When I was growing up, and up until my early 20’s, I was afraid of conversations. It was a fear I was very conscious of, and I intentionally avoided social interactions. I would only keep a core of a few friends at any one time that I was comfortable with, but even then I would often make a fool of myself or just felt out of place sometimes.
But now I’m in my early 30’s and I’ve had to interact with others in my job, church activities and general social activities. I wouldn’t call myself “outgoing”, but on a personality test, I’m slightly more extroverted (outgoing) than introverted, so that helps with the anxiety I feel in unfamiliar situations, especially conversations. But, there’s a few ways I’ve trained myself to be more socially engaging that I would like to pass along, as well as some “don’ts” that I’ve noticed from others:
DO: Keep up on a wide-variety of topics
I’ll compare myself and my wife. While my wife focuses most of her waking time on work, which happens to be pediatric nutrition at the time, I tend to make sure I catch up on the latest in technology, sports, pop culture, geek culture, history, world events and so on. While she also has difficulty as she is a major introvert, she also struggles with what to bring up in conversation. How am I able to do this and still maintain a day job? Easy:
I skim headlines
I use my phone (an Android device with Google Reader AND the built-in news app) to subscribe to a variety of automotive, celebrity, world, music and other news types, and I skim through the headlines and read just a bit about some of the interesting topics to stay up-to-date.
Now, this isn’t just so I can bring up something interesting in the elevator or at the water cooler; I do this because I love knowing a little bit about everything, and a good bit about just one or two topics (like cars). Here’s another import DO…
DO: Use this knowledge wisely
Don’t just sit in a dinner or hallway conversation waiting for a few keywords that you can pounce on to show off your new-found knowledge of spider testicles (do they actually have them? I just wanted to put that in an article). You need to gauge the appropriate time to insert your knowledge, whether it’s white space/lull in the conversation and it’s a good time to change topics, or you actually have something worthwhile to contribute. This leads me to a DON’T…
DO: Be prepared to speak more on a topic
Now, fair warning, if you only read a headline and it’s a controversial topic, like, say “President bans using the words ‘spider testicles’ in school“, you may be quizzed more about the topic and you don’t want to be standing there with mouth agape and nothing to add other than “I heard that…”. You need to pick and choose what you “deep-dive” into on your skimming.
Now, because I love cars, I feel fairly confident and competent when someone brings up a car question or topic. I know a bit about history too, but only at-a-glance level, but I can contribute. Thanks to the wife, I can speak coherently on digestive disorders and other dietary issues, but I make sure I focus my attention on things that will stick…and how better for something to stick after reading about it than for it to be something you enjoy learning about?
DO: Enjoy something and make friends
Whether it’s cars, anime, dogs (not cats. No one wants to hear your cat stories), nutrition, history, celebrity gossip or whatever, enjoy something in life. That will lead you to finding like-minds who also enjoy talking about those topics and you’ll feel more at-ease in conversation and even make a few friends.
But getting back to the original concern, interactions with strangers/coworkers/etc. (aka those who you may not share a like-mind with), the key is to be knowledgeable, confident and assertive (not aggressive) to make yourself heard, understood and accepted into the social group.
I used to feel I was “forced” into social interactions. I moved out of my college apartment 10 years ago and to a whole new state with no friends or family around (although I did live with the cousin of my best friend, I still didn’t know her). I had a new roommate, new neighbors, dozens of new coworkers and bosses. Luckily many were also young like me, or at least very accommodating of new hires fresh out of college. I was introduced into a new world view because I worked with people from India, Pakistan, China, England, Germany, South Africa (and other parts of America) and I found one common interest we could all enjoy together…food!
DO: Learn and Talk about FOOD (and drink)!
From my first job through my current job, the major entry point to an easy conversation is food. In any size city or town or village, it’s the gateway to learning about people, their heritage, families, interests, dislikes and more. You learn about the history of nations and of families while educating yourself all at the same time. Whether you’re in an Iowan small-town or D.C. like me, you can learn about food, even if you think it’s the same as what you’ve grown up with.
I have the luxury of having pretty much any type of ethnic food around here in the D.C. area, and my experience with foods (because I’ll try anything once) has given me the opportunity to open conversations with so many people, whether they’re strangers at a work function or social gathering, my wife’s friends or colleagues, or sometimes the person at the table next to me (no, I don’t actively start conversations with people around me at restaurants. Sometimes talk just happens).
Lately, I’ve also gotten to know more about wines and beers (especially beers), and I’m not talking about Miller Lite and Bud. I’m talking micro-brews (and even “nano-brews”), and plan on starting some of my own home-brewing with a kit I received as a gift. It’s another hobby (like this site) that can help contribute to conversations. But…
DON’T: Be a snob
Whether they’re doing it intentionally or not, some people come across as a snob, even myself. Avoid putting someone down because they lack knowledge in something (verbally and non-verbally. Remember, your actions and posture speak louder than words), and don’t try to “show off” your knowledge of a topic.
What I’ve learned at my current job, which requires me to go in front of complete strangers, talk about my technical knowledge, then leave, is that I should only say enough to make someone ask more. And if they don’t ask more, don’t keep pushing the topic because they probably just don’t care to know more at that time (or, conversely, have no idea what I’m talking about). I sometimes (often) ramble on about a topic just to fill “dead air” when I’ve learned that silence is often your friend. It lets people catch up to what you were saying, consider a reply or question or decide to change the topic.
The classic topics that can sound snobby like wine or the arts are the types of topics to be careful around, but there’s even more dangerous topics…
DON’T: Talk religion, politics or money to anyone
Yes, ANYONE! You have no idea how many conflicts, even with family, you can start by stating something so innocent as “I think the Pope looks too much like the Emperor from Star Wars”. It may be true and you may just be cracking a joke, but your grandma may take severe offense to any cracks about her spiritual leader and then banish you to the kid’s table for every holiday henceforth. Even if you’re in a church group where you think you’re all on the same page, be very careful.
I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list of DO’s and DON’Ts for social interactions, but it’s a good start, at least from my perspective. I still get nervous in new situations, but I don’t feel like I want to throw up. I used to get “butterflies” (aka vomit ready to blow at first sign of awkwardness), but I don’t recall the last time I had true butterflies. I’ve taken presentation courses in front of strangers AND my peers (and boss and boss’ boss) and I’ve been OK.
It takes time and practice to be comfortable in new, social situations (or even just new situations), but don’t let yourself be limited to one genre of friends and conversation. Branch out to topics and interests that you otherwise would think are boring or dumb because you’ll increase your network of friends (and job prospects as I found) and most likely find a new hobby. I never thought I would “be a writer” (although blogging is not quite writing), but as of now, I’ve written almost 1300 articles, almost all more than 500 words (this one is over 1500 words).
So get cracking and learn subscribe to new RSS feeds or tweeters outside of your comfort zone, listen to podcasts, watch TMZ and CNN (and maybe Fox News, but I don’t even watch that. Apparently people think it’s bad or something). You’ll expand your conversation abilities, grow your group of friends and associates and find out some new interests that you never thought you had!