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.

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.

Why I arrive at parties right when they start and sometimes leave absurdly early

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When it comes to making friends, obviously the best thing to do is to go to lots of social events and talk to lots of people and be really charming and make a great impression on them. But if that’s something you feel comfortable doing, then you probably don’t need friend-making advice from my blog.

The truth is that talking to new people is difficult, awkward, and tiring. And making great first impressions is a skill that most people are never going to have. And if making friends required charming the pants off of total strangers, then we’d all be completely out of luck.

However, I’ve found that charm is really not a requirement. All you need to do in order to make friends is to find a social scene and keep showing up to the events that it throws. That’s all. Just show up. If you show up long enough, people will talk to you. They will recognize you. Then they will start to be happy to see you. And they will invite you to other things. And at that point your friendmaking problems will be over, and you can forget all about the nerve-wracking anxiety that you experienced at those first eight social gatherings, and eventually your introduction to those people begins, someday far in the future, to seem fortuitous and magical and completely unrepeatable.

Now, I’m sure that there is someone out there who is so socially awkward and anxiety-wracked that my “just show up” advice won’t work for them, but I also think you’d be surprised. I have known some pretty awkward and anxious and quiet individuals who’ve gotten pretty far by just showing up.

Anyway, this is all stuff that I’ve said before. But what I wanted to write about today was a practical application of this advice. Which is that once you’ve shown up, it’s okay to leave. I do this all the time. I pop in to some strange new party where I know zero people. Then I talk to two or three. And when the anxiety and isolation get to be too much, I make an early exit. And it doesn’t feel amazing. It does feel a bit like retreating. But I’ve done it often enough to know that the next time I see those people, it’ll be easier (and very probably one or two of them will remember meeting me).

So if you’re worried about going someplace where no one knows you, just give yourself permission to leave after an hour or two. It’s totally fine.

Another thing I sometimes do is that I’ll go to the party right when it starts, when I know that almost no one will be there. And, of course, I feel like an out of place fool, because the few people who’re there don’t know me. However, when you come early to a party, you benefit in four ways:

A) Oftentimes, the only person that you know at a party is the host. And arriving early is the only way that you’re going to be able to talk to them, because once the party is in full swing they’re going to be too busy.

B) If you know the host, then they can introduce you to new guests as they arrive. That way, you have an intro right off the bat. And you also have social proof. You look like someone who’s standing around, talking, having fun. Whereas if you arrive later, then you have to stand around by yourself and give off the “I am a very lonely man” vibe to everyone.

C) If you arrive early, then people have no choice but to talk to you. I mean, you should make it a little easier by looking at them and greeting them and shaking their hand and doing all that stuff. But if you’re early, then your aloneness will be too big and blunt for anyone to ignore.

D) People are also much more willing to talk to you because no one they know is there yet. Oftentimes, parties are more about socializing with people you already know. Which is why it’s hard for new people to worm their way in. But if you’re early, then most people don’t yet have a long-lost friend to greet.

E) In some cases, the hosts may be worried about turnout for their event and, since people typically tend not to arrive until an hour or more after the posted start time, they can often end up staring at an empty room while they stew upon the possibility that their party will be a complete flop. Thus, they’re often pretty happy when someone–anyone–actually shows up.

Why I sometimes don’t believe in the stuff that scientists tell us

All the time, I’ll see someone on my Facebook feed be like, “Oh, I can’t believe someone doesn’t believe in global warming / evolution / the moon landings, can’t they see the obviousness of the SCIENCE?!?!”

And I’m like, “Err…I do believe in all three of those things, but I have no trouble understanding those peoples’ skepticism.”

I’m not from the sort of socioeconomic background that leads someone to disbelieve in evolution or global warming, but I absolutely do share those peoples’ reflexive distrust of what we’re told by authority.

Even in my short life, I’ve noticed that the world just lies to you all the time. Like…I mean…there are examples that are so obvious that we ignore them, but the scope of them is still breathtaking. There were no WMDs in Iraq. And the August 4th Gulf of Tonkin attack that was used as a justification to broaden the Vietnam War? It didn’t even happen.

And scientists don’t quite lie, but there is a long history of false doom-and-gloom prognostications. For instance, in 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was just the most famous of a huge number of manifestos re: how the world was going to be overwhelmed by overpopulation and there’d be global famine and the majority of the world’s population would die. Ehrlich (a professor at Stanford) gave a very specific date. It’d happen by the year 2000.

But it didn’t. Norman Borlaug and a bunch of other people figured out how to feed the extra four billion people and nowadays global hunger is at a lower level than it was in 1968. Most reputable people believed in this. In the book, Ehrlich wrote, “  “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks that India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.”

However, by 1971, India was doing much better than it had been doing just 3 years earlier, and the statement disappeared from the book.

And the world lies when it tells you about how to live your life. Like, take Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Literally every movie or television show about alcoholism will include an AA meeting. If you ask anyone, any doctor or mental health professional, about how to quit drinking, they will tell you to go to AA. And in the meeting itself, they will basically say, “This is the only way to quit drinking.”

And that’s not true. By any definition of alcoholism, I was one in 2010. My first meeting was literally a year after I quit drinking (I went to one on my first year anniversary, in the hopes of getting a one year chip). And up until two weeks ago, I’d gone to less than ten meetings in 3.5 years.

AA is fine. It’s certainly not evil. It does good work. But it does perpetuate a lie. And this is a lie that’s been uncritically bought into by almost all of the very responsible and very well-educated people whose job it is to tell us–based on the available science–about the best way to live our lives.

The list of lies goes on and on. Like, uhh, how the healthiness of fat people? You’ll never go to a doctor who won’t tell you to lose weight, but being fat is actually associated with better mortality outcomes.

Also, none of these diets actually work. Like, doctors–medical health professionals who went to school for like twenty years–will tell you to do shit that has been scientifically shown to not work.

Or quitting smoking. The internet and TV are full of ads for cigarette replacement: nicotine patches, nicotine gum, e-cigarettes. And all that stuff is fine…but it’s still the same stuff as you’re addicted to. The world has an incentive to sell you a quit-smoking aid; it does not have an incentive to tell you that most ex-smokers quit cold turkey.

So, I have no trouble understanding it if someone doesn’t believe in some piece of government / corporate-sponsored information that doesn’t jibe with their personal experience, because I do exactly the same thing.

    Like, yeah, I have trouble believing in concepts like:

  • sociopathy — (it just seems like an excuse to demonize criminals and pretend like we don’t all have antisocial and amoral tendencies)
  • books are good for you
  • achieving things is the way to become happy
  • [XXX] will lead to a global disaster that causes society to collapse
  • helping people will make you happy
  • some people are night owls who work better at night and some people are morning people who work better in the morning (I think everyone is more alert right after they wake up)
  • meditation will make you happier (to me, it just seems like the mind cannibalizing itself)
  • you need ten thousand hours of practice in order to achieve mastery (obviously false, I’ve seen so many examples of people who didn’t practice very much before becoming successful)

And I can maybe find evidence for lots of that stuff, but at a basic level, it’s just that some things don’t jibe with my experience of the world. And I wouldn’t even say that I am a skeptic or a rationalist, because it feels like even those people try to feed you lies: they tell you to evaluate the world in some rational, evidence-based way, but what they’re really telling me is that I should believe these highly-educated authority figures who claim to have evaluated the world in a rational, evidence-based way. And I find it hard to do that. Because I know that sometimes those authority figures are lying to me.

So yeah, I mostly accept evidence-based science when it feels true to me, but when it doesn’t, I still give plenty of weight to my own intuitions, observations, and experience of the world.

This probably means that I believe lots of stuff about the world that’s wrong. But…I’m not a policy-maker or a political actor. My possible wrongness about global policy type stuff doesn’t really harm the world. However, when it comes to things about my own life and my own goals, I think I tend to achieve much better results than average, because I don’t persist in doing things when they’re obviously not working. I am pretty much willing to do anything, as long as it works. And I will stop doing anything, if it doesn’t seem like it’s working.

 

Obviously, the rejoinder here is that I should just accept that some things work for me and some things work for other people. And I mostly do that. But in many cases, I wonder, “Do these things actually work for other people? Or is all their pain and misery and sense of alienation caused by believing in an untruth?” Because I’ve gone through long periods of believing in things that were untrue about myself, and maybe in some cases the problem is that people accept that there’s more variation between different human beings than there really is.

 

 

I do not believe that introversion is a real personality trait

The number of people who will tell you they are introverts is astonishing. You can talk to the most dynamic, engaging person in the world–someone with thousands of friends, who goes to parties every night–and he’ll tell you, “Oh, I actually find it hard to talk to people. And I usually prefer to be alone. I’m kind of an introvert.”

The truth is, everyone sometimes finds it hard to talk to people and everyone sometimes wants to be alone. The charmer who hops effortlessly from party to party is a myth: even within the maelstrom, there is awkwardness and loneliness.

When you read online about introversion and extroversion, it will focus on “energy.” Interacting with people imparts energy to introverts and drains energy from extroverts. But, in my life, there’s pretty much no activity that gives me energy. I wake up with a certain amount of it. Then I run down throughout the day until I finally fall asleep. All activity costs effort. Some things cost less than others (TV costs less than reading; going hungry costs more than eating), but nothing happens automatically.

If I didn’t do things just because they “drained energy” from me, then I would never do anything other than sleep.

That’s why the concept of introversion rang true to me for so long. I was like, “Wow, that dinner party really wore me out. I never want to talk to anyone again.” Because the truth was that social interaction did drain me more than most activities. The problem was that I never figured out why it was so draining.

It’s just like how some people find swimming really tiring…because they have a terrible technique that dissipates all their kinetic energy. If they had better form, swimming would become much less tiring (though it would never cease to require some effort, of course).

The reason I was drained by social interaction was because I was really bad at it.

I required huge amounts of alcohol to talk to strangers…so much alcohol that even though I met many people, I was never sure how it happened. And since social interaction was such a black box (input alcohol, output human connection), when I was sober, I was just as clueless as ever. Whenever I went to a party or gathering that was largely filled with people I didn’t know, I’d lurk on the fringes or disappear to smoke cigarettes by myself (I told myself I was “recharging”). And when I’d come home after a gathering, I’d feel so exhausted. I’d sit at home and tell myself that I disliked other people…that their conversation was so shallow and they were so plastic and what was the point of small talk anyway and that all I needed were a few close friends because who needs a horde of fake, surface-level acquaintances anyway?

If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said that I was an introvert.

I mean, people make this distinction between people who are shy and who want to be social, and the “real” introverts. But I definitely thought I was one of the real ones. I enjoyed spending time by myself. To this day, I have no problem with not seeing another human being for a day and generally feel few pangs of acute loneliness when I am by myself. And being around people was very exhausting for me. I dreaded it, and I frequently cancelled or minimized my social engagements by telling myself, “Oh, I just need to be myself today.”

But then I stopped drinking, and, by and by, I made a very concerted effort to learn how to talk to people. I won’t say that I am a dynamo of wit and charm. In fact, part of the learning process involved letting go of this idea that social interaction involves holding forth and entertaining other people. But I do pretty well. I can sometimes talk to strangers (a thing that few people, every very charismatic people, are truly good at doing) and am pretty good at talking to casual acquaintances.

And, surprise, I enjoy social situations much more than I ever did before. I am much less likely to need to go off by myself to “recharge.” But nothing happened to my personality. I still feel pretty much the same inside. I just learned a few really simple things that smooth over social interactions and then I consciously practiced them until they became easier (though they’re still not quite second nature).

I was telling a friend about this, and she was like, “But some people just know how to do all these things. Some people just know how to start conversations and keep them going. Some people just know what to say…”

Well, yeah, but so what? It’s the same process as anything. A kid becomes a pro basketball player because when he was eight years old, he happened to be a little better than everyone on the team, so the coach gave him more playing time, which lead to him getting more practice, which led to him improving faster than everyone else, which lead to him becoming the star of the next team, and so on. A tiny initial difference in skills is translated, over twenty years, into a huge final difference.

The same is true with social skills. Kids who are just a bit friendlier in grade school acquire more friends, gain more confidence, practice their social skills more, etc, etc, until they turn into adults who are seen as “extroverted.”*

But social interaction isn’t supposed to come about as a result of good skills. It’s supposed to arise as a spontaneous connection: souls calling out to each other in sympathy. The result is that we essentialize social outcomes (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I’m an introvert”) rather than looking at them as things we can improve (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I never know what to say when there’s a lull in the conversation. Why don’t I just sit down right now and think of five things to say, so I’ll always have them ready…”)

I know that people will read this and say, “Oh, Rahul’s experience is not my experience. I’m a real introvert.” And that’s absolutely fine. Actually, it’s shockingly presumptuous for me to say that I don’t believe in peoples’ self-analysis of their own personality traits and desires.

And believe me, if you came up to me and said that you were an introvert, I would never disagree with you or ask you to change. So let’s take questions of identity and leave them to one side. People can continue to self-describe as introverts if they want to, and if they’re really satisfied with how they are, then that’s great. But when people come up to me and say, “Oh, I wish I was the kind of person who could talk to people easily” or “I wish I was the kind of person who could make lots of friends” then I’m like…well…you can be.

*Although if you talk to really charming people, you’d be surprised at how often they’ve put some amount of conscious study into developing their charm