to give me his number? Is he going to just call me all the time?" there's a clearer exchange of information. "He wants my number so we can do [thing] because he wants to spend more time with me!"

"It was awesome learning about [their interest], can I text you about it next week? Here's my number."
"Texting is the best way to get in contact with me, so here's my number. Can I get yours?"

I think contact cards is a great idea! You can also use this for people who have known you a while: "Look, I got these cards, aren't they fun? Now I can be all suave." *slyly hands out cards to everyone* or, near the end of an evening, a little white lie "Hey, I think you might have my old email? Anyway here's my card, it's got all the right numbers on it, just in case."

As for the rejection thing, I think the best thing is to just disengage and sort your feelings out when you're in a safe and calm place. Respect their wishes, but also make sure you're being open minded about contact methods. Maybe someone really prefers email? It sounds worth it to you to accommodate these kind of preferences for the sake of friendships. But if it's clear that they just don't want to contact you outside of these larger social events, it's best to outwardly accept that. Then, work on releasing your fear and upset in a way that's healthier for you. I bet your therapist will have suggestions. Basically, don't spend a minute worrying about the other person's emotional state or their reaction to you. Just concern yourself with yourself. As long as you're respectful, you won't have done anything wrong.
posted by Mizu at 8:03 PM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Social anxiety is a yawning emptiness in the pit of the stomach, a tension deep in the shoulder blades, a thumping heart. It's the hyper awareness of all our faults and flaws, and all the ways in which we might say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and thereby "ruin" everything.

This feeling, these beliefs, are lies.

You are coming across as "vanilla" because anxiety has you putting such high walls to protect from getting hurt, from doing something "wrong" -- that people cannot find any hint of you to connect with. Cannot sense your well-readness, your esoteric interests, or any of the details that makes you, you. Meanwhile, you feel boring, illiterate, because you are trying so hard to blend in, to observe and do what everyone else is doing, that you are never in the moment, never feeling the organic flow of interaction where people are just enjoying one another, where comes a natural point at which, hey, we dig each other, let's exchange contact info and hang out sometimes, maybe.

The trick is to understand that we can never say or do anything so "wrong" as to "ruin" anything. If it's "ruined," it's not worth anything to begin with. -- The feeling that threatens to shut your throat when at the point of asking for a number? Just a feeling. Feels horrible, granted, but nevertheless, can't kill you.

The trick is to forge on through, and stutter out whatever you need to say anyway.

The first couple of times may feel like you are facing death head-on. And to bad results, probably, because you would be doing it so awkwardly, trying to fight through the feeling. But after 10 or 20 or 30 tries? You'll come to see that, the truth is not that you lack the social skills, but that your beliefs and anxiety have prevented you from exercising these skills.

I am in DC too, and in this town everyone is always newly come from somewhere, looking to connect and make friends. Plenty of people to practice on, you see?

There is no perfect thing to say that would magically make people want to give their numbers and be our friend. More important is to say it, and to enough people that some of them will respond with, sure.


A couple of things:

You might see people exchanging numbers all the time and feel left out, but that exchange could mean nothing. I've exchange plenty of business cards, phone numbers, facebook info, whatever -- and half the time, neither of us followed up.

It's easier to ask for people's information if you have a direct purpose beyond just keeping in contact. I.e. After conversing with them, you discover you share xyz interest, and there is xyz activity upcoming, so you exchange numbers in order to attend that activity together. Or, you manage to take some good photos of them, and wants to send it. Be daring, be creative. The worst thing that could happen is they say no. And if they do, just repeat to yourself, this anxiety is just a feeling and won't kill me, and move onto the next person.

Good luck.
posted by enlivener at 8:31 PM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have this thing where I feel like it's borderline intrusive to ask someone for their number. So I offer mine--"hey, here's my number/email/carrier pigeon, say hi sometime."

This puts the ball entirely in their court and allows them to contact you, or not, in a way that fits their boundaries and comfort levels.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:43 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fellow queer Deafie here. Represent!

It can be difficult to tap into Deaf spheres if you aren't a pre-established figure, because the communities tend to be very small even in bigger cities, so everyone tends to know everyone already. So if you're new to a community, I agree it can be really easy to feel left out - you're going to miss out a lot of references to the social circle, and less adventurous people are going to prefer to stick to the people they already know rather than take risks with new people.

The other people here have covered the social anxiety and general socialization aspects very well, so I'm going to focus mostly upon the specific stuff that you can do to get more involved in a Deaf community. The good news is that I think you'll ultimately find a lot of people came from a similar situation as you - many Deaf people don't learn sign language and connect with Deaf communities until later in life. And a lot of us were also isolated growing up in hearing society that way, meaning that we didn't really have a chance to figure out how to hold a conversation with people. A lot of our hobbies tend to be individual that way. That was my experience at least, so don't feel like you're entirely alone in this. Developing social networks in the Deaf community can be challenging, but there's also a greater acceptance for individual quirks that way. You might think that you're coming off as awkward and uninteresting, but I don't think people will actually perceive you that way - if anything, they're inclined to see you in a positive light from the very start.

Here's some specific stuff you could do:

- Try to cultivate a community presence. Because Deaf communities are so small, everyone is used to knowing what everyone else is like - all the gossip, personalities, and so forth. It can be very intimidating for a Deaf person to speak to someone completely new, because most times when you meet someone, you already have a general sense of who they are from mentions here and there from other people. You can actually use the community grapevine to your advantage by joining a Deaf organization/cause. For myself, when I started getting involved in the Deaf community, I signed up as a director for my local Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf - not only did that present a great opportunity for me to meet people, but word spreads fast. Before I knew it, everyone in the community knew about my projects, even if they had never met me before, so every time I was introduced to someone new, they would already know about me, developing a level of trust and providing fodder for conversation. You strike me as the type who's better at doing things than talking about them anyway, so joining a Deaf organization might be up your alley! Working on a shared project gives you an excuse to ask for someone's contact, too, without coming off as awkward.

- If there's a Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf around you, definitely consider joining that! You don't mention what city you're in - I'm in Canada, so I might not be able to help you out entirely here if you're in the states, but I'd be interested in knowing at least. Rainbow Alliances of the Deaf are interesting because the community values tend to differ from conventional Deaf communities a little - since Deaf-queer people can be rare, RADs tend to be more eager to connect with hearing/non-signing queer people (many offer Queer/Trans 101 classes), and are much more open to new faces as well. Overall, this means that there's a lower barrier to entry in Deaf-queer communities than in other Deaf niches.

- Find "community hubs". Certain people in Deaf communities are going to be super involved, extroverted, and active, and if you can figure out who and make friends with them, they'll help you network and connect with the people who might be a little more apprehensive about meeting you. Similarly, most cities/provinces have a go-to list of Deaf events that a ton of Deaf people there will rely upon - sometimes it can be hard to find this information, but if you snoop a little and ask people what's going on, you'll be able to figure out some of the less mainstream/advertised Deaf stuff.

- Meet-ups that just sit and sign can be awkward as a new person due to the established interpersonal dynamics that I mentioned go on. I'd suggest that you attend events where you're actually doing stuff with other people - hikes, arts and crafts sessions, etc. since it's not just people sitting around and catching up on their lives (which you won't have the context to understand) and other people (ditto.) Churches are an avenue for some Deaf people, even if you're not religious - there's some UU churches in major cities that are exclusively Deaf. It's not my thing, but people say great things about meeting others through that.

- Language merits a mention here. I see that you're fully fluent in English writing, but not everyone is. Your friend (if she's Deaf as well), might not be, so that's why she might be intimidated in sharing her text message number or Facebook chat. Written modes of communication don't work for everyone, and you'd be surprised how common this is in the Deaf community. This means that you'll unfortunately need to socialize more in person to establish greater levels of trust - a videophone conversation is kind of a middle-ground here, but that requires a lot more investment in a relationship than text messaging/IM. Similarly, are you fully fluent in ASL? If you aren't, or if you sign closer to a signed-English format, that might pose a barrier for some people.

- Different Deaf communities will have different values. While don't burn bridges because again, Deaf communities are tiny and you don't want to make negative connections if you can, don't be afraid to shop around with different crowds. Some might judge you if you wear a cochlear implant, or use signed English, and so forth - I generally avoid hanging out with those crowds. If a community doesn't feel like it clicks with you, try a different venue.

Feel free to me-mail me about anything!
posted by Conspire at 10:18 PM on March 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

Just one thing to add - if you're like me and tend to talk to hearing friends/therapists about this or look for hearing resources on social anxiety, just be aware that a lot of hearing social stuff won't universalize to Deaf communities. For instance, it's way better to be direct about your intentions (and expect similar directness back) than to tell white lies. As I mentioned, there may be different expectations around written English messaging. Keep in mind that some Deaf communities are super small - my Deaf queer community maybe has a core group of only 20 people or so, and we're considered a major metropolitan city. So, if you're trying out things and they don't seem to work, consider that cultural and situational constraints might mean the advice that you get from more hearing-centric resources may not be effective in your context. Don't be afraid to try different things.
posted by Conspire at 10:38 PM on March 29, 2015

This is just a small piece of your question and my community might be different than yours, but in my experience, 20s/30s DC is all about Facebook. I have almost never exchanged numbers (except for very specific reasons like 'call when you get here so I can let you in') with anyone because everyone just expects to find each other on Facebook. This is particularly true for interconnected groups where you can find people through friends of friends, groups that they're members of, or tagged pictures. I was also not that into Facebook messenger, but that seems to be the way people do things. And no one seems to think that it's intrusive or weird to find someone and message to make plans or follow up.
posted by oryelle at 5:24 AM on March 30, 2015

I think observing people a lot is a good first step. And trying to empathize - it's hard to feel self-conscious when you are focusing hard on someone else.

Also are there any group therapy/support groups nearby? Those are so supportive and they are a good place to observe and practise the skills you read about.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 7:33 AM on March 30, 2015

I don't know why you assume no one would be interested in your interests. You are setting yourself up to never find anyone who shares your same hobbies and passions. Isn't the the best advice that still holds true simply: Be yourself?

I think maybe part of your problem is that you are overthinking things too much. I do this too, and it's a hallmark of social anxiety -- you constantly project what the other people is thinking and assuming they find you boring, dumb, etc. Easier said than done, but you should try to stop doing that. The overthinking is getting in the way of you communicating in a comfortable, casual way.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:54 AM on March 30, 2015

One thing that helps me interact with others is the mantra "It's an experiment, not an investment."

I'm still figuring this stuff out, especially given my own high anxiety. But it's been important for me to talk to people anyway. They don't know how terrified I am. Even if I act silly, then I'm still proving to myself that I can talk to another person and be okay.

You mention that others talk about stuff that you can't relate to/doesn't interest you but also talk about asking for their numbers. I don't know if you are asking the aforementioned folks who don't interest you to communicate with you/be your friend, but I would rethink that. If you spend a conversation with someone waiting to ask for their number, you're not listening and really giving your dynamic a chance to grow and show you if it's one you'd actually like to extend. And if you're bored and just hoping they'll give you their number so you can have a friend, they'll probably pick up on that. But if you hit it off with someone and then say, "I enjoyed talking to you. Can I give you my number so we can do this again?" then it comes from a more genuine place.
posted by mermaidcafe at 12:45 PM on March 31, 2015

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