Help me communicate better in informal settings...
February 13, 2008 9:59 PM   Subscribe

Humble mefite seeking tips for learning to express herself better (specifically, without being too quiet, sounding too serious, or inadvertently coming off as arrogant or self-centered) in the following scenarios..

1.) When conversing about a topic that is unfamiliar or, if moderately familiar, then something that she has not thought about in depth before.

2.) When answering simple questions about herself, or, describing oneself in a somewhat informal, but perhaps professional or adult setting--the online equivalent of writing one's own LinkedIn profile.

3.) When an off the cuff response is required!

In short, I am very bright, somewhat shy, and struggle with processing issues that affect my ability to process new and complex information, and to verbalize thoughts about such information in a relatively short period of time (as in conversation).

Writing has never been a problem, nor has language in general. I can give a great speech or presentation provided I have time to prepare. When I do open my mouth in class or in a meeting, I'm often praised for asking insightful questions or making interesting observations. Problem is, the latter doesn't happen often enough.

If you were to talk to me at a party, you probably wouldn't notice anything amiss. I perform very well in familiar situations, and I'm able to engage in very high level discussion of topics I've thought about carefully. I also make great eye contact and smile often.

It's when an unfamiliar or only moderately familiar topic comes up in conversation, or when someone asks me something simple (example: "What's your favorite painting?") that I haven't thought about in a while that I'm really thrown.

In these situations, I either (a) blank, (b) give an answer but be struggling with the processing too much to avoid excessive use of I, me, my, etc., and end up rambling and sounding self-absorbed, and/or overly serious, (c) start by making an argument that I'm not really sure about, perhaps stating opinion as fact without meaning to, or sounding arrogant and uninformed, in addition to coming across as inarticulate, simply to give some kind of answer...

As someone who can over-analyze things (innocent whistle...!) from time to time, I've heard plenty of the standard advice (try not to use I as much, admit when you don't know something, and so on). What's more, I make a conscious effort to follow this advice! However, it doesn't seem to be quite enough.

This is something I treat as an ongoing endeavor, and I realize that improvement will require lots of hard work. I try to get as much practice as possible.

That being said, do you have any suggestions? Any advice (perhaps commonly offered yet very wise, or less often heard)? Are there any good books about this, preferably with explicit examples of wording or strategies for performing better in the aforementioned scenarios (deflecting questions with self-deprecating humor, for instance)?

Thanks for reading!
posted by pearl228 to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You sound like you're taking yourself and the situations too seriously. Just be you.

If someone asked me something like "what's your favorite painting?" and I wasn't sure I would probably say, "I'm not sure, it's not something I've thought about too much. I really like X style of art though....what about you?

Basically, the easiest thing to do when someone asks a question you aren't so comfortable with is to spin it back on them or another person. People love talking about themselves.

If that's something you aren't comfortable with maybe just take some time and write your ideas out about common questions that you are asked. Paraphrase them and repeat them back to yourself so you can be better prepared.

Social awkwardness situations are usually resolved by being in more social situations.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:16 PM on February 13, 2008

This sounds a lot like me, and I'm not sure I necessarily have too much advice; I had more or less come to terms with the fact that some conversations were bound to end quickly.

However, recently I'm teaching English to kids in Japan, and I jump around between different schools regularly. Whenever I'm at a new school, the first lesson is about me and where I'm from, which then ends in question time. Kids are always throwing weird curve-ball questions, and sometimes I still don't have a good answer, but I have become better at answering over time. Now some of the questions I'm used to, and others I can at least find a few words to say; I've even made up answers to things I have no opinion about just to keep them entertained. So I guess I'd say practice by having friends asking you random questions a lot, or even asking them to yourself and forcing yourself to think about them long enough to construct an opinion or answer. This is not so much to have an arsenal of replies for different topics (although that's a side benefit), as it is to get you in the habit of forming opinions faster and faster.

Curious to see what other advice shows up here.. :)
posted by p3t3 at 10:18 PM on February 13, 2008

I think a good place to start is to not be so hyper-critical of yourself, as this can only lead to freaking out anytime someone engages you. Just relax and understand that an opinion is just one person's way of seeing something. I can generally say anything I want about a painting because it's MY opinion. I think the problem often lies in the fact that we can sometimes be self-conscious of how others perceive our opinions. In other words, social awkwardness can often depend on how much you need approval from other people for your opinions. Now, that's not to say you should just run around being crass all the time (though it can be fun). Personally, If I find myself in a conversation that I generally know nothing about, I'll do two things:

1) Be truthful. There's no use trying to BS your way around a topic you have no experience in, if the conversation turns to you, just say "I don't know the answer to that", or "I really don't have much of an informed opinion about that".

2) Adopt the role of student. What better way to learn about something than to actually talk to someone who knows more than you! Take the opportunity you're faced with and use it to learn something, at least that way the next time the topic comes up you may be more informed about it.

As for the random question stuff... this can be really fun if you don't take it too seriously. My opinions change daily, so my favorite painting today is likely not going to be my favorite painting tomorrow. Take the pressure off, just say whatever comes to mind, and if nothing comes to mind then make a joke out of it, like if someone asks "what's your favorite band?" and you have nothing to say (or rather too many things to say), just say something like "the ones that play good music." and laugh.

All in all, just relax, be honest with yourself/others and, above all, have a good time!!

posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 11:05 PM on February 13, 2008

One extremely important thing to keep in mind everyday is that you do not, under any circumstances, have to apologize for being human. It seems like you are worried about other peoples perceptions of you while you are in the middle of talking, and it is this feeling that comes across more than anything you might be saying.

Reading about imposter syndrome would probably be helpful.

Lastly, I feel this way sometimes too... so if nothing else just know that its not some rare mental hiccup that for some reason only you have been forced to come to terms with.
posted by pwally at 11:13 PM on February 13, 2008

"What's your favorite painting?" is a stupid question. Just say "I don't know, lots. What's yours?" and ask more questions. One of the secrets of socializing is just to be curious about other people. You sound pretty smart so you should be able to ask general questions about whatever they're trying to talk about. Don't feel compelled to admit anything, especially how little you know about whatever they're talking about, because it's irrelevant. What's the big deal, use them to learn more about what you're having trouble talking about. Nobody can talk about everything, but everybody can ask questions. "Oh, you like painting, do you paint yourself? Did you go to art school?" Yadda yadda.
posted by rhizome at 11:16 PM on February 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

"what's your favourite painting?"
"oh wow, i haven't thought about that much. i do like art, though- there are a few painters i really like, maybe something by basquiat or van gogh? this is the kind of question that's gonna haunt me all week (big grin!) i'll be calling you at 6am next tuesday to blurt "sunday in the park!" (smile) what's yours?"

"tell me about yourself."

as a general rule of thumb, i say talk about whichever of your interests are LEAST likely to be congruent with the other people's interests: so at a concert, i don't talk about music, i talk about cooking. at a party full of writers, don't talk about your novel, i talk about the "bill cosby sweater" party you went to. talking about the obvious topic can lead to coming off as a cheesy, networky dink at social events.

if it's a jobby type situation, of course you need to sell yourself work-wise-- but that's in addition to, not instead of, making yourself personally interesting. i had a great job-type interview today, and here's why i think it went well:

i predicted a few questions i'd be asked, and thought of a colourful point or two that i could include in short but interesting answers. for instance, i was able to make my education sound comprehensive and interesting by emphasizing three or four very different subjects i focussed on.

i considered my weak spots and thought about how to make them sound like strengths. for instance, my work history is really varied- lots of breadth, not so much depth. to make that seem like a virtue, i made sure to pre-choose one shining example from each area of my work history. rather than going on too long about any one accomplishment, or, worse, saying self-defeating stuff like "well i've only done that kind of work once", instead, i flashed casually on each type of work that seemed relevant, and said something interesting about it, then moved on to the next thing. i aimed to give the impression that i'm versatile enough to be casual about the many things i do- implying that there are more accomplishments in each category without explicitly saying so- and also without coming off too namedroppy. it was definitely planned, there's no way i would have been able to be pithy off the cuff.

i knew i'd be asked some preference questions- ie, "who are some of the people who influence your aesthetic?", so i thought in advance and had good, smart-sounding favourites to report, and thoughtful, tactful, and very short critiques of some of the major players in my industry. i pre-selected some genuine pro and con opinions about those industry projects. i didn't wanna insult anyone the interviewer knew, so i'd say, "oh, project X, i've been sort of following that. there are some interesting things there..." when her face showed she didn't like project X, i was more specific- but still tactful- about why i didn't like it. if she had indicated that she loved project X, i would have instead focussed on the few aspects of it that i do actually like. that way you're not lying, but you're fitting in with the other person's world view and mirroring them, so you seem to "fit" into their office culture.

i made a point of emphasizing some of the naive feelings of excitement i have about my career, because sometimes i know i can come off a little judgemental or overconfident. i actually feel pretty stoked and lucky about my work, in a kid-like way, so i let the interviewer see that instead of trying to hide it to seem mature & professional. i think she thought that was endearing- it made her laugh, at least.

the clincher, i think, was that i made a point of being really friendly. i smiled a lot and kept a receptive, half-smiling expression on my face, and nodded a lot. at one point, the receptionist asked me a question about what hair product i was using, and then the interviewer came out and got into the conversation, so we had a very friendly dish session about beauty tips, which was of course ridiculous and unprofessional.... and made us really like each other. it was so casual and warm.

i think the thing about small talk is that it's kind of the big talk- it gives people a chance to feel out who you are on a larger scale. and most of what they want you to be is kind, thoughtful, and interested in them, which is pretty easy to be, i think, and which you sound like you naturally are. so use that as your rule of thumb:

1. kind- don't backstab or be mean (doesn't sound like you are).
2. thoughtful- it's ok if you need to think before you answer, just smile off the pause and then throw in number three:
3. interested in them- when in doubt, ask them what they think and use that as a jumping off point when it's your turn to talk.
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:25 PM on February 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

Sometimes the best thing to do is just to admit that you have no opinion or just don't know shit about Jack. When everyone is busy being a somebody, it can be really refreshing and inspiring to meet someone who is themselves and frank about their shortcomings. For example:
"I haven't really thought about that. But what about you, do you think/like... ?"
"Honestly, I don't know much about x. But you seem to know a great deal about this, tell me ... "
Expressing (sincere) interest in other people' opinions is always a good thing. People want to feel important and that their opinions matter.

Don't forget that you can give yourself a pause, albeit a very brief one, to think by repeating the question asked, going "hmmmm", saying "interesting question...", etc. Let things take their time, don't stress the words.

Also, don't take conversations such as these so seriously, most people don't. When meeting someone for the first (and possibly only) time, most people don't want you to go all scientific on them or listen to Your Unified Theory On X, they just want to make small talk, break the ice and have some fun.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:35 PM on February 13, 2008

Hi! Another one here to say 'you sound like me'!

Other people have mentioned this, but remember that if you're the type to think carefully about things, most other people don't, (MeFites excepted!) so whatever their reaction, don't worry about it too much. We're all different, anyway!

Most are exactly as ill-informed as you seem to think you are, or more, but I suspect you're actually way ahead of them. Just posting your question shows a level of self-awareness that's very high.

Most people ask for an opinion and then forget what the person said - it's just conversation, to oil the social cogs, so they don't expect anything too heavy. OK, religion and politics might be the exception, but I have a feeling you've thought those two areas through.

The other thing is that despite your ability to engage and give eye contact etc., there may be a little introversion at work here (bearing in mind IANA counsellor!). I'm highly introverted, and I find that as soon as I go beyond my natural way of contributing to a meeting or conversation (which is a bit like yours - the odd insightful comment punctuated by long silences), I can come across all wrong. I overemphasise, which either comes across as arrogant or overbearing, or I think out loud, which comes across as self-involved and turning an answer into an essay.

So here's what I do, which may be helpful to you:

If I'm asked a question, I pause to think for a couple of seconds.

I use those seconds to remind myself to keep the answer short and keep my voice light.

I remind myself that unless I'm in a vital business meeting, what I say is unlikely to have major consequences. If I AM in a vital meeting, I've got the right to ask for time to answer.

I remind myself to throw a question back at the other person as soon as humanly possible - it's the way to get the other person to think you're nice to talk to, if nothing else, and it gets you off the hook.

...and if I start replaying the conversation afterwards and analysing what I said, I make sure I snap out of it, because I'm really bad for that, and there's usually little point.

So. Summary: Don't worry. Keep it short, light and then toss them a question back. The same one will usually do!
posted by dowcrag at 4:18 AM on February 14, 2008

You don't sound like me -- you sound like my husband (*grin*). He's bright, has master's degrees in history and library science (so he's not without a pool of knowledge), introverted, and has some sort of processing problem that keeps him from talking "off the cuff" as well as others. At least this is how he perceives it.

His solution? He joined Toastmasters. In that organization, you practice public speaking, and I understand that extemporaneous (off-the-cuff) was part of this club's meetings. If nothing else, this could give you a non-threatening place to practice, and reducing the self-consciousness will give you some "clear space" in conversations to deal with the slower processing. It might also teach you some strategies to deal with the slow processing. It seems to have worked very well for him.
posted by lleachie at 5:25 AM on February 14, 2008

Remember that saying "Oh, I have no idea!" is not the same as saying "My head is empty and I am a dimwit." It's okay to say you don't know.

Assuming it is a conversation and not a job interview, the next bit is "Interesting question. What about you?"
posted by DarlingBri at 5:33 AM on February 14, 2008

Situation 1: Your most productive solution is to try and let go of worrying about being seen not to know something and try to embrace the opportunity to learn. Listen, ask questions, listen some more, ask more questions, continue as necessary. This can be easy said than done, but you'll find out more in the end and is a very useful skill.

Situation 2: Generally keep it short, in my experience this is usually done where everyone introduces themselves round a table, usually no-one is actually taking it on board anyway, so name, maybe job description, very few sentences. Even where it's just you saying what you do, no-one is much interested in your CV. All too often I see people in my field run through their entire professional life (as academics) - its dull and irrelevant. Get it out of the way so the meeting can get to the interesting stuff. If it's a more informal setting then just take notice of when people glaze over and shorten for next time.

Situation 3: More difficult to learn how to get your thoughts in order to say something cohesive and on target. Things to bear in mind: You will ALWAYS think of something extra you wish you had added in, said instead, etc. So try not to worry your answer wasn't prefect. Most importantly, practice the following phrases: "I don't know...", "I'm not sure...", people are often reticent to admit to these but its much more useful than bullshitting, especially where bullshitting might become apparent all too easily, i.e. when perhaps dealing with other prefessionals who do know an area already.
posted by biffa at 5:56 AM on February 14, 2008

In social situations, or even at work, people are generally just making conversation. They're not looking for the "right" answer. No one cares what your favorite painting is and they won't remember what you said 10 minutes later. Keep this in mind and just make shit up - with a smile.
posted by desjardins at 8:33 AM on February 14, 2008

It frustrates me a bit when I'm trying to get to know someone and they either deflect questions back to me, "I don't know, what about you?" or say something inscrutable that I can't follow up on, like, "I like music that's good." It's really hard to tell if they want to continue the topic! So, if you were talking to me, I'd love it if you added at least some tidbit that I could work with conversationally.

For the painting example, you could say something like, "I don't know if I'd call it a favorite, but the painting that sprung to mind when you asked that is ______ ..." Or "Oh, I don't know anything about painting because I always spend too much time with the sculptures when I go to museums," or "I haven't seen a painting since art history class in college! Since then, I've tended to do _______ on weekends instead of going to museums."

The idea is to just free associate and run with any detail that can advance the conversation. If a painting springs to mind, talk about that, even if it's an example of painting you hate. If you can't think of anything related to painting but can think of photography, talk about that. If painting is an obscure category to you that brings up absolutely nothing, the way international politics does for me, then say that you don't know anything on the topic, because your focus is with ________. (You can then ask them a question to focus in on their interest, but it's really helpful to include something about yourself too, so that the conversation doesn't die on the one topic.)
posted by xo at 8:41 AM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for such thoughtful advice!

If I discover any new "tactics" I'll be sure to post them here.
posted by pearl228 at 7:38 AM on February 15, 2008

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