Did I miss the boat in life? Will I be able to maintain relationships?
February 8, 2016 9:57 PM   Subscribe

If you are successful in maintaining relationships, maybe you can answer some questions. My main concern is that I haven’t developed typically like others. When I went to high school, I was depressed and had social anxiety. Therefore, I didn’t have any kind of high school experience-no friends, no funny stories, no major personal development, and no boyfriends.

When I went to college, I finally made some friends and acquaintances. Unfortunately, those friendships died out and along with them, the acquaintances that I made. There have been a few reasons this happened, but the main reason is that I’m not as knowledgeable about things as other people are, I don’t do much with my time, and I’m not interesting.

I don’t do anything and I don’t know anything. Anything I’ve ever tried, I’ve given up on because I get bored easily. For instance, I’ll start to watch a show, but then forget about it for a while. By the time I start watching it again, everyone else is ahead of me. This might sound insignificant, but it isn’t when you’re talking to people about common interests. When I’m with a group of people and tell them that no, I haven’t been watching, they’ll turn to someone else and ask them something. This goes on in every aspect of my life. People will ask me if I know a certain band, or if I’ve watched a certain movie, if I know anything about politics, a book, anything. The answer is usually no. I do have some interests, like poetry, drawing (not that I’ve done much), reading, history, comedy, etc., but I haven’t fully developed them. I’m usually daydreaming or bullshitting on the internet. I get so overwhelmed by everything or sad, that it’s a chore to work myself up to doing something that interests me or doing something new (as simple as listening to a new song because I like familiarity). I know this sounds strange, but even though there are some things I enjoy, for the most part, I’ve never had such a passion that I needed to know everything about the subject. The only real passion I have is for George Carlin’s comedy and I guess comedy in general. GC is the only person whose works I have sought out. I probably have watched every single thing he has done, but that’s it. Any way, I know how important it is to develop one’s sense of self not just for personal happiness, but in order to develop healthy relationships, so I’m working on forcing myself to do things I enjoy.

I’m 26 years old and currently in grad school. Thankfully, I have made a couple of friends and know there are some people who seem to be interested in me, but I feel they won’t be friends for long.

If you can answer even just one, that would be great. Feel free to give any advice or comments on anything I’ve written about.


1. If I actually do develop hobbies and interests, will this be enough to sustain relationships with people? What exactly do you talk about with your friends and SO’s? I remember when I was much younger, I talked about everything with friends, but that included my interactions with others and funny memories, two things I don’t have anymore.

2. Will future dates be turned off by me not having had friends for so long?

3.Do you think I can make up for lost time? I think about all of the things people have done and learned. All the books they’ve read, the experiences they’ve had.Will I always be a decade behind people or can I catch up? This is part of my problem. I feel like I need to cram all this information in my head to be interesting. I guess I just need to accept that I’ll always be a little behind everyone else and focus on current stuff so that I’m in the know.
posted by crystal_stair to Human Relations (27 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Do you ask questions of the people you meet? Being interested is more important than being interesting when you're getting to know another person. And bonus, most people love talking about themselves and their opinions so they will likely walk away feeling good about your interaction.

From your description, it sounds like your one word "no" answers are shutting down budding conversations. Here are a few examples of ways you could field the questions you were asked:

Q: Are you watching XYZ tv show?
A: You know, I haven't watch it yet, but I've heard great things. Do you recommend I watch it? Or, What do you like about it?

Q: Have you read ABC book?
A: I haven't but I enjoy reading and am always looking for recommendations. Will you tell me a little about it?

Q: Have you watched any of the debates?
A: I wish I could say I have, but no. Which candidates do you like at this stage? What do you think their chances are?

A plain "no" answer shuts down their attempt to engage you. No one expects you to be fluent on every subject, so make an effort in return to find out what about their subject of inquiry interests them. When in doubt, ask a question!
posted by cecic at 10:27 PM on February 8, 2016 [38 favorites]

Your post reads like deprssion. There are several comments that read like distorted thoughts. You have friends! You're in grad school! You can say anything! You're not boring or different or losing out! Please ask your doctor and/or therapist about these feelings (find a doctor and make an appointment this week).
posted by Kalmya at 10:35 PM on February 8, 2016 [33 favorites]

You are still young, and absolutely you can make up for lost time!

First, recognize that comparison is the thief of joy. Your experiences may not be the same as your peers; that doesn't make those experiences any less valuable.

I'm guessing that you know more than you think you do, and that you don't give yourself enough credit for being interesting. Please stop beating yourself up. You're fine. You don't need to make a big, sweeping life change. The important thing is to do something little every day to take a step in the right direction. Come up with some goals, write them down, and put them in a place that you can see them.

Ask questions about other people .... people love to talk about themselves. Recognize that people generally sometimes fall into the categories of "givers" and "takers" ... cherish those givers. Seriously, get out the thank you cards and write them notes of gratitude. The givers will give back and energize you. The takers will deplete you.

Create before you consume. Before you sit down each day and read about what everyone else is doing, go do something awesome. Exercise, meditate, draw, dance, whatever fires you up. This goes back to the comparison thing. You have the whole world before you; your whole life before you. Start each day feeding those passions.
posted by Ostara at 10:38 PM on February 8, 2016 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the responses so far : )

It's true that I forget to keep asking people questions and instead, shut them down. Thanks for reminding me.

Yes, I'm definitely depressed. I'm in the works of finding a therapist. It feels good having someone validate what's happening to me.

People always say I know more than I think, which is true, but unfortunately, not enough. People have made this clear. It's funny that you mention the comparison thing. I have really learned to accept myself for the most part, except regarding this issue. I didn't even realize it! Tanks for making me.
posted by crystal_stair at 11:15 PM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi, you sound a lot like me, and yes this is about mental health. Definitely do find a therapist, I see an urgent need for you.

My answer to your main question is yes there is hope for you. It is definitely possible for you to have friends and relationships.

I see you have internalized some beliefs that you have to 'earn' people's attention, that you have to somehow be worthy of it -- by having enough experience, enough interests, enough things to talk about. In other words, you are not worthy of companionship on your own, but if you do enough things, you will be. This is heavy internalized shame and self-doubt. But the good news is that relationships don't work like that at all. All humans have intrinsic value and are worthy of love and companionship intrinsically, including you. What it takes is to open up and make yourself vulnerable to others so that they can feel the 'you' inside, and for you to be tuned in to feel the 'them', and to find someone for whom the 'you' and 'them' resonate. In such cases the two of you will naturally want to spend time together. It won't happen with everyone; close friends are rare, and partners even rarer, but they are out there.

It's kind a good news / bad news thing. The good news is you can stop worrying about having enough to offer. The bad news is you have to learn how to open up and connect. And this is a Project, let me tell you. A very worthwhile life changing project, but it will take time and hard work and a good therapist. But more good news is that you absolutely can do this and have the life that you want.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:49 AM on February 9, 2016 [14 favorites]

Please don't be sad that you don't watch enough television. There have to be people out there -- maybe you already know a few -- who also don't care about shows. Maybe start reflecting on what it is you really do care about. What are people meant to do in life? I hope we all start talking about this kind of thing more, soon.
posted by amtho at 3:42 AM on February 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I want to tell you about football, but first let me say that when you are not depressed, ALL of this stuff will get easier.

So, my tale about football, aka How Much Work Do You Want To Put Into Making Friends?

When I moved to a new job years ago, all of the people I liked most in my office were mad into football (US:soccer). I decided then and there that I wanted to be in that group, be friends with those people, and so I started learning about football. I knew a bit about it, but I started learning more, about the players in my team and other teams, about the managers and their history with other teams, about the politics, hell I even learnt the offside rule (it's not even that complicated).

Anyway, I'm not going to lie, it felt like hard work to read up about the latest football drama and I did think omg whats the point sometimes. But it provided massive returns. In the pub, I never dropped out of conversation, I could take part as an equal, and I was respected as one. Some of the hardcore fans (who knew I was skint) would lend me their season tickets when they couldn't attend a match. And what do you know, football games are not only fun to watch, but a whole TON of fun to watch with your mates, not to mention the laughs over beers after.

So, I don't regret my investment one bit. It was work, but it was worthwhile. So - how much work do you want to put into becoming friends with the people you admire? Cause I can tell you, it's doable, if you want to. And if you decide it's not worth the effort, that's ok too, because there are people out there who are interested but not passionate about poetry, history and comedy too, and you'll find them sooner or later. Good luck!
posted by greenish at 3:43 AM on February 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

Agreeing with everyone saying you sound depressed, good you are looking into help for that. You sound like me when I was young, also like my husband and one of my sons, and we are all good people with our own interests. You sound like a nice, interesting person whom I would talk to. I know nothing about current TV shows, although I watch some old ones, do not read bestsellers, loathe reality TV and know little about sports. I like poetry, write some, but am not up on current trends and never tried to get published. I also dabble in art and I think George Carlin is hysterical. The no sports interest thing works for me, being female, but my husband also has never had any interest in organized sports so it left out of a lot of casual guy conversation. I am left out of some conversations with women my age by lack of interest in home decorating, cruises, gambling, or how much money someone makes. However we both have a few life-long friends. When I was young I hated being odd, not sharing the interests of most people my age, but eventually you will find a few people who accept you for who you are, don't demand you be in the mainstream, and who will be your friends and maybe also you will find a partner among them. Get some help for your depression and things will begin to look brighter. One thing I did not understand when younger that being depressed did not have to mean catatonic, unable to get out of bed or crying all the time. Low-level depression can also suck all the joy out of life while you go about your normal school or job routine.
posted by mermayd at 4:30 AM on February 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

For sure attend to the depression.

You've recognized that showing interest in others is actually the way to connect with them. YOU don't have to be a scintillating conversationalist, the more you let people talk to you, the more they connect with you.

I will also say, make the effort. If you don't know about what the person is talking about, ask them to educate you. That there. That's the key.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:02 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

You're doing fine.

Hobbies or activities can help, they are a start.

Ask people about themselves, there is a world to learn and they can help you. Instead of looking as items lost or behind on, find a path for yourself of learning and enjoyment that is your own.

I had a miserable, introverted high school, but through and after college I made friends and gained more concrete social relationships. I'm a married father with kids of my own now.

Look forward, and there are better days ahead of you.

I'm going to be candid and suggest that you don't look to or compare with others, but in your own desires and accomplishments find out who you want to be, and by being yourself, will you find happyness. Relationships are great, but you will be more comfortable with others when you are comfortable with yourself.
posted by nickggully at 5:33 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

The only real passion I have is for George Carlin’s comedy and I guess comedy in general

Maybe seek out improv shows, or even attend a class? This is an entire community of people with a shared passion for comedy.

Don't worry about not knowing much about current TV shows or movies - you can get by without that, especially if you're a good listener.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 5:36 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I guess in my experience what I want to say is "Don't assume getting into a relationship will fix all your own things."
posted by nickggully at 5:40 AM on February 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

Don't force an interest in anything just because a lot of people you meet are interested in that thing. Continue to pursue whatever you are genuinely interested in. It's ok to be different.

I don't have any interest in any sports, I don't own a television, I rarely see movies, etc. and it doesn't really matter. I have friends who either don't care about those things either or don't care that I don't care about them. Real friendships are based on something more than shared material culture interests.

What are you studying in grad school? Did you choose this subject because you're really interested or did you allow family and/or peer and/or societal pressure to determine your field of study?

In addition to finding a therapist I hope you will consider getting daily exercise. For many people, myself included, an hour or so of exercise a day really alleviates and may even eliminate depression.

Improv class as mentioned above sounds like a great idea. Or start a local George Carlin fan club, advertise a meetup in a local cafe.
posted by mareli at 7:04 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm mostly answering to say: you are not alone, lots of people get into situations where they feel disconnected and depressed. You are also not broken: there is no objective scale on which you could be 10 years behind, and even if there was, who gives a damn? Depression changed my life irrevocably, but I'm happy with the person I am now, and I would never have met my wife had my life gone "according to plan". I still need to remember to take care of myself a bit better from time to time, but I'm alive and happy! Get whatever treatment you need. There is another side, and you can get there. A lot of MeFites are on the other side, and we have brunch and margaritas waiting.

Answers (mine, subjective)

1. There is no way to get through life without ever interacting with others. You can always scale up your interaction. Even just asking "what's good?" at the college canteen instead of just saying "mac and cheese" takes up your level of interaction for the day. "More than the minimum" is a good way to approach it. Me and my wife talk about various things: family, friends, TV shows, plans. If you don't know about the subject of conversation, but you want to talk to the person, be an active listener and try to learn something from them.

2. Future dates have no way of knowing that stuff, and you will most likely meet them via friends or acquaintances as you acquire them. Not something you need to spend energy worrying about.

3. Talking about things you've done is better than talking about things you're going to do, but best of all is to talk about things you're doing now. There is no leaderboard of life experience and any milestones or targets are for your own pleasure so if they don't please you, drop them. I found that getting off Facebook helped with that, YMMV.

Be good to yourself!
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 7:10 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I won't address dating but I do want to address being friends.

You don't have to be "interesting" to be a good friend. I have a friend that sounds a bit like you. I know she doesn't feel interesting or "worthy".

She's not up on current events and she doesn't know trivia and she doesn't go see cool bands. I love hanging with her because she is nice and kind-hearted.

Friends hanging out doesn't have to be like the show "Friends". Most of people don't like constant chatter or expect witty banter all the time.

Sometimes it's just nice to hang out with someone pleasant. And you sounds really nice.
posted by ReluctantViking at 7:10 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

You have over-inflated ideas of what other people know. People talk about what they know (or what they can bullshit about). They almost never talk about what they don't know. So all you ever see is people knowing stuff while your own subjective experience is that you know some stuff but also you don't know even more stuff.

I used to suffer from a similar problem with jogging. I noticed people passing me and though "Geez! I am so slow". Once I became a more experienced and practiced runner I rarely thought this unless I was slow by my own standards because I realized that some of the people who were passing me were running much shorter distances or were 20 years younger me or were interval training and I would soon pass them again.

The point is that you are intimately acquainted with your own mind/situation/struggle but are pretty much unaware of the mind/situation/struggles of others. You only see their successes and mostly pay attention to your failures.

Be nicer to yourself.

Also you don't "win" conversations by having more knowledge. You "win" by having more knowledge after than you did before the conversation.
posted by srboisvert at 8:18 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hello, fellow person who does not follow along with the latest TV shows/movies/books/celebrities/etc! Whenever my friends and coworkers ask what my thoughts are on the latest [blahdiblah] or [that movie from our childhood that everyone was obsessed with] it is 100% certain I have not given it a moment of my attention.

I am here to tell you that that is okay! This is sort of a social trap. You aren't required to actually have anything to personally contribute in order for this conversation to continue. If anything, the other person WANTS to feel superior and they are engaging you to see how much competition (in the form of knowledge about whatever thing they have brought up) there is.

What I do in these situations is respond honestly but with enthusiasm for the other person to continue. Yes, even if I'm not sure that I am going to be very interested in the thing, because the person brought it up because THEY are interested in it. If I am interested in being friends with them, then I want to know why this thing excites them. And honestly, a few times it has actually resulted in me thinking "hm! maybe I should check out that thing after all!"

Here are some of my common responses:
Oh! No, I haven't been keeping up with that show but I hear it's very good! What is the crazy thing that happened in last week's episode?

You know, I never did get around to watching that movie -- I KNOW, it's totally a classic! What made you think of it?

I have such a hard time keeping up with celebrities. What is [soandso]'s deal anyway? I mean, THAT HAIR.

tldr: people don't expect you to like exactly the same thing as you and have the same life experiences. They just want someone to talk to.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:50 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am also terrible at pop culture and politics, particularly TV and movies. I used to feel bad about it. Now, when I can't follow a reference, I ask 'what's that one?' or 'ok explain!' Most people will tell me all about it or show me a youtube video. If I'm interested, I can ask more questions. If not, I can usually find a way to lead it to a topic that I am interested in.

And if someone gets all 'oh my god, I can't believe you haven't seen that, have you been living under a rock?' then I laugh quietly to myself and disengage. Don't they know that I'm one of the today's lucky 10,000?

For myself, I have found that as I see people more often and we build shared references and conversations, these conversations come up less often. So just keep showing up. You'll get past the small talk and find the real people hiding behind. You can short circuit that even quicker by remembering things from the last conversation and asking about it - how was that restaurant, did you end up going there, how'd the assignment go - to show you're paying attention and stay involved.
posted by oryelle at 10:14 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

You sound very depressed! Focus on finding a therapist who you connect with and afford right away... If you're in school do you have access to the counseling center? My advice is so forceful because I had a very similar situation, and now my life is completely different. I attribute much of that to the learning I experienced in therapy.

If you've been feeling this way since your teens, it can feel even more daunting to recover than for someone who has had an onset of depression after a period of mental health. It can feel really hopeless to have no memory of feeling happy and engaged (but it's not hopeless). It can also take a long time to feel better, so try not to assume that slow progress is more evidence of hopelessness.

Once you stop feeling so bad, talking about the periods when you didn't do much is easier. You'll probably have better relationship skills to hide it, joke about it, or mention it without making a big conversation- ending deal. I do all of those things when I talk about those long years of "never doing anything" now. To close friends or in the right situation, I can describe it in depth. People are impressed, not weirded-out. It is a big accomplishment, maybe not perfect to bring up the minute I meet someone, but definitely not something to hide.

I had to think about what I talk about with friends and my SO for a while. I guess usually just following up on what I talked about with them last (how did the interview/ date go?) or telling them a funny story about something that happened (and my life is not objectively interesting). We don't do in-depth discussions of topics, except for sometimes when we are talking about our fields. In those cases there is no expectation of reciprocity, just interest. I think undergrad was peak time for defining yourself by hobbies and interests, so if you're relatively fresh out of that environment I could see where this idea was reinforced. As you can see from this thread, an interest in each other has actually been more important than hobby-type interests for most people here.

Even in the limited information from your question, I see so many ways of thinking and experiences that are contributing to your feelings now. Your situation is really hard, and I feel for you! Like I said before, I attribute much of my long-term recovery from long-term depression to therapy (though I also took medication). I'm also training to be/ work as a therapist now (though I'm not answering as a therapist of course). So, I basically have a double or triple bias towards that solution. Still, I believe it could really help you. Even if you don't seek therapy, I hope you'll frame your problem more in terms of depression than in a lack of interestingness moving forward.
posted by sometamegazelle at 10:29 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd be wary of thinking about your next several years as "making up for lost time". That's a lot of pressure to put on those moments. You can do some catching up if you decide you want to, like watching a TV series on Netflix or reading a book series, but just enjoy doing those things without the added sense that there's some urgency to it. My 2 cents.

Generally, enjoy your time. As other's have said, your time has almost certainly already yielded things to talk about. I'm guessing you believe that people's expectations for conversation are higher than they really are.

I understand your anxiety. I feel like I've got time I can't really account for, but that's just a feeling, and not necessarily the truth.
posted by Adrian57 at 12:45 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all your comments. I purposely chose to ask this on MeFi because the crowd is really smart and people give well thought out answers. I'm feeling really good today, and that's definitely thanks to you. When I'm reading a post about someone's experience with depression and seeing things like, "my SO" and "now I" better" I feel a lot better and more hopeful. I don't know why I've waited so long to ask this question, because I've felt this way for such a long time.

-shared references: definitely. I try to force myself to hang out with the same people consistently so that we have these little inside jokes, but if i'm feeling boring, then I won't go or i'll be so afraid to say anything that this never happens. Then it's a self repeating cycle. I won't do this anymore

-enjoy your time: i 2nd this. I know logically that i should do this because everything else will fall into place, but sometimes it's hard to take the slow, but sure route. I want to know everything right away, but then I feel pressure and sometimes don't end up doing anything! Stupid right!

-overinflated idea of what other people want: ay, this really resonates with me. I know you didn't say this, but i've heard that sometimes people who are really down on themselves are egotistical in some way. It's as if I think I need to be perfect, as if i'm really capable of that anyway. Don't get me wrong, i see what other people can do and i think i'm the only person who can't do it, but i think there is some egotistical aspect to all of this.

Thanks to your answers, I have to remember that dialogue between friends is not always about rattling off how much someone knows (I think I'm traumatized from the intellectual friends in college that I had. I was not like them at all!). It's those little comments that we make amongst each other that really make people bond with each other. The inside jokes, etc.
posted by crystal_stair at 2:10 PM on February 9, 2016

It sounds like you have high standards for friendships, as in you are imagining the lifelong, through-thick-and-thin sitcom type of relationships. While some people do have those, I find the prevalence of that type of friendship amongst the actual population is like at least 500% less than the prevalence in media and TV.

I'm 27 and most of my childhood, high school, college, and even adult relationships generally lasted about 2 or 3 years. Then one of us moved, or went to a new school, or just lost touch, or got a new job, or got married, or whatever. This means I really have to continually make an effort in adult life to constantly be meeting new people. Like, go to the same meetup group and meet the same people plus newcomers each time. I am not going to have any lifelong friendships and I've accepted that and am okay with it. I have a family for "lifelong" social needs.
posted by quincunx at 2:47 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

(I think I'm traumatized from the intellectual friends in college that I had. I was not like them at all!).

I think you might be getting at something here, as well. You’re in grad school- you’re surrounded by really unusually intellectual, motivated people. I think most people’s experience of grad school (definitely mine) are moments of going “s**t, I’m not even close to being the smartest one in the room” and getting a bit down about that, and I am pretty confident and well-spoken with a mostly charmed youth.

Outside of grad school there are plenty of perfectly happy people who go their whole lives not knowing much about a lot and can get along fine with a diverse array of people. My grandma barely knew who the president was, barely watched TV. She loved playing card games and hearing about the details of people’s lives (“who are you married to?” “What are they like?” “When did you get married?” (or switch that with job/travel/etc) “ooh, that’s lovely”) and had a rich social circle (she wasn’t even that great at cards but that made people like her more since they could win a lot of the time!) A super smart friend of mine who had a very isolationist Chinese upbringing and only left China for the first time for grad school, he’s no doubt very knowledgeable about Chinese culture, politics etc but that only sustains a conversation so long when no one else knows what he’s talking about so for all intents and purposes he’s quite ignorant in the average conversation he has here and he isn’t particularly interested in becoming super informed. But he smiles, he’s curious- it’s really lovely being around someone with such a different perspective and who is a “blank slate” in some ways in that he’s reacting to something for almost the first time. As another example, a few friends and I started up a movie night where we’d watch a really “obvious” (Star Wars, Mary Poppins, etc) movie that someone in the group hadn’t seen before, to be able to get their initial reaction to it without as much of the weight of wank and familiarity etc...

I know it’s easy to say but it really isn’t always a competition about who’s the most knowledgeable. I think you will find your niche. Best of luck with it : )
posted by hotcoroner at 4:29 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

OK, I'm not sure why you would want to sound smart. Someone who shares lots of factual information about something I don't care about is either socially awkward or a jerk. Connections are made about feelings and social groups and mutual interests. I don't care what somebody else knows (as long as they can survive as an adult). I want to know what they care about and share what I care about. People just come caring about stuff. You've got that. Fact show offing is kind of douchy imho and doesn't help with real connections.
posted by Kalmya at 6:41 PM on February 9, 2016

Response by poster: It's not that I want to be smart, spouting facts. I agree that would make someone really douchey. When I say knowledgeable, I don't always mean something intellectual, it can be anything, like an opinion about a show or my favorite band. Just everyday stuff that I can talk about with people. It wouldn't hurt to know something about politics though, because at my age I should know something, but that's not my main point.
posted by crystal_stair at 6:47 PM on February 9, 2016

First off - this will all be easier as you get treatment for your depression - all the support and good thoughts to you in this process!

I have some thoughts that I hope will help in the "making conversation on topics you aren't up on/don't care about" realm.

So, when I was younger I was kind of out of touch with the pop culture of my peers, and I liked to tell myself it was because I was Really Smart and Above All That Shallow Stuff. One of the things I've had to work on learning is that people have hobbies and interests for reasons and that my opera tickets are no more virtuous than someone else's One Direction concert. Part of that is focusing less on the event/topic that doesn't interest me and more on why the person likes it - why it resonates for them.

This starts with basic-level questions, as mentioned upthread - "what do you like more about Game of Thrones, the dragons or the political intrigue?"

But you can also take it up a level with what some people call "active listening."

I'd heard that term a lot and never really gotten useful information about what it actually meant to do it, and then I took a great training that made a light bulb come on for me. The key was learning to listen for the way that the things people talk about illuminate their values and beliefs, and then reflect that back to them. This is a real great way to turn yourself into "ZOMG THE BEST AND MOST INSIGHTFUL CONVERSATION PARTNER EVER."

This was illustrated by an exercise, where we were instructed to talk about "anything that we care a lot about" for a short time (I think like 60-90 seconds) and our partners were instructed to listen for things like "what the person values."

In my exercise, my topic was "Why Hawkeye is my favorite Avenger." (Because I care about this, a lot, so I knew it would be easy to talk about it for a minute or two.)

At the debrief, I got feedback like "It sounds like you really value working hard to make the most out of your abilities" and "you seem to really value the idea that you don't have to be physically perfect to be a hero." And despite the fact that I knew this was an explicit exercise where people had been INSTRUCTED to try to listen for this type of information? I still felt really validated and understood and good about the whole thing.

Another possible strategy/hack to fall back on re pop culture is the magical phrase "I don't care about spoilers..."

Someone who is really into a show or movie and dying to enthuse about it will often stop themselves from talking about it if you say you haven't seen it yet because they don't want to spoil it for you. If you don't think you'll watch it but you want to keep the conversation going, the conversation may go something like this:

Fan: OMG did you see Iron Man 7??? AMAZING!
You, now: I haven't had a chance yet, but I don't care if you spoil me - I want to hear about it! It sounds like you really loved it!
Fan: Are you sure? I don't want to ruin it for you!
You: Yeah! go on, tell me!
Fan: [burbles happily about things]
You: [listen. You maybe don't care about Tony Stark's cyborg army, but this person that you want to get to know is lit up with enthusiasm about it and what it means. As you listen, ask yourself: why do they seem to like this so much? what does it tell you about the things they value?]
You: Wow. It sounds like you really think a lot about what consciousness really means. Do you think it's possible we'll ever see true artificial intelligence in the real world?

Bam. You are now So Insightful and that conversation was So Fun.

For bonus expert-level conversing, when you are picking out the "why does this person like this" and "what does this say about what this person values" clues, connect it to YOUR OWN and use that to propel the conversation forward. You are looking, not necessarily for commonalities in the topic, but in how the topic makes you feel or what it makes you think about or which of your own values it resonates with.

So if you were to talk with me about Agent Carter, we may or may not talk about the founding of SHIELD or how Hayley Atwell can rock a killer red lip. But if you listen to me enthuse about those, it could lead to discussions of topics like sexism in the workplace, the implications of traditionally feminine gender presentation, and how freaking annoying it is when some dude tells you to "smile", especially when you're thinking.

From one awkward kid to another, I hope some of this helps!
posted by oblique red at 9:39 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the well-thought out tips. I know if I think hard enough I can find something to say during conversation, but I just get stage fright I guess. Ha. I always think of something after the conversation or even a moment later and say to myself, "Why didn't I think of that earlier?" It's so annoying. I think anxiety gets the best of me.

To everyone else, thank you for all your answers. They were really helpful. I'm glad all of you are doing well! I can't even choose one as best answer because they are all great!
posted by crystal_stair at 6:01 AM on February 11, 2016

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