Hi, I'm AWKWARD! (But how awkward am I?)
January 14, 2008 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Do people with under-developed social skills know that their skills need work? If so, how?

I’ve had trouble making and keeping friends throughout my life, from childhood, though high school and college and now into adulthood and the workplace. I only recently realized this pattern-- I’ve always been consumed by my work and always told myself that I could have friends if I wanted to make time for them. Turns out that might not be true.

Now I’m trying to figure out why people don’t seem to seek out my company, or don’t seem to enjoy spending time with me. I’m pretty sure that I’m no more awkward than your average nerd… But it recently occurred to me that lacking social skills would probably prevent me from, uh, knowing that I lack social skills. Hence my question: could I be completely socially inept and just not know it?

Some pertinent points:
-I feel pretty confident saying that I don’t have Asperger’s or the like. (I worked in social services for some time, am highly emotional, and I think I do well with “reading people” and navigating internal politics.)

-I get very nervous in social situations and become afraid that I’ll say the wrong thing. That, coupled with a diagnoses of Adult ADD (and the impulse control problems that come with it) means that I often *do* say the wrong thing. Never hurtful things-- more like jokes that turn out not to be funny, or revealing things I shouldn’t have.

-I’m shy and tend to be quiet around new people-- largely out of nervousness (see above). Do people just think I’m unfriendly?

What else should I be looking for? And do you guys have any advice for remedying this?

Since I can’t send anonymous thank yous, I thank you now, MeFites.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
I’m trying to figure out why people don’t seem to seek out my company

Well, there are a number of possible reasons. But after undergraduate education, one that is likely to be true even if you have great social skills is that people are busy and already have lots of friends. So you should start by seeking out their company rather than waiting to be invited.
posted by grouse at 9:47 AM on January 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd start by just speaking to everybody you reasonably can. Start with cashiers, waiters/waitresses, people at work, etc. It's a lot easier to talk to people you don't know when you've "warmed up" by talking to others already.

And what to say doesn't matter so much. When talking to other people, focus on the fact that how you speak is a lot more important than what you say; my best friend loves saying very weird things to people he just met, but people like him because he has a confident way of speaking and he's obviously having fun.

Try to speak louder - people who speak softly are often more threatening/weirder than people who speak in a louder, confident voice (but don't shout!). Smile - people generally enjoy surrounding themselves with happy people who bring happiness into their lives. If you're not happy, find out why and work on that. It's hard to do at first, but try to understand that we all say stupid things, we all have insecurities, and we all want people to like us so it's OK if you're nervous about saying the wrong thing. Say it with style and you'll probably be fine.

People will want to be your friend when you bring value to their lives by being yourself. Focus on how you can do that.
posted by PFL at 9:57 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Reread your question .. it seems like you already think your social skills are below par.

Whether this is true or not it probably affects your relationships.

But mostly I agree with grouse; you can't just assume people with friends have them because they nervously waited for phone calls every friday night of their existence. They probably did a lot of arranging of activities and legwork to create their social lives.
posted by shownomercy at 9:59 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's an old salesman's trick, but slightly mimicking the speech and behavior patterns of whoever you're talking to generally sets them at ease. Obviously, you have to be careful not to overdo it, and you should never mimic someone to the point that you're saying something that isn't honest (the US version of The Office had an episode with this, to hilarious effect). A very basic example of this is to simply match the speed of the other person's speech -- some people are slow, contemplative talkers while some people are energetic babblers, and these two types generally annoy the hell out of each other.
posted by designmartini at 10:04 AM on January 14, 2008

I’m shy and tend to be quiet around new people-- largely out of nervousness (see above). Do people just think I’m unfriendly?

If you've gotten good at masking the nervousness itself so that you're essentially just quiet, then yeah, it's very possible they think you're withdrawing, especially if the other people are extroverted. On sort of the other side of this, people sometimes think I'm shy because I avoid contact when in fact it's due to active disinterest and there's a decent chance I'll just be rude if they force the issue.

Above, though, all I see is the usual self-inflicted discomfort from nervousness that the standard party chatter tips (as in previous comment) should help with. That is, assuming you're relatively "normal" with people you do become familiar with and comfortable around. Friends drift off for whatever reasons; you didn't say, for example, that you drove them all away.
posted by Su at 10:13 AM on January 14, 2008

Do people with under-developed social skills know that their skills need work?
It depends. Sure, there are some folks whose social barometer is so completely out of whack as to think that everyone loves them when, in fact, they come off as the Freak of the Week. But I think that most of us can tell when things become awkward in a social situation, and when we are the cause of that awkwardness (at least to some extent). So no, the lacking doesn't always prevent the awareness of lacking.
posted by somanyamys at 10:25 AM on January 14, 2008

I’m shy and tend to be quiet around new people

As a life-long introvert, I can say this could be part of your problem. I'm always quiet and reserved around new people. I do make friends eventually, and I've been told by friends many times that the first impression I give people is that I am aloof or not friendly. I'm neither of those things, and have had to work to be more open or at least give the appearance of being friendly (smile, make eye contact) around new people.
posted by geeky at 10:26 AM on January 14, 2008

Do people with under-developed social skills know that their skills need work? If so, how?

Generally not, I think. They are "introverts" and they call the people who shun them "jerks". And anybody like them who consciously tries to improve their social skills is to be loudly derided. (Learning PHP, painting, snowboarding, etc., are all a-okay.)

I get very nervous in social situations and become afraid that I’ll say the wrong thing.

That's just lack of practice. Social skills are, indeed, skills -- you need to practice them to get good at them. You were nervous, too, the first time you drove a car -- so many inputs and outputs! Now you're pretty good at it, but piloting a race car or an 18-wheeler is still beyond your abilities. Likewise wrt social skills -- just because you can, say, carry on a conversation with two dear friends doesn't mean you can host a dinner party, speak in front of a crowd, or get the phone number of an attractive stranger. Different skill-sets. If you've been avoiding cultivating friendships for a while, it's gonna take some time to build up that skill.

I sometimes intentionally put myself into weird social situations (for example, engaging a group of people that I dislike), rather than avoiding them as I used to, because I know it's good practice. I'm shy, introverted, and even a bit insecure by nature, but lots of practice has helped me be a much more friendly, outgoing person.

It helps, a lot, that you work with people; you're at least getting *some* social practice. Bartenders and waiters are generally very social people, because they deal with people all day/night. Computer guys generally aren't. There's a reason for that.

I’m shy and tend to be quiet around new people-- largely out of nervousness (see above). Do people just think I’m unfriendly?

Probably not "unfriendly", but you're almost certainly giving off body language that identifies you as a person with poor social skills -- and *they* may lack the confidence and ability to engage with somebody with poor social skills, so it's just easier for them to avoid you. Not really their problem, eh?

What else should I be looking for? And do you guys have any advice for remedying this?

If you're a guy -- but I'm guessing you're not? -- I *highly* recommend looking into David Deangelo's material, specifically the "Inner Game" and "Body Language" audiobooks. It's geared towards connecting with women, but it helps a lot for connecting with people in general. Many of the things that attract/repel women are the same things that attract/repel friends -- neediness, insecurity, bragging, etc.

I don't have a female analog to David D. other than the bazillion women's magazines (Redbook, etc.) that deal with this stuff. Also, a lot of folks like the Dale Carnegie book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, but I haven't read it yet.
posted by LordSludge at 10:32 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry, you also asked for tips. OK. I'm not exactly a social butterfly myself, which is how I know that you can self-diagnose. But here are a few of the things that have worked for me over the years:

- Focus on making a really solid, friendly, confident introduction, so that you make a good first impression without having to be totally "ON" for the rest of the encounter.

- Seconding the forced public interacation recommendation. As much as I hated it, working as a receptionist in college did WONDERS for my social skills.

- Have a couple of good-natured, self-deprecating one-liners at the ready for when you DO screw up, to move the conversation past the awkward moment. It's the verbal version of taking a little bow after you make that huge face plant in the cafeteria. Acknowledge it, laugh at yourself, and quickly move the hell on.

- Go Method. Observe and mimic how the Others do it -- act a role. I don't mean be false or lie to people, more like a "fake it til you make it" kinda thing.

I am still quiet around new people (and I still HATE big parties), but these tips have helped me make huge progress over the last few years. It's a slow process, but it's worth it.
posted by somanyamys at 10:35 AM on January 14, 2008

Hence my question: could I be completely socially inept and just not know it?

I think the best test for whether your lack of friends is due to "social ineptness" or just the run-of-the-mill difficulty in making new friends as an adult can be divined by eye contact.

Namely, do people avoid eye contact with you in the situations you mention--jokes that turn out not to be funny, or revealing things I shouldn’t have--or do they maintain normal levels of eye contact? If I have a coworker who is shy or who I just don't know very well, and they make a joke that's not terribly funny, I'd probably do the polite smile thing and either change the subject or wrap up the conversation to get back to work. However, if I'm interacting with someone who is really socially inept and they do the same thing, I find myself looking everywhere but at them. (Not that I'm intentionally trying to make them feel bad, it's just that sometimes it's so painful to be around certain people with really terrible social skills that I'm afraid I'll start cringing if I look at them.)

If you're not getting the second reaction, where your coworkers and acquaintances all of a sudden find interesting things to look at on the ceilings, floors and opposite walls whenever you talk, I think you're probably fine.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:41 AM on January 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do people with under-developed social skills know that their skills need work? If so, how?

Generally not, I think. They are "introverts" and they call the people who shun them "jerks".

This has SO not been my experiences. The shy people I've known (self included) are painfully aware that they're shy and most feel like it's a their flaw. I know I'd give anything to be less shy.
posted by grumblebee at 10:48 AM on January 14, 2008

I've always been terribly shy. As a kid, my mother used to tell me that not talking to the other kids made me look snobbish, and I didn't believe her, because who could possibly look at a shy weirdo like me and think I could possibly be a snob?

Decades later, I realized she was right. Shyness can easily be interpreted by an outsider as "I don't like you." It doesn't mean that the outsider doesn't like the shy person back, and I've found first impressions of coldness are easy to reverse with a little friendliness.

Eye contact and smiling are by far the easiest and most effective things you can do. Smile at everyone you pass in the halls at work, and they will smile back. And when you get that returned smile, you'll feel more confident about your likeability, and you'll feel more at ease smiling at the next person, and so on.

Another thing that might help you: everyone puts their foot in their mouth. Even the people who seem to navigate social situations effortlessly. The difference between us and them is their ability to recover from it. Don't be afraid that your jokes won't be funny or your stories won't be interesting. Sometimes they won't. But, unless you say something offensive or insulting, people won't remember it the next day. The only one who remembers and cares about that awkward comment is you. It helps immensely when you realize that other people aren't marking your every faux pas on a mental scorecard. Shy people are often their own biggest - or only - critics.

From what you've described in your post, I think you'll do fine. It'll be a little uncomfortable at first taking the risks you need to break out of this, but no more uncomfortable than doing nothing and continuing to be nervous. Good luck!
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:36 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's certainly possible that you are more socially awkward than you realize. About 20 years ago, I would have rated myself as slightly below average in social skills - perhaps a 4 on a 10-point scale. In actuality, I was more like a 1.5. My social perceptions were myopic enough that I was completely oblivious to emotional undercurrents and I was prone to offending people without meaning to or even knowing that I had done so.

The details of how I eventually figured this out are pretty specific to my situation and probably not worth getting into right now, however I was mortified to realize that I had hurt people's feeling without even knowing it.

To rectify the situation, I spent the next few years engaged in a self-improvement program to try learning basic social awareness. My friends were mostly too polite to tell me when I had been a jerk, even when I specifically asked to know. I had to act like a detective, constantly looking for clues of when I had done something wrong.

Eventually, the work paid off. I started being able to see the social nuances that had escaped me before. Friends commented on how much I had changed for the better. I'm still a bit of an introvert by preference, but I'm no longer completely blind to what's going on around me.

For anyone else who might be in the same place I was, here are some things I found helpful:

1) Pay attention. As an intellectual introvert, I have a tendency to live inside my own head rather than engaged in the outside world. It helped to spend time watching people, listening to people, being interested in people. Eventually all that observation led to noticing all the subtle cues I had been missing. Along those same lines, I had to learn to listen more than talk. That's really listen, not quietly think about what to say when the other person stops talking.

2) Find role models. Most people know someone who is nice to be around. I'm not thinking of the social butterflies or entertainers. I'm talking about the folks who always seem to come up with the right thoughful word or act at the right time. The folks who seem to really listen when you talk and make you feel good about being yourself when you're around them. I started paying attention to the people I knew like that and trying to imitate them as much as I could.

3) Swallow your ego. When someone points out that I've been a jerk, the defense mechanisms want to kick in right away. It's hard, even painful, to step back and carefully consider the possibility that they might be right. Do it anyway - it's worth it in the long run.

4) Be patient. It took me 2 - 3 years of intense work to improve my social skills from abysmal to marginally acceptable. Since then, I've tried to make it from marginal to reasonably good (for an introvert). I would imagine that anyone else who was really socially impaired might take just as long.

Hope that helps.
posted by tdismukes at 11:41 AM on January 14, 2008 [29 favorites]

The shy people I've known (self included) are painfully aware that they're shy and most feel like it's a their flaw.

Okay, I guess I've had different experiences. But, regardless, t's important to realize is shyness that it's not an unalterable personality trait -- shyness is, essentially, a simple lack of social skill at engaging strangers. It's like the inability to play guitar well or to ride a snowboard. It can be "fixed". (To me, this was a huge epiphone.)

The David D. material gives some good direction, rather than making it all a trial and error sort of thing. But it's like learning guitar from an instructional book -- a whole lot better than nothing, but you still gotta practice playing to get any good. There are social coaches, just as there are guitar teachers, but they tend to be rare and expensive.

Even with the best instructional material, though, you can't go *poof* and expect a "Hey, I'm not shy!" result. Like any other learned skill, it takes practice. You gotta make your mistakes, learn from them, make less egregious mistakes, learn from them... it's a very iterative process, and a lifelong learning curve.

I know I'd give anything to be less shy.

Think about that statement, in the context of any other skill. "I know I'd give anything to play guitar." Or "I know I'd give anything to know how to snowboad." You gotta practice.

On preview, what tdismukes said. (And good for you -- I'm right there with ya! Pretty life-changing, huh?)

The funny thing is that when you get good, you have to start dialing back who you agree to spend time with, because there's simply not time to be friends with everybody! (Not saying I'm "good" yet, and maybe never will be, but I'm seeing glimpses of this problem at least.) But it's cool because now you're hanging out with who YOU want to hang out with, as opposed to just whomever will agree to hang out with you.

In male/female relations, you can see this in the behavior of a really hot girl (who everybody wants to befriend/screw) who won't even make eye contact with strangers -- not out of shyness, but for fear that they will demand yet another slice of her attention and time. It's kinda like the whole shyness-gregarious thing comes full circle...
posted by LordSludge at 12:12 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm shy and nervous and freaked out by groups and have ADD. Here's what I do: I barrel through it.

By way of anecdote: I used to hang out with a group of folks who were all kinda shy and nerdy and socially insecure. We had the damnedest time trying to DO anything, because everyone was afraid of supporting something or putting forth ideas because, well, we were all shy and didn't want to get shot down or made fun of or whatever. I got sick of not doing anything because I didn't have any friends to do it with, and got sick of having friends that didn't want to do things because they were goofy or nerdy or whatever. So I started coming up with things that I wanted to do, and would be happy doing on my own, and then invited folks along. Wanna go to a museum? Wanna go swimming? Wanna see a rock show?

Noting that a large part of male communication is participating in activities together, rather than talking as activity, it made it easy to grab folks who I wouldn't really want to hang around with all the time, but who are cool to see a ballgame with or whatever. And after a while of doing that, hell, I had FRIENDS! I was a nerdy weirdo who went and did things, and other people wanted to do 'em too!

So much of my life is better now for realizing that everyone's nervous and awkward and focuses more on themselves being wrong than on other people's mistakes, and that by just kind of being willing to do things that might suck, and do 'em on my own if I have to, people are willing to hang out. I met my girlfriend like that, and almost all of my friends here in LA (who I didn't know when I moved here, which was only in late May last year) have been made the same way.

In a big way, riding that crest of ADD poor impulse control is a boon, because it means that I'm willing to commit myself to doing something that might get made fun of later before I've thought it through. USE YOUR ADD TO MAKE FRIENDS!
posted by klangklangston at 12:18 PM on January 14, 2008 [5 favorites]

Being shy, lacking social skills, and being introverted are three different things. It doesn't really help to lump them all together.

Social skills (interpersonal awareness) can be learned. It therefore makes sense to focus a bit on this. Learning social skills may help you overcome your shyness.

Shyness (emotional state) can be overcome through coping mechanisms like learning social skills. Overcoming shyness therefore makes sense as a *goal*, but not as a method of getting what you want. Overcoming shyness will not automatically make you learn social skills.

Introversion (character trait) might be a factor in how motivated you are to learn social skills to overcome your shyness, but plenty of introverts are not shy and have good social skills; they just also need to spend a fair amount of time alone. If this even applies (you don't say you're introverted, just that you're lonely), it doesn't make all that much sense to focus on changing this in this situation, though it may be helpful to learn to accept it about yourself (again, if it applies). Becoming a shy extrovert who lacks social skills doesn't really help you here.

There are therapists who focus on helping with interpersonal relationships. It's great to have that kind of one-on-one feedback from a person who's sitting next to you and can really see how you're presenting yourself and can react to you in the moment, rather than trying to assimilate a bunch of random tips from people who don't really know you. Group therapy situations can also give you this sort of feedback. If either of those is an option for you, it might be one avenue to pursue.
posted by occhiblu at 12:47 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is well worth a read. The thing about it is: the title is not cynical. The summary of it is, "be a good friend".

You probably just need to show a little bit more enthusiasm, or "verve", when you speak to people. Try to be more entertaining and amusing company. If you've read something that interested or excited you, share that, if you can give a short summary of it that shows the point of your excitement. When people tell you their own stories, ask a question or two to demonstrate that you were actually listening, even if it wasn't really all that interesting to you. Try to develop more genuine interest in those stories.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:01 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm awkward. However, I like to think that I'm far less awkward than I was a few years ago. I was a smart kid and almost always got my way at home, so I grew up thinking that my way of doing things was "right" and anything else was "wrong" or "dumb". Oops.

By the time I realized that this wasn't a good thing, I was in college. I started to make an effort to fix it, but this was hard because I went to a tiny school where just about everyone was a nerd with poor social skills. I became a bit of a social butterfly, and thought I had it all figured out, but then I entered the real world and realized that I was sorely mistaken. Ability to carry on with someone superficially at a kegger != ability to make new friends in unfamiliar settings.

A few things that have helped me at one time or another in the past few years:

- Speak up. Slow down. Often times I'm in such a rush to get something out of my brain that my tongue trips up and I mumble/stutter or don't have enough volume to be heard. I still have trouble communicating efficiently at noisy bars, but being conscious of this helps. Nothing sucks more than trying to tell a joke or story that bombs, when you have to repeat yourself multiple times before the people around you realized that it bombed.

- On that subject, I try to keep track of stories or jokes that I've told that have been well-received in previous social situations. This helps in two ways: (1) I always have at least a few things to contribute that I'm fairly sure will be met with a smile, and (2) I can look for common themes in the good bits and use them to help me tell new stories better in the future. Having confidence in what you're saying helps, especially with delivery. Don't become a robot only capable of using canned material, but if leading with an old classic helps you open the door to a good conversation, it's a good thing.

- Mind your manners until you get a feel for what makes someone tick. Even if you and your friends curse like sailors and think dead baby jokes are the funniest thing on earth, you don't need to make this known to a stranger within the first few minutes of meeting them.
posted by adamk at 2:15 PM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I’m shy... Do people just think I’m unfriendly?

Yeah, I'd bet most of them do.

Try glancing while smiling and saying a quick "hi" whenever anyone-- no matter who-- gets within range. Kind of a "oh, happy to see you exist today!" greeting. Doesn't matter if they return the sentiment, or if they're looking at you, or if they even notice (hey, sometimes people are preoccupied). Immediately break eye contact (if any) and go right back to whatever you had been doing, but keep smiling. This is how we greet our friends when we're busy, so greet everyone that way if you want to be friendly and put people at ease.

grumblebee, that's @ you also. :) It helps with the 'shy' thing, which I've been dealing with all my life.

As for saying awkward things, hey, welcome to the club. Just remember, you don't have to be entertaining. In fact, most people would rather you just be interested in what they have to say. I like to ask simple questions. I learn more that way, plus I can direct the conversation a little, to keep myself interested.
posted by zennie at 2:43 PM on January 14, 2008

Having sat next to enough too-much-information people on public transportation, I'm going to have to say it's the socially-challenged extroverts that don't have a clue. The vast majority of socially-challenged introverts have at least an inkling of their lack of social skills. Sure, there are some misanthropic introverts that blame their lack of skills on other people, but you seem fairly self aware, OP.
posted by fermezporte at 3:07 PM on January 14, 2008

There's a whole lot of good tips here already, so I'll just add a little suggestion about attitude.

I highly recommend the "device" of being curious about other people. I ask them questions about what they are doing, what they are interested in, and what they love. When conversations are about the other person (for the most part), I relax and become more confident. If you make the person you are talking to feel interesting and worth knowing, chances are they will think that you are interesting and worth knowing.

Interesting post btw, do you find that the MeFi community offers good, workable advice on such things?

(See what I did there? Aren't I so interesting and worth knowing? ;))
posted by tbastian at 3:15 PM on January 14, 2008

Seconding tbastian on asking questions and getting the other person to do most of the talking. I've gotten to the point that when I get tense about an upcoming social event, I can remind myself that it's easy, because the other person will do most of the talking. All I have to do is ask an occasional question.

Even if you think you won't be interested in what some other people have to say, the more you genuinely listen to different people, the more genuinely interesting they become. Even if it's just an anthropological sort of interesting.

So the next time you see someone you know slightly, ask them a question. Then ask them another. And so on. Pretty soon they're happily chatting away and think you're an interesting person. Don't try to say anything witty or tell jokes. Just ask the genuine questions that occur to you, and ask them in a simple way.
posted by PatoPata at 4:39 PM on January 14, 2008

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