I know what it’s like to be unable to talk to people

97-talking-to-strangersOftentimes when I give advice on how to be social, I can feel people thinking, “Oh, but he doesn’t understand. I have crippling social anxiety. For me, talking to people is torture.”

And it’s true that I can’t look into your heart and know how difficult things are for you. I’ve certainly never had a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Never had a panic attack or anything like that.

But for most of my life, I found it very difficult to talk to people and to make friends. I remember that when I was a reporter at my college newspaper, I would frequently blow my deadlines because I found the thought of calling people up to be so nervewracking that I’d put it off until I knew they’d be out of the office.

When I was in college, part of the reason I took up smoking was so that I’d have a reason to stand by myself for hours without looking completely out of place. Back then, I used to go to the same parties week after week and see the same people week after week, and I’d still find myself completely unable to talk to them. The only way that I knew how to socialize was to get incredibly drunk, night after night, and pray that somehow I’d punch through the glass wall that separated me from other people. And sometimes I was lucky. Sometimes, I’d find that magic drunken state that allowed me to talk to people, and I’d briefly manage to form a connection. Because of this, I literally cannot remember how I met most of my college friends.

But once I was sober, I couldn’t remember how any of it had worked.  When I was sober, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I’d hug the wall, completely silent, or stand at the edge of a conversation without ever saying a word. And then, when I couldn’t tolerate the loneliness anymore, I’d leave. And for the whole walk home, I’d berate myself about how terrible and awkward I was.

I also had incredible trouble with basic communication tasks. Like, I had an absolute blockage about calling people up and making plans. I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I’d wait around for them to get in touch with me. And when they didn’t, I’d spend the night alone. For some reason, text messaging also made me incredibly anxious. I just couldn’t do it. Something about sending out a text just seemed so bold and so forward, and it felt like I was taking such a huge liberty with another person. I remember that it felt like a huge victory, during my senior year of college, when I was finally able to text a friend of mine to say, “Hey, want to do something tonight?” And I remember that for years, that friend was the only person who I felt comfortable texting.

I don’t know what accounts for these feelings. I think it was just a sense of unworthiness. I felt like I had nothing to offer other people, and that there was no reason for anyone to want to choose to be with me, which meant that I mainly socialized by hanging around on porches or lounges or in parties and seeing whoever happened to be around. All of which meant that my romantic life was a complete shambles. I never had any romantic relationships in high school or in college, and I didn’t go on my first real date until I was twenty-five years old.

After school, I was just lost. During the two years I spent in DC, I had basically zero social life. The only people who I regularly saw were one friend from college and one friend from high school. And whenever I went to a party, I’d get so outrageously drunk that I’d feel embarrassed to ever see those people again.

Coming back from that was a very slow process. Even during my first years in Oakland, I found it hard to talk to new people and solidify new friendships. It wasn’t until I was in Baltimore and was completely on my own that I made an effort to figure out how to talk to strangers and how to turn acquaintances into friends.

Anyway, I’m writing this down so that you know where I’m coming from. I’ve gotten in trouble before because of things I’ve written about introversion and about social anxiety, and the truth is that I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and I don’t know to what extent shyness and anti-social behavior are innate character traits. Some people are okay with being shy, and that’s good for them. But other people are not okay with it. They desperately want to connect with other people, and are stymied by their own shyness. But instead of doing something about it, they say, “I am naturally shy. This is who I am.” And I don’t think that’s a helpful belief.

Because I know that it is possible for a person to change. For me, it took many years (more than a decade), but I’ve eventually reached a place where I am more comfortable in many social situations than most people are. Perhaps I’ll never be a charmer, but I am more socially adept than most people who never had to struggle with shyness.

If you try to passively listen to a conversation, then the participants will slowly force you out

181bqt8ds95cnjpgOn the FB comments for my post on including people in your conversations, someone said that talking to strangers hovering at the edge of your conversations might unnerve people with social anxiety and give them panic attacks. Which is fair. I know a lot of people who don’t like to talk. They just want to sit at the edge of conversations and listen in and be at the gathering in a relatively passive way.

However, that’s an unstable situation. Because if you’re not saying something, then the conversation is going to act to shove you out. People will stand in front of you. The circle will close. And you’ll be on the outside. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s just a case of unconscious orientation. Unless someone’s bringing themselves to your attention, then you’re going to assume they’re not part of your conversation. There also might be an element of defensiveness. When someone is listening but not saying something, then it reads as boredom or condescension, and the natural urge is to remove that person from your immediate presence.

In any case, I don’t know if I have good advice on how to passively listen. I honestly don’t think that merely listening in is ever going to be a good way to socialize, since that’s not really what people want. It’s true that sometimes people mostly want an audience, but they want an appreciative and engaged audience. Whereas a silent audience is unnerving. It’s a bit too much like being ignored. But, even more than that, I think that most people really don’t want an audience. They want more than that. They want to make a connection with another person. And you can’t do that if the other person isn’t willing to contribute any part of themselves.

But if I was to give passive listening suggestions, I’d say the absolute baseline requirement is that you need to introduce yourself. You can’t just stay a stranger. You need to say, “Hello, my name is ____.” Secondly, you should chime in periodically with some kind of on-point reaction: laugh or nod or so “Oh my god, I can’t believe it.” Just something to show that you’re there. Those two things will at least register you as a presence. Although they might seem scary at first, they’ll actually make the rest of the interaction much less awkward and anxiety-inducing.

That’s the paradoxical thing about social anxiety. When you have it, you act in ways that actually make your life more anxious. It leads you to minimize your interaction with other people and act in strange, furtive ways that attract attention. For instance, whenever I am alone at a party, I feel incredibly anxious. I hate standing by myself. And I hate the feeling that each moment that I stand by myself is making me look more like a loner and making it more difficult to talk to someone. And I know that if I stand by myself for an hour, then I’ll be going out of my mind with anxiety. So…I stop standing by myself. I find someone to talk to. And that reduces the pressure.

My advice on socializing is not meant for loud, boring people

cowell_1343311531_crop_550x345Recently read this post on Ferrett Steinmetz’s blog about how every piece of advice can, potentially, land in exactly the wrong ears. And that led me to think about what the wrong ears would be for some of my recent advice on making friends and socializing. And I realized who it was: loud, boring people.

There are two kinds of socially awkward people. The first are the ones who are too painfully shy to talk to anyone. The second are the ones who are so bad at reading social cues that they blunder around and say the wrong thing and talk too much and tend to bore people. These two types of people are, in my opinion, oftentimes more similar than they are different. Prolonged social anxiety often results in trouble with reading social cues. Either people are so inwardly-focused that they’re not paying attention to the signals others are giving out; or their anxiety is so out of control that they monitor every micro-expression and infer emotions that aren’t there.

In general, I have a soft spot in my heart for loud, boring people. For one thing, I sometimes am a loud, boring person. I like to think that I am, at the very least, able to eject from a conversation once I’ve started boring the other person, but boringness happens. If you’re going to interact with people, sometimes you are going to rub them the wrong way. I, personally, think it’s better to be loud and boring than it is to be shy and silent, because loud, boring people are at least having so many contacts with other people that they’re bound to get a few positive ones in there.

However, it’s obviously not optimal to be loud and boring. And loud boringness is something that a person should work on, if they suffer from it. Some people might think that the solution to being loud and boring is to become interesting, but I don’t know about that. I think the problem with loud and boring people is that they think they are interesting. Alot of boringness arises, paradoxically, from a desire to not be boring. A person is so afraid of being boring that they’ll always drag the conversation back to things they know they can talk about: their own experiences and their own interests and their own feelings.

And I think the solution to loud boringness is to stop trying so hard. Just relax. Allow people to talk about what they want. Quietness does not equal boringness. Allow the other person to talk. Allow the conversation to proceed down strange paths and touch upon things that you don’t care about. Try to sense what they want to talk about and do something engage with that. Dare to let things sputter out. The conversation might go stale, but at least they won’t come away with the impression that you are obnoxious.

Basically, my solution to loud boringness is not to be more interesting, it’s to be less loud.

However, because I used to be pretty shy and because I know so many shy people, most of my conversational advice is about how to be more loud. Which, if you’re a loud, boring person, is probably the last thing you need to hear.

I’ve never lived in a city where status competition was as naked as it is in San Francisco (and I kind of love it)

Cool-SF-Neighborhood-Map-san-francisco-629195_792_792Only about a month left in my summer sojourn in the Bay Area. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Other than in terms of weather, I don’t think the Bay Area is better than other places, but I do know about ten times more people here than I do in any other place. And that makes a difference. This summer I’ve spent much more time in SF than I did when I lived here before (I went to college on the Peninsula and when I lived here as a post-grad, I was in Oakland). It’s fun. I can certainly see why people like the city so much. It’s alive in a way that Oakland is not.

And it also has all kinds of super-weird quirks that I’ve never seen anywhere else. For instance, the cost of housing is an obsession here. There’s endless talk about who’s paying how much money for what room, and who got their apartment when and what’s locked in at what rate under rent control and which neighborhoods are absolutely unaffordable and which ones are just mostly unaffordable. I guess it’s SF’s replacement for talking about the weather.

Actually, pretty much everywhere I’ve lived, people like to talk about their neighborhoods. I think that’s great, actually. It’s nice to have a topic of conversation that is neutral and that doesn’t immediately mark you as being a certain kind of person. Your neighborhood does say something about you, but it doesn’t define you in the way that your job or your politics do. I guess people also talk about their food habits and diet and various culinary restrictions in the same way, but I just can’t get too excited about whether or not we should be eating gluten.

But the parameters of the neighborhood discussion do vary from place to place. For instance, in Baltimore, it’s all about whether a neighborhood is happening or not (with some discussion of relative criminal activity as well). In Oakland, it’s all about the crime stats (and, amongst certain social circles, you gain higher status if you live in a worse neighborhood). Whereas in SF, I don’t think people really talk about hipness as much. Hipness is almost a secondary situation. Here, you take what you can afford, wherever you can find it

And if you don’t know anyone, and are trying to find an apartment through Craigslist (which is how most of it seems to be done, since SF is where Craigslist was founded) then god help you. A friend of mine described their search for a new roommate: 200 people responded to her advertisement for the room! It’s a firehose of applicant. And you have to go in to these apartments prepared to sell yourself as an interesting future housemate, which seems incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to me.

I also love the activism of SF. As I might’ve mentioned here before, I don’t get particularly up in arms over political issues. I mean, I have my beliefs, but I don’t lose sleep over these things. But SF is full of people (very upper-middle-class people…) who do appear to be seriously distressed over the state of the world.

However, I do often feel like there’s a bit of a status competition over who cares the most. Like, who is able to most fully own their privilege. Who is able to spot the problematic element of the hit TV show. Who is able to get out in front of the wave of anger and figure out where it’s going and get there first.

There is an interesting element of trendiness to life in SF. People (at least some people) really seem to care about what’s cool. It’s interesting to me, since I think we all care, to some extent, about appearing cool. Like, I calibrate my reading choices and my level of disaffection in a way that, I think, is pretty cool.

But I also thought that it was no longer cool to appear to want to be cool. However, I don’t think that’s the case. SF is full of scenes. Everything can be a scene. You can walk around on any given Wednesday and see a huge crowd outside an ice-cream store. Why? Because it’s, somehow, become the coolest ice cream store. You can walk down the street and see that one cafe is empty, while in another cafe people are fighting for seats. Why? Don’t they all have internet and bathrooms? On the weekends, you go to Dolores Park and see a thousand people dolled up in their slouchy finest and performing their enjoyment for each other (and I am one of them!)

It’s so frenetic. In SF, all enjoyment is public. A Friday night involves going out to a spot. A meeting with a friend involves going to some name-brand cafe. A weekend involves some huge street festival. And when you’re here, that feels very natural.

But it’s not like that in other places. In Oakland, for instance, the high level of crime and the low population density mean that you don’t really care about street life. And you also don’t experience places that you don’t choose to experience. I don’t know which places in Oakland are hot, because I don’t have to fight my way past the crowds on the sidewalk.

Which is not to say that life in Oakland is better. If anything, there’s something a bit charming about the sceniness of SF. What I love about it is how indefensible it is. Like, can anyone make a convincing case for why people should line up for an hour and a half so they can eat brunch at one place instead of another? There’s certainly no moral or ethical basis for it. It doesn’t make the world a better place at all.

It’s so decadent. The only case that can be made for doing the ‘cool’ thing is that it’s, somehow, beautiful. Coolness is fundamentally about novelty; about experiencing new combinations of things and creating new aesthetic experiences.

But the pleasure that comes from this game doesn’t have much to do with aesthetics; it’s primarily the pleasure of feeling better than other people.

Coolness is not only trivial; it’s also such a naked display of status competition. Like, part of the reason you go to the spot is because it makes you better (in some weird way) than people who haven’t yet gone to the spot.

Why is that? Is it because it means you’ve had some aesthetic experience that the other person is lacking. Or is it because it means you’re more well-informed and socially-connected than the other person?

Taking part in SF’s social life is pleasurable in the same way that swimming through the ocean is pleasurable. You feel strange forces at work all around you, and you also feel yourself pushing out against them as you attempt to exert yourself upon the environment.

I feel like I’m being very negative, but I don’t feel negatively about it at all. Nor do I really feel superior to it. I’m no better and no worse than any other person–we’re all filled with trivialities…we’re all obscenely obsessed with status competition. And sometimes I feel like I’m worse than anyone; I feel so trapped by that status competition. Nothing is free from it. Every statement feels like an act of aggression: the implication that I know more than you and, hence, am better than you. I wish there was some way to escape from that, and drill down to a place where we can just talk to each other. But that’s an illusion. If our conversations were freed from their status implications, we’d be forced to confront the emptiness of our social interaction.

Talking to people is (primarily) about two things: a) experiencing a sense of connectedness; and b) establishing our sense of our own place in the world. If we cut out b) and were only left with a) then I think conversation would, frankly, be a bit boring–we could just talk about anything, in the right tones, and we’d be fine. It’s the element of performance that makes interacting with other people so much fun. So I go through the rituals with as much vigor as anyone–there’s nothing I’ve written about in this article that I don’t do all the time–but I do also try to maintain an element of lightness. Like everything else in life, status competition is just a game.