Networking (and socializing) for socially awkward people.
May 28, 2016 7:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm ashamed to say I've been somewhat avoiding the whole job application and networking stuff. I find it very difficult to speak to people because I have a quiet voice and I'm very standoffish. I tend to have a very robotic way of speaking and I've been told I look overwhelmed and scared a lot. I find it very difficult to express myself and sometimes I wonder if I even have a personality. How do I change so I can be more likable and approachable?

Although this question is more geared toward practical advice for finding a job, I think I need to fix some of social problems in general.

I've been able to make friends every single year I was in school from kindergarten to twelfth grade. This is despite being very shy and finding it hard to speak to people.

Once I got to college that changed and I found it hard to find friends. I think most of this was because I went to a very large school and there was no longer that repeated, prolonged contact like before college.

I found some people that I thought could be my friends but I ended up finding out that they did not like me so much. I think I can understand because I feel like I put up a facade in front of people.

I think I have a lot of bad habits that annoy people. I have a nervous laughter. Whenever I get frustrated, it's all over my face. My voice is too quiet. I also have a tendency to accidentally be offensive. (ex: "Doesn't it annoy you that your phone is so big?") I think I come across as rude half of the time and too people pleasing the other half. It really doesn't make any sense how that even happens. People tell me that I seem like in my head a lot and that I don't seem to like anyone.

Because of this rejection by this group of people, my self confidence has been broken, and I honestly don't feel like I should speak to people ever in general.

I need to overhaul my social skills. I feel like my shyness makes me almost self absorbed, because I spend too much time thinking about myself than thinking about the other person. I'm decent picking up on facial expression (or am I?) so I tend to analyze things at the microsecond.

Please help!
posted by sheepishchiffon to Human Relations (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Consider seeing a psychologist for treating social anxiety. It can change your life.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 7:34 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

The things you describe about yourself as "bad habits" seem like quirks to me. If everyone who was rude at times, or laughed nervously, or talked quietly was barred from having friends ... no one would have any friends.

Therapy seems like a really good idea. Toastmasters might be a good confidence builder as well.

Good luck to you.
posted by bunderful at 7:55 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're over thinking this. Sometimes people don't get along because they have different values. Even when I get frustrated by other's actions that don't match my personal belief system, I can see how their way could be fun/better from a different point of view.

There's a lot of distorted thinking in your post. Some of the thing you see as flaws are personality traits that are normal varients/ admired in some circles. CBT may help you. Quirky can make it easier to make friends. Even the biggest jerks I know have friends. And they have a lot of fun as they go.
posted by Kalmya at 8:04 PM on May 28, 2016

Response by poster: I've done group therapy for four years. Its definitely helped significantly but I still have some of the same issues.
posted by sheepishchiffon at 8:27 PM on May 28, 2016

Consider yoga. You're describing what might be an overly analytical frame of reference - being too "in your head" and quick to mentally process everything instead of being in the experience.

Practicing yoga can help break you out of that, to experience yourself and your life in another way.

Yoga also activates the calming portion of the nervous system so it can help on the anxiety front as well.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:42 PM on May 28, 2016

sometimes I wonder if I even have a personality

Sorry, but this made me laugh out loud. Because what does this even mean, other than a way for you to beat yourself up? If you were some kind of "generic person", the same as "everybody else", a) you wouldn't be having these problems of not fitting in or connecting with people, and b) there's no such thing
posted by aubilenon at 9:08 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You wonder if you have a personality because without social interaction, you don't get to "know" yourself the way other people do. People with social interactions see themselves reflected back in other people's reactions; they know how they behave in a variety of situations. Lack of social interactions makes you feel isolated, stupid, and blank.

I am betting you have rather severe anxiety and need medication to deal with it. Also, individual therapy, to slowly unlearn the self-hatred and let yourself get out there and be silly and ridiculous and wrong and everything else that people are when they live their lives.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:17 PM on May 28, 2016 [10 favorites]

Best answer: In my twenties I suffered from quiet voice and difficulties in expressing myself and considered myself socially awkward and incapable in many kinds of initiatives. I still have the voice and I often become flustered, but I have accepted my inevitable style. You will remain awkward, but every encounter can help to hone away the roughest edges of your social presentation one by one. Emphasis on one by one. If you just try to fix all at once and not be awkward, you'll get more flustered when you notice you're failing your fantasy standards.

I don't know if nervous laughter can be turned into charming laughter, but it can be suppressed as a smile or small chuckle, eyes downward.

Being accidentally offensive or rude: socially anxious persons have tendency to replay and reinterpret discussions and judge themselves to having been rude or offensive when there is even a slight possibility to interpret your words that way. These replays in your head are imaginative reproductions of a scene, and people pride themselves on their critical honesty in these and they are thus subject on falsification bias. Your exact words are not that relevant for the mood of the encounter, it is the tone:

Be friendly-awkward instead of defensive-awkward. Just smile and look interested or smile and look down. Metaphorically it is like channeling your nervousness into harmless and pleasant warmth, it is beaming from your face but not directly into anyone. Your flustering is heat, not something to be avoided or shot away as soon as possible, but to be radiated as a positive thing. You have to do it consciously, a lot, until it replaces your alert-and-afraid display, and especially when you are out of the situation, when you are thinking if you should try to speak etc.

Accept the uncontrollable. With quiet voice and flustering, it is guaranteed that discussions will fail, but if you have kind of smile and shrug attitude, that leaves channels open to try again in a better time.
posted by Free word order! at 2:06 AM on May 29, 2016 [9 favorites]

I went to a class about job searching and the (kind of a big deal) guy teaching it said that one should play to one's strengths, i.e. if you are really introverted, don't focus your efforts on in-person networking events--focus on other strategies. That helped me stop beating myself up for not doing lots of networking events. There's so much stress on "network, network, network" in the job-search-advice world but if you hate it you might not get a lot of return from that investment.

I'm not saying you shouldn't work on people skills--that's super important--but not everyone's going to be great at schmoozing their way into a job over cocktails, and that's OK.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:42 AM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

It sounds like this is a lot more than just shyness, and I think it may help you to see this; you have some very severe anxiety in social contexts - more severe than most people have.

When people say you look scared, that could just be your version of resting bitch face, BUT - "I find it very difficult to express myself and sometimes I wonder if I even have a personality" sounds to me like you're paralyzed by fear. Because that's what it was for me. I couldn't express myself because I felt I wasn't allowed to, or that it wasn't safe.

So there's a couple specific things I did, all of them as a teenager, so it's possible they're not appropriate for someone older with less neuroplasticity, but here you go.

Get tipsy - So the first time I drank alcohol, at 14, the relief from the anxiety was such a ... relief ... that if I'd had access at that age, I'd probably be an alcoholic now. Point is, all of a sudden I wasn't so tense - I wasn't thinking. So I sort of meditated on that, going over it in my memory, thinking, Is there a way I can reproduce this feeling? Or at least imitate the behavior? A few specific places I managed to capture it again - at the beach with my no-fucks-giving grandmother, for example.

Focus on flow - In order to stop thinking, I focused on trying to sense the flow of conversation - words joining into a chain to form a concept, and one concept flowing into another. (Because if you just tell yourself, "Stop thinking about how awkward this is!!" it obviously does not work. You need something else to displace the thinking.) That's what "getting out of your head" means. I used mindfulness meditation to do this, but yoga would probably get you there too. I let myself feel how the conversation affected me. And I'd use my thinking faculties to think about the people around me.
(Side effect of this is that I have a really good reading-out-loud voice, because I can get the flow of a sentence very quickly. And I'm a very good editor.)

Imitate social skills - I started imitating the speech patterns of people around me, and people on TV. It sounds really bad to say that I applied acting techniques to my social skills, but it really did help me fit in and fix the robot-voice.

Here's the thing about being fake. I often think of my public face as a role that I play, and I literally apply acting techniques to do it. But "fake me" is actually my effort to be the best version of myself - a version of me that doesn't step on cats, or yell at small children, or cross social lines and come off creepy.

And thinking of it as a character, a role, is a mental construct that allows me to sidestep the anxiety - because if people don't like it, well it's not the real me. And I feel like I have control over what I reveal to people. The whole purpose of these methods is to let me be more comfortable in public. Feeling more comfortable, feeling safer, gives me more latitude to be vulnerable around people. At this point Rowan at School is pretty darn close to Rowan at Home; just a bit more well-spoken and with less crying. (I've had a rough year or two and right now like every episode of TV makes me cry)

It's normal to filter and edit yourself; it's normal to behave differently in different settings, to have Jeff at Work, Jeff at Grandma's House, etc. As long as "Fake You" is someone you're okay with being, and is someone people like being around (notice the order of those two things), and it helps you feel better, then be fake.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 10:49 AM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

One more practical specific thing - Use tasks, props, and generosity

When I was working as a waitress, I had to make friends fast. I did this by being excessively generous. "I can help you with that" doesn't trip up the awkwardness demon, and neither does "Do you want some of my fries?" And those are both actions that cross the language barrier and make people feel good about you. (context permitting, ymmv)

I feel better with something in my hands, a task to split my attention and use up nervous energy, so I'd socialize with people while cleaning something. Or I'd pick up a task (like the ketchup bottles) and bring it over to the socialization area. Which also makes me look good, like I have a work ethic (which I do not; I am a lazy fucker, but anxiety won't let me rest.) In other social situations I used to bring knitting.

That same task can make it easier to let a conversation fall comfortably silent. A book in your hands has the same function, either splitting your energy or being a good excuse to not talk.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 10:56 AM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I recently got serious about learning to network despite being pretty introverted, and here's what's working for me:

*Not everyone is going to be interested in meeting me, I am not interested in meeting everyone, when I start feeling trapped I should excuse myself to get snacks, check my phone, hide out in the bathroom for a few minutes, or go home. Forcing myself to hang out when I don't want to is going to make me act weird.

*Ending the conversation before it drags on and gets awkward is actually a positive thing (even if that's 10 seconds in). It is fine to talk about the food / venue / whatever rather than your professional interest. It is fine to not know things.

*The goal at first is just to have folks used to seeing you around and then knowing a bit about your skills and career path.

* Plan ahead 1-2 people you want to talk to, if possible, so you have a clear thing to do rather than staring out over the sea of people.

*I also seek out opportunities like tours and field trips to break up the mob of people at an event into a smaller group that includes me and there's a built-in thing to talk about.

However, I can really only pull this off when I at least sort-of like myself and I'm getting adequate time to recharge by myself. I get some mileage out of positive self talk and upbeat music, but what's helped most with self-like over time is CBT and cutting out "friends" who actually aren't very kind to me.
posted by momus_window at 12:51 PM on May 29, 2016

You say you're already in therapy; that's great.

Self-acceptance helps me. Sometimes I just tell myself "OK, I might look nervous right now. That's okay. Nervousness is a thing that happens to humans. I am human, and I am allowed to be nervous. Fuck anyone who says otherwise."

I'm not great at meditation but when I try it does help me.

Another thing that might help you is practicing social skills in low-stakes, friendly environments. Rather than diving headfirst into networking (challenging for many people, even those who don't have social anxiety), try going to meet-ups, Toastmasters, a class in something you enjoy, volunteering, etc. It's okay to be quiet and take a while to get to know people.

(I've mentioned Toastmasters twice and now three times because it really can help with this sort of thing - it's not just about giving speeches, it's also about talking off-the-cuff to a group and building leadership skills).
posted by bunderful at 2:12 PM on May 29, 2016

Have you read up on all the HSP-stuff? Elaine Aron has a book called The Undervalued Self that might have some insight into this?
posted by speakeasy at 12:42 AM on May 30, 2016

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