I "try too hard" when it comes to social interaction. How can I stop this?
June 8, 2006 8:20 AM   Subscribe

How can I "stop trying to impress" and just be myself?

Somewhere in high school, I lost alot of self confidence and self worth. I'd be a follower, never stating my opinion, never saying "no", never putting myself out there. I figured the best way to make friends would be to be shy and timid, say a few things to impress them, and then slowly reveal my personality when it was appropriate.

Now that I'm recently out of college and in the workforce, I'm finding it difficult to interact with people. I have a few good friends from college, but some have moved away, and I'm looking to find more. The trouble is figuring out how to turn acquaintences into something more. Turning the small talk into something deeper.

Whenever I talk, I always try to impress. I try to think of things that would interest them, or things/experiences that would make them say, "wow, what a cool person". The thing is, people definitely see right through that.

I've seen a couple of friends who people just seem to gravitate towards. People just want to be around them. I've asked them what their secret is, and their response is usually "I stopped caring about how I present myself", or "I just stopped trying".

Despite all my efforts, I can't seem to "stop trying". I fall back into the easy way of being shy and timid, and generally forgettable. I've read through Dale Carnegie's How to make friends, and will definitely reread, but I'm looking for some tips or concrete suggestions.

How do I "stop trying so hard"?
posted by Rowgun to Human Relations (25 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Simple: Do not ever talk about yourself unless directly asked. Instead, only initiate conversations about other people. If someone mentions rock-climbing, and you rock-climb, a brief mention of "oh, I do that too" is acceptable but then follow up by asking THEM where they like to climb or whatever -- if they want to know about your rock-climbing activities, they'll ask. The more "impressive" something is the more you should avoid mentioning it unless directly asked about it.
posted by kindall at 8:31 AM on June 8, 2006

And that's in Carnegie, yeah.
posted by kindall at 8:31 AM on June 8, 2006

there are no tips other than just making your life interesting with or without any given people in it and being humble.

I can't really say much without it sounding like a plan to trick people into liking you. just remember that people like to be interesting, not interested, and that confidence is ultimately attractive - meaning you're confident about yourself without trying to scheme things to impress. no one likes feeling they're being gamed.

but all these things just come naturally when you work on yourself rather than your image.
posted by kcm at 8:36 AM on June 8, 2006

a little more. it sounds like you need immediate results so that you can attribute "person X likes me" to "I did Y", and repeat it. it's counterintuitive that less effort means more success and you'll never understand that until it suddenly starts happening when you least expect it - you said so yourself.

just enjoy yourself. true happiness is contagious.
posted by kcm at 8:39 AM on June 8, 2006

Bear in mind that talking about yourself may impress people for a moment continuing to talk about yourself will annoy people too. So turn the conversation over to them. Easy conversation tactic: think of yourself as an interviewer, ask questions: "How do you that?" "Where did you learn that?" "How many of those do you have?" "Where did you get that?" People like to share information, thus the popularity of ASkMefi.
posted by StarForce5 at 8:41 AM on June 8, 2006

partial solution: find out what the people you are trying to befriend are interested in, and ask them questions about it. Ask tons of questions, but do it in a tone of voice that is carefree. Read Picture of Dorian Gray for some help with the carefree bit.

real way: do you, and don't apologize for it. find what you're interested in and pursue it ruthlessly, for you. people are attracted to people that do what they want, how they want, when they want. be free. be whoever you want to be and the right people will gravitate to you.

If there are parts of yourself you don't like. Change it. If you like yourself, don't change for somebody you barely know and could probably give two sh-ts about you.
posted by milarepa at 8:41 AM on June 8, 2006

One idea you might use is this: in general, trying to impress almost always backfires. Here's the process:

You mention something that you think makes you a cool person. (e.g., "Last week I had lunch with Jennifer Aniston.")

The listener compares this information with his own situation.

Either a) he would like to have lunch with Jennifer Aniston (and has never been asked)

or b) he thinks lunch with Jennifer Aniston would be a big bore.

In case a) the guy is envious of you, and thus resents you. ("How come a jerk like him gets to meet Jen?")

Or case b) the guy thinks you're an idiot for being impressed with a nobody like Jennifer Aniston.

Either way, you notice, you end up with the exact opposite effect from the one you intended (i.e., "wow, what a cool person.")

So you can free yourself from this notion that you have to produce cool material to entertain people. If you have been doing something in your life that you actually find interesting or unusual, you can offer a detail or two to see if this is something the listener wants to hear. (It's easy to tell if they want you to continue, because they will ask enthusiastic and specific questions, as opposed to the merely polite, "Oh, how nice that must be for you" variety.)

You might also turn this around and ask yourself what sort of behavior you find attractive in a conversation partner. Almost certainly, it's that he is interested in what you have to say. So the secret, then, is for you to take interest in what he's talking about -- thus he will think you attentive and confident, therefore "cool."
posted by La Cieca at 8:44 AM on June 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

I find that focusing on how you make others feel, rather than how others think about you can help a lot in personal relationships.
posted by utsutsu at 9:13 AM on June 8, 2006

Best answer: 1) Are you comfortable with your appearance and your clothes? I'm not saying you should turn yourself into a fashion slut, but perhaps a little upgrade in your style will give a you a boost. I know on the days when I dress nice and actually put on a little makeup, I feel more put-together and confident, and I've had people comment on this.

2) Are you able to talk about things like politics, current affairs, and other "deeper" issues, with some level of intelligence? Again, not saying you should become an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, but are you aware enough about the world that you can participate in a discussion, and not appear superficial?

3) Are you trying to befriend, or carry on conversations with, people ill-suited for you or the topic at hand? Realistically, it seems we all know certain people we can only talk about certain things with, and maybe you just haven't quite hit on the right combination yet. If you approach someone with the idea that you will bring up Topic A, and they know nothing, or don't care, about Topic A, continuing to try to converse about Topic A will be frustrating.

4) Perhaps a few lessons in body language will be useful. Maybe you are not yet very good at reading other people. I know someone who is a very intelligent, well-spoken, generally confident guy, but he just CANNOT read when someone else is "done" with the conversation. He just doesn't pick up on those cues, and so he drones on and on, and now people often avoid him, because he comes across as boring.

5) My standard suggestion to anyone needed a little boost in self-confidence is to volunteer somewhere with children. (Maybe a camp counselor, or Big Brother/Big Sister program?) There is nothing like the admiration of a bunch of kids, just for spending a little time with them teaching them a goofy game or a song or something, to make you feel like the freaking King (or Queen) of the World.

I'm not sure if my suggestions are exactly what you are looking for, but maybe I've given you some things to think about? At least you acknowledge that you may have room for improvement. Lots of folks never realize this, and continue to blunder through life. Good luck!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:34 AM on June 8, 2006

The other good thing about kids is the standard things that might impress a grown-up, like lunching with a celebrity or your extensive knowledge of the LoTR movies or how to set up a wireless network using Silly Putty and paper cups will be completely lost on them. With kids, you usually have to rely on your personality. Good practice for dealing with adults. Then again, a grownup may not be that impressed that you know 65 different jump-rope games, but a 6yo girl will think you are god.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:42 AM on June 8, 2006

This is not a mature answer, but I do think there's some potential merit: in some appropriate situation, get tipsy. It sounds like you need to loosen up, and if you haven't found yourself in that situation - and you don't have good reasons for not getting drunk occasionally - then give it a shot. I've seen remarkable transformations where the shy, stilted person becomes (at least temporarily) fun and relaxed and everybody likes him/her much more then, and in the future, because they remember that person's potential if s/he would just relax.

YMMV, but it's worth thinking about. Of course, it would have to be a situation where it would be appropriate for you to be tipsy, and you never really want to be the drunkest person....
posted by Amizu at 9:48 AM on June 8, 2006

The problem may be that you're not trying hard enough. Have you ever tried the direct route? You know, just asking people straight up?

"Can we be friends?" worked really well in grade school right? It'll work now too. That's what it comes down to: you have to pop the question. If you meet somebody and you enjoy spending time with them then (a) let them know that (b) figure out a way to spend more time with them. There's nothing complex here. The ol' "I like you, why don't we do $X this weekend?" works fine.

The problem isn't 'self-confidence.' There's no such thing as 'self-confidence.' It's yet another mumbo-jumbo-postmodern-crap-lingo-thing that's emerged from post-war identity-obsessed psychology.Before everybody started going on about self-confidence people used to talk about 'courage'. That's the real issue here. If you don't have the simple courage to speak with people honestly and ask them to be your friend then no amount of pep-talks or self-help books will change anything.
posted by nixerman at 9:56 AM on June 8, 2006 [4 favorites]

I don't have a complete answer for this, as I think almost everybody, no matter how much they like themselves, has someone they'd love to impress in order to make them a bigger part of their life or their plans.

But what I'm trying to work towards is thinking of and building a collection of actions that give *me* satisfaction about who I am. Being able to look inside yourself and remember moments that please you -- without having to tell anybody about them -- is a grand thing. One of my friends has a phrase "secret smile," and I think this is what he means.

For some people those are accomplishments. I talked with a girlfriend once about this, and she said going graduating from college and living in Germany for a year were things that were like that for her. I have friends for whom rock climbing or mountain summiting are like that. But it's not all about being and olympian or accomplished scholar or jet-setting traveler... some friends seem to have found it in moments they've made decisions to help others in need or grief, no ostentatious charity plan or program, just noticing people and being in the right place for them. I get an unreasonable amount of satisfaction from certain simple, elemental memories (like skipping over the surface of a lake on a jet ski, watching the sun reflect off the lake, feeling the spray, taking it in).

Self-esteem can be a cognitive or biological issue. But there's also a component to it that comes from pursuing activities which are in line with the values you have regarding who you want to become and what makes a meaningful life. It's easier to interact with those people, and being more one of those people seems to make interaction easier too.

It's also worthwhile to note that while respect is an important trait in a friendship, generally, you don't simply impress people into liking you. I think that it's more that you make friends by creating shared experiences. Sometimes that's as simple as a conversation (you probably *could* make friends by talking about your lunch with Jennifer Aniston, but you wouldn't do it by mentioning it for "points", you'd do it by drawing people into the experience). Sometimes it's a trip to the bakery or coffe shop or pub or bayside restaurant or waterfall or ballgame or theater or whatever. Sometimes it's something else.

Finally... sometimes the people you're around just aren't the people you can naturally become close to. It can be hard, but sometimes, there's just dry spells where the people you meet aren't the kind of people you get close to. This isn't to say give up -- learning to establish some kind of friendly relationships with people very different from you can be a huge growing experience, and can sometimes help you get better at socializing. But because you can't always rely on big rewards for social investment and positive feedback from people around you, that's an additional reason why it's important to find the places inside yourself where you can keep things you're proud of.
posted by weston at 10:02 AM on June 8, 2006

Response by poster: kcm - great advice, although my problem is i've been working on my image for so long, that I'm not really sure what "myself" really is anymore. I've been told, "just be yourself". I know it's in there somewhere, I've just gotta dig deeper.

StarForce5 - I've tried the interviewer technique a few times, and it's worked pretty well - my only concern is making the conversation one sided, or prodding too much into someone's life, i.e. asking too many questions.

La Cieca - I'll pay attention to the "oh how nice" response. I've gotten it a few times, although there's the rare occasion that they're genuinely interested.

utsutsu - can you elaborate on this? what happens when you focus on how others feel?

SuperSquirrel - a huge tough thing for me is I've just started in the work place, and in general I've had less "life experiences" than others(thank my overprotective parents and my laziness for that) - so finding conversations is difficult.

Part of the problem is i think I pay too much attention to body language, to a fault. I get so wrapped up in how I portray myself and "reading between the lines" that I don't speak at all, for fear of eliciting a negative response.

I do love kids though - I haven't had much interaction in a while, and I remember how fun it was just to be crazy and off the wall, and have the kids adore you. I'll look into this.

oh and the problem with interacting with kids for me is it's all about the knowledge, rather than personality. I'm a kid at heart - i know all the tv shows, movies, comics, whatever - so they're always surprised when I can carry a half-decent conversation about cyclops versus wolverine, the latest pixar movie, etc.

nixerman - I like the idea of courage rather than self-confidence. The trick is asking people simply "can we be friends, and only friends." I have a loving and supportive SO, and am really looking just for friends, without leading anyone on.

weston - I need more "secret smiles". I used to have a lot of fond moments/memories, although i can't think of many lately.
posted by Rowgun at 10:53 AM on June 8, 2006

At some point, I learned that people are more impressed when they learn something impressive about you after they've known you for a bit. Someone I've known for several years just learned that I won an Academy Award (not really, but somehting that was mildly cool) and was impressed, plus we had a nice chat about it. If someone knows all your highlights, it's harder to move up in their estimation.
posted by theora55 at 11:43 AM on June 8, 2006

The goal of the conversation should be getting to know them, not presenting yourself at all.

The goal of any story you tell (for now at least) should be to say, "Yeah, I've felt that way too!" or "I want your opinion on this," and *not* to say "Oh yeah? I can top that!"

And your own personal goal should be finding and pursuing stuff you like, regardless of what other people think. It'll help you "find yourself," it'll give you stuff to talk about, and it'll give you something to focus on other than your image. I really believe that once you leave high school, most of the interesting, fun, cool people are the former nerds (I bring that up because of the comic book comment). They get passionate about weird unusual stuff and are generally enthusiastic rather than blase. As long as you can add some social polish and comfort with your self, it's really a great combo.
posted by occhiblu at 11:57 AM on June 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

utsutsu - can you elaborate on this? what happens when you focus on how others feel?


By focusing on how other's feel I find I am able to ease through awkward situations and defuse possible sources of tension or annoyance. This is completely reliant on my own ability to read people, which I used to think was non-existant. Over the past few years, I've learned that I am actually quite able to read people through body language or other subtle, unconscious clues, but this knowledge comes to me completely through intuition. I have learned to go with my gut feelings in social situations and turn off the conscious analyzing. This was hard at first, having a programmer's logical and analytical mind, but it gets easier with practice. I find it comes a lot more naturally with people I know well, friends and family, but it serves me well at work too.

I guess what I am really trying to say, is that if people leave you feeling good, they'll want to be around you. It doesn't mean being flattering or sucking up to people, in fact this produces the opposite result in most cases.

I think I am not explaining this very well because I am having trouble expressing the concept in my head. A lot of it comes down to just "letting go".

Also, I use too many comma's.
posted by utsutsu at 1:49 PM on June 8, 2006

i've been there, and for lots of reasons the quality of my friendships has exploded over the past couple years...even though i can be really geeky and uncool...a couple things come to mind:

- sincerity: it's not worth it for you or anyone else to pursue something you can't be sincere about, because faking it is really obvious...i will tend to say something a bit more on the personal or emotional side (to overcome my tendency to be nonexpressive, really) but even if it goes a bit too far, sincerity saves me every time...

- find something in the person you can look up to and that you would like to emulate...and say so...

- discover the other person's passion and learn something about it on your own...even not a lifelong passion, but something they are interested in for a while...and don't try to manipulate it into a conversation, but if they bring something up it's a cool way to show that you actually listen to them, especially if you let them know that their interest inspired you to check it out...don't go as far as pretending to like something you don't like, but people enjoy knowing if, say, a book or CD they mentioned they liked is something you discovered through them and enjoyed...

- i guess similar to the secret smile idea, i generally try to keep the attitude that i want other people to underestimate me...not in a manipulative way, but it's more the idea of holding something back for someone to discover, instead of using it up all at once and then having nothing left to reveal...people are intrigued by someone they cannot read instantly...some element of mystery...

- don't give some kind of opinion on everything that comes up, but instead focus on giving a well-considered opinion on occasion...when you use your words, make them matter...(i try to do this with metafilter, generally, though not necessarily successfully...i figure it's better to say something well thought through on one topic than trying to say something, whether or not it enhances the conversation, on every topic)

- when it comes to activities with others, do the stuff you want, but i find it is a pretty cool thing to not do every possible thing that comes up with someone...don't accept every invitation...with a group of friends, this allows the dynamic to shift a bit and not feel stale, and hopefully your absence will make your presence more appreciated the next time...of course, don't do it if your presence would mean a lot to the other person...

- find something...a simple thing, not expensive, not overdone...that is like your tradition...something that is associated with you...kind of a signature thing...for me, one of the more social things i've done being going to smaller music shows, when it's an artist i know i like--or when i go stay at a friend's place--i bake cookies for them...it has become a part of the process of looking forward to being with people, and i'm generally known as 'the cookie guy'...
posted by troybob at 2:14 PM on June 8, 2006

...oh yeah, and a little thing that is really has more to do with your mindset than with how people view you...do something nice for somebody you like, but do it such that they will never find out it was you who did it...i mean, really, never...not something they could find out from someone else...not something you'll break down and tell them one day...

...and one more, kind of generally obvious but maybe easy to get caught up in sometime...even in a general group when everybody's on board, don't jump in on talking someone down behind his/her back...depending on who you're with, maybe you think you have to jump in as well...but my practice is to say nothing, and if prompted to do so, i will tend to say something like 'well, he's always been a good guy to me' or 'yeah, she can be like that, but i know she has some heavy personal issues going on'...you think it's something that might make them view you strangely or suspiciously or prudishly, but believe me, on some level it is interpreted by others as: this is a person who is not going to talk about me behind my back...this engenders a great deal of trust
posted by troybob at 2:27 PM on June 8, 2006

i had confidence issues for a long time, and I just decided in the end, fuck people. I'll just have a good life anyway. So I chased trivia, and developed my passions, and did a good job at work. And here's what happened.

I was in a receptionist-type job where people needed my advice (colleagues & students both) and I got known for being a listener. I would pay (still do) absolute attention to whatever someone was saying to me, not interupt, and then ask them some more about it. As a result, I found myself to be one of the most popular people in my office. It astounded me. Here, I no longer cared, and I was getting invitations all over the place.

Which basically covers what everyone said up there^. Try not to care so much - and therefore don't try to impress. Listen to what people have to say, and interview them. Oh and be yourself by doing what you like. The whole popular party-guy/gal thing is totally overrated. Quiet people make friends too.

Oh and lastly, here's a small tip. When going to the local cafeteria, stores room, whatever, do a quick survey to see if you can pick up something for everyone else in your office (not just the cute ones). It'll be appreciated.
posted by b33j at 2:28 PM on June 8, 2006

Best answer: The problem isn't 'self-confidence.' There's no such thing as 'self-confidence.'

I sort of agree with nixerman. You know how only the wise man is wise enough to know he's a fool? Well, only the confident man is secure enough to embrace his insecurity. The problem is less about being insecure and more about being okay with your insecurity.

This guy Bill and I interviewed at the same college. To me, Bill seemed really cool and in-control, whereas I was a wreck. In the interview, I tried to hide my nervousness, but the more I tried to repress it, the more it showed. I stammered; I couldn't think of answers; I blurted out stupid things. Afterwards, Bill and I met up at a bar. Again, I was a mess and Bill was cool. Not wanting to discuss my interview, I asked Bill about his.

"It went pretty well," he said. "The interviewer started by asking me how I was feeling, and I said, 'I'm REALLY nervous.' He smiled at me and said, 'Don't worry about it. Everyone is nervous at interviews.' And that made me feel a whole lot better."

Man, did I feel like an idiot! When the interviewer had asked ME how I was feeling, I had lied and said (probably too loudly), "JUST GREAT!" That was the difference between Bill and me. We were both nervous. Bill just wasn't ashamed of it.

That experience changed me. It didn't stop me from being ashamed of my nervousness -- not immediately -- but it made me vow to own it and fess up to it. And that's just what I started doing.

And it's what I still do. If you know me, you'll often hear me say things like, "I'm so scared," "I have no idea what to do with my hands", "I'm worried I might offend you," "I feel really stupid about that," "I know I should have an opinion about that, but I can't think of one," "I'm scared our conversation is going to be full of long, awkward pauses" and "I can't believe I'm about to dance -- I'm so BAD at it... Oh well, here goes!"

And the funny thing is, the more I fessed up to my nervousness, the more I started to feel more confident.

And people around me responded to me better, because I quit giving off vibes of REPRESSED nervousness. No one likes being around repression. It's uncomfortable. Since everyone's nervous, people actually tend to be grateful when you admit to your nervousness. It shows that you're human and fallible, like them.

In another thread, long ago, I was complaining about my shyness and introversion. Johnmc, another member here -- someone I've seen at meetups who always comes across as confident and cool -- confessed that he's often nervous and shy in social situations, but that he deals with it by talking. He'll talk nonsense if he has to, just to cover up his awkward feelings. He talks; I clam up. But the bottom line is we're both nervous.

Everyone gets nervous. So owning your nervousness is simply owning your humanity, which is the first step in solving that "I'm not really sure what 'myself' really is anymore" problem. Just be yourself, they say? Okay, well, if "yourself" is shy, nervous and awkward, then just be that. But really BE it. Own it. Then you'll be able to transcend it and become something else.

If you really want to lick your problem quickly, force yourself to "jump into the fire." Take an improv class, TEACH a class of any type, volunteer to LEAD a group -- anything that will force you into the spotlight.

But you MUST combine this with my first point. When you teach/lead, don't try to hide your feelings. It's fine to tell the class, "Boy, I'm really nervous!" Just get it off your chest and them move onto the subject of the class. And don't just try one risky thing and then quit (when it inevitably fails). Keep throwing yourself to the fire again and again. Eventually, you won't get burned. And the earlier times, when you do get burned...? Well, those times will be painful, but pain builds character.

Finally, you haven't had "less life experience than others." You've had exactly the same number of life experiences as others -- at least as others your age. If you're 22 years old, you've had exactly 22 years of life experiences. If you think that other people's experiences are QUALITATIVELY better than yours, then you're wrong. You need to re-examine your life with better goggles.

Whole novels -- great novels -- have been written about "mundane" lives. Read Updike! Chekhov wrote dramas of "inaction." Seinfeld was a show "about nothing." Yet it was extremely funny.

When I meet someone who's climbed Everest -- and sometimes it feels like everyone has done amazing stuff like that except me -- I too THINK my life is devoid of incident. But it's not. There was that incident where I fell in love; there was that incident where I got trapped in an elevator; there was that incident where I ripped a hole in my best pants...

You can't live without accruing stuff like this. And stuff like this is INTERESTING. People care about it. You CAN talk about these "mundane" things -- which really aren't mundane at all, because they are things that make us laugh and cry and scream and wince -- and people will listen.

Good luck to you!
posted by grumblebee at 2:31 PM on June 8, 2006 [7 favorites]

grumblebee gives better advice/answers, generally...
posted by troybob at 3:35 PM on June 8, 2006

"It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet." -franz kafka
posted by Laugh_track at 4:25 PM on June 8, 2006

troybob, it's find for you to disagree with me, but it would help if you'd elaborate.
posted by grumblebee at 4:05 AM on June 9, 2006

When you're trying to impress, you're putting your concern for others' opinion of you too high above your interest in and enjoyment of them. You need to switch the priorities there. Stop obsessing about what others will like about you, and start focusing on what you like about them.
posted by funambulist at 10:30 AM on June 10, 2006

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