Including yourself in exclusionary settings
November 23, 2007 11:46 AM   Subscribe

How do you include yourself in exclusionary conversations?

Recently I had dinner with my roommate and three of her co-workers, whom I've met before at their job, but don't know personally. None of the others had brought guests, so I felt very much like the outsider all night. Most of their discussion was work-related, and while they didn't talk down to me when I was asked anything, and I was able to get a few comments in, it was rather awkward the rest of the time. I don't think they saw my quiet presence as awkward, mainly because it often felt like I wasn't even there. I'd expected stuff along the lines of "So how do you like it in town," or "What's your job like?" but didn't really get it.

I sort of have the same problem on my first days at a new job, where the others will chat among themselves, talking about personal matters and such, which again make me feel left out. And then they'll wonder why I'm so quiet. Not to say that anyone was rude in these two scenarios, but I'm just not the type to throw in my 2 cents with a group of unfamiliar people. More like the typical "Once you get to know me, I can be pretty fun to talk to" introvert. But I need some rope to get there. Even with friends, I get along much more easily when there's only two or three others, rather than five or six.

The more obvious question is how to throw yourself into the chatter more when it doesn't really involve you, without feeling like you're butting in. The other is how common it is for "established" groups to not make an effort to let someone less familiar feel more welcome. I felt like if my roommate had been with me and my co-workers, I'd have been pretty darn guilty if we only talked about my job the whole time.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Human Relations (25 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Where I live, there is little inclusion of strangers into an established group. If you want in, you need a gatekeeper. Strike up a conversation on the side with someone from the larger group. If you hit it off, they'll bring you into the crowd by including you in conversation.

Also, have a couple of tried but true general conversation topics you can fall back on.
posted by LN at 11:50 AM on November 23, 2007

Familiarize yourself with some pop-culture, tv shows, music, sports, and use it to break the ice or change the subject. Sometimes folks don't know what else to talk about.

Of course if they needed a chance away from work to vent about work you have to enjoy just being a fly on the wall.
posted by MiffyCLB at 11:57 AM on November 23, 2007

Sometimes it's tough to effectively butt in to a conversation involving only people who know each other and share common ground that you don't share with them. At a party, or in any new situation, I think it might be easier to strike up a rapport with an individual or smaller group at the bar or buffet table (or at the coffee machine/water cooler at work) and then use that initial contact as a bridge to conversation with the larger group.

But you should also just be aware that in many situations people would prefer to talk with their friends with whom they have many shared experiences and lots to talk about than with someone unfamiliar.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 11:57 AM on November 23, 2007

On Preview, I realize I just re-iterated what LN said.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 11:58 AM on November 23, 2007

Personally, I wouldn't try so hard. If a group of people don't have the courtesy or interest to try and change the subject of the conversation to accomodate someone who is not part of the "group", then don't waste your time with them - besides, you risk looking too attention-starved.

I will admit though, if the topic of conversation is work or any subject that the "outsider" isn't familiar with, it is hard to include that person into the conversation. When this happens, just be cool: sit back, smile a lot, enjoy the food, listen to the gossip, and when you have had enough, excuse youself politely and confidently, and go watch TV or go to your room. People won't think less of you!

As for your colleagues at work, it always takes time to fit in - it is natural. You don't know anyone; they don't know you. In time you will fit in - just be yourself, be cool like the Fonz, and of course, be nice!
posted by bitteroldman at 12:01 PM on November 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

The other is how common it is for "established" groups to not make an effort to let someone less familiar feel more welcome.

I think it's very common, and why not? Getting to know new people is hard (as you're finding out). And why bother putting out a lot of effort to make someone feel welcome if they're not going to be a regular part of the social scene? Easier to have fun with the people you already know. For me, I deal with this issue in two ways- first, I take resposibility for making myself a part of wherever I am. It's not anyone's job to make sure I don't feel left out- I don't want to place the burden of taking care of me on anyone but me. So, I'll ask questions like the ones you mentioned- how do you like it in town, how do you like your job, tell me more of the background of this hilarious story about Mary and copy machine, etc. The other way I deal with it is not to hang out with "groups" of friends. Groupthink freaks me out, and if it seems that nobody in a group wants to meet new people, then I don't bother.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:03 PM on November 23, 2007 [4 favorites]

From Captain Lavender: "But you should also just be aware that in many situations people would prefer to talk with their friends with whom they have many shared experiences and lots to talk about than with someone unfamiliar"

Yes, I couldn't agree more! I doesn't mean they don't like you or think less of you.
posted by bitteroldman at 12:03 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

"how common it is for "established" groups to not make an effort to let someone less familiar feel more welcome."

I don't think that is a correct assumption on your part--they are simply unaware of their lack of effort or your discomfort with it but they aren't doing it to make you feel less welcome. If you are an introvert, you might feel like there is a glaring spotlight on you and your "quietness", but they don't mean to cause awkwardness or exclusion. Some people are so very quiet that they themselves cause awkwardness because they don't initiate conversation and only respond with a couple of words when someone tries to draw them in and it can become akward for both sides if that happens--I am not saying that is you, I am just saying that some people come across as painfully shy and that can lead to the feeling that maybe more attempts at drawing you in is painful for you, so they don't. You could fake being a momentary extrovert with some comment like "my, you are all such snappy dressers, where do you shop" or something minor like that. People like to talk about themselves so you need to give them an opening and be part of the dialog. Maybe your roommate could give you some inside gossip next time so you have a little background and reference points that would make it easier to join in. Good luck!
posted by 45moore45 at 12:09 PM on November 23, 2007

I felt like if my roommate had been with me and my co-workers, I'd have been pretty darn guilty if we only talked about my job the whole time.

You have better manners than your roommate. But some people have a real gift for getting everyone comfortable and chatting merrily with each other, and some do not have this knack. Your roommate may have been letting you listen and jump in at your own pace, instead of putting you on the spot to force engagement.

To feel more included at work, start by acknowledging people when you pass them in the hall and saying hi if you run into them in the kitchen or elevator or whatever. Next step is to just jump in with an innocuous comment. Yay! it's Friday. Oof! it's Monday. Wow, sure is clouding up out you know if it's supposed to rain?
posted by desuetude at 12:12 PM on November 23, 2007

Don't take it personally: many people lack the necessary social skills it takes to make conversation flow smoothly when there is someone who is new to a group.

It's a lot of work, and it can be a pain in the ass trying to be inclusive...not everyone cares about being inclusive, so people who do try to include you have to deal with your passivity and the obtuseness of the others in the group who should be trying to make you feel welcome.

I'm a professional schmoozer. I never have any problem joining any conversation. And I also try to be inclusive by making introductions and identify commonalities.

However, I only try once. After that, the newcomer is on their own. If they can't figure out how to join the conversation, that's their problem.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:20 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Like you, I'm pretty quiet in groups and can get ignored for hours on end when I'm the odd person out. It's always mystified me, because actually it doesn't seem that hard to make the newbie feel included and still not derail the main conversation.

What has helped for me was first to start acting as the "bridge" when it was a group of my friends and an outsider. If Friend A started talking about something in a way that the newbie couldn't possibly join in or follow, I'll take the first opportunity to speak to turn to the newbie and say, "Friend A works at X, and she has this boss who..." or, "Friend A just got back from Y, where she went to see Z." Friend A will usually pick up on what I'm doing, add a bit more background info, then continue telling the story, this time directing some eye contact to the newbie. The newbie now has some info s/he can use to interject, ("Wow, is your boss always like that?" "While you were in Y, did you get to see W?")

Once I got really comfortable setting up ways for the newbie to join the conversation, I was able to implement the same strategies when I found myself in the newbie position. If there's a bridge person making efforts, I try to work with them and make comments and ask questions, even if it's not quite interesting yet. And if there's no bridge person, I can build the setup myself. ("Have you all worked together for long?") Or just jump straight to the interested interjection ("Wow, is your boss always like that?")
posted by xo at 12:28 PM on November 23, 2007 [8 favorites]

just yawn a lot, they might eventually figure out that they'r boring the shit out of you and change the topic
posted by matteo at 12:32 PM on November 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

Sometimes groups of people just get stuck in a conversational rut. If you can, find an opportunity to jump in the conversation. If they are bitching about work, perhaps you can throw in some funny story or incident about a job you used to have. Then try and bend the conversation around to some other topic, like movies, music, restaurants, etc. that everyone can participate in.

You can always play the role of the armchair therapist, ask lots of questions and dole out advice to the work-weary. People love being doted on like that.

I've found that sometimes that if you can make a group of people laugh, you are in, so hone your sense of humor and comedic timing.

Or you know, hell, maybe these are just boring people who only care about their jobs.
posted by pluckysparrow at 12:44 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

For me in that situation, if I want to jump myself into the conversation, I listen intently and watch for the places where my own life/story/situation connects. Or I wait for a pause and jump in with a question, usually related to how people are connected. "So how did you all meet?" "Oh, you two are from the same home town? So did you go to high school together?" Etc. It functions dually as a way to be involved in the conversation and to figure out the lay of the social land.

I've found that I have to be willing to speak and have all three four five people turn and look at me. Fortunately I'm not so shy.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:53 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

the problem doesn't necessarily have to be you. it's rude of them to take you with them to dinner and then exclude you by talking shop. if they had wanted to be alone, they should not have asked for you to come with them. or did you invite yourself?

alas, there are conversations where you can't add anything substancial to. in that case I would suggest either politely excusing yourself for another conversation (i.e. at a party) or just listening until something you do have something to say about comes up. the downside of that of course may be that someone later says you're 'no fun' or 'quiet.' again, you can't win with everyone.
posted by krautland at 1:02 PM on November 23, 2007

I think it's rude of them to not attempt to include you in the conversation. But I doubt it's an intentional thing or even something they're aware of.

I was in the same situation last Monday. I was over at a new friend's house and he had another friend over and the two of them were talking about another friend of theirs who I didn't know. I listened and smiled and nodded the whole time and eventually found an 'in' or found a good opportunity to change the topic.

I think other than that, the best you can do is preventative measures. If you know you're going out with some strangers ask the person you know if they could make sure you're not a 3rd wheel or whatever. It at least gets them thinking about you a bit more and they might go out of their way to include you.

If you do get stuck in that position a lot, I'd recommend learning to appreciate 'listening time'. Sometimes I just sit back and listen to what people are saying and what I can learn about them from it. Not as fun as being included but it's something.
posted by purelibertine at 1:33 PM on November 23, 2007

I am often a super chtty person at get togethers unless I don't know people and they're all talking about stuff I know nothing about. In that case I can get really quiet which I think surprises my friends who assume I'll be gregrious like I am with them, If it's my event, I'll go out of my way to talk to the people who no one is talking to or draw them out in much the way xo describes. If it's not my party I'll do a few things

1. wait/look for an in, usually asking a question that isn't too obnoxious or weird sounding.
2. I'll speak to whoever my main friend is about something we both know about that I think the other people would like to know about "Oh tell X about that birdwatching book you read that you were telling me about..." and hopefully shift the topic to something more of interest to me
3. get good at listening. Since I'm chatty a lot I lke to think I'm a good listener but I don't paractice much. This is a good chance for me to just listen and/or just think my pwn thoughts.
4. Leave. Unless you're all at a restaurant, you can just say "You know, I think I'm going to get started on [other thing] a little early, it was nice to meet you guys, see ya!" something that isn't all hard done by but also not leading. You're not pissed, you're just leaving because you have something else to do.

If it's something that happenes reguarly, you may want to mention it to your friend. For all you know she HATES talking about work and winds up stuck with her friends who always talk about it and she's hoping you'll change the subject. You don't really know. I wouldn't wind up feeling terribly bad about it, some people are better and worse at drawing other people in. However usually if they're not great at drawing people in, they are probably also nt looking at you as someone on some weird periphery, just someone maybe quieter than they happen to be at the moment.
posted by jessamyn at 1:40 PM on November 23, 2007

Ask questions and make jokes. It's not unlike dating where, again, the goal is impressing yourself on complete strangers.
posted by nixerman at 4:09 PM on November 23, 2007

just yawn a lot, they might eventually figure out that they'r boring the shit out of you and change the topic

Somewhat passive-aggressive, don't you think? Definitely not the way to win friends and influence people. If the group is boring the shit out of you, move on.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:05 PM on November 23, 2007

Boy, my friends and I love a new victim person in our midst. I already know what my guys think about everything, I wanna hear what the new guy has to say! We can actually focus too much on a newbie, and we are quite snarky, so it can feel pretty intimidating, I suppose.

Asking questions is a good intro, as others have said. You might not be doing a lot of the talking at first, but if you can get the group talking to you, regaling you with stories, you are half way there. Then you can do some linking to your own experiences. Good luck. And if you are ever in Hattiesburg, MS, let me know and we'll make you the center of attention for the night.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:23 PM on November 23, 2007

I am not good in groups either. The problem can be shyness, simply not knowing an opening (if the topic is something that doesn't interest me/I don't know much about I may not even make an effort), or as I have encountered many times, cliqueyness on the part of the others. Partly I think I can also just feel overwhelmed.

I do agree that first of all you should figure out how much being "in" matters to you in this particular situation and then try the various methods suggested.
posted by blue shadows at 9:11 PM on November 23, 2007

A good trick in those situation is to make them explain what they're talking about.
People love to talk about themselves. So let's say they're talking about a person from their work that you don't know anything about. Just ask them who that person is, what she is doing at their job, what kind of person it is etc... and look genuinely interested while asking.
When they explain you a particular situation, or tell you an anecdote you should find a way to bring that to a more general topic.
Example they're talking about a guy named Bob, from IT, and they're saying he's a prick. Ask them why he is a prick, and then go on as to how weird it is that generally so many people in IT are pricks. then move on to why people who spend a lot of time around computers sucks at social life and tada everyone can chimes in.
posted by SageLeVoid at 9:43 PM on November 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

The other good thing about asking them to explain what they're talking about or asking questions so that you can follow is that should eventually dawn on someone that they've been talking shop all night and probably boring the crap out of you.
posted by desuetude at 9:41 AM on November 24, 2007

Listen with interest (almost anything is interesting, really), and ask an intelligent question now and again (even if you actually know the answer). If you see a way to "judo" the topic away, take it.

Work gossip to general human relations: "Yeah, my boss does that too, she really went nuts at some guy who forgot to refill the coffee pot. Totally over the top. How do you deal with that?"

WoW to something, anything, else: "This World of Warcraft game sounds like it takes up a lot of time. Do you guys have any time for anything else?"

Real estate to property law: "So you mean he could get out of the contract, if the settlement date's not met? What happens if it's the bank's fault?"

Vet shop talk to human medicine: "Poor dog, that sounds like a nasty skin condition to have. Can people catch that from dogs?" "What can people catch from pets?"

Sport to music: "So how often do you guys get to see the game in person?" "Do you go out to the pub after?" "Yeah, I was there a few weeks back, they had a band playing, name of Blah. You ever seen them?"

Or just let it play out until it reaches one of those natual pauses and chime in with some topic of your own that may be of interest to them: "Say, I saw on the news today they're going to close Blah St for roadworks on the bridge, you guys see that?" Or just go with "Well. How about that local weather team, huh?" which should make them see, in an amusing way, that they're excluding you.

This is obvious as all hell, as it should be, but if they have any social skills at all they'll go along with it. You'll quickly realize if they actually need to talk shop about something, in which case just go back to listening intelligently and asking questions now and again. Generally the thing that makes a topic of conversation interesting to bystanders, more than anything else, is that the talkers are actually interested in it themselves.

Or you can excuse yourself and find something to do for a bit - go to the 7-11 for gum or cigarettes, go up to the counter and order something, speak to other people nearby, etc. When you come back, butt in with some new topic. If all else fails and you're out with a friend of yours and some of their friends, and the ones you don't know insist on belaboring some topic, why hang around? Just excuse yourself to your friend "Thanks for dinner Frank, but I've got some things to do, here's my share of the bill", say "nice to meet you" to the others, and take off. Unless you're dependent on Frank for a lift, in which case, suck it up, and next time, you drive. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:06 AM on November 24, 2007

I'll second xo's comment. I try to find the most friendly and open person there, the one who's smiling showing their teeth, with a sunny open face and open body language (no arms or legs crossed).

Another thing to watch is the direction of a group's feet. If it's you and two other people, the three of you guy's pair of feet should point like a triangle into a central point if you're included. If the other two guy's feets are pointed at each other, then you're not really invited into the conversation.

You can do tricks to open that up, either by shaking someone's hands, or giving someone a drink, or just strategic placement.
posted by philosophistry at 11:49 AM on November 24, 2007 [3 favorites]

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