Let's speak about unspoken competencies
June 10, 2007 9:13 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to learn unspoken competencies, such as all the unspoken rules of socializing?

When I was an adolescent, I scarfed down self-help books, and was always real quick at learning a theory about something and then applying myself. As a result, I became good at business real fast, and also mastered the academic environment.

However, while I had extreme successes in academics and business (relative to my age), my social life has always been sub-par to me. I'm often characterized as being a loner. And it's not for lack of trying. I've always tried to improve the way I socialize, but it's never helped, and in fact has had the opposite effect, making me too artificial and mechanical in my approach.

Mastering artifice is no problem, which is why I'm good at problem-solving and business.

I read about Sternberg's Triarchic Theory of Intelligences, and one of them is "practical intelligence" or "contextual intelligence" which involves learning unspoken lessons by reading cues off other people.

I used to HAVE an anti-social mindset, and would harbor the typically angsty, Catcher-in-the-Rye-style attitudes such as "everybody is phony" or "people are mindless cows." Lately, I've been trying to give ordinary people the benefit of the doubt, and see if maybe I'm obtuse for not appreciating the importance of simple things like "fitting in" as not a weakness but as a way of "being pro-social."

I have friends who have one leg in the analytical side and another in the unspoken side, and talking these things out with them is good because they can translate one language into the other. For example, a good conversation I had was:

Me: "If I really were to be authentic, my hairstyle would be really really crazy, and my clothes, they'd be all black, but not quite goth, but this and that..."
Friend: "Look, I used to want to do that, but I realized that dressing too different from other people makes them uncomfortable."
Me: "Oh, yeah. Right"

I can hear the groan in the background, "yeah, that's common sense." If so, then I'm lacking it. How do I get more of those conversations or "ah-hah" moments. Platitudes such as "be yourself" or "go with the flow" don't teach me anything.
posted by philosophistry to Human Relations (33 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
You're trying too hard. Seriously, I could overthink a plate of beans (hi, mefi!) and I've often had the love/hate relationship with socializing you mention, and

What you want is to take an active interest in other people. Not to create an impression, or to somehow fit into a group, or be "authentic." If you listen to others, find out what makes them happy, and ask them about it, they will take an interest in you as well.

Being yourself doesn't mean creating a persona, or following whatever someone else does conversationally. It means that you find other people interesting for who they are and discover or refine your own interests by branching out.
posted by mikeh at 9:21 AM on June 10, 2007

Response by poster:
What you want is to take an active interest in other people. Not to create an impression, or to somehow fit into a group, or be "authentic." If you listen to others, find out what makes them happy, and ask them about it, they will take an interest in you as well.
You're right. You can make more friends in two weeks being genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years trying to get others interested in you. You know where I learned that from? Dale Carnegie in the 8th grade. And that method works. It could be my attitudes and interests. Maybe I'm just not interested in other people. I feel kind of elitist sometimes, and have been accused of being aloof. I have trained myself to be curious about other people since reading Carnegie, but I think I need something larger, more holistic. For example, I'm curious about others, but then I follow that up with being critical of them and judging them.

I wonder if I just need to somehow go through a conversion where I realize a very simple thing, "the importance of being liked."
posted by philosophistry at 9:28 AM on June 10, 2007

You can't really learn "practical consciousness" through discursive means. But you can approach an analytic understanding, which is where Pierre Bourdieu's work is especially revealing, especially 'Outline of a Theory of Practice" . Since that is an impenetable thicket to jump straight into, try reading this book alongside it - a Bourdieu for Almost Dummies.

I would caution though, that learning too much about this from an analytic perspective can be crippling. I remember reading a book on human body language as a kid, and it still clicks me into analytical mode when someone crosses their arms during conversation. This meta-awareness can be socially crippling. So practicing "social practice" would actually be better than trying to understand it.
posted by Rumple at 9:38 AM on June 10, 2007

For example, I'm curious about others, but then I follow that up with being critical of them and judging them.

Do you fear that people are judging you in a negative manner, or are critical of you? My guess is that you do feel this way.

Try to relax. Maybe you have some self-esteem issues to work on. As you get older you'll realize that we all have our issues and no one is perfect. Be grateful for the friends you have and even more grateful for the new friends you meet. We all judge and make assumptions, but try not to be so harsh. Be easy on people and yourself.

I'm not sure I answered your question very well, but it's what came to mind.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:43 AM on June 10, 2007

Wow, interesting question. You are obviously bright, articulate, and I bet pretty interesting to talk to. The subtleties of social interaction can really only be learned by having social interaction. You do well with analytical and practical ideas, but you are probably missing the subtle clues that can direct you to more successful interactions.

You already have a taken a good first step by giving people the benefit of the doubt. Like you, I often have those moments where I think "Everyone is so STUPID!!!!!" But I try to keep an open mind, and to also understand that I don't have to like everyone. But I may have to talk to a lot of people I don't like, or who don't like me, in order to find the ones I do get along with.

Some stream of consciousness tips/ideas:

-Ask questions. Don't be afraid to have a rehearsed list of questions. It doesn't make you phony, it makes you prepared. If you know what kinds of people you might be mingling with, you can prepare more specific questions. Rehearse them in your mind. Don't just ask "fact" questions, but also "opinion" questions, without being too controversial. If you find yourself talking to someone with a certain level of expertise, ask questions with the intent of learning from them. People always like talking about what they know. The subtlety comes in knowing how to stop short of seeming like you are sucking information from them, versus exhibiting genuine curiosity and respect for their knowledge.

-When the other person is answering, give eye contact but without staring them down. Nod your head as they talk to show you are interested. But along the lines of subtlety, if you nod TOO vigorously, or TOO often, it will be taken a sign of impatience instead of interest, like you are implying "get on with it."

-Find commonality. If the other person shares a story, share a common story which builds empathy. Like everything else, this requires balance; it has to be done to show connection, not to "one-up" the other person's story.

-Have a casual dinner party, and invite some people you already know, but also make it a goal to invite a certain number of new acquaintances. Depending on the culture where you are, you might find that a "drop in" party is a good bet. People can show up any time, and leave any time. Casual food and drinks will be available during the whole event, instead of serving food at a specific hour. Make it clear that they can show up any time between (say) 6 and 8, and leave after 10 minutes, or stay as long as they want. This allows people a level of comfort since they won't feel like they have to stay for hours even if they don't feel comfortable. It gives them an easy out to be able to say "I can just stay a few minutes." If they have a good time, they will stay.

-Keep in mind that fitting in is not the same as conforming. Caring about people means you help them to feel welcome, you respect their ideas whether you agree or not, and you listen to their opinions, no matter what your own are. When you do this, you will find that others will afford you the same courtesy.

-Someone here on the green once said something like: "Be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone is fighting a battle." I think that's good advice. We are all just people with weaknesses, and struggles, and needs.

-Be determined to learn from those you disagree with. You already know what YOU think. Learn what they think.

As you can see, there are so many things in social interactions that have a balancing point. Going so far is good, but going over that point tips the balance into making things uncomfortable and works against you. Which brings me to my last point for now:

-Tune in to body language! Some people are better than others at this. But it can be learned. I don't agree with those who think certain responses ALWAYS mean something specific. But in general, pay attention and learn how to change your tactics and conversation based on the subtle responses. If you are telling a story, and the other person (or people) start to appear antsy or their eyes wander off, or the smiles leave, then cut it short. Don't just stop and stare, but say something like, "Anyway, it ended up that I spilled wine all over my shirt!" And turn the floor over to someone else, or ask someone a question.

You can do it, because you are showing you want to. Just get out as much as you can, and you will learn by doing. You will screw up, and embarrass yourself, and say dumb things, but that's how you will learn what works. Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 9:57 AM on June 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster:
You can't really learn "practical consciousness" through discursive means
This is totally a recursive problem. Maybe a meta-problem. I don't think a self-help book exists for this, and that may have to do with the structure of the problem.

Asking on metafilter may be part of the problem.
posted by philosophistry at 10:04 AM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: Lots of great advice here!

I'm very much like you, philosophistry. Besides being shy and introverted (or maybe because I'm shy and introverted), I've spent several decades holed up with books and an inquiring mind. I'm not smarter than most of the people I meet (though I can fool myself into thinking that I am), but I tend to be more informed and more in the habit of thinking critically. When I'm out with people -- even at a casual bar or party -- what I really want to do is to talk to them about philosophy or literature or history or religion.

But even if I'm lucky enough to find someone who wants to talk about this stuff, I usually find that unlike me, they haven't been living in a cave for years. They've may be seriously interested in the same topics as me, but since they've been spending some of their time doing healthy things, like outdoor-activities or spending-time-with-family, their thinking on the subject at hand is more basic than mine, and I have to sit through a lot of banal thoughts, intellectual grasping and logical errors.

But a couple of years ago, I started to wonder why it was that I could so easily relate to characters in novels and films. These characters could be totally different from me. For instance, I can watch "The Sopranos" and feel like the characters on it are my buddies, even though I'm an over-educated nerd and they're working-class gangsters. Why is it so easy to relate to different sorts of people in fiction, but not in real life?

Then it hit me that fiction almost always focuses on relationships. Relationships are the great levelers. It really makes no difference whether you're an Oxford scholar or a gas station attendant: you've still fought with your parents, had fun with your friends, pursued sex and love, felt lonely, etc. And though the broad strokes are similar for almost everyone, the specifics are unique for each person. And the Oxford scholar, with all his learning, is just as likely to be in a fucked up marriage as the gas-station guy.

So I'm trying -- and you should try to -- to get better at talking to people about their relationships. It's something pretty much everyone wants to talk about. Even the guy who has never had a girlfriend wants to talk about the fact that he's never had a girlfriend. People spend so much time thinking about their relationships that they can surprise you with their insight and sometimes their poetic way for talking.

This is such a basic piece of advice that most people do it without thinking. Most people went through elementary school and high school talking about fights with their parents, who was dating whom, etc. But some of us socially-backward folk didn't do that as much. And we need to force ourselves to start.
posted by grumblebee at 10:22 AM on June 10, 2007 [21 favorites]

Best answer: I read your question this way - you're shy, you don't know how to make friends, and you are asking for help. Is that correct? If not, then read no further as it will be of no use to you.

I don't think you can master the subtleties of effective human interaction by reading a book. Sure, you can learn how to present yourself and how to focus on other people's needs and wants and play to them for the sake of getting their business, or having them come 'round to your way of thinking on a subject, or getting their vote, etc. But what you're talking about is genuine connection and resonance with others and feeling at ease with yourself in the process for its own sake. You want friendship, dude. We all want interaction with other people. That's our nature, for the most part.

Dogs don't sniff each other's assholes at first meeting because it says to do so in the manual. We're animals - we size each other up non-verbally all the time unconciously. The trick, though, is we have to be open in our interactions with others in order to read the cues they're sending us. It sounds to me like you're not reading the cues you're undoubtedly being sent because you're too wrapped up in how you're coming across, whether or not you're being listened to, what some else's motivations are with relation to you, etc. Well, in my experience, what is actually profound shyness and vulnerability can be read as abject self-absorption. As animals, we sense when people aren't listening to us, think we're "ordinary" or common, and are passing judgment on us when we're casually chatting by the buffet table. When that happens, we find someone else to talk to.

To put it bluntly, I think you need to cut the crap. Try this - the next time you're at a party and someone approaches you and says, "Hi, how's it going?", tell them the truth. Say, "Well, I don't really feel at ease in large groups. I'm pretty shy, actually." You might be surprised at their response. What most people respond to is candor and vulnerability - openness. Unless they're a real jerk, no one's going to respond to that statement by saying, "God, what a freak! Get the fuck away from me!" Instead of sending the message that you're more intelligent, more interesting and above it all, you'll send the message that you're human. People like that. With the ice broken, both parties are then free to be as fascinating and intelligent as both undoubtedly are.

If you find yourself judging the person while they're speaking to you, ask yourself, "If I make this judgment, will I have short-circuited the potential to learn something from this person?" If your answer is "no", then go ahead and leave the conversation. If that makes you feel even more lonely and outside of things, try again. And then again. Until the answer to that question is an unequivocal "yes".
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:23 AM on June 10, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster:
Most people went through elementary school and high school talking about fights with their parents, who was dating whom, etc. But some of us socially-backward folk didn't do that as much. And we need to force ourselves to start.
This is an interesting perspective. Growing up, I never really talked about relationships like other people do. When I tried to figure out what normal people do when they're just around shooting the shit, is that they talk about everybody else's business. I'm a nerd, I'm more interested in things, concepts. Other people are more interested in "he said, she said."
It sounds to me like you're not reading the cues you're undoubtedly being sent because you're too wrapped up in how you're coming across, whether or not you're being listened to, what some else's motivations are with relation to you, etc.
I think this also digs into specific reasons why this is a recursive or attention-reactive problem. The more you focus on these analyses, the less you can pay attention to the dynamic, in-the-moment lessons that fly at you a hundred times a day.
posted by philosophistry at 10:34 AM on June 10, 2007

You can't really learn "practical consciousness" through discursive means

This is totally a recursive problem

No offense, but do you know the meaning of discursive? It is not an antonym to "recursive" and your response to that statement is a non sequitur.

Anyway, two things:

1) Notice how many of the posts here say, in substance, that you just have to go out and do it rather than sitting at home thinking about it. I would add that if you have any friends who are pretty good at this, and they have the patience to explain things to you in the context of social interactions, while things are going on, spend a lot more time with them.

2) Your need to respond to, and generally fight with, every post is indicative of part of the problem: no one likes a smarty pants who has to show how wrong everyone is all the time. Especially when what you say isn't even any more insightful (see "discursive" comment above). When someone tells you "try to be interested in people," why do you have to come back with "yeah yeah I tried that and people aren't interesting"?

I'm frankly flabbergasted by the idea that everyone you meet is less interesting than sitting around by yourself, to the extent that you would dismiss that advice out of hand. People don't have to be Nobel Prize winners to be interesting, you know; maybe someone you know has a thing for the violin and you could talk about that. Or comic books. Whatever. They don't have to rock your world in order to support a casual interaction. Lower your expectations. Relax.
posted by rkent at 10:39 AM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @rkent

This is totally recursive, and kind of funny. Because you, rkent, just caught me doing precisely what I talked about not doing. I was more interested in analyzing this problem and teasing out critical thinking than being sensitive to mikeh's suggestion. By caring about analysis more than the ebb and flow of the emotions of people here, I have missed the point.

My interpretation of discursive is that it's similar to discussion. The definition only alludes to that though, and talks about it being "rambling." So, I guess I'm being loose with words. But basically it's recursive because the problem definition is, "how do we discuss a topic that isn't discussable."

However, being more recursive here again, I'm picking up on your anger, and also TryTheTilapia's. An unchairitable assessment is that you guys just don't like someone who is opening up about his social weaknesses, and that you should "STFU and get out." Maybe a chairitable assessment is that sitting around whining about poor social skills on an Internet forum is really unhelpful to oneself, and that you're just urgently telling me to quit it.
posted by philosophistry at 10:53 AM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: Your need to respond to, and generally fight with, every post is indicative of part of the problem: no one likes a smarty pants who has to show how wrong everyone is all the time.

I don't read his responses that way at all; he seems to me to be engaging in conversation, providing feedback, trying to clarify for himself and others what the problem is. And I don't think he was contrasting "recursive" to "discursive"; he was using "recursive" in its normal sense, and it just happened to come after a quoted sentence in which the other word was used. There are times when it's useful to slap the poster around a little; this isn't one of them. Maybe you should relax.

To the poster: My experience (as someone who grew up bookish, introspective, and shy) is that once you get to know most people, they really are interesting; they have their own unique experiences, areas of knowledge, and insights, and you can get a lot more from them than the primitive mutual-back-scratching "socializing" you seem to be talking about. But you can't just dive right into that stage—frustrating as it is, you have to actually get to know them, and that involves getting past the artifice of the social situation. One technique is alcohol, as meehawl suggests; another is cutting the crap, as TryTheTilapia says. Different approaches work for different people. But the important thing is to try to eradicate that ingrained feeling of "I'm smarter/better than these simple people" that comes with the territory of being bookish, introspective, and shy. You're (we're) really not; it's a matter of different ways of being human and different kinds of complexity and intelligence. Give others the benefit of the doubt, lubricate your approaches with straight talk, humility, and perhaps a little booze, and you should find matters improving rapidly.
posted by languagehat at 10:56 AM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: philosophistry, you're too intelligent for your own good, my friend. This isn't the worst problem to have, just a particularly frustrating one. Really, there's nothing wrong with being more interested in concepts and things than people. If you're hard-wired for that, so be it. But I don't think you'd be asking this question if you didn't find your relationships consistently "sub-par", as you say. I don't think you'd make that assessment if you were satisfied being "aloof" or "elitist".

Social interaction, in large part, is not a rational, concious process that requires breaking things down constantly into "problem" and "solution to problem". Having a couple of beers with somebody and chatting about inconsequential shit doesn't happen in the abstract - it happens in real-time, and it's dynamic and unpredictable. It's sometimes uncomfortable and often completely illogical. That's because, I think, relating ain't rational - it's emotional, instinctive, reptilian.

Let me ask you this - what do you think would happen to you if you got that crazy haircut you want and dressed not-quite-goth, etc.? What's preventing you from taking that step toward thinking of yourself as "authentic" and looking at other people similarly?
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:07 AM on June 10, 2007

Response by poster: @TryTheTilapia ... I hear that on the reptilian part of it. Yeah, maybe I'm just too attuned to the rational side of things, and even if I could have all the social interaction I wanted, I'd just be completey bored chatting with lizards. In which case I should try to cope with my situation, find someone of the opposite sex who's a nerd like me, and cherish the limited number of friends that I do have.

Yeah, I should have mentioned that I did get that crazy haircut, and dressed like a maniac for a while, and it was awesome and terrifying at the same time. My core friends didn't leave me. But yeah, it was hell going to class like that. My social anxiety went through the roof, and so I dropped that push after a semester (it coincided with that conversation I alluded too earlier, that dressing like others makes ppl more comfortable).
posted by philosophistry at 11:16 AM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: Okay, fair enough, philosophistry. FWIW, I'm a nerd and so is my SO. We're each a nerd of a different stripe from the other, so we compliment each other well. So know that there's hope for you, too, on that score.

When I say "reptilian", I'm sure you know I'm talking about that part of us which is completely driven by our basic needs - food, self-protection, sex, etc. I would also in this case add social acceptance to that list.

So, based on your last response, you do have friends who value you and whom you value. Really, then, you don't have nearly the problem you might think you do. As you go on in life, I encourage you to embrace either the "fuck you, you don't like my haircut" or the "so, what exactly is it that you hate about my haircut, brother?" schools of thought. There are many others in between and beyond, of course.

(Oh, and for what's it worth, I have no anger towards you. But you should know that I find arrogance off-putting and annoying. Perhaps I judged you unfairly initially and for that, I apologize. As a human animal, I instinctively reacted to that in your question and acted consciously in my original response to draw your attention to your tone. And it worked, no? So, score one for both of us - I made my point and you picked up on it. You're further along than you give yourself credit for. Insert annoying smiley-face here.)
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:32 AM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: Well, let's see. I'm like you in that I see my self as somehow objectively different than most people. Yesterday I asked my wife "So, what do normal people talk about? I mean they never analyze anything. So what do they have to say?" (She, God bless her, didn't roll her eyes.) Unlike you I'm a totally social person, who can't stand to be alone. For instance, I have zero trouble talking to strangers at parties and often make friends that way. Weird huh?

Here is something that helps me out when I want to socialize. I realized a while back that I every single person knows a whole lot of things that I don't. They are all experts in their fields and hobbies. So, I ask a few probing questions to figure out what their jobs or interests are, then I just ask them about it. It's fascinating the kinds of things you'll learn. I've gotten all sorts of great cooking tips, police stories, dog stories that sort of thing. Just yesterday I was talking to a physicist at a party and learned some neat stuff about gravity. (It might not be a force at all!)

The best thing about it is that I'm just learning all the time, it's like the world is a huge classroom and even the people who seem, at first, to be dim witted or dull are often pretty darn good teachers (and thus interesting people) when you give them a chance to really shine.
posted by oddman at 11:58 AM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @oddman..

Hmm, well to step back a bit, I think mikeh and Carnegie are right in that if you're genuinely interested in people, then voila. And it can't be faked, there has to be a real interest. You're suggesting a way in which I can possibly re-invigorate my interest in others, maybe by nerding-out with them about things they know about. Which is an interesting suggestion. I think early on, growing up, I learned to mistrust others and since then I haven't given people a chance. Maybe if I get that genuine interest in others, then I'm sure an interest in the unspoken cues will follow naturally.
posted by philosophistry at 12:09 PM on June 10, 2007

I'll tell you what I wish I could have told myself five years ago. Don't take it too personally.

You're broken. All your aggrandizing "smarter-than-thou" bullshit is both obviously false and counterproductive. Discard your protective cocoon of insufferable arrogance and take every opportunity to have functioning people teach you how to behave.

Personal communication is mostly nonverbal. In cases of smalltalk, it's entirely nonverbal. Pay attention. "Ordinary" people are conveying information on levels you don't understand.

Finally, it's not about you. Don't try to make it be.
posted by Ictus at 2:16 PM on June 10, 2007 [4 favorites]

Apropos of this, I received a surprising email from a rather familiar poster lambasting me for encouraging "binge drinking" in impressionable youths, and added that alcoholism was no joke.

For the record, I have not drunk alcohol for just under 20 years (except for a special 1-night premeditated indulgence on my 30th birthday to satisfy the curiosity of some friends). However, I did indulge heavily, and happily, for several years prior to my 18th birthday.

Lest this be seen as hypocritical, I do believe that alcohol was instrumental in facilitating some of my transition from a socially phobic, callow youth into something more closely approximating a socialised individual. There were, of course, other factors, but I cannot deny the useful influence of alcohol at that time. When I judged that its benefits no longer outweighed its drawbacks, I ceased to partake. However, possibly because of my Dublin acculturation, I find that the convivial atmosphere of a pub can be one of the sublime expressions of sociality. USian bars though, for the most part, strike me as sub-optimal social spaces (although this may simply reflect a lack of specific cultural nous on my part).

Of course, SSRIs were unavailable then. Had they been, I may have gone that route. In any case, my advice remains the same. I'd modify it, however, to say that one should drink heavily, but not to dangerous excess, and that intake should be moderated to facilitate and not to retard social intercourse.
posted by meehawl at 2:29 PM on June 10, 2007

This may totally not be your kind of thing, and if so please completely ignore this. Metta or lovingkindness meditation is supposed to instill a more compassionate attitude towards others (as well as yourself). Resources here and here.

FWIW, I have similar sorts of problems, and this has been on my todo list for a while, but I haven't really tried it yet, so I can't say much about whether it really works.

Have you perhaps you have read Social Intelligence and Never Eat Alone? They're on my to-read list too...
posted by DarkForest at 2:49 PM on June 10, 2007

This vaguely reminds me of myself. I'm a bit more naturally interested in people, and less skilled socially (I've avoided self-help books due to my tendency to overanalyze, actually). Here's some random thoughts:

Small amounts of alcohol DO help. Getting actually drunk has NOT helped me out in social situations. When I actually get drunk, I just get really loud for a while, and then get really tired and non-communicative. However, a drink or 2 is just enough to break down my filters, and allow me to do and say things WITHOUT thinking too much about them. I end up having a better time, and my friends do too.

The elitism can be worked around, and really does need to be before you can truly enjoy being social. I think the root of it, at least for me, is the idea that only the things I do well are important. I grew up being bad at a variety of things, so I sort of redefined my world so only the things I was good at was important. Obviously from that perspective, you start to think of everyone else as being below you. You may want to help them, or be nice to them, but the worldview taints that relationship.

It sounds like you're well on your way to expanding your worldview to include the priorities of other people, and that will only help. It turns out most people ARE interesting. They all have their own worldview, with different things that are important, different goals, different ways of getting those goals. As long as you can consider a certain goal to be valid and worth striving for, that person is worth real interest. I find gaining knowledge, excelling at a craft, expressing creativity, improving the conditions of others, and raising children to be worthwhile and intriguing life goals (among others). However, there are certain goals I just can't get myself to care about, and for those people, artifice seems to suffice.
posted by JZig at 3:21 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: People may not talk about these things, but from time to time they do write about them. I don't mean the meta level of scholarly analysis, but instead practical guides.

You mentioned you've read Dale Carnegie. Good first step - go reread him again. If you last read him at age 13, your new adult perspective has more to learn from his wisdom.

Judith Martin is my other favorite author in this category. She writes about manners, and she appreciates what so many in the self-help field fail to, "philosophistry:" that manners are a practical codification of a way to behave according to a moral system. She also understands what you need to understand - that behaving in a well-mannered fashion improves ("concretely orders," to quote my old ethics prof. Huntington Potter) your moral life.

This is why kids are taught good manners long before they are enrolled in Philosophy 101. Sounds like you didn't get it at the breakfast table, but it's not too late for you: this book and this one are available to you. You should read them.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:13 PM on June 10, 2007

I've found that books can be helpful, in that you can learn about things that you have not been noticing. This needs to be followed up with observation and experience. You can improve at this. I've worked to improve my own social skills, and have heard from close friends that this has had an effect.

You will end up with social skills that are a little bit off from the ones that people who have picked this up at an earlier age have. I'm not sure if there is a fix for this other than to keep working at it.

I'm curious about others, but then I follow that up with being critical of them and judging them.

Are you judging others for not being as smart as you? Maybe they are better at something than you are, and you could learn something from observing them ... like social skills.
posted by yohko at 10:04 PM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: Dating advice for martians.

It is ostensibly about flirting, but it will help for all sort of social functions. By martians, they mean "over-analyzers" like you, not the silly from-venus/from-mars bestseller-level duality.
posted by gmarceau at 11:19 AM on June 11, 2007

It might do you good to think about the limits of the kind of analysis you're good at. For example, in chess, if you could calculate all possible moves for the next 20 or 30 turns, you'd be unbeatable. But that isn't possible, so we simply have to use things like intuition, rules-of-thumb, etc.

Life is much less computable than chess. You can try to use your analytical brain as a simulator, executing various social rules in response to given situations, but it's not feasible in real-time. What you have to do is learn to trust your non-analytical mind.

Maybe a better metaphor is basketball. No amount of thinking will instruct you how to get the ball into the hoop. If you want to be a good shooter, you have to simply shoot over and over again. (Yes, you can analyze mechanics, etc., but even if your form is flawless, you have to turn the shot over to the non-analytical mind at some point.)

Those of us with strong analytical abilities sometimes come to depend on them at the expense of our more intuitive sides.
posted by callmejay at 11:26 AM on June 11, 2007

I've told this story before on MeFi, so I'll try to be brief. I was terrible at reading/interacting with people. Now I'm good at it. Much of my life is about being social: I teach and direct plays. I still get shy and, when I'm stressed, I forget how to interact, but in general I've solved me problem.

Like you, I have an analytical mind. I think in terms of mechanics and rules, and people constantly told me that "human interacting is not based on rules. It's instinctual!" That may be true, but I needed SOME way of connecting such a fuzzy system to my schematic mind. So I ignored the advice and pretended people were machines.

I read every book on psychology and body language I could find. I studied people as if I was a biologist and they were chimps. After a while, it paid off.

Let me be clear that you can't ultimately succeed with this mechanistic view. You have to become a "conversation artist," but I couldn't leap directly to that. I had to first learn some stuff mechanically. Once I was comfortable with that stuff, I gradually weaned myself of it, relaxed, and worked more intuitively. But even if I'd never managed to do that, I would have been better off than if I'd never made my study. A stilted, mechanical model of people is better than no model at all.

Here's a recommendation: buy and devour "Games People Play." It's a pop-psychology book from the 70s about a largely forgotten branch of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis.

In brief, TA posits that human interactions are like games. You and the person you're talking to are both trying to win something from each other. The author claims there are a finite number of such games, and that you can learn to recognize the specific game that's being played. That's a gross over-simplification, it's the basic idea. "Games People Play" is well written and fun to read, so it won't put you to sleep.

In my view, it's also incorrect. But I think it's incorrect in the sense that Newtonian Physics is incorrect. That is, it's a simplified (cartoon) version of the way people really are. Which is great for mechanics like us! And it's not 180 degrees from the truth. Think of it as describing a sim world that's similar to ours. Once you get it, start comparing it to the real world.
posted by grumblebee at 1:23 PM on June 11, 2007

Lots of people that aren't as bookish as you or I learn interaction from playing sports. I'm guessing that that boat has already left, but there's still something you can do.

Do something that exhausts you to the point that all you are aware of is physical sensation, running, breathing, moving.

Two things which are great for this are distance running and yoga.

This will put you in touch, if briefly, with the other half of you, the expressive, feeling half that you've previously only read about, and reading about it is like reading about eating a steak.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 2:53 PM on June 11, 2007

Cynical answer: If you meet an attractive woman and want to strike something up, ask her about herself. Hang on her every word. She will love you for being interested. Then ignore her completely for no reason. This will drive her crazy, and she will idolize you.

Seriously, though: Ask people about themselves. If they are parents, remember their kids' names. Ask about their family, relationships, job, etc. People love to talk about themselves.

More often than not, the other person is as nervous and insecure as you are.
posted by misha at 7:22 PM on June 11, 2007

I have a slightly different difficulty, but in some respects, I think my experience has been similar.

I have zero instinctual grasp of the social dance. And when I say zero, that's precisely what I mean. For most of my life, people may as well have been reading text in a monotone for all I got out of social interactions. I got more out of text, actually, because authors telling fiction usually describe character motivations and reactions - I didn't get any of this in real life. It was disabling in social situations - I could only respond purely to the content of what a person said, sans tone, sans facial expression, sans body language - and responded in the same way.

About the same time I entered university, I decided that this was a problem that needed fixing. I spent most of that year (when I wasn't in a lecture or studying) in a social group, based around an IRC channel. I watched the interactions on the channel at night, with smilies etc, and watched the people themselves when we met up IRL during the day, and developed mappings for emotion to actions. I worked on developing my own expression and displaying my emotions. I made some close friends aware of my efforts during this time, and asked that they critique (not critize) my efforts honestly - I needed feedback, not warm fuzzies.

It worked. But it took a year of straight effort - and even today, if I get overly emotional or stressed, it all disappears , which can be confusing. Me being silent or expressionless indicates I am focussed; whether my focus is because I'm chasing a fascinating idea, hacking on code, playing music, extremely angry, or extremely upset ... well, that's pretty industinguishable from the outside.

In addition, I really had (and have) to think on my feet, to make my responses seem 'natural'. Over time this has become more reflexive, but I never, ever say something if I haven't thought about what my facial expression and tone of voice and body language should be doing.

I guess the short response is: observe. Then practice, and get feedback from a trusted source. Yes, it may bore you silly (I found it so at some points) - but it is a skill you are learning, which is useful, and like any skill, there will be boring bits. Accept and move on.
posted by ysabet at 10:07 PM on June 11, 2007

I have zero instinctual grasp of the social dance.

Maybe trying to grasp "social" by looking at it through the "intellectual" magnifying glass is the first part of the problem.

I am not good at socializing either (painful shyness) but at least grasp that there's absolutely NO intellectualizing involved in mastering the social swim.

It's almost all intuitive and requires you to use a different part of your brain. Unfortunately, this (at first) seems impossible if you are a normally analytical type.

And stop dissecting everything. Most social interactions are inherently, deliberately superficial, at least initially - don't look for stuff that isn't going to be there.
posted by Carnage Asada at 11:39 AM on June 14, 2007

The hard part about being interested in other people is that they don't really talk about the interesting things right away. In fact, a lot of people don't even know what's interesting about them. It's just part of who they are.

More importantly, it's often the most essential part of who they are. Their hopes and dreams, successes and failures. So of course they don't want to share that with a stranger, especially because they don't think it's all that interesting anyway.

So, I recommend looking at blogs to start. There are a lot of good, interesting blogs out there, that talk about people's experiences and lives. Not the ones about economics, or chemistry, or politics, but the ones about sharing the author's experience. Teachers blog about teaching, artists blog about being a starving artist, new parents blog about family life and trying to balance work with children. It all gives an insight into what's really going on under the most mundane of facades. Reading blogs did a lot to get me genuinely interested in other people.

When you're talking to someone, a way you can deepen small talk and make it more involving is to ask, "What was the most surprising thing about...?" or "Is there anything you wish you'd known before...?" or even "When you were younger, did you think you'd end up doing...?" That way you're still learning from them, but not just learning little facts like their children's names and their dog's favorite toy. It's a lot easier to be interested when you're talking about the interesting things.
posted by Lady Li at 2:19 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Actually, there's some literature on this matter, in particular related to helping highly-functional asperger's cases. Here's an example: The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social ysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism and The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations
posted by philosophistry at 1:09 AM on September 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

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