How Do I Begin a Conversation With Someone???
February 10, 2022 2:50 PM   Subscribe

I have mostly been terrified to start or have a long conversation most of my life...especially with women I find attractive and POC. I am a 59 YO male, handsome, intelligent, charming and a great listener with a very strong personality.

I am working myself out of a dark period after a business collapse several years ago. My self-worth and luck vanished to the point where I spent a couple of weeks on the street in 2020. Since then, with therapy and friends support, I have kicked ass and have made major strides (savings, IRA's, investments, emergency funds, fun fund) I am in a good living situation, isolating less and less and am beginning to ask friends more and for encouragement and support) I am planning on going back to school to get my Master's in Psychology.

My development as I child required that I be hyper-vigilant and self-preserving. So I put out a strong vibe of defensiveness. I saw myself as extremely shy as a child and afraid of adults. I didn't get to proper mirroring to be comfortable with others individually in group environments. I became very good at keeping to myself and stunting positive adult developmental skills.

There are strong issues of helplessness, self-worth, and embarrassment involved. Not having this skill developed or being afraid to feel any uncomfortable emotions in getting to know someone, kept a lot of door shut.

It is very important that I succeed with my studies and life change. Friendship and companionship is now important to me. Stepping into a group conversation or having a convo with and attractive woman or POC would widen my world view and, most importantly, build my self-confidence.

I can do this. Please send along encouragement, ideas, suggestions, etc. I was thinking of looking for positive reinforcement therapy groups in Los Angeles that deal with these roadblocks.
posted by goalyeehah to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Just get to know people through hobby/interest groups that attract a mix of people and accept that you’ll be a bit rusty socially at first. Eventually you’ll get caught up in social relationships, meet friends of friends, and all that.

I would also set aside the self-confidence goal since it’s just a byproduct of developing new friendships and you don’t want to have the mindset of using people to improve yourself.
posted by michaelh at 3:11 PM on February 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

and attractive woman or POC would widen my world view and, most importantly, build my self-confidence.

As a woman of color (I have no idea whether you'd find me attractive, and frankly I don't care either way), I was with you right up to this sentence.

I'd be appalled if I learned that anyone, man or woman, white or POC or Martian, was trying to befriend me and/or make conversation because they wanted me to be their token brown lady friend to stroke their self-confidence ego. This is an extremely common dynamic, unfortunately, to the point where I wonder if women and POC are picking up on whatever Nice White Guy vibes you are putting out and trying to shut that down pre-emptively.

Maybe others can point you to local resources, but (at the risk of sounding like a MF parody), have you tried therapy?
posted by basalganglia at 3:19 PM on February 10, 2022 [90 favorites]

I identify with a lot you you've said here. My social anxiety is horrendous. I think one thing you need to keep in mind is that having such conversations is going to be uncomfortable for a while but just do it anyway. Like, 'the only way out is through' sort of thinking. The more you have such conversations, the easier it will become. So, prepare yourself mentally, try something I've read about, and that is trying to turn your fear into curiosity. One thing I did when I had no choice when I waitressed and bartended was learn to fake it, so it seemed like I was perfectly comfortable. So, what was a persona back then is now just me when I'm 'on'. Approach it as an experiment (curious!). Develop some strategies and apply them. Immerse yourself in conversations you don't want to have for a while so you can get accustomed to them. I am about to do something similar. As far as I know, unless you want to take beta blockers, there is no other way. Good luck!
posted by marimeko at 3:21 PM on February 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Re-read your question and noticed you are actively looking for therapy groups, so that's great! I take back my last sentence. Rest of the comment still stands though.
posted by basalganglia at 3:22 PM on February 10, 2022 [8 favorites]

Are you asking for things to start a conversation when you meet someone new at a party/event/bar/volunteer activity? If that is part of your question, here are some ideas for casual conversation starters:

Now that it looks like travel is opening up again, do you have any exciting vacation plans this year? This could open up into talking about past trips, suggestions of places to go, dream vacations if money were not an object.

I need some new tv recs, have you binged anything lately? Lead to discussions of favorite genres, covid binging, good/bad movies.

How long have you been involved in this organization/volunteer place? What made you join or seek it out?

Nothing mind blowing or super deep in the early talks but try to think of things that will help you find things in common that will develop into other discussions.
posted by maxg94 at 3:25 PM on February 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you should become friends with people who you find genuinely interesting, not based on their specific identity. How you can find such people will depend on your interests - I don't live in LA, but I'm sure there must be book groups, hiking clubs, and various other hobby-oriented groups. Volunteering is another low-stakes way to meet people dedicated to whatever cause you value.

The best way to get to know people, in my experience, is to cultivate curiosity/listening skills. Ask people questions about themselves, and really listen to them.
posted by coffeecat at 3:26 PM on February 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

Hey, it’s so nice you are trying to step out of your comfort zone. Almost everyone in life is interesting and has an interesting life story. (Even if you don’t necessarily agree with their values or beliefs). So if you ask general but appropriate questions, you can often get to some common ground. Good luck, you got this! (But comfortable silence can be nice too, so don’t sweat it.)
posted by gt2 at 3:57 PM on February 10, 2022

(I had a friend that used to nod and smile when she ran out of conversation but wanted to show that she was present and interested).
posted by gt2 at 4:00 PM on February 10, 2022

Yes, please focus on the general making friends part of this and not on talking to people from specific demographics. No one is interested in being someone else's token diversity acquaintance or being used to build up someone's self confidence.

That aside, I have difficulty starting conversations too but when I do, I typically try to use something happening around us as a conversation starter. A new person may very well not want to divulge personal information but I can probably draw them into a brief chat about that cute dog or why the bus is always late or how this committee meeting stacks up to the last one or *something*. And from there I can probably get a sense of whether there's any interest in chatting further or whether we're just two strangers having a thirty second conversation about a dog and then going about our separate business. And if we are: that's fine! A brief moment of connection is still connection and a little practice talking to a stranger isn't wasted time.
posted by Stacey at 4:43 PM on February 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: basalganglia, thanks for bringing the issue to light. Its a horrendous choice of words and not who I am
posted by goalyeehah at 4:55 PM on February 10, 2022

If you are interested in how to take more casual relationships to a deeper level, you might like Connect. It was written by professors at the Stanford Graduate School of Business based on decades of teaching MBA students how to be more successful in their own personal relationships. I heard a talk from one of the authors and my favorite advice was to move 15% outside of your comfort zone. Not that 15% is a scientific number but it gives you the sense of trying to push just a little bit further (a little more open, a little more vulerable, a little more real) than normal but not too far.
posted by metahawk at 5:21 PM on February 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Gently, it IS who you are _and that’s ok_. It’s not a part you are trying to encourage or lean into, but it does reflect something about you. Part of having conversations with people who aren’t like you is learning to accept the parts of yourself that are kinda embarrassing to yourself and not being defensive about them. I think a great way to learn how to have conversations with people is to watch shows like Big Brother where complete strangers are put together and have to make friendships. Watch to see how early conversations play out and how people recover from gaffs. Sure there are competitions, but most of the show is just about how much people LIKE you, and a lot of that is in how genuine and chatty you are. And it gives you a lot of examples of how to just strike up conversations.
posted by Bottlecap at 9:09 PM on February 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

What is your actual end goal here? Is it to make friends with whom you can share intimacy and mutual support? To be better at small talk at cocktail parties or in public places with strangers? Work-related networking? Your question feels pretty nebulous to me, and seems to be conflating a few different things, and doesn't actually explain what you're trying to gain for yourself. Can you be more specific, or perhaps provide a couple of examples of things you've wanted to do and either tried and failed, or couldn't bring yourself to do it?
posted by decathecting at 8:33 AM on February 11, 2022

What are your hobbies and interests? What are the demographics of people who also have similar hobbies and interests? If it's white men, then figure out if you have some interests that aren't quite so entrenched with people like you. Then pursue those interests, and you may find it's easiest to connect with people over something you already have in common.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:29 PM on February 11, 2022

Response by poster: Decathecting,

1) it's to make friends to share intimacy and mutual support

2) Work-related networking
posted by goalyeehah at 2:20 PM on February 11, 2022

Best answer: A lot of good advice above! One avenue to try that's not exactly a hobby and that will help you flex good-humaning skills generally, rather than focusing on flirtation or *achieving* anything with women of type A, B, or C would be to volunteer for a cause you believe in. Parks, mutual aid orgs, and progressive political organizing are places where many good humans in your age range show up to reinvest in their communities.

You say you have a strong personality: these are spaces where you will be able to practice standing back, collaboration, and active listening, all of which can help you strengthen your humility, empathy, and compassion. You could start by showing up, being friendly, doing what is asked without pushing back or trying to insert yourself in the decisionmaking process, and listening/observing your fellow volunteers to see how they build and maintain positive connections.

Your looks, intelligence, and charm are not fundamental qualities of a good partner, but being a good listener is. Lean into that and let those other qualities just be inherent qualities of your self at rest, not shiny features you have to sell to potential partners or use to compete against other people in the dating market. You can like them! Potential partners can like them! But good looks never held anyone through loss, charm is often used to get what one wants at the expense of a partner's needs, and intelligence is only a delight when shared for the joy of it, not relied upon as a reason people should love you.

Get a library card and explore Ask archives on helpful self-help books! There's a lot of good stuff out there that can complement therapy and that you can access for free. Good luck!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 4:00 PM on February 11, 2022 [4 favorites]

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