Why can't I relate to people normally?
July 10, 2019 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm not sure how to relate to people at my job.

In my profession, I speak to strangers all day -- knowledgeably, eloquently, charmingly -- making them feel welcome and special. What is fantastically difficult for me is talking to my coworkers. I would like to, for many obvious reasons, but I find that it's very hard for me to relate to them. Or rather, it's hard for me to relatable to them. I'll listen to their stories attentively, but I can't imagine telling them anything remotely personal. On the few occasions I have, I wildly overshared and immediately went distant afterward, feeling very embarrassed. I'm extremely good at being casual and friendly with strangers when it's my job, but I have no idea how to navigate relationships at work. It's becoming a pretty serious problem.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The best way to relate is to be yourself. Some people like to share personal details, some don't. You don't, and that's ok. If pressed to reciprocate simply say you love listening attentively, that's your skill, rather than talking about yourself.
posted by mono blanco at 7:59 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]

Oh this is me so much! With the type of "customer first!" work, I'm too tired to be as actively engaged with my coworkers. I've also discovered that I don't have to share my personal life with my coworkers. I keep a mental list of things that I do chat about with my coworkers that are pretty impersonal such as what restaurants/foods that are interesting (everyone needs to eat!), what's happening locally (oh look! free concerts in the park! what music would you like to hear?), books/movies/podcasts/tv (some form of media they are passionate about). People love to hear themselves talk and I don't mind that at all. Its ok to be the "listener" of the group.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 8:06 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]

What do you do for your work? Are you in a cube farm answering customer service queries? Do you work in retail or hospitality?

When I worked in places like Barneys, Saks, Neimans - I couldn't STAND most of my co-workers and what they loved most so I didn't even want to talk with them.

But I feel you - it's tremendously isolating sometimes when you don't feel you can blend in with your professional environment or feel awkward about it.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 8:29 AM on July 10

Some clarifying questions, that I don't intend to be leading:

Is the deficit more about caring about your coworkers or being able to small-talk with them?
Can you tell us a little more about what the consequences of this problem are for you?
If you could relate to your colleagues, what would that be like? (What would it look like to an observer? What would be different for you?)
How much of the problem is your discomfort or anxiety, vs. how much has more practical consequences for you? (I don't have a read on this from your question, but it's worth asking. Sometimes the spiral of anxiety is worse than the problem itself; sometimes the problem has short-term real-world consequences like not getting a raise.)

I'll check back in; my response (at least) will be different depending on your answers.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:43 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]

A lesson that I learned relatively early on in my career is that you 1) don't have to share details of your personal life with coworkers, and 2) you probably should not share details of your personal life with coworkers. I work in a place where I am both a "regular" employee and a supervisor, and I tend to just stick to topics that are appropriate for a group setting, like what restaurants are good, people's travel plans or places they've gone or places I've gone, interesting tidbits about music or TV, research tangentially related to our work, things like that. You don't have to tell any of your coworkers private things. I learned the hard way that sharing personal stuff with coworkers can come back to bite you in the ass. Just be you and stick to topics that everyone likes! You can do this!
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:07 AM on July 10 [11 favorites]

Hi, this sounds like anxiety especially with the feeling like you embarrassed yourself and withdrawing. I get it. Have you been looked at or gone to therapy for that? For me, I feel this way because I've been suddenly rejected by friends at a young age (it happens with kids often, I figure) and a time or two as an adult. Being extremely empathetic and good at judging moods, I often make the jump from "I read that they're upset or annoyed in some way." to thinking "*I* made them annoyed or upset in some way."

Can you be friendly and define safe topics for yourself beforehand so you know what you'll talk about if ever necessary? People usually love talking about themselves so your just listening and being enthusiastic makes you very likeable I imagine.

Also, Chesty's questions are good just to ask yourself because we often feel a certain way but we don't know WHY we feel it. When we verbalize or write it out, basically remove it from our heads, it becomes much smaller and we can deal with it like we're advising a friend. And I bet you're very good at advising and caring about friends (even if your anxiety says you aren't).

Feel free to message me if you'd like to talk more because I get this question really, really deeply.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:32 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]

tend to just stick to topics that are appropriate for a group setting, like what restaurants are good, people's travel plans or places they've gone or places I've gone, interesting tidbits about music or TV, research tangentially related to our work, things like that

This is good advice, yet someone may struggle with it if they, well, don't do much outside of work. One thing I've found is that when you don't have much going on other than life-maintenance stuff, you don't have a lot of middle-ground conversational fodder between boring weather-type small talk and potential oversharing stuff. You can, of course, let others lead the conversation, but contrary to that "be interested, not interesting" advice, it has real limitations when you don't give your interlocutor something they can take interest in.

No one should travel or watch TV or do anything just so they can have more mutually enjoyable interactions, but they do have that benefit. I don't know if that's part of what's going on here, but if it is, bringing some life into your work-life balance will make it easier to relate to others and vice versa.
posted by blerghamot at 1:35 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]

Ask questions of people who are more willing to share personal things! People almost always remember someone who shared nothing but asked them a lot of questions as a "great conversationalist," and generally don't twig that you're just desperately trying to avoid vulnerability.
posted by babelfish at 4:49 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]

FWIW, one of my siblings works in an office-based professional career, where he is now upper manager level. Early on in his career he started actively reading up on various sports and TV shows he had zero interest in, solely so he could have office-friendly conversations with colleagues (and later employees). I think his strategy was to actively spend ten minutes or so a day scanning headlines or whatever, to get enough info to be able to have mundane chit-chat about last nights TV or the latest game. This helped him avoid anything personal or controversial (he has lefty politics but works in a very conservative field) while also appearing friendly.
Might be worth a shot?
posted by EllaEm at 1:59 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]

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