How do I actually enjoy talking to people?
May 17, 2016 7:10 AM   Subscribe

When I have to talk with other people I feel exhausted. I need to improve my social skills one step at the time.

I am a software developer and spend most of my free time programming. I love programming. On weekends I usually stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. working on some neat program.

Professionally, besides coding, I am also required to talk to customers, pitch ideas, budget projects, and manage junior developers. I dread all this. I am bad at it. People know it, but somehow they keep asking me to do it. I only do it for the money. I don’t even care about the money, I just need to feed myself and pay the rent. I only enjoy the coding part.

I tend to avoid almost all human interaction. I only enjoy spending time with my girlfriend and my pets. I have no meaningful friendship. I usually don’t care about what’s happening in other people’s lives.

Several of my old friends from college are having kids now, I don’t care. It’s not that I’m not happy for them, I am. I am just not interested in their conversations. I’m interested in my own solitary projects and I don’t even feel the need to share them with anybody or talk about them.

I rather spend my Sunday afternoon coding than catching up with old friends. I dread being invited to parties and when I go, it’s just to be polite. I don’t like to talk about my life and I get extremely bored listening to other people.

When people try to reach me, they usually want something from me. Sometimes they invite me over to dinner, only as a disguise to ask for a free website. Some other times they are in the middle of some sort of soap opera drama and they want me to take sides. I dread all this.

When I have to talk with other people I feel exhausted. Let’s say the amount of energy I need for a 1 hour social gathering is about the same I need for 4 or 5 hours coding.

I don’t have facebook. I have a twitter account, I use it as a news stream, I have never tweeted anything. I have no interest in that. I don’t have any interest in making new friends.

I am approaching 40 now. No kids, not interested. My parents are getting older. I am an only child. In a few years I will need to start taking care of my parents and I don’t know how to. I don’t enjoy spending time with them. They are divorced, so I have to spend time with them separately. I have nothing to say to them, we have no common interests. (I don’t have common interests with anyone really.) My father is a specially negative person, he complains about everything, all the time, and he has extreme reactions to even the slightest remark.

I know I’m heading for disaster if I keep isolating from society and from those around me. I want to change. I have to do it. This is the moment I need to start caring about the social aspects of my life, otherwise it’ll be always down hill.

It just happens that I’ve been listened to the episodes "How to Become Great at Just About Anything" and ”How to Get More Grit in Your Life” of the Freakonomics Radio podcast. I took two powerful ideas: cultivate interest and deliberate practice.

I need to approach this as if (let’s say) I were to learn to be a good amateur chess player. But I start with no interest whatsoever in the game.

Most literature about communication skills is related with leadership, management, making presentations or speaking to large audiences, not at all what I am looking for.

I need to improve my social skills one step at the time. So, what can I do? I need practical advice…

(In case you’re wandering about therapy, I have thought of that, I am not sure it would help and I don’t have enough money to find out anyway.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, so you're kind of asocial. Apparently you like your girlfriend, though, so it's a matter of not liking very many people, rather than not liking anybody or not being able to connect to anybody.

Also, having an SO is a big thing that many people want and don't have. So don't minimize this good thing you have in your life.

My blanket recommendation for improving your social skills, just in the way you treat others, would be to get a copy of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour. If you follow her guidelines, you will always know that you've been at least basically polite towards everyone, and that is a big thing. A lot of it will seem dandified or OTT by today's standards, but try it anyway.

In tandem with that book, I suggest "How to Win Friends and Influence People" - definitely basic and cheesy, but it's a matter of walking before you try to run.

Professionally, you're bad at a number of interpersonal interactions, which you've enumerated. I take your word for it that you're bad at it, but you are also not so bad that people have stopped asking you or fired you? Or maybe that's what you're afraid of? I can understand that.

Since you've enumerated the things you think you're bad at at work, maybe you could take one type of interaction at a time to improve on. Say you'd start with talking to customers. Next time you talk to a customer, take a little time to reflect afterwards and think about the things you might have done well or badly. And then find just one thing to improve for next time, write it down, and then practice that thing. Even practice in front of the mirror.

It sounds like your job requires a lot of interaction and is tiring because of it. So it's not surprising you don't want to socialize on weekends. Some people are just that introverted. BUT since you are worried about being isolated, maybe resolve to make time for one social interaction per week with someone who isn't your girfriend. Sure it will be effortful, but that's often the reality of socializing as an adult.

It’s not that I’m not happy for them, I am. I am just not interested in their conversations.

But if they're your friends and you want to stay friends with them, you may just have to nod along and let them bore you for a while. Sometimes I think the most important function of friends is taking turns to bore each other. If you care about someone, you'll staple your eyelids open to seem like you're paying attention, even when the particular thing they're talking about in that moment might bore you to death. And they should do the same for you. (Neither side should spend too much time boring the other, of course.)

I think that the more you put into this the more you'll be glad you did. And I think your approach of tackling this systematically, one thing at a time, is a great one and will work. Good luck!
posted by tel3path at 7:32 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

It is easiest to be social about things you like. You have one thing it sounds like you like - programming.

Can you find hackathons/coding groups and join and talk about coding with other people who care about coding like you do? Join group projects, be active on GitHub, do things that build a place where you can talk and learn about things that are interesting to you.

Otherwise - I am an introvert, and I often find parties and other people exhausting. One thing I have noticed is if I make a point of being intentionally curious about the world around me, I can find interesting things in the minutiae.

An example - like you, my friends have seemingly all had babies recently. I have no interest in the day-to-day minutiae, but I do think human development is interesting and try to understand what the parents' strategy is with respect to developing this tiny human. I also am not particularly confident around children, so I glean tips on how they've become more confident around kids, which has helped me in this regard.

Otherwise - though you're 40, you are not old enough to not try new things and to find new interests. Through new interests you have new opportunities for connections and more things to talk about with other people. There's a whole, wide world out there, and there is no way you've been everywhere/seen everything/done everything and deemed it all to not be interesting. Try one new thing a month (even things you think you might hate) and I promise you, there will be something out there interesting enough to get into.
posted by scrittore at 7:50 AM on May 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

This question is completely fascinating to me. Are you bored by ALL people, other than your girlfriend? Why does she interest you?

Also, why are you necessarily headed for disaster? Do you anticipate suddenly wishing for human connections in a few years? Or is it just the usual "What if I slip stepping out of the shower and break my back and slowly starve to death on the floor of the bathroom because nobody will miss me?"

One observation that may be of use: I like babies and kids in most cases, but if the parents are too smitten and cootchiecoo, the children and the parents become intolerable to me and me to them. A few of my breeder friends offloaded me a few years ago because I could not keep my attention permanently centered on their mewling, puking offspring and they could not talk or think about anything else. However, recently I made a very happy discovery: one of the worst offenders who had a kid 12 years ago and could do nothing but scrapbook every instant of its existence now no longer has a boring whining shrieking toddler; she has a fascinating tween. I went to visit them, he and I hit it off, and now I have a new friend! The gloopy scrapbooks? Nowhere to be seen.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:04 AM on May 17, 2016

It seems to me that you have a real emotional blank when it comes to empathy and caring, have you thought about exploring this with a professional? It could be a function of depression or anxiety. You had friends and they're still in the periphery of your life, did you enjoy their company when you met them? What might have changed?

This hyper-focus on tasks is often a function of anxiety. Coding is something over which you have perfect control, social interactions, not so much.

How do you feel about your girlfriend? Do you love her? Do you plan a future together? Or is she in your life for your convenience? Do you have a strong emotional connection with her? Do you have conversations? What are the topics?

As for your parents, start talking to them about how they envision your interactions going forward. Yes, I struggle with my parents and my MIL, but at the core of our relationships is a family connection and real affection, even if some of the conversation isn't as scintillating as one would hope. Do you feel these things for your parents? Did you ever?

I'm not saying that everyone should be a social butterfly, but this obviously concerns you and if you are experiencing a mental health issue, isn't it a good idea to check it out, and rule it out?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:10 AM on May 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

You're saying you're a genuine misanthrope, eh? Most people get at least a little kick out of being with people - or alternatively, reducing their sense of loneliness - enough that that desire often outweighs the sticking points people run into. People may be introverts but many still sometimes need to have the odd moment of connection.

Bear with me for a moment... This catch-22 problem of lacking interest, and another poster's comment on empathy, had me thinking about possible shortcuts, just to get you started, like oxytocin (or other substances that are said to achieve a similar effect). (This is probably an unwise idea but I'm undercaffeinated atm, please forgive the detour).

So that idea took me to this, which suggests it might not be an answer for people with strongly negative associations with people - the idea being that it might reanimate painful memories. The researchers thought that participants' interpretations mattered more than the chemical reactions. (I'm noting that that was in a study, in which people were being asked about their mothers, with whom many had difficult relationships, and were then asked to fill out questionnaires; the "love drug" was not consumed in the less structured and more typically prosocial settings some of the related drugs are often consumed, so I guess there's that. I mean it might be worth a try )

But it does lead me to ask - what are your associations with people? Were you bullied as a child? What are your beliefs about people? (Personally, I'm comfortable with noticing self-serving behaviours like you describe, and not seeing them as incompatible with more prosocial or "virtuous" ones, or having that reduce my liking of people - but maybe that's because I've had enough positive experiences to justify it, and/or I get that reward anyway.) If you have a lot of negative associations, like a history of having been bullied, or profoundly cynical beliefs about people that are not counterbalanced by more charitable ones, I think I may have to bring up the T word.

Another possibility is that you are not getting rewards because of some neurological atypicality that causes (and always caused) human communication to be aversive. Maybe, with or without some of the things I mentioned above. I guess that would require a different strategy.

So I think that if you are motivated to learn to be more social, it is probably worth investigating the reasons you're not, currently.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:26 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

(T word = therapy obviously)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:26 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

(lots of possible dynamics... maybe you don't feel, or allow yourself to feel loneliness intensely enough to motivate you to want to reduce it - maybe as a result of an avoidant attachment style? or possibly again atypicality? lots of possibilities... I think that if you think it's possible that neuro atypicality might be part of it, it is worth seeing someone equipped to identify it and more confidently pick it apart from other possibilities - a psychologist, and not a social worker or counsellor.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:36 AM on May 17, 2016

Practice in social skills can be valuable and can definitely make interactions more pleasant, but ultimately you have to take some kind of interest in something outside yourself for the whole socializing thing to yield actual, mutually satisfying friendships. You slam a lot of doors in this post. You're not interested in this. Or that. Or people you meet. Or your family. Or anything, really. And never have been. If this is genuinely true, then I think you should see a doctor to rule out the possibility of lifelong severe depression and to prepare yourself for the possibility that you are neurologically atypical in such a manner that genuine friendship may always elude you. But, if not, I think you should challenge this absolutist, black-and-white narrative of yourself, all these limits you've imposed on yourself. If you decide you don't care about or enjoy things in advance, you're darned unlikely to. If you assume all people are either boring or contemptible, you will convey that socially, the feeling will be reciprocated, and're unlikely to have a pleasant time talking with them. Many of the suggestions in this thread are good for getting started, but you need to start not with a "I have to eat my vegetables" attitude, but a "I don't know how this is going to go, there are reasons it could be fun, why shouldn't I give it a shot?" approach. And then not quit (whether visibly or not) at the first twinge of discomfort or boredom.
posted by praemunire at 10:07 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

My practical advice is to be compassionate toward yourself. You're fine just as you are. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." I'm dealing with the same issues as you, basically, and I've decided my suffering is self-imposed, and that it comes from that space between what's right for me and what I think I "should" be doing.

Other people's advice above is definitely relevant, but I think self-compassion will ease the suffering aspect of it. Also, maybe writing down the reminder to be self-compassionate. It's so easy to forget. Fuck the bullshit. You're fine, you're perfect.
posted by little_dog_laughing at 10:36 AM on May 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

sorry for posting so much, I am having a hard time getting my point across - I agree with praemunire that sheer effort and exposure - applying any practical tips offered here - may not be enough to overcome the problem of lacking interest and finding people aversive. If you legitimately find people a PITA and drain, it might wind up reinforcing your aversion. Especially if you are having to expend all kinds of unfamiliar and difficult effort to do it. It is not like chess - a pawn or horse doesn't give you feedback you can't control. Getting better at something, winning games, might be long-term satisfying in that you've achieved a goal, expanded your skill set - it is more like coding. With people, you are likely to have your aversion thrown in your face in unexpected ways, unless you deal with root causes. In my opinion. Social skills practice helps people who want to be better at dealing with people, because they have a need for that.

If what is contributing to your aversion is a set of beliefs or experiences or interpretations or expectations, those need to be unpacked, so that they can be addressed. If there's a neurological contribution, maybe changing expectations about what social means for you is the way to go.

posted by cotton dress sock at 11:14 AM on May 17, 2016

Oh, dang it, I just realized you're anonymous so you can't A. Q.s. Dangdangdang. I really want to know why you're necessarily doomed: if you don't feel loneliness pangs and you do take pleasure in your solitary pursuits, what's wrong with continuing as you are?

On the other hand. Some things argue that you might not be a natural complete loner and might be suffering. You have a girlfriend. So "I have no meaningful friendship" is not a true statement. You enjoy spending time with your girlfriend and that is a meaningful friendship.

Then there are "my old friends from college." Those friendships may not be meaningful now, but presumably once they were. You don't take an interest now, but presumably once you did. That argues against the "maybe you're schizoid" amateur diagnosis and for the "maybe you're depressed" amateur diagnosis.

One thing that jumped out at me on my second read of your question is that a lot of the human interactions you mention are compulsory and objectively unpleasant. Spending time with someone you're obligated to and who complains incessantly. Trying to sell stuff to people when you're not good at selling. Managing people when you're not naturally good at management. If most of the human interactions you experience are unrewarding drudgery, of course you don't like it and of course you're averse to trying to do more of it. Jettison work-/filial-duty-related human interaction wherever you can and limit the really essential stuff to short, firmly defined periods. ("Sorry, I have to go code, now: deadline.") Meanwhile increase the enjoyable time you spend with your girlfriend and add variety to it (but be careful: watch out that you don't inadvertently put a ton of pressure on her or on that friendship).

Watch fictional television featuring a whole lot of gabby, gabby people. Breaking Bad. 30 Rock. You will probably find this stuff painfully boring, but since it's not work and you aren't required to do anything but look at it and listen to it and watch people you're not involved with at all, it's really low-stakes. I'm thinking it might be easier to empathize with a fictional person than to take an interest in an old friend's new baby or relationship drama, where there are real feelings that could get hurt and the stakes are therefore scarily high.

There's a lot of pressure on you at work to do this people stuff you're not a whiz at, and that's bleeding over into your homelife, too, with parents becoming more of an obligation and with friends trying to cadge free websites out of you and so on--it looks like you've hit an exhausting patch and need to re-learn why friendship's fun. I suspect that you did once find it fun because you do have these old friends.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:01 PM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

Advice from my experience doing the same: Learn MBTI or other Jungian psych models like Socionics or the Enneagram and use that knowledge to type people as you talk to them. As you get better at it, talking to others will become more like a game, and more enjoyable since you'll feel like you're making progress and learning to appreciate and empathize more with others' needs.

At the same time, learning about your own type will help you become more comfortable in your own skin. You'll be able to treat yourself better in your non-extraverted time and your overall anxiety about becoming someone you aren't will begin to fade. I recommend reading Dario Nardi's works on this. At the beginner level you'll want to make sure you're really good at wielding your first and second personality functions in service of this new effort you're undertaking. At the intermediate level I highly recommend the Fe (extraverted feeling) exercises and information. All of this in his 8 Keys book.
posted by circular at 1:24 PM on May 17, 2016

There's a big difference between "I am incredibly bored by small talk, but I still value strong interpersonal relationships and would like to cultivate more of them in my own way" and "I genuinely do not want to talk with or interact with other human persons because they are all boring, but I guess I HAVE to be more social." Which is it for you? (I'm going to assume column A, and I hope I'm right, because otherwise, you're in for a STRUGGLE, friend.)

You've acknowledged that you want to change, and that you know you'll need to work on cultivating interest in others and deliberately practicing your social skills. Honestly, knowing and accepting this is VITAL to success in your endeavor, so congrats on making this process 100x easier on yourself right from the start.

There's a reason that that thread on emotional labor went supernova over on the blue. Maintaining relationships with others, remembering details about other people that make them feel listened to and acknowledged, caring about the well-being and the lives of other people, even their boring day-to-day minutiae--this is all WORK. It can be joyful work that adds value to your life, but it's still work, and work takes energy and time. If you don't currently have energy or time, you need to carve it out from somewhere else.

So first things first: you either need to find a new job or to speak with your supervisor at work about decreasing your public-facing duties. You're probably never going to be able to completely disengage from speaking with other people at work, but if you're a software developer, there is ZERO reason why you should have to speak to customers or speak at length about the budget, particularly when you find it so exhausting. Find a company where they'll just let you be a code monkey most of the day, and save that human interaction energy for your friends.

Speaking of friends, you mentioned above that your friends only reach out to you when they need something from you. I know you said that you didn't want to make new friends, but if this is a trend that continues even after you start devoting more energy to cultivating friendly relationships with them, you may want to consider a task-based hobby group (coding retreat, LAN party, board game night, etc.) to try to meet new people. But you needn't worry as much about this if, when you start to put more effort into your social relationship, they respond in kind.

And I'm just going to say this: there is no reason why you should be expected to care for your aging parents if they are harmful to you emotionally by being overly negative. If, however, your problem is more of an extension of your current difficulties with social interaction more than any kind of toxic relationship, I'd start laying the ground work now so that when/if the time comes that you are in a caregiver position, it's not as awkward or detached.

Try to set aside a day a month to give each of them a call. It doesn't have to be a long phone call, just long enough that you know what's going on with them and if they're doing okay. Put it on the calendar if you have to, and swear to quickly make your exit the second your dad tips from "just venting" to "actively negative and unpleasant", but a little bit of maintenance here will go a long way later on in life.

Finally, while I'm not saying you HAVE to get a Facebook account if you don't want one, if ever there was a tool for keeping tabs on other people's boring lives in a low-effort kind of way, that is it. Now instead of being treated to a blow by blow of your friend's kid's first tooth, you can say, "Hey, saw your kid's tooth photo on Facebook, congrats! Now let's talk about ACTUAL FUN THINGS instead."
posted by helloimjennsco at 2:17 PM on May 17, 2016

You don't actually have to care about people to be good at socializing at parties / work situations :) You just have to learn how to fake for long enough that *they* don't realize this.

Practice interested facial expressions in the mirror and with your GF until you can convincingly hold them for a few minutes at a time. A lot of it is in the eyebrows and maintaining a fair but not excessive amount of eye contact. The rest is essentially nodding and smiling, and asking a follow up question or two, even if you couldn't care less about the answers.

Being able to say things that sound sincere will take a little more practice. Just pretend for a minute that you are an actor playing a super social person, so that when you say, "Wow, your kid's new photos are really cute," or whatever, it sounds genuine instead of sarcastic or false.

Then practice extricating yourself from conversations in a polite way: "It was great to catch up with you / chat / hear about your new project, but I see my friend / my coworker / the new CTO over there, and I really want to say hi / catch them before they leave." Say this stuff out loud until you stop internally (or externally) cringing, and you'll be fine. No one will ever know that you are secretly wishing the drapes would catch fire so you could go home early :)

You can do it.

Plus once you can fake it better, you might find it actually starts to be less of a drag. Good luck!
posted by ananci at 2:25 PM on May 17, 2016

You sound a lot like me. I would much rather perseverate on intellectually interesting tasks, or read books, than spend time being social just for its own sake. I also have a significant other. He is a lot like me, and you. One of our favorite things to do is be in a room together perseverating on our separate things. However, we do have a very deep relationship with a lot of time spent talking. We also each have one or two other friends but we don't see or talk to them every day.

It's impossible for me not to describe myself like this without adding that I fit the autism spectrum "Asperger" criteria very well. I don't know if all people with our temperament are on the spectrum, but the moment I realized there were others like myself I became a lot more accepting of my so-called antisocial nature. I came to the conclusion that the level of social interaction our society considers normal is not necessary for my mental health. In fact, it is so exhausting that it's the opposite. You might be just fine the way you are, just not neurotypical. I actually did great harm to my mental health by pressuring myself to socialize and telling myself something was wrong with me. Too much interaction or intense interaction wears me out. I pace myself so I have energy to give to my loved ones. Sometimes I don't talk to anyone except my partner for days in a row and it's actually very recharging for me and I am able to go out afterwards in a group or to a crowded event and have fun for a few hours. Maybe you would enjoy that approach. The events I go to have to do with my interests, so if I make small talk with others there, the boring part is usually over quickly and then we're on to the topic of the lecture, art show, or whatever event it was. I totally agree with you about the kid thing, btw. I think it's common for the purposely childfree to be bored by talking about kids. If we were fascinated by kids we would have had our own. So possibly, you just haven't met people you click with and combined with extreme yet healthy introversion, that can lead to a lot of alone time.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to try therapy if you are interested. I hope this doesn't sound rude, but how can you not have money for therapy and have a programming job? You have insurance, right? It seems like it would be very affordable. And if not, there are free or low cost counselors through graduate schools, charities, etc. And barring that, there are books like Intimate Connections that are for exactly the question you asked.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 2:17 PM on May 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

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