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May 14, 2007 8:26 AM   Subscribe

How do you remain friendly and patient with people? Through the course of my day, if I am not in the right mood, I have neither the time nor the patience for certain people. For example, someone may come into my work area and want to chat. I would like to be more friendly and chatty but if I am in the zone, or having a stressful day, I just can't be bothered. I tend to be curt and/or dismissive. I think this gives people the impression that I am an asshole. This applies to interactions with different people throughout my day. Someone asking questions, my boss going off on a tangent, a small-talker on the ferry, sometimes I just can't stand interacting with people. Does anyone else struggle with wanting to be friendly, but not having the energy or constitution to consistently be friendly? How do I build up my friendly muscles?
posted by jasondigitized to Human Relations (19 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm really busy now, but lets talk later"

Bosses on tangents are tricky. If they are your immediate manager, its generally OK to joke that you need to get back to your work. Higher level managers should probably be indulged, unless you have no ambition.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:33 AM on May 14, 2007

Outside of work, go grab a set of white Apple earbuds. Put them in, and run the cable into your pocket. No iPod required!
posted by b1tr0t at 8:34 AM on May 14, 2007

This is what civility is for. Seriously. If you start from the premise that human interaction is immeasurably helped by treating all folks politely, it's much easier to say "Can we talk about Lost some other time, I'm trying to finish this up right now."

Sometimes this is more possible than others, for various reasons. Your boss may be able to command your attention in a way that someone on the ferry cannot, but if that's so, then that's all the more reason to grin and bear it with your boss.

The fact is that a few polite turns of phrase will help you out of 80% of situations you don't want to be in, but a decision to be civil, to not meet rudeness with rudeness and a personal commitment to present a different face to the world will help you through 95% of those situations.

The other thing to consider is that our idea of what someone wants and what they actually want are sometimes at odds. They did a study on patient satisfaction at Hopkins, and one of the things that came out was that people thought their docs weren't listening to them. They found that the average patient had about two minutes of things they wanted to say to their doc at the beginning of an appt, but that most docs interrupted ~30 seconds. Just taking the extra 90 seconds to listen made people much much more satisfied with whatever came later in the appt.
posted by OmieWise at 8:39 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm the same way. I suspect it's because I have Asperger's Syndrome. (You should so some research and see if you have it.) Like you, I can be very friendly and talkative, but it takes energy. If I'm tired or "not in the zone," it's absurdly hard to have even the simplest interaction. It's literally draining to meet someone's eyes or to say, "How you doing?"

I don't have a perfect answer for you. I'm still searching. But here are a couple of things you can try.

1. learn as many simple ("template") pleasantries as you can. There are all sorts of books about smalltalk. Buy one and memorize some of the "one liners."

This is really hard for me, because it feels phony and I'm not a phony person. But I'm learning to get over it. It's not that I want to be phony. It's that I've realized that 90% of the time, other people just want a quick acknowledgment that you know they exist. It's less draining to give it to them than to get irritated with them. It's still draining, but that's my (our?) lot in life.

Because I'm such a literal person, when someone says, "How are you doing today," I feel like I HAVE to give them an honest, detailed answer. And part of my irritation stems from the fact that I don't want to. The funny thing is that -- most of the time -- they don't want me to, either. They just want a verbal handshake: "I'm fine. How are you?"

It's alien to me, and sometimes if I'm conscious of the fact that it's alien, I can pretend to be an "anthropologist on Mars," and that makes it easier.

2. Avoid. This sort of flies in the face of my first suggestion, and it may not be the best strategy for personal growth. But when I'm feeling really anti-social, I avoid people. And I've developed all sorts of strategies for doing that. I actively search for places (at work, etc.) where I can be alone and accessories that say "I'm being private right now" (iPod, big book, etc.).

I've gradually come to feel that it's unfair for me to be private in a public place. In an old job, when I was a teacher, I used to read novels in the teachers' lounge, during my lunch break. I would get constantly irritated by the fact that people kept trying to talk to me. ("Can't they see I'm READING?")

After a while, I realized that their desire to talk to me was a "force of nature." It was stupid to keep getting mad at it, because it was never going to change. All getting mad was doing was draining my energy. Talkative people want to talk and they assume that you want to talk, too. It may be fair or unfair. It's the way things work.

So from then on, I either stayed in the lounge and talked or found another place to go. Someplace I could really be alone.

3. About your boss going off on a tangent: nothing irritates me as much as this. I have a very linear mind, and it's agonizing trying to have a conversation with someone who's more "stream of consciousness." I haven't totally solved this, but I do have two strategies that help:

a. if I have something important to get across, I write it down. I know that I might get derailed by the tangents. I accept that. I say to myself, "I'm going to try to bring up X, but if we get derailed, that's okay. I'll bring X up later." Then, when the derail happens, I just silently give up X. X is no longer what the conversation is about. That's annoying, but it's less annoying that standing there, waiting and waiting for the conversation to get back on track. Later, I email the person and say, "when we were talking before, I meant to bring up X..."

b. I let the tangent person lead the conversation. This is much easier than trying to force him to converse in a linear way, which he can't or won't do. Again, it's a "force of nature." The topic of conversation is whatever he's talking about at the moment. If I thought it was something else, I was wrong. I give up on it.

Many of my strategies involve "giving in" to another form of communication. I used to feel like "why should I be the one to give in?" But I'm answered that question to my own satisfaction: because when I don't give in, things just get worse. And I wind up being more upset than when I give in.

I don't give in all the time. I expect loved ones and close friends to meet me halfway. But at work, on the subway, etc., I pick my battles.
posted by grumblebee at 9:05 AM on May 14, 2007 [6 favorites]

I've got this problem, too.

At work, when faced with this situation, I try to encode the message "I'm too busy to talk" in a way that doesn't upset people. My usual approach is to say that I have a lot of work in the queue, but I'll get back to them as soon as I'm free. In the same vein, I might say that I've got a pressing project which really needs some attention before I can focus on something else. For managers, I might start talking about the status of various projects to bring their train of thought back to the work at hand (or bore them enough that they leave me alone with it).

It's pretty easy to be dismissive to others if you don't know them, so this is probably a greater issue when in public. Imagining things from the other person's perspective might help you deal with these situations.

Personally, I still find it really difficult to disengage from unwanted conversation with strangers in public, but the same principle as above might work. Just apologize and tell them that you're too stressed out to talk much right now. In either case, the idea is to let them down easy or re-direct their attention in a positive way.
posted by Kikkoman at 9:09 AM on May 14, 2007

Sometimes people want to talk to me for reasons that are about them and not about me. Realizing that whatever interaction we have is not supposed to necessarily be beneficial to me but to the social mechanism as a whole gives me the impetus to try to soldier through what is really likely to only be a minute or two of extra conversation. So I switch it from feeling like "MUST BE FRIENDLY" [where I feel somewhat restricted and annoyed] to "MUST ACT DECENT AND BE HELPFUL" which is easier. I'd rather be helpful than friendly. That is, there is a certain amount of grace involved in being in social situations that, if you ran the world, you would run differently. I like the idea of being graceful, so I try to do my part. My little mantra is that I am the smiling buddha and I can endure any terrible social situation for a few minutes. After that, I beg off politely and move on leaving the world no worse for wear.

There's also the standard buddhist approach (clumsily paraphrased by me) of just doing your bit to make sure you don't increase the net amount of sorrow in the world and I've found that to be a decent guideline. Other things that can help with friendly muscles are sort of basic but worth repeating

- smile - even if you feel churlish on the inside, try to appear pleasant. Many people will appreciate that effort and they read signals as much as language, so saying "hey I'm busy but I'd love to talk later" [if true] is much easier to handle when the person saying it seems friendly about it
- body language - if you've decided to give that person that 90 seconds of attention, do it right. turn to them, stop reading your email or book, uncross your arms, and really make the time count. This goes a long way to people feeling they're being listenend to and makes you seem less standoffish.
- irritability - think about whether you're just irritable and whether that's something you can do something about. If you're a heavy caffeine user think about that. If you exercise ramp it up some. If you don't eat well and you're always in borderline blood sugar trouble, deal with that. Once I realized that some of my negative responses to people happeend when I wasn't taking decent care of myself, it became easier to deal with that aprt of it. Plus, exercise enough and you'll be so exhausted all you can do it sit and listen sometimes.

I find that this sort of small-talker approach thing happens to me a lot. I have an open and interested face and some people just like to pass the time idly talking to strangers about nothing. I had to make a bit of an effort to show that I was NOT that person (book, ipod, pointed staring in other direction) which felt weird to me but did really help. And sometimes you just have to say, especially to strangers "I really don't feel like talking right now" and leave it at that.
posted by jessamyn at 9:17 AM on May 14, 2007 [13 favorites]

Not to take away from grumblee's excellent and well-thought out comment, but I experience this tendency towards curtness all the time, myself, and I do not have Asperger's. I suffer from a condition known as "being occupied." Some people just get a bit more into the zone when they are in it -- it's hard to break out of it, and the distraction is unwanted at best, an irritation and derail at worst.

Unfortunately, you can't act as you naturally tend to in these situations and not be That Asshole. I deal with this by taking a second before responding to gather myself (so that I don't snap), and, if I'm just busy or stressed, say early in the conversation (or even right away) "I'm sorry, I don't want to be rude -- I'm just in the middle of something right now. Can I check in with you later?" Here's the magic trick it's taken me a while to learn in various contexts: people generally deal very well if you actually verbalize your issue. I don't mean to be flip -- it really did take me a long time to figure that out and actually apply it, rather than just trying to manage my own stress or anxiety or unhappiness all internally without ever letting anyone know I was bothered.

As for small-talkers on the ferry, I utilize the one-word answer or the mp3 player. Alternately, I try very hard to remember that I can either improve or worsen someone's day simply by my reaction, and I make an effort to be nice. Sometimes by being friendly and open, I improve my own mood, and it's all good.

The only way to be a "better person" and not be rude or dismissive is by doing it, really. It takes effort sometimes (I'm a natural introvert, so I do sympathize), but each little interaction you have with another person is an opportunity to be the kind of person you want to be. And you're right to use the idea of "friendly muscles" -- the more practice you have, the less difficult it is.
posted by tigerbelly at 9:20 AM on May 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

big smile. gently ease your boss back to the topic at hand by asking a question about it. ("oh, can we go back to X for a second? it just occurred to me that...")

with chatty co-workers: "[oh my/really/how funny/i'm so sorry]! let me come by when i'm done with this so i can hear the whole story."

if you're not busy, i would again smile and ask questions. sometimes things that are not interesting become more interesting when you decide to get engaged, even if the topic has no appeal. in the same vein, acting friendly actually can help you feel friendlier.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:20 AM on May 14, 2007

Wow, preview. Seconding Jessamyn's excellent response. This is pretty much exactly how I approach it when I am thinking about it (rather than just reacting, and trying to get away from the chatter).
posted by tigerbelly at 9:23 AM on May 14, 2007

Particularly when it comes to interactions with strangers like your chatty ferry buddy, I derive much of my patience from a loyalty to a sort of karma. The value in being a nicer, more generous person is worth more to that person than it costs me.

Workplace etiquette is a whole 'nother story, because there's precedent and politics to consider. I'll allow myself to relax for a minutes and just chat. But to extricate myself, I notice the time and defer to my schedule (Yeow! I wanted to get the bobbity-boo all straight before lunch so that I'm ready when it's time to bip -- sorry, you'll have to 'scuse me) and raincheck the conversation.

And smile briefly and look them in the eye, which makes almost anything you say "read" as genuine and friendly. Conversely, averting your tough, because it's natural to avert your gaze to try to prevent engagement. But remember that the other person is already invested, and your averted eyes feel like rejection. Risking that moment of direct acknowledgement wins in the long run. (And lets me get that sort of interaction back into context for that karma-esque thing, above.)

I'm wickedly sarcastic and snarky in appropriate circumstances, though. You gotta get it out somehow.
posted by desuetude at 9:24 AM on May 14, 2007

You are missing opportunities to learn more about the lives that directly abut your own, who have the greatest capacity to provide you with information and observations about life that have any bearing on your own.

Even if you can't bring yourself to really believe it, conduct yourself as though human interaction is more important than any secondary thing you have going on. You'll generally find that conduct to be self-affirming, instead of it affirming your other priorities.

People are interesting. If they aren't demonstrating it sufficiently, then all you have to do is ask them a few questions to bring it out of them.
posted by hermitosis at 9:27 AM on May 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

For heaven's sake, if you're an a$$hole, embrace it. If people keep coming back, then that's their choice. My theory is that people like being dumped on.

If you want to nicely send them on their way, there's nothing wrong with an assertive, "Off you go." It really sounds like you want to discourage other folks from approaching you. Any behavioralist will tell you that extinction is the best method (ignore the unwanted behavior and it will go away).

Another way to exercise your friendly muscles is to see if the 'offenders' are up for a drink after work. Then you can use alcohol to loosen up and also drive home the point in a sublte way that you're at work to work.
posted by valentinepig at 9:54 AM on May 14, 2007

When I find myself at the end of my rope, I try to turn things around: assume that everyone else in the world is enlightened, or a saint, or whatever similar thing fits in your worldview, and the stupid things they're doing are all trying to teach me something -- and it's up to me to figure out what.
posted by mendel at 10:02 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go slightly against the grain here...

First of all, I have this problem too and I definitely do not have Asperger's. In fact, I consider myself to be a highly social person. But...I also tend to really get "in the zone" when I am deeply involved in some work or project and it really really bothers me when someone interrupts me at these times - especially when it is clear they just want to engage in idle chatter. I know I've been snappy and rude.

When this has happened with coworkers, I smile, respond to what they're asking...but *keep on working*. Usually after a few seconds they'll shrug their shoulders and say "Oh, I see you're busy. I'll catch you later." I pause, turn to them and say "Oh yeah. thanks. sorry about that. Catch you later."

Here's the key: I do this to everybody. At first people take it personally.. Man, that Vacapinta guy doesn't like me.... but once they get into back-office chatter they realize that I do that to everybody. And so its me, my problem, my personality quirk. not them.

After a week, people stop coming to me to idly chatter. And - this is important - when I socialize with them and am not otherwise engaged, they have my complete attention.
posted by vacapinta at 10:11 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am very much how you describe yourself. If I'm in that zone and someone interrupts me its like a shock to my entire nervous system. I attribute it to the super concentration that is the other side of what has been named ADD (Whole nother subject but calling it a disorder irks the shit out of me. I think it is what makes me particularly good at doing certain things. I only take the medication to make it easier for other people to deal with me. I'm perfectly happy with my "disorder".) If I'm far enough in the zone and someone interrupts I sometimes react like I've been attacked. Fortunately for me I've been working with many of my co-workers for 10 to 20 years and they think of it as "carbolic being carbolic". Afterwards I usually wander by their office and apologize and everythings good. Apologies, when they are sincere, are wonderful and powerful things.
posted by Carbolic at 10:27 AM on May 14, 2007

How do you remain friendly and patient with people?

Honestly, I keep remembering that I'm not THAT important and that another human being may have more urgent needs at the moment.

It's taken me about 15 years to master this, but it's time well spent.

Also, closing the door on your office helps. If you don't have a door, then I often keep working as people are talking and I let them know I'm super busy, but I'm willing to listen. People seem ok with this and often just want to vent or talk. I just to push people away, but I found that constantly doing that meant they would stay away, even for important stuff.

Also, by doing this, I could pull the "I'm super busy and can't talk/listen now" card more easily, 'cause hey, he usually talks/listens so if he can't now, he really must be busy.

Does anyone else struggle with wanting to be friendly, but not having the energy or constitution to consistently be friendly? How do I build up my friendly muscles?

You sound like an introvert. If so, that means that you need some time alone to recharge your batteries and that interacting with others often uses energy. Once I recognized this in myself, work stuff like what you describe became MUCH easier? Because I knew I could wander off a few minutes or go off to lunch or at the end of the day, I'd get my recharge time, so I was willing to to interact, knowing with a few adjustments on my part. If I knew a long day was coming, I'd make time for a long lunch. If the day was suddenly going to help and I was faced with a long day, shrug, it would end eventually and since I'm not working on nuclear bombs, no one was going to die.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:28 AM on May 14, 2007

fake it til you make it. smile, grit your teeth, and bear it for a few precious seconds of your day. honestly, people just want to be acknowledged in this world and a few social pleasantries can go a long way towards making the work place nicer. (particularly if you might need *their* help or attention at some point.)

otoh, if you really can't be interrupted right then, offer to catch up on water-cooler talk another time. say, "sorry, i hate to interrupt you, but i'm on a tight schedule at the moment - you know how it is! but i'm free for lunch, let's catch up then."

then do it.
posted by wayward vagabond at 10:34 AM on May 14, 2007

I enjoy interacting with other people up to a point, but I find that I need to have a fair bit of time to myself to balance that out. When I'm thrown into a situation where I need to constantly interact with others, I enjoy it less and less, and eventually end up snapping at people if it goes on long enough.

You have to play nice with your boss, and, to a certain extent, your coworkers. Get away for a bit on your break if that helps, maybe you can go for a walk or find a quiet spot out of the office. You don't need to interact with people on the ferry if you don't feel like it that day. Try mirrored sunglasses, headphones, and a book.
posted by yohko at 12:23 PM on May 14, 2007

Ask your GP, (s)he'll know.
posted by PuGZ at 3:01 AM on May 15, 2007

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