Skill with people
July 29, 2006 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I am a 49 year old man, and I have no close friends. Over the course of my life I’ve had a few friends at a time, but no close ones. The reasons are mysterious to me: I make a conscientious effort to be friendly and interested in others and to be trustworthy. Nonetheless, I am almost always on the social periphery.

I have been a technology consultant for most of my life, and have done okay professionally. Whenever I have had a regular job, it has ended with some ignominious crash and burn, generally unrelated to the performance of my job duties. Throughout my childhood and adult life, I have been one of those that kind of tenuously clings to the social periphery, not knowing what to do.

To try to understand my persistent failure to connect with other people, I have, at times, asked friends, family, and therapists (3) to help me understand the kind of social impression that I leave, and the things I do that reinforce that impression. In each case, they cannot offer me any insight, and cannot see a problem. I have tried every strategy that I could think of, including recording my conversations, asking others, reading every book I can find on social skills, and group behavior, seeing private therapists, etc.

This complete lack of insight is my biggest frustration, because it gives me no idea on what I need to do to change my situation. I am pretty sharp in reading the social dynamics of a situation, and understanding the motives of others, but I seem to have total blinders when I am part of the situation. I honestly don’t know whether I come across as hostile, domineering, clingy, or arrogant. Since people often respond to me with anger or irritation, I assume that I must seem either hostile or threatening. (BTW: I am not even mildly autistic or Asperger’s, and very much want to connect with others).

My do come from a rather odd family : my mother has borderline personality disorder, and my younger brother, believing himself to have chronic fatigue syndrome, has sequestered himself, jobless, to a rented room for the past 20 years. My sister lives a fairly normal life, with a husband and children, but while companionable, she is not really capable of intimacy.

I have a never-say-die determination to change my life, but I honestly don’t know what to do. I make enough money that I could afford to pay a “coach” to spend enough time with me “in the wild” to perhaps understand the way that I come across. This is the most important think I have to resolve in my life, and I am willing to make a full-bore effort. Without the ability to make connections with others, I cannot be a successful entrepreneur and have no one to hike, or dance, or drink with. All the things that make life full and interesting are done with friends and partners, and I feel like all these experiences are closed off to me. What other people do naturally and take for granted, I have been unable to do for my whole life.

So, I am turning to the community here: what can I do to master the basic social skills I should have had by eight years old? No idea is too out there, or too stupid. I got this Peabody alias specifically so I could post this question, and respond if asked. Your help is appreciated. Thank you.
posted by peabody to Human Relations (40 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a little younger than you, but it's been my experience that close friendships form in school, and I've never been able to make friends of the type that you seem to want later in life.

I've read other threads with similar questions. I imagine people will tell you to get involved with hobbies that will bring you into contact with people.

With luck, you'll find that things click with somebody and you'll transition to a friendship that exists outside of the hobby. For instance, if you find you have a shared interest in music or sports or whatever, invite them to do do something related to that. In the meantime, at least you'll have social interaction with people within the context of the hobby and you'll have fun.
posted by willnot at 3:54 PM on July 29, 2006

You don't have social anxiety, but it still might be beneficial to join a social anxiety support group. There would be plenty of others there who would be empathetic to your situation, hoping to connect with others, and trying to improve their social skills.
posted by aiko at 4:15 PM on July 29, 2006

A few random thoughts:

You are highly intelligent. Unless that is played down (or up) sufficiently, that can make a number of people uncomfortable. Of course, they will claim the cause to be something else.

You may be highly introverted. This has its strengths, which are worth learning. However, introverts are easily misunderstood in social situations. You've put effort into that, but it may bear closer examination and more work. I was once offended when a department head recommended I should read "How to Win Friends and Influence People": doubly so when I found I was naturally doing most everything outlined. I still put moe effort into my interest in keeping up with co-workers.

There seems to be a (particularly managerial) fear of people with technical skills. You have an area of expertise that they don't share, and it's difficult for them to manage. To these people, it may be best to be as transparent (using simple English) as possible. Don't take crash-and-burns personally; they honestly may not have been able to see the good work you did.

Friends come with shared interests. Perhaps find three things you are avid about or want to learn and invest in them. Finding friends is easier than keeping them sometimes; be willing to do "more than your share" to keep a friendship alive. Life happens, and sometimes (often) people can have a hard time keeping up with friends.

I'd dance, drink and hike with you all in the same day. I say this as someone who is highly introverted.
posted by vers at 4:16 PM on July 29, 2006 [4 favorites]

In your present life, if there are folks you like and would like to be closer to:

1. Learn how to be a good listener. People wish for nothing more than to be truly listened to and understood. Listening and being empathetic create intimacy. You also have to be willing to spill your guts should they desire it, however. It goes both ways.

2. Be kind and giving.

3. Be as available as you can be, to invitations and opportunities to gather and so forth. This is very important. If you constantly turn down invites, they will stop coming, no matter how many times you say "please don't stop asking me".
posted by seancake at 4:20 PM on July 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

How's your empathy quotient? When you're interacting with people, how much can you identify with what they're feeling? Not necessarily that you had the same experiences, but that you imagine yourself in the same experiences, and imagine how you yourself would feel?

Also, how do you feel about other people? Do you feel about other people? "Friendly and interested" aren't quite the same as investing feelings/emotions in your interactions. In fact, I'd say that feelings/emotions are what make the difference between "interacting" and "relating."

Sorry, I know this isn't an answer, but maybe more questions will help you think about the situation...
posted by tentacle at 4:20 PM on July 29, 2006 [2 favorites]

While you say you're not Asperger's, you might be on the really high functioning side of it... People with Asperger's don't necessarily not want to function well with other people, they just lack the insight and the skills to function well with others.

Although, I am a lot like you. I have a wife and kids who I think I do pretty decent with and that's about it. I have a friend I've known since grade school and my wife's friends... I don't have any of my own friends other than that, which strikes me as odd. But this isn't my Ask, so I'll shut up about myself.

I wonder if you could use some of the Asperger's techniques to learn some social skills. For the most part, it's behavioral therapy and for somebody your age and intelligence, cognitive behavioral therapy. I wonder about your therapists... Were they just counselors? MSW level people? I might suggest looking for somebody who is more of a psychologist, somebody who works more from a scientist's perspective.

(Disclaimer: I'm an introverted school psychologist so I don't know anything.)
posted by ajpresto at 4:27 PM on July 29, 2006

It's funny; as I read your post I found myself nodding and smiling ruefully and saying "Yep, that's me, yes, I do that, yes, that's how I feel around people..." and then I realised that I was - at least partly - wrong. And I realised that my real-life experiences don't match the way I feel about my social skills. In other words, I seem to have overcome similar problems - at least to a degree.

I'm about your age - 47 - and it interests me to read such an eloquent and articulate description of the way I feel inside, much of the time. Yet, as I say, I seem to have overcome those feelings in a practical sense, to the extent that I can make friends and be relatively relaxed in social situations. I know I'll never be totally comfortable in those situations (unless they only involve really close friends) but I seem to have found a place in which I can deal with them and make them work. How? By caring less. By worrying less. By managing to move away from being endlessly analythical about my social skills (or lack of) , my attractiveness to others (or...) and so on.

I used to be incredibly shy and awkward around other people. Other people puzzled me, mystified me, seemed... different from me. Not in any standard adolescent angsty way - I actually used to envy other people and felt the fault was with me. I wasn't one of those youngsters who sneered and mocked other people, I felt inferior to them, particularly in the area of social skills. I could not understand how so many of my peers could be so easy around each other. I could not understand how they could get up in class and speak loudly and with no tremor in their voices; how they could go to discos (47, remember) and laugh and dance and have fun instead of stewing in anxiety and self-consciousness.

Your situation sounds different to this in the sense that you don't seem to lack confidence. But you do seem to have a similar... puzzlement about other people and what makes them tick, and why you can't seem to find the rhythm of the ticking. Apologies if I'm misreading you.

So ask yourself if you may be over-analysing. Maybe that's in your nature. Try not trying, if you know what I mean. I don't mean be distant or remote or cold; I mean try to relax around people. Don't be thinking about why they're behaving as they are, why they have that whiny voice, why they keep ignoring or interrupting you, or whether they might be your friend. Just go with it. And, as someone else said: listen to them. Let them talk, listen, and then ask them questions about themselves. People love this. We all do. But do listen to their responses and see how much you can identify with them. Sometimes you won't be able to; sometimes you'll be shocked at just how much you can; most times you'll be somewhere between the two. But finding those points of identification and using them as oil to lubricate a conversation goes a long way towards making people warm to you.

But again: try not to worry too much. I've said all this and yet the fact is that I still don't make friends easily. I get on with people at a superficial level just fine, but I don't have many real friends at all. I've accepted that this just reflects the way I am, and I've also come to realise that it's quite a nice place to be: a few good, close friends coupled with the ability to be sociable, and have fun, with almost anyone.

Good luck.
posted by Decani at 4:53 PM on July 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Make friends over the internet and move from there to the real world. Some parts of it are places where you have an opportunity to form strong, on- and off-line friendships persisting over years.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:54 PM on July 29, 2006

Also, volunteer and activist work are great ways to form friendships that move you into the social centre. If you have the skills and resources to be at the heart of a project, that's a good position to form friendships with people who already value you a great deal.

Good luck! I heartily applaud your never say die approach. It's the right way to go.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:57 PM on July 29, 2006

Different societies have far different social norms. It might be useful, Peabody, if you came back here and gave us some rough guide as to your location, and personal details. Otherwise we're shooting in the dark, except for very general strategies, and we may tend to assume you are a single American gay guy living in Manhattan, rather than the expat British family man living an isolated life in Malta, that you really are.

Sticking to generalities, I still find that people in small towns in America are generally more willing to work at long term friendships and social interactions than are city dwellers here. It's still common in small towns for neighbors to know every one around them and all the neighborhood kids. Not so much at all in major cities, where even knowing neighbors' names may take years. So, you might consider moving to a small town, and going every morning to the town cafe for breakfast, where pretty much everyone stops in for coffee or breakfast at least one or two mornings a week, just to keep up socially.

You might also consider the prospect of intentionally doing service work with some of your free time. You can join the Rotarians, or the Lions, or just volunteer at local hospitals as a way of meeting people and being helpful to your community.

As to hobbies, I've met some of my middle aged friends through aviation and boating hobbies. If you live near some decently sized bodies of water, boats in particular are a decent way of making new friends, particularly if you extend your boating hobby to fishing, skiing, or crewed sailing. You don't need much of a boat to have a lot of fun, and you don't need to spend all that much money or time to get started. You can even buy a boat with another partner or two, if you don't have time to use it enough to make owning it yourself feasible. Likewise, if you're mechanically inclined, there are all kinds of hobby opportunities in the car world, and again, you don't need that much money to start.

As we pass 50, sports opportunities wane. If you're interested in things like tennis or swimming, and can still participate competitively, go for it. Get in a senior men's league, join the YMCA, etc. to foster playing opportunities. Otherwise, try to develop interests in less challenging and more social games, like bowling or golf.

Travel experiences are another way older people find new friends; my parents went on a 2 week coach tour of Europe when they were in their early 60's, and made some new friends they continued to visit and correspond with all the rest of their lives.

The first step in finding new friends is meeting them. Unless you are meeting and talking with new people routinely, at least some of whom you then have a reason to see repetitively in social circumstances, you'll never build lasting friendships. Be a joiner, and a "goer," and keep a smile on your face.
posted by paulsc at 5:15 PM on July 29, 2006

The first order of business is to find out how you've been aggravating people, and to stop it. A lot of friendliness consists of being (a) available and (b) inoffensive. From what you say, it's (b) that you're having trouble with.

There are lots of great ways to meet people, but until you get a handle on whatever it is that is causing so many people to respond to you with aggression, you're going to be in the same old rut.

Imagine that you were in my social orbit. I would not be likely to hang out with you, because I have chronic fatigue syndrome; based on what you've just said about your brother and your apparent judgment of his condition, I would suspect that you'd be highly likely to treat me as a hypochondriac wingnut. My husband, family, and good friends would not be eager to hang out with you either, for the same reason. Even if you did not immediately and openly disparage me as a person with CFS, we'd be waiting for that shoe to drop. Without unusual charm or a lot of built-up goodwill, recovering from a stumble like this would be difficult for you.

I'm not looking to turn this thread into a referendum about whether CFS is a physical disability, somatized depression, or plain malingering. My point is, if you do habitually throw around similarly unkind statements, no matter how correct you feel them to be, you're going to run across people who are annoyed or angered by them. Whether or not they say anything to you about it, these people are not going to think of you as good friend material. They may be annoyed enough with you that they'll discourage others from inviting you to group activities. That will put a chill on your ability to meet new friends and to turn casual friends into close ones.

I'd say, start by taking a month or so and seeing how often you are tempted to present someone in an unkind light. Just observe. Then take another month and try to be kind to everyone all the time, knowing full well that this is difficult; observe what brings up your resistance.

Since people often respond to me with anger or irritation, I assume that I must seem either hostile or threatening.

I think it's much more likely that it means that you come across as arrogant, clingy, or bumptious. You may be standing too close or speaking too loudly for their comfort.

Kudos to you for taking this on in a brave, never-say-die way. Good luck.
posted by sculpin at 5:34 PM on July 29, 2006

Stop blaming yourself. You seem so concerned that you have some deep flaw. I can understand; sometimes when I'm seriously depressed I feel completely lost in the world, as if everyone knows something I don't. I talked to a therapist about it and asked her some of the same questions you mention. She was able to give me honest feedback, mainly that I'm nice, fun to be with, have good social skills, and am not lacking some critical component of human nature. My family was and is similar to yours. In short, she assured me that I'm worthy of love, and I assure you that you are too.

Follow your interests, whether it's going to car rallies, collecting minerals, bowling, whatever. Join any club or group that meets regularly. Don't be too eager, but definitely accept any Hey, we're going for beer/ice cream/coffee after the meeting invitations. Outdoor activity and volunteer groups are a good way to meet people. If you have any faith whatsoever, churches are a great way to meet people. Once there's a group of people you see outside of work on a regular basis, see who you want to hang out with. Adult education classes are a good way to learn new stuff and meet new people, especially if there's a series. You can plan dinner at a Chinese restaurant with the people you meet in Chinese Language class I by the time you are all in Chinese II together.

Friendship is built on shared experience. Start an annual party. Invite 10 or 15 people over for an equinox party or to watch the finish of the Tour de France or Kentucky Derby or whatever. If somebody says they need a ride, volunteer if you can. Ask people for occasional favors; like a ride to get your car at the mechanic. Push yourself to reach out to people as often as possible.

And learn that everybody loves sincere compliments. Telling someone they have a great smile, or pretty hands, or are a good dancer, trail builder, joke-teller is a good way to move towards friendship.

I believe the world we now live in is increasingly intolerant, and jobs are so transient now. Many, many people I know have flamed out in jobs due to personalities. Including people who are incredibly nice, social and popular; the kind of people who were the cool kids in high school. Making friends is a skill that you have to go out and practice. Jeez, I've written a long missive here. Email's in my profile if you want encouragement.
posted by theora55 at 5:52 PM on July 29, 2006

You said that you've read many self-help books on social interaction, but if you haven't tried David Burns' "Intimate Connections," I'd highly recommend it. It's helped me a lot.

Your post is one of the most eloquent examples of self-awareness and expression that I've ever read.
If you are one tenth as perceptive and interesting in person as you are in writing, there should be many people who'd love to spend time with you--especially women.

With your intelligence and perseverance it seems to me impossible that you won't eventually solve--or at least mitigate--your situation, and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by capcuervo at 5:53 PM on July 29, 2006

At risk of seeming cornball, I'd just like to add that you should give yourself a huge amount of credit for owning this problem and acting to solve it. Plenty of people in your situation would avoid facing the issue, or would try to drink the problem away, or spend ridiculous amounts of time at work, or on-line or in front of the TV set.

One piece of advice: I was in your shoes once. I used to think that there was a capital-R Right way to interact, that other people with better people skills had some kind of magical key that allowed them to interact so gracefully.

I was wrong. There is no special key, no secret decoder ring to human interaction. Decani's advice is best: Try not trying. Just go with what's there. Sometimes the encounter will be fun and enjoyable. Sometimes it won't. Either way, you'll have gone out there and learned something about people, about this particular type of person, this type of bar, etc. and the effort will not have been wasted.

Your attitude is excellent. You sound like a great guy. I wish you well.

(Btw, I can relate to the disconnect you cited between therapy and day-to-day life. Therapy is really good for addressing broad emotional problems and patterns; it doesn't do so good of a job of teaching social skills. That's been my experience, at least.)
posted by jason's_planet at 5:53 PM on July 29, 2006

You might get some mileage out of re-examining your expectations. As willnot said above, it's been my experience that close friendships form in school, and I've never been able to make friends of the type that you seem to want later in life.

I am curious about the whole friendship thing - how people make friends, how close they are, how long they last, and so on, so I will often question people I meet about this. The anecdotal summary is that - contrary to what you might think - most people admit to having only one to three close friends, and these are typically the longstanding ones from school days. The rest of their social interaction is on a pretty transient, low-key, take-it-or-leave it basis.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:03 PM on July 29, 2006

Wow. You are really brave. Your situation sounds frustrating, frightening, and painful. I think it's wonderful that you're just putting this problem out there to get ideas and help.

One possibility: How much do you talk? Asking more than answering is a great way to show people you're interested in getting to know them. Keeping your answers and comments concice is a good way to show that you are aware and empathetic towards your audience.

In terms of meeting people, I've done best through jobs and group projects that I've cared passionately about. Places where I'm likely to find like-minded people. It does feel harder to make new friends as I get older, but not impossible.

Finally, I'd recommend the work of John Gottman. He mostly deals with couples, but at least one of his books specifically talks about how to get along in work and social relationships. His books are typically and frustratingly self-helpy, but his theories are all based on extensive laboratory based research, and I think his ideas are sound.
posted by serazin at 6:10 PM on July 29, 2006

Lots of thoughtful, good responses here. I'm a bit younger than you, peabody, so my social scene is different in a lot of ways, and I don't have an answer per se, but here's what I thought when I read your question.

How do you feel about being vulnerable? It's been my experience, as a fairly introverted individual, that letting other people into the private, emotional life can be difficult to do, but is pretty essential to any real intimacy; that requires a certain amount of willingness to be vulnerable and talk about things that one may worry would make one appear foolish or weak or any number of other things. You sound like you have a lot to offer a friend. I hope things look up for you.
posted by clockzero at 6:17 PM on July 29, 2006

To follow up on ajpresto's remarks, you can try this.
posted by hortense at 6:22 PM on July 29, 2006

UbuRoivas is generally right, for a large cross-section of middle class American men. I myself have a couple of deep male friendships from early adulthood, who I don't see too often, because of distance and circumstance. In the case of one of these guys, after we became fast friends through motorcycling interests, we became business partners in a couple of ventures, and I introduced to him to his first wife. She died horribly and slowly of cancer a few years later, and her death sort of hangs between us to this day, when we meet. Even though I've known him for more than 30 years, and would trust him with anything to this day, our friendship is still mutually painful, through no fault of our own.

In the case of another of these friends, he and I also met through motorcycling as young men, and we rode together many thousands of miles. At one point, he came to work for me, and then he left to do other things unexpectedly, which cost me some grief, and went against my advice. Ultimately, his other ventures since have been up and down, but our friendship has matured pretty smoothly in the last 10 years, and we see each other a couple of times a year.

The best thing about old, good friends of long standing is that you get to share your lives, and carry one another's burdens, in ways later friendships can't telescope. But the cost of that is perhaps sharing deep pain, and having to learn to own stupidity and disappointment, and still get past all that.

And yet, mature men's friendships tend to have a purpose, and a stability that young men's friendships often lack. Mature men compete over women less, and are sidetracked less often by family obligations, money problems, or job issues. So, mature men's friendships can have a playful quality, and even a funny aspect, that takes a lifetime of living to develop. One such guy I like to meet a couple of times a month actually used to be a neighbor and friend of my father, before my father died. In the days after my father's funeral, his friend came by frequently to help me go through my father's things, and I gave him a few items he especially liked to remember my dad by. One thing led to another, and he began to tell me more about himself, and I to him, and we found we had a shared interest in tall tale humor. So, we meet at least every few weeks, and jaw at one another in summer evenings, and the minutes turn into hours, and we keep straight faces as we swap big lies.

I have maybe a half-dozen to a dozen other such "purpose friends" of middle age. Boat guys, airplane guys, a couple of people from the mental health community through some volunteer stuff I've done, and some men and women from past neighborhoods and service organizations who share special interests we continue together as we're able. On top of that, I've probably a hundred or so former colleagues and business acquaintances with whom I correspond or visit irregularly, as circumstances warrant. So I think I'm pretty close to the "norm" by UbuRoivas standards. I hope by relating all this to have cast some light into my own ideas about friendship, that can serve to grow your own.

You get from the world some of what you put into it, but frankly, good friendships are always serendipitous.
posted by paulsc at 6:37 PM on July 29, 2006

I agree with clockzero. I have very few really close friends and most all of them started from the internet. I grew up in an environment that pressured me to act a certain way and I have never really overcome that. As a result I hide a lot about myself to people in person and I have been told straight out that it makes me seem uninterested or unapproachable. No matter how much I tell myself to not do that I always do. It's a habit stuck very deep within me by now.

I don't know if your problem is anything similar to that, but I sure would like a solution to it too!
posted by Hypharse at 6:40 PM on July 29, 2006

Do you actually like some of the people you know? One idea might be to allow yourself to be vulnerable to them by showing that you like them, not in too foward a way, but just letting yourself smile at them, and maybe asking them to lunch. I think that two or three (new) friends at lunch is a good way to start to slowly get to know people better.

I've been thinking about this a lot, myself, because I have similar issues. Lunch with just one other person can be strained; lunch with two is good because (if you choose the people well) they can sometimes talk to each other, giving you time to think, plus the whole thing is much more relaxed for a variety of reasons.

I took a social psychology course (and several other psychology courses) in college. I think it's helped me a lot, especially learning about social exchange theory (light bulbs went on for me with that concept). Maybe a social psychology textbook would be an interesting read for you. Maybe one of the other ideas in the field would be illuminating for you.
posted by amtho at 7:32 PM on July 29, 2006

OK, so my above comment may be totally useless to you, since you have probably already tried ideas like the ones I put forth. I realize that. But those are the ideas I have to offer you, for what they're worth.

Studying acting and improv also seemed to help me, although I'm certainly not going to hold myself up as a model since, as I said, I do still have issues around this.
posted by amtho at 7:42 PM on July 29, 2006

Response by poster: This is peabody, checking in. Thank you everybody for your thoughtful (and empathic) answers: I really appreciate the seriousness with which others have responded to my post.

First, let me clarify, I am not an introvert--my natural inclination is to be outgoing, and I take great pleasure is in spending time with other people. An extrovert with poor social skills is, I must say, a nasty little paradox, but there you are.

I have read the Burns book, and John Gottman as well. While they are both excellent books, neither seems to contain the magic nugget of insight I'm hoping for. I found Decani's post comforting and useful, and I suspect he may be on to something when he says to "try not trying" (good thing I'm already Buddhist, or that might have made my head explode). I feel like my everyday life is characterized by striving, which is almost ingrained nature, by now: every encounter becomes, in a way, a "test" of how I'm doing.

Paulsc asked for some personal details: here you go. I live in Southern California, and I was raised here. I'm single and heterosexual, although I haven't been in a relationship in over 10 years. I'm a business and technology consultant, and I'm well compensated. I'm a large guy (6 foot 4 inches, and 230 pounds), and involved in Buddhist study, yoga, Amnesty International, and some professional organizations. I'm pretty verbal, and have a strongly analytical bent, which probably helps in my professional life, while hindering the social side.

Once again, thanks to everybody for their help and comments thus far.
posted by peabody at 7:54 PM on July 29, 2006

If Southern California means Los Angeles, try LA People Connection. It might not help you with figuring out why you can't form close bonds, but it will give you stuff to do and people to meet.

Or, schedule a meet-up, and afterwards, ask everybody what they thought of you. Hell, ask them in advance and point to this thread, and then people will be hyper vigilant about how you interact with other people.
posted by willnot at 11:30 PM on July 29, 2006

I've got to echo the previous suggestion of 'trying not to try.' I know I definitely get a bad taste in my mouth after being around people who are either too in your face (read: please please be my friend!) or too quick to tell you all about themselves (read: look how great I am, now you must want to be my friend!). Listen to what other people say and react genuinely to that. I think the main thing is people like people who are real and not trying to project an image or necessarily win anyone over. Attempting to impress people often backfires because one ends up coming off as false, and that is something I think most people can detect and write someone off for almost immediately.

As for the advice on being avaliable: I suggest being open to everyone, but I have to caution againist extreme avaliability. For some reason, at least to me, there is something off-putting about people who are too eager. I think this part goes along with the 'just relax' bit.

I got a lot more likeable when I stopped caring if I was liked. I think this thread has some really insightful advice, and as most others have said, kudos on facing this issue head on and with such a positive attitude. Best of luck!
posted by liverbisque at 1:36 AM on July 30, 2006

The most popular person I've ever met, by far, is my husband. Everyone loves him, everyone wants to spend time with him, and his friendships span pretty much the entire socioeconomic and age gamut, with both men and women. These are the characteristics I've observed in him that I think principally contribute to this:
  • Naturally kind
  • Almost completely unselfconscious - he just never worries about if he's making a good or bad impression
  • Relaxed
  • Nonjudgmental
  • Not an overanalyzer; he's not the person who's going to try to figure out what "you really mean" when you say something
  • Confident - but not in a jock way... Just sure of himself and his abilities
These are the main things. Stemming from these... He helps people out all the time, usually involving his technical skills and ability to fix pretty much anything; he's not the kind of person to worry about quid pro quo, or whether everything is always equal and "balanced"; he's really smart, but never plays one-upsmanship and isn't much interested in getting into heated debates about things... If you say something that's completely wrong, he's just as likely to let it pass, unless it's related to work or a job at hand. Or, if you're a good friend, he's just as likely to laugh and call you an ignoramus.

Now, of course, it's not possible to create a checklist and say, okay, now I'll be this way. The trick is to look into yourself and find the corresponding part of the natural you to emphasize. For example, I said he's not an overanalyzer... and it seems that you do tend to analyze - but if you try to turn this into a beneficent skill, it might be a quality that people value and seek in you. Instead of just assessing the dynamics of things as an intellectual exercise, you could be the person about whom his friends say "this is complicated and confusing, let's get an opinion from peabody - he can help us work this out".

In general, try to focus on opening outward, using your own unique traits toward helping others (not as some kind of "mission" but as the sort of thing that will make you feel good... being a saint isn't what's called for), and very definitely try not to be worrying and wondering what others are thinking of you - the "try by not trying".

I've got a lot more I could say here... especially about confidence, since I think we usually miss the point about what it really facilitates... but I'm getting embarrassed about the length of this response! :)
posted by taz at 1:52 AM on July 30, 2006 [7 favorites]

This is an excellent post and, like Decani, I found myself nodding a lot; even more so as I read other people's comments. Interestingly/worryingly, on the test that Hortense linked to, I scored above average (in fact, two points off "very high"). Shit.
posted by TheDonF at 2:27 AM on July 30, 2006

Host a party. You are involved in some organizations, as well as work, from which you can invite folks. People open up and act differently with folks at parties, even if its the same folks you work with every day. And everyone loves the person who provides free food and drink, entertainment, etc. As the host you are not required to intensely get-to-know people, as your job is to make sure everyone is having a good time. This could give you a chance to try not trying: don't give them your lifestory -- get them another beer/soda, don't try to give your two cents -- get some more potato chips on the table. I have two left feet when it comes to social interactions, but (with the help of my wife, admittedly) I host a few parties a year and I always find that less stressful than attending other people's parties.
posted by iurodivii at 6:36 AM on July 30, 2006

Amtho suggested asking people to lunch, and I likewise wonder whether your problem might be a simple matter of pragmatics rather than a global one of you coming across as an unlikable kind of person. From your post, you seem very likable to me. Are there particular people you'd like to be friendlier with? Do you ever mention you're going on a hike, or dancing, or whatever, and ask if they'd like to join you? If so, what happens? If not, your lack of friendships might just be due to your not taking action to initiate them. I only have a few friends besides my husband, and I find that it takes a more active approach to initiate and sustain them than it did during school and the years shortly afterwards.

One other thought is that I don't think that people responding to you with anger or irritation necessarily means that you come across as hostile or threatening. Any number of other characteristics (e.g., those that sculpin mentioned) could make people angry or irritated. Would it ever be possible to go back to these people later, when they're no longer irritated, and explain that it's an effect you have on people more often than you'd like, and that you'd love their honest feedback about what you did to get them irritated?
posted by daisyace at 7:47 AM on July 30, 2006

Lots of good tips here, but I agree with sculpin that you need to figure out why you're aggravating people, because no matter how much you put yourself out there, if people react negatively to you, it's not going to matter.

I would not assume by any means that people responding to you with anger or aggravation means that they find you hostile or threatening. If I found someone hostile or threatening I would react with fear, not aggravation, and probably not even anger (at least not at that time). What makes me aggravated is when I find people pompous, know-it-all, converstation monopolizers, goody-goody, etc. (While I know there are people who get angry by these same qualities, I tend to get angry when someone is cruel, or extremely inconsiderate.)

I'm hypothesizing here, but since you say you are gregarious, and it's clear you're intelligent, I'm wondering whether you come off as a talkative know-it-all. Active listening, and a certain humility can be good antidotes to that social pitfall. Also, since you say you try to be kind, I wonder if you come of as a goody-goody (reverting to grade school lingo here, but you get the point). I think likeable people are genuinely kind, but they're often also irreverant, spontaneous, fun. Maybe because I feel flawed on some level (and because I think that goes for everyone), I appreciate it when people reveal their flaws to me. I don't like to feel like people are too sincere - that gets boring, more than anything. There's a time and a place for kind, sincere, etc., and of course that's part of the difficulty if you're not adept in recognizing appropriate timing. I'm sorry, I don't have tips for learning that kind of timing....

But good luck. I definitely feel for you. And it sounds like you're a good person - I think it's going to work out.
posted by Amizu at 8:48 AM on July 30, 2006

The qualities in taz's list echo the qualities in the people I really love being around. I'm not sure you can assume them overnight, but perhaps it's something worth thinking about periodically. (I think one key thing to take away from it is the overall sense of being laid-back. I've found that geeky people like us are bad at that. This is somewhat ironic, though, as it means that the way to get 'better' is to not think about it too much.)

I honestly don’t know whether I come across as hostile, domineering, clingy, or arrogant. Since people often respond to me with anger or irritation, I assume that I must seem either hostile or threatening.

I can empathize here. I've always wondered what other people thought of me. I also have some friends with qualities that I absolutely despise, but don't have the guts to mention to them. It's really hard to know what other people think of you.

I've found that a big problem that I--and other geeks I know--have is that we're very prone to correct people and come across as know-it-alls. It's not necessarily an arrogance thing, as much as me trying to help them because they're wrong. But it's very rarely appreciated. A good friend of mine, who's my polar opposite, once told me that I should, "Try being wrong sometimes. It's lots of fun."

I make enough money that I could afford to pay a “coach” to spend enough time with me “in the wild”

It's hard to tell from this isolated example, but do you normally 'advertise' your wealth? I find that I sometimes try to subtly brag about my bank account too, but it's never gone over well.

These are all guesses: it's possible that you are laid-back, don't correct people's mistakes, and never mention your wealth. But they're some things you might want to consider.
posted by fogster at 9:23 AM on July 30, 2006

my mother has borderline personality disorder

This rings alarm bells with me. If your mother had BDP, you would never have had a normal intimate relationship with her from a very young age and you would have kept going on in life with this gaping hole which other people fill with intimate relationships but somewhere along the line you never learned how to fill it. You mentioned your sister wasn't capable of intimacy, well, I believe the traits of BDP very much affects the family in this manner.

Since people often respond to me with anger or irritation, I assume that I must seem either hostile or threatening.

I'm not sure about this, I've never met you, but this also sets off my BDP alarm bells. Did you ever look through the criteria and see if you fit them?

Good luck.
posted by dydecker at 10:34 AM on July 30, 2006

I am also a square peg in the round hole of close personal realationships. I have my wife and two friends and am not expecting more. I have most of your traits and I don't expect radical personality change in my time left on the planet.

What you may need is direct feedback from others. I found the Human Interaction Laboratory from NTL to be safe place where I could receive that sort of feedback from a group of 10-12 people and through seeing yourself on videotape..

The feedback I got told me I had a way of summarizing and describing things that turned others off and precluded further interaction. I haven't changed this behavior as it's deep seeded in me, but I am aware when I'm doing it and all I need is some willingness to dig deeper.
posted by Xurando at 10:50 AM on July 30, 2006

First, if you're really interesting in examining your social skills, you might consider group therapy. One of the virtues of a good group is that it doesn't overlook or gloss over your social defects; it examines them, and provides the necessary feedback that you are lacking in conventional settings.

Second, you may have to accept that intimacy is outside your reach. We learn intimacy at an early age; if your early upbringing did not provide the proper nurturing environment, it's likely you'll never be comfortable with intimate relationships. Having good social skills will allow you to fake your way into such relationships, but in the end you'll find them more emotionally draining than rewarding.
posted by SPrintF at 11:46 AM on July 30, 2006 [3 favorites]

I found when you need something you will never get it. As long as you need close friends you will never get them. I have had the opposite problem. I have always needed people to leave me the hell alone and my whole life I have been bothered by people trying to me my friend. I don't blame them,I prefer my own company to their's.
posted by zackdog at 12:32 AM on July 31, 2006

Have you considered moving? You sound like more of an east coast kind of guy to me. Your personal style might fit in much better in New York City, let's say.
posted by richg at 12:40 AM on July 31, 2006

I wonder if Southern California itself isn't also a factor here. There may be something going on there similar to what I see here in Seattle, especially among techies and in my own mid-thirties age group.

People come here for the jobs, and they leave for other jobs without ever putting down roots. It happens a lot: just when you get to know somebody, *poof*, they're leaving for Austin or Boston or Dublin. I think this peripateticism is putting some strain on our friendship culture here. People who are likely to pick up stakes seem often to be more likely to be flakey or thoughtless; as a group, they're just not quite as invested in keeping the goodwill of other people here. And people seem to me to be significantly less willing to invest in others who are likely to pick up stakes. I've seen people -- including those raised elsewhere -- suddenly warm to me when they find out I'm a Seattle native. (The experience can be a little uncanny.)

As a single tech guy in SoCal, people may initially read you as somebody who is only temporarily in town. That's not much of an incentive to look past any awkwardness you may display.

If you do plan to stay in Southern California, then when you're looking for new people to meet, I'd advise you to consider groups that are specifically SoCal-oriented, especially those that would appeal to old-timers. If you love where you are, show how committed you are to the place and seek out other people with roots there. You may find that they give you just a little more slack.
posted by sculpin at 11:48 AM on July 31, 2006

I'm struck by something you DIDN'T say: you didn't say, "there's this guy named Charlie, and I really want to be friends with him..." Maybe you didn't get this specific, because you were purposefully trying to generalize. But in case that's not the case, I'll continue:

There's something odd to me about trying to make friends in some general way -- as opposed to trying to be friends with a particular person. Disclaimer: I'm an introvert, so maybe this is just the introverts way of seeing the world.

I've gone through periods of my life where I've been lonely, and every time, I've tried to "gain more friends" and have failed. I think I've failed because that goal has been too vague. On the other hand, to use a recent example, I went to a MeFi meetup about a year ago, met cunninglinguist, liked her, and emailed her asking if she wanted to hang out. And now we're friends.

I think the people here who say "don't try" are onto something -- but I think it's only half the answer. IF you're looking for general friends, THEN don't try. In that case, the best you can do is to follow your interests and hope some specific person (or people) find you interesting and befriend you. On the other hand, you COULD pursue (in a non-creepy way) a person that you like. Most people are flattered if you show you like them, and most will say "yes" if asked to lunch.

If you just want friends -- but don't want a specific friend -- then maybe that's something to explore about yourself. Are you too inward? If you don't listen to -- or take in interest in -- other people, you won't become interested in them.

Having said all that, based on your writing, I find you attractive (in a hetero guy-guy way). I live in NYC, but if you want an email friend, feel free to locate my address in my profile.

Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 2:07 PM on August 5, 2006

Here's an idea. Do you think it's possible that it's not so much that you don't have social skills but maybe that you are inconsistent in applying them? I have often wondered if I'm like this. I can usually be a "charmer" if I have to be...for example, I can do well during a job interview. But since social skills don't come naturally to me--I have to think about them--sometimes I am inconsistent in the way I act towards people. For example, when I start a new class I will make an effort to smile at people. As the class goes on I get distracted and/or insecure ("these people don't *really* like me") and act less friendly over time. I think people have a hard time dealing with this.

I will say this; you sound like an awesome person who's got a great attitude. That there is half the battle. Attitude is critically important, and if your goal is to work on this I'm certain you can be successful.
posted by mintchip at 10:30 PM on November 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well, I've read this post 3 times. I was going to make a question along these lines, but clearly it's been done, and glad I RTFA - read the archive. I'm hoping this guy comes back and says how it's worked out so far.
posted by Listener at 7:05 PM on December 14, 2006

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