I Forgot (Or Maybe Never Learned) How to Talk to Other People
January 5, 2016 4:02 AM   Subscribe

I didn't talk to other people for six months and now I offend people constantly. How can I ease back into being part of humanity and learn to talk to people in the future without completely alienating them? And perhaps recommendations for etiquette books that are suited to modernity so I can start by having a crack at those.

I had a spontaneous depressive episode that isolated me from everyone I know outside of my immediate family for about six months, and recently I've crawled back out to occasionally meet people. I'm socially anxious and awkward to begin with, but now anyone I talk to for more than thirty minutes finds me appalling. More disturbingly, I don't harbor any hostile feelings toward these people and whatever offense I cause is entirely unintentional.

During conversation, I feel as though I have to keep talking even if a lull would be perfectly fine, that in and of itself would be awkward enough but I seem to say appalling, offensive things in the midst of the stream of words, which I don't realize until someone points it out to me afterward. This seems to consistently happen when there are three people (including myself), and I unfailingly manage to offend one person if not both.

Examples: I said uncomfortable, post hoc rationally inappropriate overshares to people which caused discomfort; asked leading questions and when they didn't go over smoothly I made grimaces or pained faces that may have lead the person to think that I'm disapproving them although I had no such judgements; I said things that were boastful and unconcerned with the other party without realizing it at all in the moment. In general, I have no idea what I'm supposed to say to people in general for making pleasant conversation.

It was better when my general anxiety got the better of me and I was too anxious to say much outside of affirmations of what's already been said because at least then I wouldn't be offending people left and right. What can I do to learn to communicate with people again without burning bridges in the future? Also, any recommendations on modern takes on etiquette books so I can have structured behavioral guidelines to follow which might be easier for my decent IQ but embarrassingly low EQ brain?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This might be an odd suggestion, but I think you should start listening to public radio regularly, or any local FM radio station where there are two disc jockeys and various call-in shows.

I think you probably need to listen to a lot of conversations that go smoothly to help you get a sense of how people normally talk to each other, and I think listening to the radio is one way to do that. It's less scripted than television shows, so listening to two disc jockeys talk can give you a sense of how people chat and joke with each other, but they still have to obey federal rules about swearing, etc, so they generally stay away from anything inflammatory, which might also help you calibrate your sense of what is appropriate and what isn't. And call-in shows are interesting, because they're just normal people calling in, not professionals, so you get to hear lots of different types of people talking. Don't listen to conservative talk radio though, because they seem to have a whole different set of rules!

Listening to NPR or the BBC regularly will also give you a set of ready-made topics for conversation when you're trying to make small talk, which might help you manage your anxiety a bit in social situations.
posted by colfax at 5:03 AM on January 5, 2016 [18 favorites]

At various times in my life I have been where you are. It isn't fun. And as you state, it isn't conducive to a happy productive life.
I seem to remember there being a book called "How To Talk To Anyone About Anything". You might see if you can find a copy.
Other than that it is obvious to me that anxiety is the real problem here. When I have had that going on, I too had encounters much like you describe here. And it too left me isolated and lonely.
So, in addition to finding treatment for your anxiety, when it comes to conversing and interacting with other people, I realized that with practice it is actually much easier than your head tells you it is.
The trick here is to learn to listen not to your anxiety, which can be deafening, but to others. By that I mean don't be thinking about you, but think of others. It is easier said than done. And it takes practice. But with time it can be done and it becomes a skill for you to use to have a happy life.
Specifically, the next time you are in line at the coffee shop, find something totally harmless yet pleasant to say to the person next to you. The weather sure is hot today!. Wow, these lines get longer every time I am here.
Don't hang out at a coffee shop? You can adapt this to just about anywhere. In line at the movie theater.... Man I hope they don't sell out this show!
The point is to take a small, harmless, non threatening chance.
Then shut up and let the other person respond, or not. If they do, great. Maybe you have a new friend if only for 2 minutes. If not, you will know you took a chance and the world didn't end and you got out of your head for a few.
And the next time it will be easier, and then the next. Buddhists say you are what you practice. So instead of practicing anxiety practice friendship and kindness.
By the way, I have several long term friends using just this method.
People want to talk to you and they want your friendship. Just get out of your own way.
posted by jtexman1 at 5:16 AM on January 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

This is a slightly left-field answer, but:

What is your social circle like? Who are you talking to? How did they related to you before the depression?

If these conversations are happening with a small group of people with very strong group norms about "affirmations" and "comfort", an aspect of the problem may rest with them. I say this because I've seen this. If your social circle has a lot of values about never making people uncomfortable (unless they have values other than the group's) and tends to engage in a lot of micro-analysis about small gradations of tone of voice, facial expression, word choice, etc, you may want to seek some outside perspective via therapy or simply spending more time around other people (in a book group, something like that).

It may well be that while you are dealing with awkwardness now, your social circle is not very well equipped to support you and is responding negatively.

My own experience with therapy led to some months where I was just all "nope" and "I don't fucking think so" all the time, and it was in fact a sign that I was learning the ability to say no. I was not the most charming person, but it was a sign of healing and growth. It is possible that your new ability to bring the awkward, boast and roll your eyes is actually a good step - not an end point, but a healthy marker that you're learning to be yourself rather than an "affirming" zombie in public.

I have seen this kind of "you are not being appropriate because of your face" thing to happen in certain kinds of new age circles and in certain kinds of very emotion-centered activist circles. It is particularly challenging because IME very often anxious people are drawn to very judge-y social circles because all the micro-rules tend to "validate" their anxieties, in that there's always rules to be worried about*.

This may not be your problem at all, but your last paragraph about the affirmations rang some bells for me.

*This last is something I noticed because of my own experience among activists, but the whole "your facial expressions are wrong" thing is something I've observed rather than experienced.
posted by Frowner at 5:57 AM on January 5, 2016 [25 favorites]

I am usually fairly socially smooth, and this has happened to me after extended hermitty periods. 2nd colfax - take in and talk about current events, pop culture - things happening "out there". You've been living in a deeply internal world for a long while, probably thinking about very personal questions; sounds like that's where you're expecting others to meet you (given your examples). For now, ask questions or talk about things in the world, and don't get into your own habits, preferences, even ideas, for now. Let silences go (just smile instead).

It may be that your faux-pas aren't as bad as you imagine, though.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2016

In addition to the suggestions above, group therapy might be helpful.
posted by jaguar at 6:46 AM on January 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Like Frowner, I wonder how much of this is about the people you hang out with - it strikes me as strange that people felt comfortable outright telling you that you're being offensive (unless, I guess, you are being extremely offensive in ways your examples don't suggest ... I'm guessing it's not this). Working on your anxiety is, of course, also a great idea - standard Metafilter recommendations of therapy and possibly medication apply. Beyond that, here are two things you could immediately try that I find helpful:

1. Work - really, really work - on being comfortable with silence. It was a huge epiphany to me when I realized that most other people feel like awkward galumphs, too, much of the time, and that awkward silences are not my fault and are not my responsibility to resolve. At least until you are feeling a little more comfortable with your small talk game, it might be easier on you to be thought of as quiet rather than offensive. Moreover, some people really appreciate silence - a friend told me once that she really liked the fact that we could just hang out and be quiet with one another; silences can be comfortable/companionable!

2. Any chance you like RPGs? When I'm talking with strangers or casual acquaintances, I like to imagine I'm talking to a low-stakes, non-player character in a computer game - usually these interactions in games are structured as a general list of questions you can ask (ask something about the current surroundings, ask something about the person, etc.), and generally, as long as you're asking someone polite, generic questions you can't get into too much trouble. The 'game' part to me comes from the other person's response - sometimes you get generic, non-committal answers, but sometimes you get interesting new tidbits of information, which feels like a 'win' to me. Focus on the low-stakes aspect, and keep it brief - don't expect the conversation to change your life or their life; all you're doing is recognizing the other person's presence and seeing if there's anything they'd like to tell you.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:06 AM on January 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've been working on saying what I think and feel more via therapy, after years of repression and accepting female socialisation (whilst bristling against it inside) and adopting words and mannerisms that made me really uncomfortable because that's what the nice normal happy people expected. And because people tended to look horrified whenever I said what I was actually thinking or what I actually believed. And I got the impression (in no small part, I think, because I'm a woman) that my job was to make everyone else feel good as much as possible by denying my actual self a voice. I slowly withered and died inside, but I thought that was better than shocking someone else with my opinions or not hitting a conversational beat on time.

I am not a nice normal happy person. I reject a lot of mainstream societal attitudes and refuse to conform to the majority of the ones I reject, and I have a bunch of political and social views that a lot of people would consider extreme. I have bipolar disorder and have been depressed for most of my life (hypomania doesn't help the weird talking either). My upbringing was emotionally traumatic. A bunch of my family members died last year. I don't necessarily believe that being alive is a fundamentally pleasant or enjoyable state, and I don't take a lot of pleasure in things or experiences other people seem to enjoy. All of these things have significantly impacted my ability to believe that social performance people expect of me is actually important, let alone to perform these things adequately any more when called upon in public.

So I've stopped performing, and initially it felt like unshackling a beast that was never going to be squashed back into a cage again, and it was terrifying as well as liberating.

If (in the course of being true to what I feel and think and believe and want to say) I happen to fail to perform as other people expect socially, that's okay. Misunderstandings in tone, gesture, even language can be sorted out after the fact, and it's my belief that real friends will be open to this work and it'll be okay, and people who maybe aren't great friends will feel offended by whatever my face did or my mouth said and judge me or try to make me feel bad about it. And that's okay too, because I only care about building enduring relationships with the friends who are willing to take me for the dark twisty mess I am.

You've been depressed for six months. That's a big hard weird thing to go through, and it absolutely (in my experience) warps your ability to engage in the surface-level social stuff that people who haven't been depressed for six months expect of you. That's okay. It's the expectation that you should be able to snap back into that that's wrong, not whatever's coming out of your mouth when you talk. The way you are behaving now is entirely normal given what you've just been through.

I don't think there's as real a need as a lot of people think to behave 100% non-transgressively at all times, but the social pressure to do so is strong, and rejecting this stuff doesn't always feel like an option. But it is an option. You don't have to fix the thing that you posted this question in the hope of fixing. You don't have to add "can't talk good to humans" to the list of things to worry about now that you're coming back into the world again. It's okay to be as weird as you actually are when you're recovering from something like this, and people who don't agree with that probably aren't the people you want around you while you recover.

I was afraid of what might happen if I didn't please everyone for too much of my life, and the only real cost was to me - to my self esteem, my confidence, my sense of self. I felt like an achievement and appeasement robot, in that I felt like I existed only to do what was expected of me in terms of school/life/work and make sure no one else felt bad about anything I said or did, and it was crippling bullshit. Now I feel like a weird angry monster who hates everything everyone else likes, but it's better than being the stupid pleasant robot. And the people I really value are completely cool with this process and can see already (a few months in) that it's healthier for me than trying to be the stifled person I felt I had to be before.

In short: not necessarily a problem and totally understandable given what's happened to you recently; unless you've spoken with the intent to hurt someone, other people's reactions to what you say and how you say it are much more their problem than your problem, and you can totally legitimately choose not to make those reactions your problem if that's the right thing for you.
posted by terretu at 7:15 AM on January 5, 2016 [14 favorites]

Oh, another thing that can be helpful: cultivate and practice conversation enders - those friendly stock phrases and actions you can use to signal that you're wrapping up your part of the interaction.

- Okay, have a good one!
- Take care!
- Happy New Years/Easter/Arbor Day!
- See you later!
- Welp, I gotta go, bye for now!

I like to think of it as employing the George Costanza philosophy of going out on a high note - develop a sense of when the conversation is reaching a natural stopping point, and simply wrap up your participation. Feeling awkward? You don't have to stay until everyone else decides they're done or until you blurt out something to keep things going - just give a very upbeat buh-bye and be on your way.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:30 AM on January 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was terribly, horribly socially awkward when I was younger and suffered from a huge degree of anxiety. I'm much, much better now and am probably one of the more socially adept people I know (though I can still slip back into my old ways). It took lots of practice for me but it can be overcome.

One of the first things I learned is you can never really go wrong with asking people about themselves. And not just asking them about themselves, but taking an actual interest in what they tell you. If I'm thrust into a situation with someone I don't know, or don't know very well, a few icebreakers I might use are (varies mightily depending upon the situation):

"What brings you here?"
"Did you have a good Christmas/New Year/holiday season?"
"How do you know [so-and-so]?"
"What do you think of [super neutral, not in any way controversial, current event]?"
"Are you a sports fan? Did you watch the recent [sportsball] game?"
"Did you grow up around here?"
"This weather has been nuts, hasn't it? Although good if you enjoy winter sports, I suppose. Do you like to ski or snowboard?"

Etc. Then you can ask various follow-up questions based on their answers. E.g.

"Did you watch the recent sportsball game?"
"No, I missed it."
"Oh, are you not a fan of sports?"
"Yeah, I've never taken a real interest"
"Me neither. Sometimes it seems like you can't avoid it though, doesn't it? What kinds of things do you like to do?"
"I really love comic books."
"Oh yeah? What kinds of comics? I read some when I was younger, but I don't really any more. It seems like there are lots of interesting new comics-related things coming out all the time. Tell me more."


"Did you watch the recent sportsball game?"
"Yes, it was really exciting."
"Oh yeah? I'm not a huge sports fan and never really watch them, but I saw a lot of people talking about it on facebook, so it seemed like an exciting game. What happened?"
"Oh, blah blah blah, pass, throw, touchdown, etc."
"Wow, crazy! [if genuinely interested, ask more questions about it, if not, transition into something else - did you play sportsball in school? Do you watch other sports? Listening to NPR or reading a lot of the news helps here, as you can talk in a very general way about most topics, even about things that are not your main interest].

Really, just try to find out more about them and what they like. I think it also helps to throw in little snippets of yourself here and there in case they're looking for something to ask you. And be gracious about answering their questions. I had a friend once who was very, very good at asking about and taking an interest in other people, but would never really talk about herself and almost always turn the conversation back to the other person. This was also a little uncomfortable, like I was being put under a spotlight.

Another thing I did a lot was I found people I thought were very good at this kind of thing and watched them very closely. I took note of how they acted and reacted, what kinds of questions they asked, etc. For a long time I just copied what they did.

Finally I just read two articles yesterday that I really liked, which you might find to be helpful. Calming Your Brain During Conflict and How To Instantly Connect With Anyone.

Hope this helps.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:22 AM on January 5, 2016 [11 favorites]

Are you sure this is really a thing?

In your examples, you say that you "may have lead the person to think" something negative about you. There's a vague mention of being pulled aside and informed by a third party that you upset someone, but you don't describe what happened in that interaction so we can't know whether it was based in reality at all. (FWIW I also don't think you should discount drama mongering from the third party, if this really happened, depending on exactly who pulled you aside and what they said.)

One thing I've experienced a lot with depression is the tendency to beat myself up and hyper-analyze my behavior, usually with a negative spin. If I was awkward at a party I amplify it into a devastating social faux pas. I assume everyone is scrutinizing my behavior looking to take offense.

Could you mentally reframe these experiences as times you regretted things you said to others, or wished that you had behaved in a kinder or more conventionally polite way?

An easy rule of thumb for me if I'm feeling awkward or like I have nothing in common/am liable to say something insulting to the group of people I'm with is to just not talk much. Last night I got dragged out to an improv comedy show (I generally dislike improv), and one topic of conversation was a local improv team I happen to be friends with and the feature film they recently made (which I saw and disliked immensely). I like these individuals, and the other people in the conversation seemed positive about the movie, so I just didn't say anything about how insipid I thought it was or how deeply I was not looking forward to seeing these same people's improv performance in a few minutes. And thus I avoided the social gaffe you are beating yourself up about.

I'm also a bit of an oversharer, and yeah, an internal reminder that we don't have to say everything that pops into our heads is a help there, too.

So, yeah, I would do that. If in doubt, stay quiet. But really I have a feeling the person taking umbrage at your way of making conversation is mostly you.
posted by Sara C. at 9:52 AM on January 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I too would recommend practicing low stakes small talk with strangers. But if you are a man, please don't practice with women. In many women's experience, an sudden conversation starter by a guy with an awkward demeanour (won't meet your eyes etc.) often leads to unpleasant complications. We're socialised to have to be nice, regardless of our feelings, but I think you'd be better served with genuine male to male chit chat without weird apprehensive undercurrents.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:48 AM on January 5, 2016

You might want to find a nearby DBT group. It's mainly practicing how to relate to other people. One important tenet of it is learning not to make any assumptions about what other people might be thinking. Very few people are actively malicious and most people will give you the benefit of the doubt. Realistically, most people don't put nearly as much weight on your conversations as you do. Whenever you have an awkward coversation don't automatically decide that the other person has rejected you/thinks badly of you: practice thinking that they have positive feelings toward you and though your awkwardness may puzzle them, you're not the first awkward person they've ever talked to. Really, you're not broken.

(That said, I struggle with this same issue and it's easier to talk than to do it, but I think practicing is the key. Have superficial conversations with people around you, baristas, grocery store workers, etc. and slowly become more vulnerable. It's hard as hell. I feel you on that.)

Feel free to memail me and we can practice (awkward) conversations together. :)
posted by bendy at 8:49 PM on January 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

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