Just working through some thoughts on my (lack of) social skills.

Posted by admin on May 25th, 2012 filed in General

Warning, I might be inebriated as I write this, so it might not make sense.

I feel like I am terrible at being social. Ten second chit-chat? I’ve got that down, thanks to my time as a barista. Deep hour long conversation? I can do that too, although there are very few opportunities for it with anyone but my husband. I’m pretty good at remembering people’s names and basic information (age range, marital status, kids, that sort of thing), and I would say people feel friendly toward me. So why do I have trouble finding the middle conversations between “Nice weather we’re having” and “Tell me about your religious convictions and why you believe what you do”?

I consider myself an empathic person. I am affected by others’ moods way more than I would like to be. I can also “radiate stress” more effectively than anyone my husband’s ever met. He tells me this often. I try to consider people’s feelings before I act or speak. If I can adequately do these things, why do I feel like there are social cues that I’m just not detecting? The mysterious cues that everyone around me seems to get? Is it some grand conspiracy, social people? Is it?!

From conversations I’ve had, I have assembled a few dos and don’ts. I hate one-sided conversations where one party talks over the other and never lets them get a word in. I try to encourage a back-and-forth exchange, or at least I try not to dominate the conversation. That usually goes over well, or, at worst, gets me branded as a good listener when I end up not doing much talking. I don’t mind that so much. I like stories. I like to be given a chance to provide comments too, though.

Something I previously thought was a “do” of conversation was to ask questions. The “Where are you from?” and “What kind of music do you like?” questions seemed to be good for people I don’t know. And often saying, “Oh?” after their statements allows them an opening to give more information if they wish. However, more than once in the last year, I’ve been accused of prying when I try this tactic (by observers, not the person being questioned). It’s hard to know what people want. I ask questions because people like to talk about themselves and it gives me a way to get to know them. Everybody should be happy, right? Wrong! I’m so confused.

So what do you talk about if you are confronted with someone for more than a few moments? I’m really trying not to talk about people. That’s gossip, and I work in a very gossipy environment. I must not get sucked into the drama! I don’t watch much TV, so that’s out. Maybe the lack of common topics is what makes people uncomfortable and my conversations fail? It feels weird to walk up to someone, wish them a good morning, and then immediately dive into a detailed account of something I read or a neat thing I saw online. And then the awkward silence.

And oh the time I spend worrying if I’ll say the wrong thing or if what I say will be taken in some unintended way! And I wonder if what I’m saying is inappropriate. It would be a lot simpler if I could just say what I’m thinking, without fear of people coming up with implications. For example, why is it so wrong to tell someone, “Hi! I’m talking to you because I think you’re cute!”? I guess it’s not the best idea, since I’m married, and most people I talk to are also involved in relationships. It’s a confusing message, but sometimes it’s the truth. It doesn’t mean I intend to engage with that person in any physical way. What could be a nice compliment instead makes things weird. I worry a lot that other, less suggestive comments will be taken the wrong way, too.

And I worry that I’m wasting people’s time, or that they don’t really want to be talking to me and are too polite to say so. I’ve hit this slump where I’m pushing everyone away. I’m not blogging, not responding to emails or phone messages. It’s depressing. I’m trying to fix it. Being social takes a lot of energy for me. Bear with me a little longer, everyone! Thank you!

7 Responses to “Just working through some thoughts on my (lack of) social skills.”

  1. Drew Says:

    When I first started working in the new office last year, I was nervous because it’s only me and 2 other guys. And one of them goes home between 4 and 5. Stuck in one room with one other guy to pass 8 or 9 hours in a high-stress environment? No thank you. But I was surprised at how we both adapted. It’s definitely possible.

    On the one hand, I understand where you’re coming from completely. I wish I could be totally direct with everyone and say “I’m talking to you because it seemed less weird than letting you continue to stare at me.” Or “we should talk about completely impersonal things for a while to kill time.” Or how about “I’m lonely and stressed out and need someone else to prattle on for a while so I can drown out some of my own thoughts.”

    It’s hard to give advice on how exactly to hold conversations with people you have little in common with, but I usually find that people like to laugh at things together and they like complaining to other people especially if you echo the gripes back to them. Then again, a lot of my superficial conversations (and even some with people I actually care about) involve a lot of parroting and “active listening” stuff. Maybe common experiences help? Bad example: “I hate cleaning the bathroom” seems like an obvious and silly thing, but it can launch someone into a story or a gripe or remind them or relationship. Who knows? But that stuff works.

    You’re totally right that it gets exhausting. If we weren’t hard-wired to need social contact, I’d have given up completely a long time ago. This sounds totally selfish, but I often get tired and lazy when it comes to what I mentally refer to as “friendship maintenance.” Very often, it takes work when it seems like something that should be way more natural than it really is.

    …maybe I don’t actually have anything valid to add here after all. Getting drunk actually doesn’t sound like an awful idea, either. Let’s see what someone who is more successful at social stuff says. Cheers!

  2. admin Says:

    Haha, well now that we’re in the light of day, I’m kind of embarrassed to have written all that. It’s the truth, so that makes it valid, right?

    Thanks for the comments, Drew. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. I feel really guilty when I don’t do “friendship maintenance.” I don’t neglect friends intentionally. It’s just that sometimes it takes more energy than I have to engage people socially. I’m pretty sure my friends will continue to be my friends even if I go a month or two without talking to them, so I feel like those are the relationships I can be the most relaxed about. I know you’ll forgive me if I don’t see you for a couple months and I know Jody will listen to my problems even if it’s 3 am and she’d rather be asleep. Isn’t it strange that we abuse the people we cherish the most and strive to observe propriety with with the people who matter the least?

    Getting away from the conversations that consist of complaints is another goal for me. Most of the people I interact with are at work, since I work with a lot of people and spend a significant amount of my time there. Most conversations there are just bitch-fests, while I listen. I can’t fix these problems, but I understand that it helps to listen to them. It feels really good to get it out. But geez, couldn’t we talk about something positive for once? I think the never ending complaints are a big part of why I think it’s all so exhausting. Bert tells me all the time that I’m not responsible for everyone’s emotional state. I really need to work on internalizing that.

  3. Travis Says:

    I get labeled as an asshole because I don’t like to make small talk with people. And really, I guess I am. I don’t want to talk to you unless you interest me. I do tend to be direct about things as well, that’s why I have so much problems with bosses. They don’t tend to like the truth.

    Don’t worry about relationship maintenance with me, I can go for months without seeing or talking to people, it doesn’t bother me.

    You know, come to think of it, I don’t really even remember how we learned of each others interests and things like that. You must have drugged and questioned me. Either that or it slowly came out in many long trips down every aisle in Target.

  4. admin Says:

    We did spend something like 1500 hours walking around Target together that year. I can’t remember why I started talking to you, but I imagine it went something like:

    Me: WHAT is Rose doing?

    Travis: Something that makes no sense.

    Me: Does she have a shopping cart?

    Travis: Yes.

    Me, desperately trying to comprehend: Is that necessary?

    Travis: No.

    Me: Want to eat chocolate truffles?

    Travis: Yes.

  5. Aloysius Says:

    I’m pretty much in the same boat as you Megan. Except I don’t let it bug me at all. I’m pretty much a recluse, just in case you didn’t notice. There are certain people who like me despite that, and still call me up on the phone. Once in a while I even answer and talk to them, or call them back! I really have no idea why these people like me so much, because I am terrible about keeping up with relationships. But oh well, if they want to still be friends, I can be friends. 🙂

  6. Jo Says:

    OK, I am someone who loves that sort of middle ground casual chit chat. I thought of this post today because I found myself at the pool doing that with our downstairs neighbor. It was fun and easy because it turns out we have a lot in common and pretty soon got comfortable feeling that we each had an agreeable audience and were not judging each other at all.

    But I have failed at this incredibly at Abby’s school where I volunteered a lot since we moved in. It was like I wasn’t there. I would say something and no one would respond. It was so bad I considered walking out and going home the last time. And that is one nasty gossipy bunch. I was uncomfortable with the amount of complaining and bitching going on.

    I think part of the problem is simple time. If you don’t have enough of it, being expected to participate in uncomfortable social stuff can become worse than distressful. To stand there and watch those ladies ignore me when I could have been doing something productive (heck or even unproductive but fun!) was really frustrating. I feel this way about bad movies. I used to cheerfully sit through them but now I resent them a lot because they just ate up a chunk of my personal time and there isn’t much of that left anymore.

    But maybe the bigger thing is how in our society there are so many different kinds of people. You are never sure who you are dealing with, or judged by, or which set of rules they are playing by. Everyone is playing by a different set which makes it exhausting if you care about what other people think, and that includes other people’s feelings. I think Bert and Aloysius are right in the healthiness of disconnecting yourself from more casual acquaintances because of that. Empathy is tricky, because too much of it will wear you out.

    It sounds to me like you might have an unfortunate percentage of people at work who are overly critical. Whoever is critiquing your totally acceptable conversational questions is an ass. People who spend so much energy looking for reasons to be offended by other well meaning people irritate the hell out of me.

    It is a tough world out there. I think if you follow your internal compass you have no reason to feel inadequate or apologize for your social game. You are an intelligent, interesting, and kind hearted friend. Let judgmental people sit at home and judge. I am sure it sucks to be them (I mean I sure hope it does). That is what I keep telling myself about the old bitch who lives in this apartment complex who took the time out of her day to suggest to me I was an inadequate lazy person for being at home with a five year old who goes to preschool three hours a day and for wearing the same pair of man shorts every other day, and pigtails. Ops, did I call her a bitch? It has bothered me more than I wanted it to. And I am pretty sure I have been snubbed by the moms for dressing like I do and because I don’t have a job right now. They are all professionals and well dressed. No one knows what I used to do or what I plan on doing, but they are happy to trivialize and ignore me today anyway!

    I try not to care. My personal favorite ice breaker lately has been telling people about the giant osprey shit that landed in the pool a few weeks ago. They can take it or leave it. Plenty of them HAVE. Left it. Mostly I don’t care. But it is too bad the world is full of people with so little sense of humor.

  7. admin Says:

    Aloysius – I’m glad we’re friends!

    Jo – I am glad you are finding some common ground with your neighbor. I think those other people at the school are really rude though! It’s hard enough to go somewhere new and try to break into the group. They could have been more accommodating to someone who was there to volunteer. I wonder what it will be like at Beren’s school. I’ve been there three times with other parents, and 2 out of the 3 visits had parents that were quite a bit older than me. This is fine, but I did not feel like I fit in with them. Ugh, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

    I bet that old lady is sad and lonely. How bored would you have to be to accost someone over their lifestyle? I like you just the way you are. And I can always get a good laugh from a poop joke. I’m sorry I’ve been so out of touch.