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.

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


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.